It was Clare’s break and she stepped out the back doors of the mission with a sigh, cradling a cup of rapidly cooling tea in one hand and her phone in the other. The air was frigid with cold, and Clare’s breath streamed from her in long icy gasps, but she was used to the chill; she liked it even, and so she simply huddled deeper into her coat and flicked an app open on her phone, beginning to idly play some gem game. Clare could never sit still, could never just flop and relax, she had to do something with her fingers, and if she was at home she’d be smoking, but she could hardly do that out the back of the mission when that was the very sort of thing they were trying to discourage.
The mission meant more to Clare than she could possibly say. She knew full well that some might find it strange she spent so much time serving cups of tea in the back rooms of the church, but the mission had done so much to help her over the years that many of her fellow workers were like a second family to her, and besides which, it felt only right to give back to the group that had come to her aid, to try and help others see they weren’t at the end of the road just yet. And of course there was also the pull of Helen; warm, kind, lovely Helen.
The thought of her friend made Clare’s heart hurt more than she could say. Helen had been through so much shit of late, what with all the business with Ann on top of her horrible diagnosis, and Helen seemed much visibly frailer lately than she had been. Clare was never sure if this deterioration was obvious to everyone or just to her, as she loved her so much, but she berated herself as being silly for this sort of thing, she couldn’t be the only one who’d noticed, anyone with a set of eyes could see that Helen was unwell. Clare loved Helen so much and yet Helen was so unknowing – the frustration made Clare want to ball her hands into fists and punch the bare stone wall til her knuckles were scabbed and bloody, because that was her way, wasn’t it; hadn’t that always been her way? Suffer, and then self-destruct.
Sipping her tea, Clare sighed, and peered round through the brightly lit window to where Helen was smiling cheerily at a group of scruffy youths, saying something to them she couldn’t quite make out, and she sighed again. Helen’s quiet strength never ceased to amaze her, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to bear up as well as she in a similar situation, and it made Clare so blindingly angry that Helen had a veritable death sentence looming over her head. No one deserved something like that, and least of all Helen Gallagher.
She listlessly turned back to her phone and the game in an attempt to distract herself from the emotions threatening to overwhelm her, frowning at the screen as she rotated the blue gems to match up with the red. It was boring really, but it was a distraction, and by god did Clare need a distraction. She’d felt caught in a struggle beyond her control lately, a minor character in a terrifying game, pulled sideways by her concern for Catherine and her choking love for Helen that she couldn’t show. She knew that Helen didn’t love her; wouldn’t love her, she’d known that from the instant Catherine got the wrong end of the bloody stick about Nev and Helen’s relationship, and Helen had been so shocked, and then it’d been even more obvious as Helen clung to Nev in the weeks that had followed. Feeling like this made Clare hate herself, made her insides twist bitterly with guilt, because, she reasoned, what kind of person was she if she wanted Helen to love her right when Helen needed her husband the most?
Clare tapped at her phone again, rotating purple and green gems this time, and whirled around suddenly, guiltily as a familiar soft voice behind her said “what’re you doing out here? Everyone else has gone home,” jolting her from her reverie and making her jump. Helen was stood in the doorway, framed by the light from the kitchen. She was wearing a creamy pink mohair jumper with a big thick neck, and the light was catching at the hairs in the wool, illuminating her from behind, and Clare brushed her straw coloured fringe away from her eyes wildly, unable to stop herself from thinking how very apt it was that she was stood outside in the darkness, cold and lower than down from Helen standing there on her glowing pedestal.
“Oh erm, erm – just playing a phone on my game, I mean, a game on my phone,” Clare stuttered, inwardly cursing her lack of eloquence. “Erm.” She smiled awkwardly. Christ, this was embarrassing! “You probably think I’m totally stupid for messing around with this,” she began, gesturing at the phone, but Helen raised her eyebrows and gesticulated wildly, cutting her off. “No, no, no Clare, of course not!” She eased herself down into a seated position on the top step. “I don’t think it’s stupid at all; how d’you play it?”
Clare stared. “What, yer mean – how do you play this?” she waved at the phone again, which was shrilling a rather awful tinny tune from the still running app, and Helen smiled slightly as she nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Silly isn’t it – I’m nearly sixty years old and I don’t know how to work even the simplest sort of thing like that. I’m hopeless with technology, Ann is positively despairing.” Her voice hitched suddenly with the last syllable and she began to shake almost involuntarily, shocked by how keenly she was feeling the cold. Clare rushed forward and took off her coat, draping it round Helen’s shoulders. “You shouldn’t be out here you know,” Clare said. “What if you catch a chill and get whisked away from us in t’night?”
Helen just shrugged, and Clare bit her lip, eyes suddenly full of tears, and she was glad of the twilight to hide them with as she brushed them away. For as long as they had known each other Helen had been plumper than Clare, but suddenly, sitting there in Clare’s coat it struck Clare just how thin Helen had become. The jacket drooped off her shoulders, and Clare sat down beside her, close, so that their arms touched. “Please, Helen, let’s get you inside,” she said. “You look like you could be blown away on a puff of wind!”, and Helen smiled faintly. “Oh Clare,” she said, “you worry too much,” but all the same she wobbled to her feet again and Clare grabbed her elbow, helping her back inside. Helen sat down straight away and Clare dumped her phone and mug unceremoniously onto the table.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she said, slamming the cupboard doors in search of teabags. Helen gestured to the phone that was still open on Clare’s half-finished game. “May I?” she asked, and Clare nodded distractedly, pouring milk into two cups whilst she waited for the kettle to brew. She couldn’t help but grin despite herself as she watched Helen’s look of furrowed concentration as she tapped clumsily at the phone, unused to the touch screen interface. Helen looked up and blushed a little as she caught Clare’s smile. “I know, I know!” she said. “I’m probably the only person left in the country who can’t work one of these,” she said, “though it’s not through lack of Nev and Ann trying to make me learn how to get used to it!”
Clare smirked. “Oh I wouldn’t be too sure of that, you know,” she said conspiratorially. “Me sister Catherine’s phone is from the dark ages still, and I don’t think she’d be parted from it fer love nor money. She weren’t half shocked when I went and bought myself mine.”
“Nev gets a lot of free phones and things in from the business, but I’ve never got along with any of them,” Helen admitted. “But then I never saw the need for a phone to do anything than actually, you know, be a phone? Thanks,” she added, as Clare sat down and pushed the tea towards her, and she picked up a drinks mat with a faded print of a robin on it and set the mug down. “Oh I – I suppose you’ll be wanting your coat back.” She shrugged it off but left it draped over the back of her chair, and flinched suddenly as the timer went off on Clare’s phone, marking the end of the game with a clang and her amusingly low score. Clare looked up in concern, puzzled by Helen’s dramatic reaction. “You alright?” she asked slightly nervously.
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry,” Helen said. “I just – it’s just – well, I can’t bear things to do with timers these days. Not since Ann went missing and knowing – erm, knowing I’ve not – not got long left.” She sipped at her tea, and when she spoke again her voice was far more subdued than it had been when she was laughing about her lack of technological skills earlier. “I don’t know why I’m yakking on so,” she sighed. “I’m not usually like this and you’re not getting a word in edgeways!”
“Pfft, that doesn’t matter!” Clare said, “I like to hear you talk!” Helen had always been quiet, and Clare had found Helen even reticent and melancholy lately - though that was entirely understandable - yet actually, Helen herself realised that perhaps her sudden inclination for talking was because she simply felt more comfortable around Clare than she had around anyone else for a while. Helen was truly very fond of Clare. When she’d first met her, Clare had been a mess, off her face most days, tangled up in a whirl of disaster, and yet look at her now, Helen thought, only a few years on. She smiled fondly. Clare had been rather like her pet project at first, an experiment to see first-hand what the effects of helping someone could be, but as time went on and she’d got to know Clare properly, she viewed her relationship with Clare less and less like this until she came to see her as a very dear friend. Helen had not realised quite how dear she was until all the Ann business. Clare had had such an important role in helping her get through it in her opinion, and to reject Clare’s friendship now that the danger was over was the last thing that Helen wanted to do.
As Helen watched Clare sit before her, all trailing jewellery and blue eyes dark with unexpressed sorrow, she simply prayed that Clare knew just how much Helen liked her, and that she didn’t feel like some kind of charity case. Clare had odd moods sometimes that Helen couldn’t quite understand where she’d become more withdrawn than usual and retreat outside somewhere, probably to skulk with a cigarette. She had truly no idea that this was when Clare was becoming more and more worn out with the exhaustion of loving someone who she thought she could never have.
The twilight outside had given way to a murky darkness, and Helen looked at her watch, raising her eyebrows to see it was half past seven. “It’s getting late,” she said. “I suppose we’d better start making tracks.” Neither she nor Clare made any attempts to move though, and at long last Clare stretched her arms out with a yawn. “I’d give yer a lift home,” Clare sighed, “only I can’t drive.” She quirked her lips into the semblance of a smile. “Catherine’s always badgering me to learn but I like the bus.” She looked at Helen’s pale face fondly. “D’you want me to ring you a taxi or something?” she asked. “We can’t have you driving home in this state.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Helen protested, pushing to her feet as if to prove herself, but she quickly went even paler and sat down hurriedly, rolling her eyes as she did so, a wave of frustration barrelling into her heart. “God – no one ever tells you how irritating this illness is,” she said suddenly, and Clare looked up from her phone, surprised by the resigned anger in Helen’s voice. “I’ve heard so much about staying strong and what the physical effects of it are and how to cope with knowing you’re going to d-die,” she said. “But they never tell you how annoying it is when you’re too weak to simply drive your friend home. Or when you can’t simply do bloody anything because you might keel over at any given minute. I’ve done nothing for myself in weeks.” Helen sighed deeply. “I hate to talk like this,” she whispered. “It makes me feel so selfish, and I’d never dream of saying anything to Nev, but you – you understand, don’t you Clare?” She looked up desperately, hazel eyes swimming with unshed tears. “You understand?”
Clare nodded furiously, dropping to Helen’s side and gently rubbing her arm. “Course I do,” she said softly. “An’ more than you think.” She shook her head sadly. “It took me ages to come clean off heroin,” she said. “I was numb for ages afterwards, I couldn’t function. Catherine didn’t trust me one bit. But I didn’t want to be like that, I didn’t want to be so useless,” she said. “Not that you are of course.”
Helen choked a little. “But you hear so many stories, of people with illnesses like mine doing wonderful things, inspiring things, making their lives worth living,” she said. “You’re so sweet to me Clare, but I just feel like everything I’ve ever done has been utterly worthless.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks now and she rubbed her forehead with her hands. “I get ill, and then what happens but my only daughter getting kidnapped!” Her voice was becoming steadily more high pitched. “And I never – I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything at all,” she said. “I was…I was surplus.”
“Eh now, that’s not true,” said Clare. “You told Catherine, didn’t you, that Ann was missing?” Helen nodded half-heartedly. “Well then! You see, without you, Catherine’d never have found her,” she said. “You were one of the most important parts of the whole thing.” Helen just sat crying, and Clare tucked an arm round her. If she knew Helen, which she did, she knew that Helen would now be beating herself up inside about being selfish or something, and Christ, it made Clare want to cry herself, to see Helen so upset.
Helen wept quietly for a minute or so more, still with Clare’s arm wrapped round her, pulling her in tight, and as much as she wanted to protest herself and pull away, she was simply too tired to do so and so she flopped against Clare, stunned in the knowledge that she could do this, that she could literally sit and cry on Clare and not be judged. “You know,” she croaked, brushing the last of her tears away eventually, “I think this is the first time I’ve cried since Ann came back. I think to be honest I was holding it in.” She sat up straighter and gave Clare a half-hearted smile. “I must look a right state. Sorry.” Helen patted anxiously at her hair tucking the thick pale brown strands behind her ears, and Clare fished around in her pockets for a minute before bringing out a little comb.
“Here,” she said, “yer can use this.” She took a deep breath in, testing the atmosphere between them. “Though if you don’t mind me saying – you do look lovely, you know, despite the crying.” Clare laughed a little nervously, terrified for a moment that Helen was going to whirl round and denounce her and never speak to her again, but she merely looked at her with her kind, tired, red-rimmed eyes and beamed, and Clare’s heart flipped in relief. “Ohh, I don’t,” Helen tutted, but she looked flattered all the same, and she shot Clare a sideways grin that made Clare’s heart flutter again, but a pleasanter sensation than before, and Clare had a sudden flash of what Helen would have been like in another time, another place, when she was different, younger – she supposed she had just seen a glimpse of the woman Nev Gallagher loved, and somehow, this lingered with her for a moment. Did she really love Helen then? Did she? Or did she just love the image of Helen she had in her mind, a perception of her? She didn’t like thinking like this, but Clare had always been pragmatic and it made her uncomfortable to think that she was somehow doing this whole I-love-Helen business wrong somehow. She sighed. Pull yourself together, Clare, she thought, it’s not the time for coming over all mawkish now. Coming over mawkish had never been very good for Clare. She tended to do it to a large degree and go find solace in a biting needle.
“Shall I call that taxi now?” Clare said in an attempt to divert the subject onto slightly less emotional things, “it’s not a problem.”
Helen chewed her bottom lip, unsure. “I don’t know,” she said, “I’m fine, really.” Truth be told, she didn’t feel fine, didn’t feel fine at all – in fact she had been trying to deny the fact she had been feeling distinctly worse for the last few days, even to the extent of keeping it secret from Nev that she’d woken up passed out on the kitchen floor the day before whilst he was out at work and Ann was hiding up in her room with her headphones in. She tried to tell herself that she was keeping it secret because she didn’t want to worry anyone, and this was at least partly true, but she was terrified by the notion that she might really be coming closer to the end, that this was the start of an ungraceful decline she could do nothing about. The car had been a mark of independence she’d been trying to cling to for as long as she could, but the sight of Clare before her, phone out at the ready to ring the taxi service and concerned look on her face, was more than enough to make her want to cry again, and she flopped back in her chair in exhaustion and defeat. “Though, I suppose,” she began, “if you’re sure it’s not too much of a bother…”
“Course not!” Clare heaved an internal sigh of relief, eternally grateful that Helen had agreed to not drive back at this time of night, it was risky enough with her health as it was and to be honest Clare would’ve worried about her at any time of day, but as it was dark outside it was even worse and Clare was glad that Helen trusted her enough to let her do this. “I’ll get Catherine to nip over and collect your car tomorrow,” Clare said. “She won’t mind.” She hoped. Catherine was still so awfully cut up about the Ann business and all that had gone on with Tommy Lee Royce, and Clare had never felt more helpless than she did when faced with Catherine’s depression. At least when Catherine had been in hospital there had been something she could do, but since their argument at Catherine’s birthday party Clare felt like she was treading on eggshells whenever her sister was around – she doubted very highly that Catherine would ever kick her out, but it was disconcerting to realise that without Catherine, she would have absolutely nowhere to go.
Clare tapped the number into the phone, and it was picked up on the first ring. “Hi, erm can we have a taxi from Huddersfield Road Mission to Hebden Bridge please?” she said. There was a muttering down the other end, and Helen closed her eyes as she listened, tiredness crashing over her in waves. She couldn’t imagine what it’d be like to not be tired these days, and, she thought bitterly, snorting with a little derisive laughter beside herself, she probably never would again.
“The taxi’ll be ten minutes,” Clare said a moment later as she ended the call. “I’ll get it to drop you off first and then I’ll go the last stretch home.”
Helen nodded. “That’s alright. And thanks again, really, because I…” her voice faltered. “Well, because I don’t think I could drive my way back home now in the slightest,” she admitted quietly, and Clare was suddenly reminded very distinctly of Ann and Ann’s quiet snark that she waved round so easily every time she came to pay Catherine a visit, which had been unexpectedly frequently of late.
“I know,” Clare said. “Don’t – don’t beat yourself up over it Helen.” She picked up her coat and pulled it on over her checked shirt. “Come on,” she said, “let’s lock up before we leave.” One of their co-workers who had left earlier had left the keys next to the sink, and Clare grabbed them as she quickly rinsed out their teacups under the tap and left them on the draining board. Helen was busy putting on her coat over by the pegs and Clare dashed into the backroom to make sure all the lights were out before joining Helen in the foyer. Helen was wearing some kind of fancy brown coat with a furry trim that Clare was sure had probably cost more than the whole of her wardrobe put together, but it looked absolutely beautiful on her, and it was hard for Clare to hide her smirk as she pulled out her old grey hat from her pocket and tugged it snugly round her ears.
“Ooh your coat’s lovely,” she said, unable to resist, and Helen smiled, patting down the furry collar with one hand that she couldn’t mask was slightly shaking. “It is, isn’t it, even if I do say so myself,” she said fondly. “Nev bought me it for my last birthday because we always wanted to go travelling but never had and when we found out about my illness we decided we’d finally do some of those things.” She and Clare looked at each other, and she half smiled thoughtfully. “I wanted to go somewhere like Denmark or Sweden for a holiday, but – well, with all that’s happened to Ann it never happened.” Helen rolled her eyes. “And as I’m currently useless I suppose it’d be too hard for me to get there now, so…” she shrugged.
“Hmm, maybe you could,” Clare hummed, “in the olden days they used to take invalids on ships and stuff to Switzerland and things for rest cures didn’t they?” she turned up her mouth. “So you might be alright.”
Helen snorted. “Clare, I’m not a consumptive on a chaise lounge!” she laughed, and Clare grinned, tucking her hands into her pockets. “Eh, you never know,” she smirked, and Helen laughed again, playfully swatting at Clare’s arm with her gloved hand who at once went bright red at the touch and had to grin rather stupidly at the floor for a minute. God, she was in so deep.
A dark blue car pulled up at the bottom of the steps, jerking them back to reality for a moment, and Helen linked her arm through Clare’s, holding on for dear life as they went down. “Sorry,” she whispered, as Clare jumped when she grabbed her and she supposed she should have asked first, “I just keep forgetting how tired I am.”
Clare shook her head at Helen affectionately. “You need to stop apologising for everything!” she said. “You don’t need to say sorry to me.” She pulled open the taxi door and Helen got in first, Clare following soon behind. The driver gave them a nod of his head. “Evenin’,” he grunted. “Where is it you’re off?”
Helen gave him her address and sat back as he started up the vehicle, rubbing at her lips. They were so sore all the time at the moment and it was annoying, as well as not at all pleasant to taste blood every time she licked them. Clare was sending a quick text to Catherine explaining that she was on her way, and Helen stretched out her legs the best she could with a quiet groan. “I could just go to sleep you know,” she said quietly, as so not to let the driver hear, and she turned to look Catherine in the eye, an expression of sincerity on her face. “Thanks for not letting me drive,” she whispered. “It would’ve been a disaster.” She rubbed her eyes and yawned, drifting for a moment, and Clare looked at her affectionately, ‘god bless!’ running through her mind. Helen was adorable really and she surreptitiously edged a little further away from where Helen was drowsing. Adorable as Helen was, she was still terrified of what might happen if she got too attached.
And yet even though she was edging away, Helen seemed to be no further from her, and Clare suddenly realised with a jolt that Helen was actually somehow edging nearer as she dozed, and Clare released a fully-fledged sob before she realised the diver was giving her a funny look in his mirror, and she shot him her best withering glare before rather pointedly putting her arm around Helen and bringing her closer in, daring the driver to say something, anything about it. The driver certainly looked rather put out but didn’t actually say anything, and Clare smirked triumphantly, rubbing the top of Helen’s arm very gently.
She’d never known anyone fall asleep in a taxi before, certainly not anyone who wasn’t drunk at least, and she was struck by how extraordinarily peaceful Helen looked. Her eyes were dusted with purple shadows true, and she was pale as anything with a few veins showing through at her neck and jaw, and sleep didn’t miraculously get rid of any of the tiny lines around Helen’s mouth, but she looked so much more relaxed than she’d ever been in Clare’s memory to be honest, and she hugged her tighter still, resisting the urge to lightly kiss Helen’s hair as her head drooped further down her shoulders.
The taxi coasted over the moors at an alarming rate, the driver whistling tunelessly along to some kind of 80s hit issuing from the tinny radio, and Clare scowled slightly, leaning forward as carefully as she could as so not to disturb Helen. “Oi, can you go a bit slower please,” she said. “Me friend’s trying to sleep back here.” Not only did she want to let Helen get as much rest as possible – it didn’t sound like she’d been having much of it lately but why she was suddenly having it now in the back of a bumpy taxi Clare had no idea – she desperately tried to dismiss the notion it might be because of her – but it was near to here that Catherine’s colleague Kirsten had died and the notion of another accident up there was not one that Clare was fond of. The driver huffed in annoyance, but slowed to thirty miles per hour all the same, and he eyed Clare in the mirror. “Will that do yer?” he grouched, and she nodded sardonically. “Just about,” she said, tired of having to deal with this sort of thing now when she just wanted to go home and smoke and flop into bed.
However, Helen’s head had drooped lower still as Clare argued with the driver, until it was resting on Clare’s breasts, and Clare stifled a squeak as she realised, very gently trying to ease Helen back up into more of a sitting position, but Helen was heavy, and Clare had to stop with a puff of breath, regretfully prodding Helen awake so she could move her. It wasn’t that she disliked Helen being…there of course, in fact it was quite the opposite, but she didn’t want to feel as though she was taking advantage of her in any way so she was glad when Helen blearily opened her eyes and sat up a little, but she was still leaning on Clare rather heavily, and Helen looked up into Clare’s face, a sleepy smile blurring on her lips. “Oh Clare,” Helen murmured, voice still thick with sleep, “you’re so…I’m very…you’re so beautiful you know.”
Clare froze. Oh, good god. Did she mean it? Did she? She felt her face pale and she smiled at Helen a little awkwardly, chewing on her lip. “What-what d’yer mean?” she whispered. “I’m not – I don’t – do you mean it?” Her heart was beating like mad and Helen sighed, no more awake seeming than she had before. “Course I did,” she breathed. “I wouldn’t say so…otherwise.” She spoke slowly and she seemed to be slipping into sleep again, and hot tears sprang from Clare’s eyes suddenly as she clutched Helen tighter into her embrace. She was half convinced that Helen was merely saying it because she was so exhausted – and yet, she reasoned, maybe Helen talking when she was tired was like when someone was drunk, and they said things they would only think when sober. She hardly dared to entertain the notion that maybe Helen had said it because there was the slight, glorious chance that Helen might be attracted to her too, but all her life Clare had had nothing but bittersweet disappointments and she really didn’t want another one now.
They travelled the rest of the way in silence, Clare cold in the back of the car as it began to rain, and she hoped that somehow however much of her body heat there was it’d transfer somehow to Helen. She mulled over what Helen had said the whole way, and she hugged it to herself, agonisingly full of so many different emotions. Part of her wanted to laugh aloud and kiss Helen, taxi driver be damned, and the other part of her, the sadder, wiser part wanted to cry, because even if Helen meant something serious by it and wasn’t just being complimentary – what an earth could become of them, how could they ever be happy? She didn’t want to think about it, it made her ache, and instead she focussed on her happiness, the warm, tight feeling building up within her and she curled up her hands and feet, looking somehow for a release.
At last the driver turned onto the end of Helen’s road and Clare began to very gently shake Helen awake, and Helen stirred, raking her hands through her increasingly dishevelled hair. “Hmm,” she sighed. “That was surprisingly nice.” Helen didn’t say anything further though, and Clare twisted nervously, unsure of what to say, whether to mention what Helen had said. Something of her agitation however must have been clear in her face, for Helen frowned at her tiredly, one eyebrow slightly raised. “What’s up?” she whispered. “You’re not all soft anymore.”
“To sleep on.” Helen’s eyes glinted with mischief despite the tension and the cold. “You make an excellent pillow I’m afraid.”
Clare swallowed. “Do I?” she said. “Oh.” Helen had never acted like this before and Clare wasn’t sure how to react to it – god knows she’d had enough experiences with straight women who seemed to think anything untoward of cosying up to her, but it was confusing, and so she kept quiet as the driver pulled up in front of Helen’s house. Helen got out and Clare followed, Helen paying the driver through the window when she got out. “Aren’t you going on in there?” Helen asked. “You don’t have to get out on my accord.”
“I’ll just walk,” Clare said dully. She didn’t think she could ever get in that taxi again. She couldn’t explain why she suddenly felt so terrible, but she wished that Helen had never spoken, never said anything to her about her supposed beauty or her softness because it was as she’d always thought, getting too close hurt too much.
Helen frowned at Clare, puzzled by her sudden change in mood. “Is something wrong?” she said sharply. “It’s really too far for you to walk.”
Clare just shrugged. “Taxi’s gone now anyway,” she said. “It doesn’t matter.”
They stared at each other, and Clare shifted uncomfortably beneath Helen’s sad gaze, and she scrabbled through her pockets for a cigarette, lighting it up quickly, and turned round, shooting a quick “bye!” at Helen, but she had barely taken a step when Helen suddenly rushed to put a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back. “Clare, wait,” she said. “Please. What’s wrong? Your hands are shaking?” Clare chewed on her lip and Helen linked her arm through Clare’s again, but it was different this time, this time it was like Helen was supporting Clare rather than the other way round. “Come in for a drink,” Helen said kindly, but Clare shook her head. The last person she wanted to run into after all this was Nev.
“I don’t want to disturb you or Nev or anyone,” Clare began, but Helen shook her head. “Nev’s away on a two-day conference and stopping the night,” she said. “He’s not in.” She smiled gently at Clare. “Please, come in,” she said. “We’ll have another cup of tea or something.”
Clare hesitated, and Helen jumped on it. “That’s it!” she said. “Come on in,” and Clare gave in with a shrug. “Well, I suppose I will if there’s going to be tea,” she half joked, and Helen smiled at her slightly as she unlocked the door. “Ann’s in bed probably,” she said. “And even if she’s not she won’t come out of her room.”
“How is Ann?” Clare asked awkwardly and Helen sighed sadly. “She’s…she’s better than she was, I suppose,” she said morosely, “but she’s not well.” She shrugged off her coat and hung it up, reaching out to take Clare’s from her, and something about the sight of her coat nestled in the cupboard next to Helen’s and amongst all her things resonated in Clare’s stomach and her nervousness spiked as Helen led her into her highly comfortable sitting room.
“God, your house is lovely,” Clare said. “It’s so big…” she trailed off awkwardly, not good with making small talk and Helen smiled and yawned, padding into the kitchen and back again with drinks. Clare took one appreciatively, but she couldn’t relax, Helen’s words still ringing in her ears, and her discomfort must of shown on her face as Helen leaned forward, concerned.
“Are y’alright Clare?” she asked softly, “you seem to ‘ve gone a bit off since we got out the taxi.”
“I’m fine,” Clare sighed, “I suppose.” She didn’t elaborate and Helen hesitated, a sudden thought coming to mind. Oh god, Clare was offended that she’d called her beautiful wasn’t she. How could she have been so foolish to let her guard slip like that? Instinctively she screwed her eyes up in frustration. Oh how had this happened? Clare was going to think her terrible now and want to back out of their friendship and Helen wanted to sob out of her sheer stupidity, but she was startled suddenly by the expression of extreme concern written all over Clare’s face.
“Helen?” she said sharply. “What’s happened?”
Helen flapped a dismissive hand. “Oh I just realised I’ve done something really stupid,” she sighed. “Erm I … I shouldn’t have called you beautiful, it was…I’d let my guad down a minute, and I suddenly wondered if that was why you suddenly distanced yourself from me…that you thought I was being somehow – improper,” she stuttered out. “God, I’m…I mean it was – it wasn’t like I didn’t mean it,” she said, “you are, you know, beautiful, and I erm just…” she trailed off, terrified. Clare was looking at her with an incredulous expression on her face and her heart clutched in fear. Shit, was this really going to compromise their friendship? She didn’t have Clare down as someone who’d be offended by a sleepy but heartfelt compliment but she couldn’t read her expression at all, and was so rather surprised when Clare suddenly laughed.
“Oh, god, Helen,” Clare sighed. “We’re a right pair, i…I was nervous because of what you said, but I weren’t offended or owt, I was…” she trailed off. “Well I wondered if you might have meant something…more by it.” Helen looked at her keenly and she blushed a little. “And if you did, it’d be…it’d be so wonderful I couldn’t bear…” she choked on her words, unable to carry on. She couldn’t believe she was actually telling Helen she loved her, couldn’t believe she was admitting it at all – all her life she’d had issues with being gay. It’d got better over time but it’d caused her so much pain when she was younger and she’d never imagined she would or could ever be in a position where she could love another woman, and yet here she was.
Helen said nothing, and Clare suddenly clutched her hands together under the table, pulling at her nails. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, but suddenly Helen was reaching out, and round, and suddenly she was kissing her, kissing her like she’d never been kissed before, with so much passion and gentleness and when they broke apart she reeled back panting, Helen’s eyes dark with emotion and Clare’s hands flung out almost involuntarily to clutch Helen’s hands, holding them gently as Helen sat down slowly, the ghost of a smile beginning to trace upon her lips.
They looked at each other, both flushed with colour and Clare’s heart swelled as she saw Helen’s eyes sparkling with a fervour she hadn’t seen for an awfully long time. “I didn’t know I wanted to do that til now,” Helen breathed, and Clare smiled softly. “I did,” she whispered. “I knew I wanted it for a very long time.” She looked down at her lap. “You don’t hate me?”
“Hate you? Clare, I could never!” Helen pulled Clare to her feet and they moved from the table to the sofa, flopping against the cushions. “I could never ever hate you.”
“But you’re married,” Clare sighed. “And here you are, gay friend kissing you…” she twisted her lips. “Not that I didn’t enjoy it mind!”
“Hey,” Helen butted one of her elbows gently into Clare’s side. “You may have been the one proclaiming your feelings,” she said gently. “But I rather thought that it was me that kissed you…” She smiled at Clare, one hand softly tracing the angle of her cheekbones. “And I don’t know how to feel about this with regards to Nev or my illness or anything, but right now, I don’t want to think about that. I want to think about kissing you.” They pressed their lips together and when they broke apart both Helen and Clare were crying softly. “I didn’t know what I’ve been feeling was love,” Helen whispered, “and I feel so foolish, if I’d only thought, we could have had so much time together, and now…” her voice hitched and she sobbed suddenly, hand flying to her mouth. “I don’t want to leave you!” she choked, and she crumpled into Clare as she opened her arms wide, enveloping her in a hug.
Clare’s tears dripped into Helen’s hair and she brushed them away the best she could. “I don’t want you to leave me either,” she breathed. “Whatever happens it’s going to be…” she sniffed loudly, “going to be cruel.”
Helen reached out and tucked her arm through Clare’s stroking it slightly. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, “I’m so so sorry.”
Clare shook her head. “Eh, don’t you be sorry,” she whispered. “The last thing this is is your fault.” Helen closed her eyes wearily and Clare supported her in her arms, holding her against her chest. “Stay the night,” she said, and Clare smiled, loosening her hair from its plait so it blanketed her shoulders like a matted shawl. “Alright,” she grinned, and their hands entwined, and later on they fell asleep like that, hands still linked until dawn.