The first thing Claire was aware of was the pounding of her head.
She groaned loudly, and even that sound made her head split. She roughly rubbed her eyes and tried to open them, then chickened out when the sunlight sent a knife between her eyes.
The second thing she was aware of was that she was stark naked.
That was enough to shake her from her stupor. She sat straight up and searched the room blearily, but John was nowhere to be seen.
She didn’t think she could bear to do a walk of shame in her own bedroom.
She’d thought perhaps it had been a wild, alcohol induced dream. But apparently she really had stripped herself and her homosexual husband naked and ridden him into oblivion. And then cried herself to sleep on top of him.
Jesus fucking Christ.
She pulled a robe out of the wardrobe and wound it tightly around herself, not bothering to dress since she most definitely needed a shower anyway. She emerged from the bedroom, already cringing. The smell of coffee wafted into her consciousness, and it was enough to draw her from the doorway and into the kitchen.
John was sitting at the table with his own cup, staring blankly at the wall in front of him until the pitter patter of Claire’s bare feet caught his attention.
“Good morning,” he said, his voice clipped.
Christ, he could barely look at her.
“The pot should still be hot.”
Claire forced a tight-lipped smile as she shuffled over to the pot of coffee and poured herself a mug. “Thank you.”
He hummed awkwardly in response. Claire sat down slowly with her cup, cringing at the sound of the chair scraping against the floor.
“That bad, is it?”
Claire groaned and rubbed between her eyes, carefully setting the hot mug down in front of her. “Indeed.”
They sat in uncomfortable silence for several agonizing moments, each quietly sipping their coffee.
“Claire, I want — ”
“John, I should — ”
They both snapped their mouths shut, then began stammering apologies over one another.
“I’d…like to go first. If that’s alright,” Claire said uneasily. John nodded, and she cleared her throat, setting her coffee down again.
“What happened last night…it was unforgivable. Me, I mean,” she added quickly. “That was despicable of me. To use your love for him against you like that.”
She felt her face flush hot with shame, and John averted his eyes, a blush creeping into his own face as well.
“I’m a nurse. I know that…arousal doesn’t always mean you…want to…go further.” She swallowed against a rush of tears. “I took advantage of you. I’m…so ashamed, John. I’m so sorry.”
John put his hand up. “It’s alright, Claire.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“If I’d wanted to stop you I could have.”
She stiffened in shock, her hooded eyes widening for a moment.
“I feel I took advantage of you as well, my dear. You were…quite insistent. But I should have stopped you.”
“John — ”
“So I am sorry. Truly and deeply.” His voice sounded pained, and he looked like he was about to cry.
She knew deep down she did not deserve to be apologized to, but to spare him any further pain, she acquiesced. “It’s alright.”
“I used your body for comfort just as much as you used mine. I admit it makes…far less sense to me than it must for you…but use you I did.”
Claire nodded. “I agree. We…used one another. In a way we shouldn’t have.”
John nodded as well. “I think we should…make an agreement while neither of us are inebriated. Something that we can refer to when one or both of us is in too much pain to stop ourselves.”
“I agree.” Claire straightened and took a deep breath. “I can’t believe I have to say this to a homosexual housemate…” Claire tried her hand at humor, and immediately regretted it before continuing. “But I don’t think we should have any more sex. At all.”
“Agreed. And we must not…” He cleared his throat and sniffled. “We must not use Jamie to hurt one another.”
“Never again,” Claire vowed solemnly, reaching across the table and taking his hand. “I promise.”
“I promise, too.”
They gave each other’s hands a squeeze, but were both reluctant to let go.
“What happened…was not right. I shall probably feel guilty until the end of time,” Claire said. “But I think it was just…something we needed to get out of our systems.” John nodded in agreement. “And I think we can move past this, together,” Claire continued. “For Jamie’s sake.”
He nodded again, and gave her hand another squeeze. “And for the baby.”
Claire’s stomach flipped, and her free hand automatically came to rest on her abdomen. “Yes,” she said, and then swallowed thickly. “For the baby.”
He gave her hand one final squeeze before releasing her and standing up. She quickly swiped at the tears that spilled down her cheeks.
“I’m going to make some porridge, it may help with your headache.”
“I’d like that, thank you.”
They began a careful dance, a dance with no choreographed steps, but rather an improvised routine that they both fell into. Sidestepping where they needed, pushing and pulling to avoid stepping on each other’s toes in every sense of the word. At first, they stayed as far away from each other as possible in bed, to the point where Claire thought they would both tumble off if one of them so much as sneezed. She’d even considered pawning off the double bed and using the money to buy twin beds. Maybe then she’d be less tempted to ravage him in grief again.
But then, one night, she woke in the night to use the loo, as she’d started doing about a million times per night to empty her pregnant bladder. When she returned, she heard quiet sniffles and small whimpers.
The poor, dear man was weeping.
She crept back under the covers and faced him, his back turned to her. She couldn't tell if he was awake or not, so she reached out and touched his shoulder.
He froze. He was awake then.
“Are you alright, darling?”
He continued sniffling, but the little sobs ceased.
“You can talk to me. It’s…what I’m here for. As your wife.”
Claire knew that her time to be married to the love of her life had come and gone. Love as fierce as her and Jamie’s was not meant to last for a whole lifetime, and she was lucky enough to have experienced it at all. Her time had come now to be something else for someone new. Though their marriage was devoid of carnal love and pleasure, she could not deny the growing tenderness for this sweet, thoughtful man.
She whispered his name again and gave his shoulder a light squeeze, and he finally turned to face her. In the glowing moonlight, she could see the tear tracks, the redness of his swollen eyes. Her hand fell on the pillow next to his face, and she waited.
“I…I dreamt of him.”
Claire swore she heard her heart break.
“It was…very real. And when I woke it was like…”
“Like losing him all over again,” Claire whispered hoarsely, understanding immediately. She’d had many a similar dream.
John nodded, blinking back another rush of tears.
“I wasn’t even…we weren’t even…”
Claire nodded; he didn’t have to elaborate.
“He was with you,” John said. “And I didn't even care. Seeing him smile at you was the greatest joy my heart has ever known. I didn’t even care if that…that look was never meant to be mine. I just…wanted him to be happy.”
Claire let out a tiny sob that seemed to echo until she realized it was John breaking down again.
“I wanted to see him grow old and have children…he wanted to so badly…”
Claire fiercely pulled herself right up against him, cradling his head at her breast and weeping into his hair as he clung desperately to her nightgown.
That was the first night Claire was grateful she shared a bed with someone; sharing a bed meaning something different than she’d ever imagined it could. She’d mused recently that to sleep, actually sleep with someone gave a sense of intimacy, as though her dreams could flow out of her to mingle with his and fold them both in a blanket of unconscious knowing. It was an act of trust to sleep in the presence of another person. If the trust was mutual, simple sleep could bring people closer together than the joining of bodies. She could somehow feel this with John, that just allowing her body to fall away into unconsciousness as he did the same, that building that mutual trust between them in this new way was bringing them closer. Especially since their particular joining of bodies had been the farthest thing from bringing them closer.
Some nights she woke to his weeping, or he to hers. They’d grown accustomed to just reaching for the other’s hand, and they would fall back asleep with several inches between their bodies and their hands clasped between them.
It was a comfort that Claire was quickly growing to depend on.
About a week after they'd been married, John took a job as an architect, the career path he'd been preparing for before the war. While he was gone, Claire taught herself to cook, failing miserably more often than not and serving her husband failed dish after failed dish. She went on walks, she read, she picked herbs and flowers in the park, she tended to a small pot of herbs that John had surprised her with in the window of the kitchen one day. She was a terrible cook, but at least her garlic, chamomile, and peppermint were thriving.
The peppermint quite came in handy when the morning sickness started in earnest. John was quite darling about the whole ordeal, never entering the bathroom until he could audibly tell that she’d stopped retching, but he was already prepared with a hot rag and a glass of water, peppermint tea brewing and nearly ready for her consumption.
It wasn’t right away that Claire began missing him during the day, not right away at all. In the beginning she’d enjoyed the alone time with her plants and any strays she decided to pluck from the side of the road or the middle of a field. She enjoyed the time alone to scream into a pillow and weep until her heart could no longer stand it. She enjoyed the time where she held onto Jamie’s old rosary and talked to him like he could hear her.
But the more weeks that passed, the more Claire realized that she’d grown fond enough of John’s presence to feel his absence when he was gone.
It wasn’t that she was never fond of him to begin with. The times she’d visited Jamie during the war and had drinks with John and laughed with him were truly wonderful. She’d always admired his intelligence, his wit, always respected him and appreciated everything he’d done for the man she loved.
But things had somehow changed in that she was truly beginning to see him as a companion. She was truly starting to feel lonely in the hours that he worked, truly starting to look forward to his return home like she supposed a wife should for her husband.
Claire had always sworn that she would not leave her entire life’s purpose to being a wife, even a wife to Jamie. She’d shared her far-off dream of medical school with Jamie, and he’d kissed her with joy for her eventual success; the memory caused deep pangs of sadness in her chest. So for her to find meaning in looking forward to her husband coming home, however amicable a companion he was, could have felt like a betrayal to her very character.
It didn’t, though.
It was an odd comfort, relying on John, and she supposed he felt the same. They read by the fire in their respective armchairs at night, John occasionally remarking on a particular passage to her. In the beginning, she’d only hum in amusement in response, but as more time went on, she allowed it to open discussion, and she’d even started doing it with her own books, engaging him like that.
After reading, they’d strip themselves of their guises of husband and wife. The only visible remnants of their marriage were shared smiles over books or meals (or lack thereof) or flowerpots. Without those, they were just John and Claire, frightened and lonely as they’d always been, hands entwined under the covers in the wide gap between them.
He actually brought home flowers on occasion, on two or three random days throughout the month. Claire found it incredibly endearing. He strode into the bedroom to change out of his work clothes for supper one night as Claire arranged bluebells in a vase, and she allowed perhaps the first genuine smile in months.
He’s trying, God love him.
Claire kissed him on the cheek as she put his plate in front of him that night at supper, and he kissed hers in bed before rolling away and reinstating the gap between them.
Always touching hands.
Before she knew it, Claire’s clothing wasn’t fitting anymore, her stomach finally showing true evidence of the life it grew after months of hiding.
And then she felt it, like a bubbly champagne stuck in her chest, like the flutter of butterflies.
Hello, little one.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Claire said that night over supper. She’d managed a fine beef stew that night, impressing both John and herself. “I don’t want to have the baby in the hospital.”
John comically appeared to choke on his stew. “Beg pardon?”
“Women do do it. Home births, I mean. I had a friend in the army who delivered babies at people’s homes.”
“Isn’t it…” He swallowed a lump of soft carrots. “Painful?”
Claire chuckled. “Well, certainly. But I’d…rather be awake. I can’t stand what they’re doing these days, putting the mothers under with God knows what. I wouldn’t be able to stand it, not knowing what was happening to me for the entire birth. If something were to happen, I would want to be awake.”
“But what if something were to happen?” John said, laying down his spoon.
“If something truly dire were to happen, the hospital isn’t far.”
“God, Claire! What if you died on the way there?”
“Please.” Claire rolled her eyes. “If I was at high risk, I’d go to the hospital from the beginning. Alright? But I truly think everything will be alright. I’d like to have a midwife start coming to make sure of that.”
“What about your friend?”
“Oh, she lives in Glasgow.”
He took up his spoon again, then got a gleam in his eye. “What if I could put her up here, in London?”
Claire put down her own spoon, the corners of her mouth twitching into a grin. “You’d do that?”
“Of course,” he said, as if it were the most simple matter in the world. “I can see you’re not to be argued with on this matter, and I’d rather have the woman in charge of your health and the health of our child be someone you already trust. She’s capable?”
Claire’s mind had momentarily gone blank at his casual utterance.
“Are you alright, my dear?”
Claire jolted a bit, shaking her head. “Yes, yes, just a small dizzy spell…” She cleared her throat. “Geillis is quite capable, I assure you. You won’t find someone more so. And it’s as I said: if she thinks it unsafe for me to not have medical intervention, then I will not argue. I promise.”
John nodded curtly, smiling widely. “Then it’s settled. Phone her tomorrow, won’t you?”
Claire took up her spoon again. “I will.”
“What’s brought all this on?” John said, spooning more stew into his mouth.
Claire smiled wistfully, her hand resting on the tiny bump. “I felt him today.”
He almost choked again.
“Yes. It’s…too tiny to feel from the outside, otherwise I’d have shown you already. But he’s…he’s fluttering around in there.” She smiled down at her stomach. “It’s…wonderful.”
“That is…wonderful news, my dear,” John said, his eyes bright with joy. “I’m glad of it.”
Claire allowed a few moments of amicable silence to pass between them, but she couldn’t stop herself.
“Did you…mean it when you said…our child?”
For the third time in one meal, Claire thought she had caused her husband to choke.
“God, Claire, I’m…I’m so, very sorry. I didn’t mean…I couldn’t ever…”
“It’s alright,” Claire interrupted gently. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s Jamie’s child. I know that.”
“I know. And I know you know that.” She held his gaze, and she could tell he very much wanted to melt into the floor with shame. “I can’t lie and say it didn’t catch me off guard. Because it did. But it’s…not a bad thing.”
She drew in a long, tremulous breath before continuing.
“Jamie is gone. The father of my child is dead.” Her voice only broke on the last word, and she sardonically congratulated herself in her head. “You are…for all intents and purposes…this baby’s father. And I…I want it to be that way. For the baby. It’s…what Jamie would want.”
John nodded, eyes watering.
“So it’s…it’s alright for you to call him…ours. Because he is.” She covered the small bump with both of her hands, cradling it as if her little child could feel it. “That was just…the first time you’ve said that instead of just ‘the baby.’ So I wanted to be sure you meant it. Or if it was just a slip.”
He looked at her thoughtfully, and she could swear she saw his pupils dilate. “I did mean it, my dear. I wouldn’t say something with that much weight so carelessly.”
Claire nodded, offering him a tight-lipped smile. “Good.”
Their spoons clattered in the thick silence between them.
“Him?” John suddenly said.
“Hm?” Claire looked up at him.
“You keep saying ‘him.’ That sure it’s a boy?”
Claire smiled and chuckled through her nose. “I just…have a feeling, that’s all. A feeling that I’m carrying my little Brian James.”
She could practically see his heart swelling, inflating his chest and causing him to sit up straighter. “For Jamie’s father.”
“That’s right. And for his father as well.”
“It’s…perfect, Claire.” He nodded in confirmation, his eyes wide with something that Claire could only describe as adoration. “Perfect for our son.”
John put Geillis up in a flat a few blocks away so that they could walk back and forth to each other with relative ease. Geillis determined that the baby was in excellent shape, and that Claire was a great candidate for a natural birth. Geillis was a bit flighty and slightly mysterious, but that was what Claire had loved about her when they met. She was very reliant on herbs and incense. Claire could tell that her witchy tendencies unnerved John quite a bit, and it often made her giggle to see him uncomfortable in her presence. He didn’t say anything, though, out of respect for Claire’s love for the woman.
Geillis was slightly better in the kitchen than Claire was, so she’d been sharing recipes (much to John’s chagrin; he didn’t trust that there wasn’t something supernatural in anything she fed them). They baked together in either of their flats when John was at work, went on walks together, enjoyed each other’s company. It was refreshing to have female company, and wonderful to have someone to spend time with when she would have otherwise been counting down the minutes until John’s return from work.
Two months after Geillis’s arrival as midwife and friend, Claire was nearly six months pregnant. She was starting to feel exhausted more often than not. She napped quite often, even in Geillis’s flat. Her feet and ankles were constantly sore and swollen, and John had taken to rubbing them for her, having asked her how to do it most to her liking. It was terribly endearing to her.
Claire left Geillis’s flat earlier than usual on one particular day, not wanting to fall dead asleep on her sofa again. She stopped for a few groceries on the way home, not sure if she had enough to prepare the recipe she’d decided on for the night. When she arrived home, she was pleasantly surprised to see John’s shoes and coat by the front door. She didn’t see him in the living room or in the kitchen when she put the brown paper bag down on the counter, so she shuffled into the bedroom to make sure he wasn’t home early because he was ill.
“John, darling, is everything — ”
Claire’s throat went dry and her eyes popped out of her head when she took in the sight on the bed. John was stark naked, cock in his fist, jerking his hips into his hand. He froze immediately at the sound of her voice, covering himself with both hands.
“Oh.” Her cheeks turned pink as she averted her eyes staring at a leaf fluttering by the window. “I’m…I’m sorry…” she stammered. “I saw your coat, and I thought…I’m sorry.”
“I’m…ashamed. Forgive me. I didn’t know you’d be home.”
“No, no. Please don’t be,” Claire said quickly. “It’s…perfectly natural.”
Claire had been very clear with John before they married that she would be perfectly alright with him taking male lovers. She knew she could never provide what he really needed, and she knew this marriage was not for love. He’d thanked her and said he would keep it in mind.
It would appear there hadn’t been any forward momentum on that front.
Claire had no conceivable idea why she was still standing in the doorway staring at the window. “I’ll ehm, just…” She cleared her throat and started to shuffle away, but then stopped herself. “Do you…” she began, only half turning to him. “Want help?”
She looked shyly at him, pointedly only looking at his face. He was beet red with embarrassment, and now looked terribly scandalized.
“The…agreement?” he said, his brow raised in questioning.
“I know. But we’re both sober at the moment, and it wouldn’t really be sex. I…I wouldn’t mind.” She flicked her eyes away from him and wet her lips. “But only if it’ll help. I know I’m not…you know.”
She saw him nod from the corner of her eye. “You, ehm, needn’t trouble yourself.”
“Alright. That’s alright.” Claire nodded curtly and then saw herself out of the bedroom, scuttling back into the kitchen to unpack her groceries.
She did not expect the strange thrill that coursed through her when she heard her name.
Her breathing went ragged as she put down a cabbage on the counter and walked slowly back to the bedroom.
“Did you…call me?” she asked timidly through the crack in the door.
“Yes…you can come in.”
She slowly pushed the door open, taking deep, trembling breaths.
“I’d…like your help. If you don’t mind.”
She blinked back her shock and swallowed against a sandpaper throat before taking slow, even steps across the room and sitting down before him.
He was not as well endowed as Jamie, but it was sizable nonetheless, and had still felt good in that drunken stupor all those months ago. She met his eye and cautiously brought her hand forward. He gave a small groan when her hand wrapped around the base of him. He was burning to the touch, and it fascinated her. She maintained eye contact as she slowly began pumping him, up and down, and he groaned again.
“Is this alright?” she whispered, rolling her thumb over the tip.
“Yes,” he choked out. “Quite…alright.”
Claire smirked and began pumping faster, but not maddeningly so. Not yet.
She had half a mind to ask him what he’d been thinking of before she’d interrupted, but she didn’t need to. She knew.
And she knew how painfully terrible it was to long for the ghost of someone’s touch.
So she didn’t pry, she just worked her hands as expertly as she knew how, until he was panting heavily and jerking his hips up toward her hand. Only then did she double down on the speed, her forearm burning with the effort. He came with a strangled cry, shooting his seed upward, landing on his stomach.
She slowed her hand until she felt him go soft, and then she rested her hand on his thigh, smiling shyly at him. He was laying back, staring at the ceiling as he caught his breath. Claire got up and returned from the bathroom with a towel, and by that time he had seemingly regained his senses.
“Thank you,” he said warmly as he took the towel in his hands, but Claire felt that he was perhaps thanking her for more than just the towel.
“It’s alright, isn’t it?” she said nervously, sitting down. “You don’t feel as if we’ve broken the agreement?”
“No, not at all.” He got up and dressed himself again, though he remained shirtless when he turned back to her. “You were just…helping me finish a job I’d already started.”
Claire nodded, smiling self-consciously, her cheeks blushing fiercely. “Right.”
“You don’t have to blush, my dear.” He closed the distance between them and sweetly kissed her forehead. “You’re my wife after all.”
She nodded again, painfully aware of the heat that had gathered in her stomach and farther down.
“You’re quite warm,” he said, ghosting his fingertips over the apple of her cheeks. “Is it…because…?”
“Ah.” He sat down next to her. “I’m afraid I…wouldn’t be much help. Your knowledge of male pleasure far exceeds that of mine concerning female pleasure.”
“It’s alright,” Claire said gently, covering his hand with hers. “I don’t expect anything from you.”
He smiled gratefully at her, holding her gaze warmly.
Claire had no idea what prompted her to blurt: “You could watch me.”
His mouth popped open a bit, and she watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down.
“Women can do it themselves too, you know.” She smirked, though she was still blushing fiercely. “I wouldn’t mind if you watched. It may…help.”
He swallowed again, drawing his hand away from hers.
“But you don’t want me to…”
“You don’t have to.” She pushed herself higher up onto the bed and unbuttoned her dress, then slid it over her head. She wasn’t sure how John would feel if she got completely naked, so she left her slip on. She reached under it to remove her underwear.
“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to,” she said, a warning. Before she really began.
“I…I do. Want to.”
She smiled at him and set her underwear aside, away from him. She let her legs fall apart and ghosted her fingers over the slick, wet folds.
“When a woman is aroused…” she said breathily, taking a stuttering breath as her fingers reached the source of her moisture. “Instead of a cockstand, she gets…wet.”
She withdrew her hand to show him, and he stared at the glistening wetness on her fingers with vulgar curiosity.
Smiling devilishly, she returned to her task, gathering more moisture and setting to work on her clitoris.
John’s voice brought her out of a haze of pleasure, and she met his gaze with hooded eyelids.
She heard what he left unsaid:
I did…not Jamie?
“You did, John,” she breathed out. “It makes me feel…very good to give a man pleasure.”
It was the truth, really. Jamie was, of course, the subject of her every thought, her every fantasy. In her moments alone, when Geillis was not around, it was thoughts of Jamie’s hands, Jamie’s tongue, Jamie’s cock that roused her to the point of no return. And it was those thoughts that had her weeping in grief after she’d climaxed. But this was different. For the first time, she wasn’t aroused by a fantasy, but rather by the sight of a real man coming right in front of her. By her hand. Did she think of her love in that same position? God, of course. Was she imagining his touch? Certainly. But seeing John, sweet, gentle John, in the throes of pleasure had flipped a switch in her fevered mind.
It was different.
John swallowed hard again in response to her words, and she redoubled her efforts on herself. She did not hold back, allowing her eyes to fall shut and for her desperate keening to get as loud as it would naturally get without restraint. She laid back, neck arching as she moaned loudly with ecstasy.
She picked her head back up when she felt she was close, and made deliberate eye contact with John as she slipped a finger in, still keeping her maddening pace on her clitoris. John’s lips parted and he swallowed again, and with the insertion of a second finger, curling them in and upwards, Claire let out a ragged gasp. Her hips jerked off the mattress, thrusting into nothingness as she continued her rapid assault of her clitoris, her fingers frozen inside her as her walls clenched around them. She let out a sweet sounding moan as her hand finally slowed, and she gradually lowered back onto the mattress, her head swimming and her back slick with sweat.
She kept her eyes closed as she came down from her high, her chest heaving. When she opened her eyes, John was still staring at her, his mouth hanging open. She was still breathing heavily, and she smiled up at him shyly.
“Do you, ehm…” He cleared his throat. “Do you feel better now?”
She nodded lazily, feeling her eyes slide shut again.
“I can finish with your groceries. You seem tired.”
She nodded, eyes still closed, and curled into the pillow, draping her arm over it lazily. She felt like an infant, drugged with sleep after breastfeeding, having satiated herself.
Consciousness was just beginning to slip away from her when she felt a blanket drape over her shoulders, and a gentle peck on her temple.
“Sleep well, my dear.”