[December 24th, 1989]
It is the beginning of their story, the first time Jamie sees her. The dividing line between 'what was' and 'what would be.' The setting is a Christmas party: an Edinburgh flat, roaring on the cusp of a new decade. Champagne bubbles float in flutes and greetings. The players are just two university students, dancing across a stage of shaggy green carpet. Garlands of tinsel trip their feet.
And the opening scene? Well. It goes something like this:
She is wearing a holiday sweater, a confection of silver bells and sequined penguins. It is the hard-won earnings of an hour’s wade through mothballs, she says, of a knee-deep dive in a charity shop bargain bin. All of this she relays to Jamie with a smirk, a precocious, all-knowing smile that he will come to know so well.
The lights dim, and her eyes flicker. Lit coals in the flat’s half-dark. She smells of fresh rain, of flowers just beginning to open, and the scent forms a sweet, perceptible weight in the air. It settles on him, around him, when she leans forward, straining to hear his stuttered—
“Hello,” Jamie says, or tries to. He forgets his vowels and it comes as, “Hlllll?”
“Sorry, what was that?”
Claire starts when his hand takes hers, crunches it firmly inside his palm. For Claire, this moment will never lose its clarity, and in the years that follow she will argue that this is where their story begins: nestled in the slight curl of Jamie’s lips; his voice, as smooth as the whisky he offers to pour her; another ugly sweater, this one boasting a lager-stained Santa and a hem of unraveling wool. The red string hangs there for her to tug and close the gulf between them, and she does. Twenty one (him) and twenty two (her) years of strangerhood reduced to nothing—and then, so suddenly, transformed into knowing.
They make small talk in the corner, mentioning the weather (“seasonably cold”) and her biology exam (“after break”). Eventually Claire asks, “Do you know anyone here?”, and bracketed inside this question is her secret hope that he does not. She wants to believe that Jamie is on her side, that it is only the two of them (it has only ever been the two of them) against the world. She is so used to feeling alone in crowds—but here! Oh, but here in the rainbow glow of tree lights, she feels a part of Something. She holds onto it, wishing her hand was as big as his so that his curling lips and his whisky voice would never seep through her fingers.
“Dinna ken anyone,” Jamie confirms, “though I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”
He inclines his head towards the mass of bodies, all gyrating in a singular, chaotic wave. Music plays in the background, oppressive and electronic, as a third year belts Bowie between tokes. Jamie lets it fade away, forgets it all—the noise, how to blink, how to breathe. Forgets everything except her.
Claire wrinkles her nose.
“The problem with these people is that they think they’re interesting.” She is yelling into his ear but even so, it seems strangely intimate. Every word exchanged is a secret between them, one they tuck inside their pockets, will place under their pillows when they lay their heads to sleep. “But they aren’t. Not even remotely!”
“Weel, fortunately you’ve met me now.”
“Mmm. But are you truly interesting or only remotely?”
“That’s for you to decide, lass. You being the expert on such things.”
Claire grins at the floor. “You haven’t even told me your name, y’know.”
“James Fraser,” he says, all too quickly, and he’s unreasonably embarrassed. James, he thinks. How many ‘James’ were in this very room, wearing equally hideous and soiled sweaters? How many ‘James’ had she met in Scotland? Would she even remember him, one of 337 (to be precise), after this night? (She would, of course. During her biology exam, she will think of James Fraser and leave fifteen questions blank. She will get a C—a grade as average as his name.)
“But you can call me Jamie,” he adds over the roar.
“I’m Claire Beauchamp. Just plain Claire Beauchamp!”
And Jamie laughs—a beautiful laugh, the best laugh, a laugh Claire will spend the rest of her life wanting to hear (she will have to work harder on certain days).
“If I call ye anything, it’ll be ‘Sassenach’. Whereabouts in England are ye from?”
And Claire smiles—a beautiful smile, the best smile, a smile Jamie will spend the rest of his life trying to earn (finding success and failure in turns).
“Oxford by birth,” Claire says. “But from nowhere, really.”
She pauses, hearing the third-year shout, “Bowie, man! Greatest artist of all time!” and swears the kid is wrong. It’s God who was the greatest artist, and this six-foot deity with his lager-stained knit was His chef d’ouevre.
“Do you want to make this night interesting, Jamie?”
“More than remotely.”
“That depends. What d’ye have in mind?”
Claire reaches for his hand, and he gives it to her. Jamie squeezes, she squeezes back. She leads him through the throng. He follows, licking his lips and at her heels.
(Who knew it could ever be this easy? Falling in love.)