Actions

Work Header

Returning Tides

Chapter Text

Cassandra Young; registered psychologist MSc, BSc, PMT, OTT and quite possible FML today too closed her office with a snap before leaning heavily against the wood of her door with a sigh. Through the door she heard her last appointment of the morning continue to grumble on about the uselessness of the NHS. Cassie bit her lip and tried to think only about the teachings of unconditional positive regard while an inner part of her brain gnashed her teeth.

Grumpy old bat was plain rude even if her son wasn’t talking to her anymore.

Normally Cassie didn’t let those sort of clients get to her but she wasn’t having a good day and she was feeling a mite more sensitive than she might usually. Things had started badly when she’d woken up late and they hadn’t improved as the day went on. She’d woken late because there’d been some kind of electric surge in the night which had killed her phone so the alarm hadn’t come on. As if she needed another reminder that she was nose diving into her thirties and still renting shitty flats with no prospect of saving enough for a deposit. At this rate she’d have to start considering Ros’s suggestion that they pool resources and buy together.

A cool wind blew around her ankles as she thought this, drawing her thoughts back to the mornings dramas. She’d been rushing to get into her tights because she was late and then she’d laddered her only decent pair so she’d had to change her outfit last minute which she hated doing. She was one of nature’s planners. The fuse had gone in the kettle too when she finally fell down the stairs which meant no proper brew either before work.

Cassie hated being late, she hated rushing. Sat in rush hour traffic always made her nervous and she’d only got through it today by tearfully ringing Ros on the hands free. Ros was her best and oldest friend, they’d met in first year of uni at an LGBT tea party at the students union and clicked instantly. Ros had talked to Cassie all the way through the journey and then she’d made Cassie promise to call her later tonight. Cassie had dutifully promised.

It hadn’t been much better when she’d finally got into work. It quickly became apparent that Caleb, Cassies assistant, had been in his own traffic nightmare when someone rear ended him just coming off the motorway. Cassie had first checked that he wasn’t hurt and then allowed herself a moments pity party.

Caleb was a god send when he was in and a nightmare when he wasn’t. He had his own appointments to keep and with clients already trickling in Cassie had been forced to double barrel appointments all morning on the proviso Siobhan would ring and cancel the excess afternoon sessions.

She’d just now finished ploughing through the back log with just enough time to yam a quick sarnie before the next appointment.

Sitting heavily in her chair Cassie smiled at the picture of her and Ros at the finish line of their last fun run. Ros had her arm slung carelessly over Cassies shoulder and they were laughing. Ros had that picture as her home screen on her phone. Dragging herself from this pleasant memory Cassie opened her lunch box and chewed a corner of her ham sandwich as she ran a cursory eye down the list of afternoon appointments in front of her.

14:30: DC Mount, RTW interview.

In a mindless reflex muscles she wasn’t usually aware of having in Cassies stomach seemed to tighten in mutinous rebellion against her professionalism. God, was that really today? Suddenly Cassie didn’t want the sandwich. Cassie could have sworn that she’d only booked the interview over the phone with the woman two days ago.

Constable Mount; the blonde goddess that Cassie had noticed first when she escorted two children to the 1:1 clinics on a Thursday morning about two months ago. Cassie had always had an eye for people who stood out; always took an interest in others. It was partly why she’d fallen into this profession in the first place.

She’d certainly noticed Constable Patience Mount when she walked past her in the corridor that was for sure. Who wouldn’t?

The kids looked adorable too even to a woman like Cassie who tended to avoid children on the whole. The little black girl had been clutching Mounts hand with her teddy poking out of her bouncing rucksack when Cassie had first seen them while the older girl with the match stick arms trailed behind them both chewing strands of her hair.

Mount had adopted the pair apparently after a traumatic loss of their remaining family. The woman was almost definitely a local hero and, if Siobhan on the front desk was to be believed and she usually was, just so happened to be gay as Christmas.

Cassie licked her suddenly dry lips as all the days exertions and rush seemed to crawl over her in a wave of grime. Sweat painted it’s oily trails along her skin, her hair had long fallen out of her induced sleek look and returned to its natural curl. All at once Cassie wished she’d thought to do something nicer with her hair this morning even with time constraints. She cursed the loss of those bloody tights; the original outfit had been much more flattering.

There was a small Art Deco mirror on the opposite wall beside the door and, with only a small internal argument with herself, Cassie stood up and slunk across the room to face it. The thing had been bolted quite high up and she needed to stand on tippee toes to see her reflection but she managed it in the end. The result was depressingly familiar; pale face, faint smudges of red bags under her eyes, wide nose, the tip of her top front teeth teased the opening of her lips. She had a spot coming up near her ear too.

It was hardly Liz Taylor material was it. She hadn’t even bothered to wear lippy.

With a sigh Cassie did the best job she could with her fingers as a comb to fix her hair and she ran a hopeful thumb beneath her eyes to catch any panda smears that may have started up. Then she looked at her reflection again.

Well... Failing a shock visit from Gok Wan there wasn’t much else she could do to help her cause. Although... Cassie remembered belatedly that she’d left a pair of heels from when she’d stayed over at Ros’s last weekend in the car. Now that was a tragedy. Mount was nearly six foot tall and Cassie wouldn’t have minded being a smidgeon taller in this meeting even if she’d spend it in the main hidden behind the desk. Besides, Ros always said the heels made her arse look the bells when she wore them which was sweet for a friend to say so Cassie could only imagine what someone like Mount might think.

Cassie wavered reflectively but with a sigh gave up on the idea of retrieving the desired footwear covertly as practicalities overcame day dreams. She doubted she’d be able to sneak out and get them without being spotted anyway and didn’t much fancy trying to lie her was past the all seeing eyes of Siobhan. Cassie looked down mournfully at her currently Clark’s clad feet. Sensible shoes. Ros had been with her when she’d bought them. Ros had bought them in fact as a graduation present.

They were brown and thick leather and comfy on long days. They had sensible harmonics in every stitch. Ros had said it would make her look like a proper professional in them. Cassie had loved them when she’d put them on for the first time, she’d loved her sensible shoes.

She didn’t like them now though. Sensible was... well, sensible, but what she wouldn’t have given at this moment to be a little less sensible. Sensible girls never picked up girls like Mount. Didn’t seem to keep the other sort either.

It had been... Cassie started trying to work out how long it had been since she’d last slept with a woman and then abruptly stopped when she ran out of fingers to count the months. Had the last one really been that girl in Perth on holiday last year?

And that hadn’t been much to write home about either. Ros had taken the piss for ages when she found out too. Well she’d been more annoyed than amused about it actually, Ros always got annoyed when Cassie pulled. Cassie had chosen not to judge her friend too harshly about that because Ros was quite protective of her; she’d never liked any of the girls Cassie went out on dates with either. Ros had been single since they’d been in second year. She said she didn’t mind it much, was fine being on her own as long as she had a good friend like Cassie about the place.

Cassie disregarded this thought airily.

Mount. That was the real food for thought here wasn’t it? Apparently the woman had one hell of a reputation according to Siobhan. How exactly Siobhan knew so much about the delectable detective was anyone’s guess but Cassie hadn’t pondered it too hard. It was just how Siobhan operated. The woman knew everyone’s business, sometimes she even knew it before the person in question did which was off putting to say the least. She knew a lot about Constable Mount though. Apparently she played mahjong with the woman’s auntie or something like that.

Cassie reflected that small town living had its own curses.

Mind you, perhaps it wasn’t such a feat that Siobhan knew so much. Even Ros had heard of Mount apparently or at least had heard enough to disapprove of her. Ros said those type of women were bad for the everyone else; just pushed the stigma lesbians were predators. Cassie didn’t think she’d mind being Mounts prey.

Perhaps this day wouldn’t end as crap as it had started.

Cassie had already decided not to tell Ros what she planned to do at the end of the session. Ros would call her an idiot and she’d probably be right too.

But it was hardly like she could be blamed for having a crush on the woman was it? Any dyke with a pulse within 20 miles must have harboured a tiny thought about this woman. A woman who looked like That. With a reputation like That. The same woman who had apparently turned over a new leaf by adopting not one but two troubled children? Well, Cassie was only human wasn’t she?

Cassie could only wonder if the good officer would live up to her reputation. God, she hoped so.

And the kids weren’t even the tip of the ice berg for Cassie. They were just window dressing for the main event.

Cassie had read the woman’s file. Extensively. What a file. What a life! Abused, enslaved, tortured even. Her name had been in all the local newspapers; she’d saved hundreds of innocent lives. Brought down some kind of huge crime ring and somehow she’d been nearly killed in the process. How could Cassie not want to know more about her? She was a psychologist for Christ sake! It was the kind of opportunity that came round once in a blue moon.

And the woman would be waiting right now, just outside Cassies door. To speak to Cassie. It was a thrill to think it even if Cassie understood that the woman was mandatorily obliged to attend this meeting in order to return to work.

Still... One more time Cassie ran her fingers through her hair convulsively. In the set of drawers beside her she pulled out her perfume and spritzed above her ears so that the smell might stick around for a while. Did Mount liked perfume? Alas it didn’t say much about that type of thing in her file. Only the traumatic history but hell, even people with bad histories liked nice smells surely.

With one final run of fingers through her hair Cassie assumed as sophisticated and professional an air as she could. Then she stepped to the door and opened it to peek outside.

The waiting room was filled with knee cracking low set, heavily padded blue chairs and one coffee table that was heaving under the weight of last years gossip. On the end, built into the wood, was a set of brightly coloured wires curved round one another in spiralling loops and zigzags with thickly shaped wooden beads threaded onto them. The counselling service was run out the back of a GP service but at this unpopular time the waiting area wasn’t as full as usual.

In one corner sat a ripe old man, his flat cap turned down as he snoozed away his remaining wait, in another corner was a harassed looking mother who was distractedly rocking a squabbling baby that was making enough noise to make up for the lack of other patrons.

In the middle of these two parties sat Constable Mount like a bobbing Switzerland fixed between the young and old. She cut an intriguing figure, not quite seeming to belong somewhere so ordinary; like someone had dropped her from some other life Cassie hadn’t seen outside of tv shows.

Cassie watched her discretely for a second from the anonymous position of the door. The woman sat straight backed, knees pressed together all the way down to her trainers. Her clothes were non-descript enough Cassie supposed; just blue jeans and a white shirt with a grey jumper and yet the woman seemed to have that rare talent for making even the simplest ensemble look good. She looked good.

Mount shifted just a little as the baby gave an ear splitting scream that made everyone wince and her face caught the artificial light from above. Cassie swallowed convulsively.

God. What kind of witch craft had blessed this woman with a face that would have been better suited to some kind of Italian masters sketches? Those ridiculous high cheekbones, those full lips, those eyes. Cassie could quite understand how this woman had developed her reputation. It was more than her looks, she had an aura about her. If Cassie was Mount Cassie reflected dolefully, she’d probably also do her very best to never be vertical again.

“Patience Mount?’ Cassie was proud that her voice didn’t sound any different to her usual. Her heart did speed up a little though when Mounts head flicked up from where she’d apparently been studying her knees with some interest and unfolded herself gracefully from her chair. Tall. Cassie had always had a thing for tall women. ‘Just through here”. Cassie mumbled, retreating back into the safety of her office.

The walk across the room seemed to take much longer with Mount following from behind. Cassie could feel the woman’s eyes on her back and every step seemed magnified in its awkwardness as she because keenly over aware of every limbs movements. She’d never have the same grace as Mount and Cassie resented that a little bit.

By the time Cassie had rounded her way back behind the security of her desk Mount was closing the door quietly and eyeing the room warily; taking in the chair near the wall and the one closer to the desk looking uncertain.

“Sit anywhere you like.” Cassie prompted, wincing internally as she heard her voice too loud in her own ears. Mount nodded without speaking and chose, to Cassies slight disappointment, the chair furthest away from the desk.

She sat down heavily, Cassie observed her with interest, like someone fortifying themselves before completing an unwelcome task. Well, that wasn’t unusual in itself. Lots of people came to the clinic for all manner of reasons and not all of them came without a level of coercion. Mount had a reason to attend today.

She wanted to return to work and needed Cassie to sign her form off at the request of her superior. She hadn’t sought this external parties input and from their short phone call two days previously Mount wasn’t entirely motivated to engage in counselling.

For a few minutes no one spoke. Cassie watched the woman sit very still as she waited for Mount to open the dialogue. This was her meeting after all and Cassie was here to listen, not direct. When the silence had spread out for another five minutes however the air was definitely beginning to crust at the edges a bit and Cassie decided she’d better be the first to breach the gap.

“So Patience,’ Cassie coughed politely to indicate they were about to begin. ‘Do you mind if I call you Patience?”

“Whatever you like.” Mounts voice was calm and emotionless. She kept her gaze fixed on her lap and Cassie realised with a pang of disappointment that the woman wasn’t going to be as easy as she’d hoped.

“I’d like to call you by whatever name makes you feel most comfortable.”

“Patience is fine ms Young.”

“Oh feel free to call me Cassie.” Cassie trilled breezily. Mount pursed her lips.

“Cassie.” She corrected tonelessly.

“It’s lovely weather we’ve been having isn’t it?” Cassie plumped for a bland opener and then recalled the torrential rain that had hit Poplar over the last week.

“Lovely.” Mount agreed neutrally although she checked her watch slyly as she spoke.

“So Patience,’ bright and breezy that was the thing. Cassie just had to show Mount this could be a positive experience and then perhaps if that worked they could move on to... other topics. ‘We’re here today to discuss your well being currently. How would you say you’re feeling?”

“I thought that was what you’re supposed to tell me?” Mount spoke with just a little bit of challenge. It surprised Cassie.

“Oh no.’ Cassie laughed, ‘of course that’s not what I’m supposed to do. This is just a conversation between us in a safe space to talk about anything that might be bothering you.”

“Anything?’ Mount seemed to be considering this for a moment. ‘Well,’ She began slowly, ‘I mean if it’s anything then I’ve recently had my mop broken. Other than that though I can’t really think of any more issues. This might be a shorter conversation that I thought.”

“A mop?” Cassie repeated, non plussed.

“It was a good brand.’ Mount sighed in mock sadness, ‘I like cleaning implements that do a good job.”

“Err, right,’ Cassie cleared her throat importantly and then leaned forward across the desk to look at Mount who looked away. ‘So... How do you think you’re coping in the aftermath of events Patience? Your inspector is keen to gauge your mental state before allowing you back to work.”

“Fine.’ Mount chewed the inside of her cheek as she spoke to her knees. ‘Feel free to write that down.’ She nodded at the desk emphatically. ‘Fine. With a capital F if you don’t mind. Keen to get on with things, getting back to work all that good stuff.”

“Your works important to you I take it?”

“I’m only in it for the uniform.” Mounts knee jostled as though she was fighting the urge to move it up and down.

“I’m sorry?” Cassie blinked. Mount chewed harder on her cheek.

“Yes.’ Mount sounded strained, almost embarrassed. ‘My job matters to me.”

“Then let’s just go through a few questions shall we, can’t have you brave boys in blue running around without support can we?” Cassie hummed at her own joke.

“No.’ Mount answered quietly, clenching her hands tightly on her lap, ‘apparently not.”

“Shall we do a run down of the basics. How have you been sleeping recently Patience?”

“Eight hours a night regular, same as always.” Mounts answer was swift as though she’d been expecting it. It sounded too rehearsed to Cassies ears.

“Eight hours with two children, are you a magician?” Cassie risked an indulgent smile, trying to tease the woman out of herself. It didn’t seem to work; Mount merely frowned.

“I wasn’t aware my home life was included in the assessment for work.” She asked it stiltedly, a strain of protective mother appearing in her voice intriguingly. Cassie had understood that Mount hadn’t taken on the girls until fairly recently.

“We like to be thorough.” Cassie breezed. Tapping her pen loudly on the desk top.

“Do you?’ Mounts eyebrow raised and her mouth twitched just for a second, the hint of a double entendre peaking out behind her words before she seemed to remember herself and shrugged self consciously. ‘We muddle along together; me and my girls. Sleeps not really a problem in my house. It’s the getting up that’s the issue; the trick is to use the crow bar when the alarms been turned off more than six times.”

Cassies brain stuttered as the woman met her gaze fully for the first time. The eyes looked almost accusatory at her questions and Cassie blushed, unusually intimidated by the frank expression aimed at her. To hide her discomfort she fiddled with the papers on her desk.

“Norfolk constabulary takes the welfare of its officers very seriously. I noted that Detective Inspector Ursula has requested this return to Work meeting on your behalf to ensure you’re ready and well. No one wants to rush you back to active duty before you feel ready for it after all.”

“I’m hardly rushed.’ Mount spoke through gritted teeth. ‘It’s been nearly seven weeks. I’m ready to get back to real life.”

“You were initially prescribed ten weeks as I understand it.” Cassie pointed out gently.

“Ten weeks is too long.’ Mounts feet moved as though trying to prove their mistresses need to move about. ‘I’m used to being busy.”

“How have you been coping physically with the results of your experiences? The loss of your finger?” Cassie slid a slow eye down Mounts torso, taking in the gently rising slopes of her chest to the woman’s lap where her left hand covered her right protectively. The knuckles flexed as their owner took in the fact she was being watched.

“Occupational health have already signed me off. It doesn’t affect my ability to perform my duties.” Mount said stiffly, her voice flatter now, more firm.

“I realise this but I’m asking from a psychological stand point.’ Cassie said as gently as she could manage. ‘Sometimes individuals... who have suffered a loss of limb-“

“One finger.’ Mount interrupted irritably as though she’d had this conversation one too many times of late. ‘It was only one finger, it can hardly be considered a limb. Nub. Loss of nub. At the very most.”

“Well nub or not’ Cassie tried not to smirk at the stupid name, ‘the circumstances of the loss... Given the traumatic experiences you’ve suffered I’m concerned you may be experiencing psychosomatic symptoms Patience.”

“Psychosomatic? Sounds like a spare car part.” Mounts shoulders relaxed just a little but the smile was gone like she was easing into the conversation now. Cassie decided to take this as a good sign.

“Phantom limb pain can affect many amputees; electric shocks, burning sensations, numbness, excessive pins and needles in the hand?”

“Nope.’ Mount smacked her lips defiantly on this one word as though relishing the saying of it. ‘Just the loss of a burgeoning glove modelling career to mourn I’m afraid.”

“Glove modelling?” Cassie was momentarily confused once more.

“Ah,’ Mount shrugged again, ‘it’s not really a loss. You know what it’s like; once you’ve tried on one glove they’re much of a muchness.”

“You’re playing with me.” If there was one thing you could say about Cassie it was that she had a knack for pointing out the obvious when it turned up in front of her.

“I may never play the harp again either,’ Mount winked conspiratorially. It was a fleeting movement but she had definitely just winked, the vision made Cassies brain melt again even as the woman went on, ‘but everyone has their cross to bear I suppose.”

“You play the harp?” Cassie couldn’t seem to get on top of things.

“I’ve been told I’m good at strumming.” Mount replied smiling a thin smile.

“You have a sense of humour.”

“Not at all,’ Mount winked again and Cassie wondered if Mount had realised it was distracting her. ‘I really have been told that by more than one person.”

“Well,’ with a mental kick up her own arse Cassie forced herself to focus. ‘I think we should move on to the experiences you’ve been through.”

“So soon?” Mount was looking back at her hands again, the moment of humour drifting away.

“You don’t want to talk about what’s happened to you?”

“No I don’t mind, just had a few more finger jokes stored up to use that’s all.” Mounts lips twitched but she kept her eyes on her lap. The fingers flexed.

“How do you think that you’ve been affected by overall events?” Cassie had once been called a dog with her inexplicable trait of not losing her original train of thought. She didn’t much feel like she’d deserved that at this moment.

“I haven’t.” Mount answered shortly. Her good hand twitched over her bad one again, Cassie noted she held her index and ring finger keeping the middle tightly encased and hidden.

“I confess I struggle to believe you can be coping without any issues considering what you’ve been through.” Cassie felt finally back in control, Mount swallowed for a moment still not looking Cassie in the eye. She’d been stabbed too Cassie knew; it was surely impossible for someone to walk away from things like that without emotional scars.

Mount leaned back in her chair and aimed a lazy raised eyebrow at Cassie.

“Do you?” She drawled.

“How have you been sleeping?” Cassie tried again to move on, to gain a realistic answer.

“I just told you eight hours a night.” Mounts sounded weary now. Almost like a tired person who definitely wasn’t having eight hours might sound when quizzed Cassie thought smugly.

“Are you experiencing any bad dreams at all, absences or fatigue in the day time? Changes in diet?”

“I eat like a horse and I don’t dream.” Again Mount was too dogmatic to be believed easily.

“Never?” Cassie drummed her fingers on the desk. Everyone dreamed.

“Well,’ Mount took a deep breath as she thought this through in her head. ‘Nothing to do with all that. I had a dream last night where I was making sandwiches.”

“Sandwiches?”

“Ham and pickle,’ Mount nodded encouragingly, ‘I hate pickles too. It was terrible but somehow I’ve gotten over it.”

“You seem to be dealing with events very well. Would you say your humour helps you?”

“Me? I think so although I haven’t taken up any stints in front of brick walls yet but yeah... I’ve been through worse. I know how to deal with these things.” Mount glared at her hands as though daring them or Cassie to disagree.

“You were raised in an...’ Cassie paused flicking through a mental thesaurus of options for this, ‘alternative environment to most I understand.”

“If that’s what my file says.” Mount was flat again. The eyes empty.

“Is the information incorrect in any way?”

“No. It’s probably right, it just doesn’t have any relevance to me now.”

“Not relevant.’ Cassie wanted to laugh but repressed the urge. ‘I understand the man who assaulted you was the same man who was involved in the running of your-“

“You can say the word cult.’ Mount interrupted again sharply, ‘I’ve heard it before.”

“Cult.” Cassie finished with a shiver of revulsion.

“That’s right. He was.”

“That must have brought back some painful memories for you.”

“Not that I’ve noticed.” Mount airily picked at some invisible lint on her jeans, her voice held no inflection whatsoever.

“I’m afraid I don’t believe you Patience.” Cassie felt it was time to pull out her more forthright attitude and in a way it did work. Mount looked up briefly.

“That’s a shame Cassie. It really is.”

“How has this affected your personal relationships? It’s important at times like this that you have a strong support system around you.”

“What do you mean personal relationships.” Mount asked suspiciously like she felt as though she was being trapped into something.

“I mean people close to you.” Cassie qualified patiently watching Mount as closely as she dared.

“I have... my girls and my mother and my friends. I’m fine.” Fine, there was that word again.

Some people who said it actually were fine. In certain circumstances however those letters tended to spell out fucked up, insecure, neurotic and emotional. Cassie could guess which camp Mount would prefer to be in.

“Your mother?’ This brought Cassie up short and she momentarily cursed Calebs crap case management. How could he forget to put that into the file? ‘I apologise Patience I thought I’d read that your mother had passed away.”

“Adoptive mother and her partner.”

“You’re close.” This wasn’t posed as a question because it didn’t seem to Cassie that Mount enjoyed questions very much.

“Very; she’s in the midst of planning her wedding at the moment.’ Mounts eyes softened a few shades. ‘She loves a project; it’s the teacher in her.”

“A wedding?’ Cassie felt emboldened by the slight thawing of Mounts demeanour and pressed her advantage for more information. ‘That’s a big change, how have you coped with that emotionally?”

“Emotionally?” Mount became immediately blank, too blank to be believable. She was a cop, cops were good at blank looks.

“It must be difficult seeing your mother marry someone so late in your life.” Cassie cursed herself for pressing to quick. Ros would have been better at this than her, she was good at cracking hard shells.

“Not really, I’d get her in the divorce after all.” Mounts retort sounded forced, the face pointed towards Cassie remained stoic.

“Are you concerned about divorce?” Cassie smiled cajolingly and a tiny line appeared in Mounts smooth forehead in apparent confusion.

“No. As long as my mother’s happy.” Mount continued to frown as she spoke as though Cassies question was absurd.

“You don’t feel your own happiness comes into play in these circumstances?” Cassie could sense the woman’s interest draining from the room.

“Not particularly.’ Mount sniffed a shade irritably. ‘She’s not marrying me is she, I just want them to be happy. Besides she’s much more optimistic since she’s been getting laid.”

“Right’ Cassie felt it was probably worth doing a bit of digging at this point. When in Rome. ‘And what about significant others for you?” Cassie felt a stab of guilt even as she asked. It was a question she’d usually ask a client but she wasn’t usually as interested with the answer, for a heartbeat she worried she was preying on the woman but she shook it off quickly. Mount didn’t seem to be interested in having many emotions, Cassie wouldn’t mind emotionless entanglements. It suited her.

“Not... Not at the moment.” Mount fidgeted in her chair like the subject made her uncomfortable which didn’t quite tally up with the reputation Cassie had heard about so much. Maybe she really hated any sort of link to partners?

“At the moment? It must be lonely for you raising your girls without anyone there to lend a hand.”

“Or even a nub.” Mount muttered absentmindedly at her hand and then realised she’d spoken out loud. She finally looked back up as though catching herself. ‘I don’t... I’m not wanting to date at the minute that’s all. I just want to focus on the girls.”

“You seem very proud of them.” Cassie tried for a different way in, noting that family seemed to be the woman’s weak spot.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Mounts jaw tensed slightly, defiantly braced for some sort of remonstration perhaps.

“It’s a lot of responsibility being a parent,’ Cassies sister hardly had a second to herself and her youngest boy was nearly eight. Cassie could only imagine the pressures of two kids with difficult histories. ‘How do you feel you’ll juggle those responsibilities with work?”

“What are you thinking I’m going to do? Nail the kids to the wall while I’m out?” Mounts lips twitched again, a slight sarcastic drawl entering her tone as she finally released her hands from each other and folded her arms tightly over her chest. A defensive stance.

“I was just suggesting that the hours can be changeable within CID.” Cassie responded quickly, sensing her window of opportunity shrinking by the minute now.

“My friend recently started living with us so she’s helping with childcare and my mother’s partner lives a street over and works at the youngest school. The eldest is sixteen and she knows how to babysit. We’ll work it out.” Mounts voice was clipped as though she resented sharing even the tiniest personal detail to a stranger.

“You sound very certain.” Cassie observed carefully.

“I’m very certain. I’m ready to go back to work and would appreciate your support to do so.”

“I’m still concerned about how you might be coping emotionally. You seem quite closed off.” Understatement really but Cassie doubted she’d get much more and she couldn’t really see a reason to prolong Mounts sickness. A person who wanted to work and offered reasonable explanations could hardly be denied.

“I wouldn’t say that,’ Mount looked down at her lap, her eyes tight. ‘I’m just not willing to let the bad guy win.”

“I’d still like you to feel free to stay in touch.’ Cassie hesitated as she looked down at her desk. There were two cards there one with her number on it and one without it. ‘We run a free fortnightly support group for survivors of abuse at Poplar community centre on a Thursday evening six to eight. You would be more than welcome to join us if you wanted to.”

“Group survivors?’ Mounts entire body showed a general distrust of the label. ‘What does that include; do you teach each other how to build rafts out of leg hair in quiet moments?”

“It’s an open and safe space to speak with others who may offer you insight in recovery.” Cassie said a trite defensively. The group was a positive one and she disliked people who mocked the brave souls who attended. Mount looked back at her hands reflectively.

“I’m not really a big sharer.” She said as though the words were being dragged from her and Cassie nodded understandingly.

“It might take some time to be ready for disclosing personal traumas in group settings but if you ever felt that you needed it we could arrange 1:1 counselling sessions that might suit you better at this stage.”

“1:1? Like they put the perps on suicide watch in the cells?” Mounts eyes narrowed again.

“Not quite, I would be more than willing to help you if you wanted to talk about things.” Cassie was a firm believer in the power of conversation. Quite frankly if more people had the skills in place to talk about their feelings there would be less issues in the world.

“What if I don’t like talking about things?” Mount queried, her fingers twitching again where they were firmly tucked beneath her armpits and Cassies features softened.

“We can work on techniques designed to help with anxiety, have you ever heard of mindfulness Patience?”

“Oh that, yeah I’ve seen the fliers in the office. I never was very good at colouring in.’ Mounts eyes dimmed. ‘Never had the practice growing up.”

“Well... The offers there if you want it and here-‘ With shaking fingers Cassie made a split second decision and passed over the card with her number scrawled on it. She held her breath as she watched Mount take it dubiously with her good hand. Long hand, long fingers. Pianist fingers. ‘Feel free to contact me on that number.’ Cassie swallowed nervously, ‘I’m up most hours.”

Mount gazed down at the card as though she’d never seen one before nodding slowly and standing up. Cassie hastened to follow even as she registered that Mount was nearly a foot taller than her so she had to tilt her face upwards to look the blonde in the eye. To her disappointment Mount didn’t meet it.

“Thank you, I’ll bear that offer in mind. Does this mean I can return to work?”

“I can’t see why not. You seem very well.” Cassie let a little bit of enthusiasm leak out of her at this. Well wasn’t the right word for this woman but she was powerless to fit another to her.

“Excellent, thank you, I appreciate your help Cassie... But I need to go home now, unnail the girls from the wall and so on.” Mount really did smile now, pulling Cassies card more firmly into the curve of her palm.

Cassie found she couldn’t take her eyes off the woman as she nodded politely once more and turned to walk away. Those legs! For a moment Cassie let herself half imagine what could happen if this woman rang her number at two in the morning. What might Cassie say to her, what Mount might say to Cassie...

Buoyed by this tittilating picture Cassie bid the Constable on her way and breezed through her next three appointments. None of those captured her in quite the same way; one new widower, one girl with emerging personality disorder dragged to the clinic by a belligerent mother and one gentleman suffering from depression and anxiety.

After she was done with them Cassie was left with her daily paperwork to sort through. Reports waited for no woman and Ros often teased Cassie just how long the work took her. Ros would probably be on her way home by this time. Cassie made a mental note to call her when she got in like she’d said she would.

True to form and Ros’s ridicule Cassie was running late by the time she locked her office and stepped out into the now dim waiting area some five hours after Mount had left the building. Cassie didn’t usually give the empty waiting room much notice when she rushed through it and didn’t know why she kicked her heels so much today.

Maybe a part of her already suspected what she might find. Maybe the sensible side of her that actually quite liked Clark slip ons did have its uses.

It was surely that side of her than noticed the nearly empty bin. It was surely that part of her that noticed the thin stripe of orange that she recognised immediately because she had spent a good two hours debating the colour with Ros before she’d ordered her cards from Vista print.

The bin was usually emptied just after lunch and the only thing at the bottom was a small balled up wad of card. White card. With an orange stripe.

Cassie paused when she noticed it and then hesitated before walking over to kneel awkwardly down to the level of the bin. It was awkward because the thick strap of her work bag unbalanced her so that the carpet bit into her knees. Her hands shook as she lifted up the wad and unfolded it.

Her eyes stung in humiliation as she read her own name and number discarded carelessly.

It seemed that Patience Mount would not be calling her after-all.

Chapter Text

Daniel Coolages hands seemed to blur as they rubbed frantically up and down, up and down, up and down along the wiry neck of his latest machine. He’d only just stopped making it but he wasn’t sure whether it was truly finished yet. He hoped it was, his arms hurt but he knew he couldn’t stop until he was told to do so. If he stopped before he was told to then anything could happen; the world could end. He didn’t quite know yet what the machine was going to do either. The voices sending him instructions hadn’t got that far yet. He knew what he wished it would do though.

What They had told him was that he would need wires for this one and they’d been so insistent about this particular fact that he’d known he wouldn’t be able to say no and the ensuing dilemma had crippled him for a good few hours. The only wires he had were imbedded in his ground floor flats walls and ceilings. He’d had to dig extremely hard into the plaster to pry them out and the plaster had made so much dust in the air he kept having to cough but the voices were not to be ignored.

In the beginning, when Daniel had been at school and had friends and went round to peoples houses for tea, Daniel had often tried ignoring the voices when they gave him orders. He hardly tried now, they were whispering to him even when he tried to sleep these days so in the end he’d done what they told him to do. It saved a lot of time.

He’d long learned that that was the only thing he could do even if people got angry at him because of what he’d done. When he had hurt that little girl years ago and did the very bad things to her they’d said he was evil for it. It wasn’t him he’d told them all and they hadn’t listened. No one ever listened to Daniel even if they said that they did. Not his mother or his social worker or that fucking bitch psychologist. They had all thought he was evil for the things he’d done and it wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t fair.

And now they had all been banished and the voices were so loud some days he couldn’t even hear himself breathe. The voices filled his world and blunted the outside spaces Daniel didn’t occupy. They made his head ache and ache and ache. He wished they would speak more softly like they used to when he was in the hospital.

Daniel had recently thought to try and find a volume button in his hair somewhere in a burst of inspiration. Radios had volume dials and buttons, he’d reasoned, so maybe the voices in his head did to. He’d shaved his hair off to do it as well which he knew would make his mother worry if she found out. He’d fumbled as he did it and tried to make the hair as neat as he could with the voices shouting at him to stop and then he’d used the sharpest knife he had to probe along the ridges of his skull. He’d spent at least half an hour at the task and still hadn’t found a way to make the voices quieter. All that had happened was that Daniel had a worse headache than before, the voices got even more demanding and all this sticky brown stuff had made his shirt the wrong colour.

Brown.

That wasn’t right. Blood was red so it couldn’t be blood could it? The voices told Daniel it was a trick and he believed them. People were always playing tricks on Daniel.

Dyes that must be it. The CIA must have put a dye in his skin the same night they broke in and installed the chip inside his brain to torment him with the voices.

Daniel had had the chip for years now. That’s how the voices got in. He’d tried telling the doctors that when they forced him into the hospital, he’d screamed at them to say that he needed a proper scan at the real hospital but after the third one they wouldn’t let him go anymore; just fobbed him off about it being part of his “delusions”.

They were probably all working for the CIA in the first place; trying to stop Daniel from completing his destiny. They had even tried to get into Daniels head, tried to make Daniel believe they were right in saying that he was sick. They’d doctored the scans that they took as well and shown them to Daniel over and over again as though they thought they could make him believe their lies. That bitch had shown them to Daniel so often that he’d hated her the most.

But he’d got his own back on her at least.

The blank picture of a skull X-ray that they’d shown him definitely wasn’t Daniels head. Daniels head had a chip in it and the pictures they showed him didn’t. It must, he’d concluded, therefore be someone else’s head. Some other poor prisoner they’d doped with drugs and forced to sit in rooms with mad people.

Daniels hands really hurt, the plaster wall had broken when he punched it enough times but the force had ripped his fingers open too. He could see his bones now. They were brown and yellow and sticky. Luckily the voices were blocking his nerve endings today. He couldn’t feel the pain he surely must feel if he was normal. He had to keep making things, he had to carry on working. Daniels long nails gushed blood messily into the wet newspaper that hugged the confusing hodge podge of metal rigging and wires in front of him.

Newspaper.

The sight derailed his thoughts like fish seeing a shiny lure in open water, it sent them tumbling off into another unwanted direction. It was the caption of the newspaper. The little story underneath the big one everyone was supposed to read.

“Well respected psychologist found dead in her home.”

And then a picture of the woman.

Daniel knew the story very well. He had copies and copies of this story. They’d been turning up for weeks and Daniel didn’t know who was doing it. He would use his machine to make that stop first.

That stupid woman’s face made the voices scream. The picture made them so noisy and he couldn’t stop finding it everywhere. He’d even slipped on a pile of the pictures in his hall the other day and he hadn’t put them there. He was sure of it. They just appeared like someone was playing with him.

That’s why he needed his machine.

He needed people to stop. Daniels eyes tracked the woman’s empty face again and his stomach hurt. Pah! Fucking newspapers!

Daniel didn’t trust the papers. None of them were honest or fair. They told lies, Lies! LIES! The bitch had died in her car; Daniel had seen her head leaning against the glass. Her dead face all asleep but not. The newspapers never reported things properly; it infuriated the voices.

He’d made doubly sure everyone would know the true facts soon enough though. Everyone would know his truth and then they’d fucking be sorry! The voices had told him so. The voices were going to show Daniel the path to glory, were going to show him how to make machines big enough to make people listen to him and then all of those doctors and social workers and mothers and nurses and any other fucking cunt who crossed Daniel would be sorry for troubling him, doubting him. When he was crowned king of England by the CIA all of the people in the world would read his words and love him.

Daniel even had a personal manifesto just for this soon to be realised event because the voices had told him to write one... at least he thought he did. Daniel blinked through crusty, tired eyes at the bomb-site that was his home, if only he could remember where he’d put it... Daniel looked at his hand confusedly, already forgetting what he was supposed to be doing.

The voices weren’t telling him what the machine was for.

No matter though. They’d tell him eventually.

In his manifesto Daniel had very clearly noted which papers could be trusted and which couldn’t. The voices had told him which ones they were so he knew he was right. He’d already drafted his acceptance speech when they gave him the resignation letters of all the people’s careers he would end. Not just the paper people either; his fucking bitch social worker was getting it too.

She kept trying to come round for cups of tea. She said she only wanted to talk about things but Daniel knew she was spying on him really to see if he’d been taking all those evil pills the hospital forced him to take. The ones that made the voices quiet and him tired beyond belief.

Daniel had flushed those pills down the toilet on his first night in his flat. Then he’d gone out to celebrate his release. That had been months ago and he’d celebrated very hard indeed. That was why the O’Donnell crew kept coming round here demanding payment. Daniel didn’t have any money to give them, only what the good man gave him. The good man who’d got Daniel out and given Daniel this flat said he should use his money to buy food. The voices hated being interrupted by buying food but they liked the drugs the O’donnells sold. It was confusing.

Daniel wouldn’t answer his door to them anymore. Fuck them all! Didn’t they all know that Daniel was going to be a king? Daniel would own the world someday when he’d made his machine. He would make them all listen.

Genius.

Daniel was a genius. Special. The voices told him so when they were being nice. The man who had given him this flat, set him free, had told him so too. He had to remember that and just to make sure that he did he had written it in big bold letters many times on his walls and floor and sofa whenever inspiration struck and these days inspiration struck so hard and so often it was almost hard to keep up with the brilliance of his own mind. The voices were busy, had forced Daniel to be busy too. He hadn’t rested in days and he felt amazing for it.

Who needed sleep the voices asked?

‘Not Daniel’ Daniel had replied helplessly.

The whirling sphere that balanced between his ears and projected truth and honour in every exhale was a heavy crown.

Daniel had written that line in his manifesto several times too. He’d even underlined it just in case the retarded average joe on the street didn’t understand how wise he was. It was needed. People were so stupid. So wrapped in stupid uptight rules. They were always trying to deny Daniels brilliance.

Daniel was clever. Daniel was special. Daniel was clever, Clever, CLEVER!

Daniel was... Cold?

A soft breeze was tickling his ears as though someone had opened a window.

But Daniel didn’t open the windows ever.

Daniel blinked, staring at his machine, suddenly afraid that he might have made it work without realising. The voices said nothing in answer and Daniels eyes drooped in undeniable exhaustion as he shivered, the brown stuff seething along the frayed collar of his shirt while his bones peeked through the burst and ruined frames of his skin.

His hands moved up and down, up and down, up and down. His fingers dribbled brown stuff that couldn’t be blood because blood was red.

And then...

It happened very quickly, so quickly that Daniel Coolages exhausted mind almost didn’t register it. There was a blinding flash of light that blurred the room and then Daniel flinched as something hard hit him in the neck and bounced away along the scarred floor beside him. Daniel didn’t feel the pain but he did hear the clunk as something plastic wobbled on the hard surfaces that littered the floor.

He clutched his machine more tightly to his chest. Had the CIA found out what he was making? Had he made it properly this time so they finally had to step in?

Licking his sore lips, Daniel waited for an instruction from the voices as to what he should do but nothing came. For a few minutes Daniel was paralysed by indecision as he blinked into the unknown without even a voice to guide him.

There came another sucking sound and then another flash from the hall this time. Was he being raided?

Frightened, dazed and lost Daniel suddenly realised he wasn’t cold anymore. There was a light in front of him.

Clumsily, Daniel crawled towards the new source of light, his hands leaving sticky brown stains on the floor, his eyes burning. Too quickly, he came across the source of the disturbance; a big plastic coke bottle that had rolled over until it stopped at the foot of his sofa.

This idea confused him? He didn’t understand how it had got into his flat.

Something glimmered inside the bottle, a flashing neon sign to stay away but Daniel wasn’t a person who’d learned to listen to those sort of signs. He had his voices to keep him safe. The bottle was lit by a wick poking out from the neck so that strange white fire belched out, guttering upwards. As Daniel watched the fire reached out with hot fingers to graze the sunken cushions of his sofa. The heat of it forced thick, wavy grey air into the room as the sofa smouldered.

Daniel stared. Enraptured.

Pretty. It was so... Pretty.

Without any fear Daniel reached out to touch the bottle. Were the voices giving him a gift? Sometimes they showed him things like this when they wanted him to be happy, sometimes he saw people walking through the place that weren’t really there. Sometimes that woman turned up and scared him.

His fingers touched the plastic and he heard but didn’t feel the sizzle as the melting cover gave way to his pushing. Something liquid but thicker flooded out of the new hole he’d made and covered Daniels arm and chest. It tickled as it soaked into his naked skin and the flames followed merrily.

Daniel stared down at his arm which was a burning orange and smiled a perfect smile. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t real.

Slowly he sat down properly, his back warm against the burning sofa and watched the flames turn his skin black with interest.

Then he closed his eyes.

He really was tired after all and finally the voices had gone away. He could sleep now. Daniel drifted into the darkness, to a place where there would be no more voices to torment him anymore.

And outside the flat someone stood alone, watching as their fire caught and lifted the whole block of flats into a wall of heat. The watcher stayed for a long time, drinking in the colours of their creation with a satisfied grin on their face.

They made sure to leave before the warning sirens of the fire engines arrived though. They’d been caught once before and wouldn’t be caught again. They had a few more people to attend to first.

Mandy Hester sat fidgeting on her low slung love seat, alone, ensconced in her messy front room. She was a small woman, never having got the knack of growing when she was supposed to. What she lacked in height now though she definitely made up for in sheer presence. Some people said that there was such a thing as too many colours in one outfit Mandy knew but she didn’t get to talk to those kinds of people often and in any case didn’t think their opinions mattered all that much.

Besides, Bertie liked colourful things. Around her neck she wore a back breaking amount of silver necklaces; pendants and amulets and picture filled lockets. Every finger wore at least one ring; bright costume jewellery acrylic and gaudy paste stones.

She’d been wearing them for so long now that her fingers had permanently swelled and dipped where the fat bands of metal usually sat. When she took them off to wash them after work the tan lines made her look like she suffered from some sort of localised vertiligo. Bertie said she looked like she had zebra fingers and loved them.

At least somebody did. Times like this that thought mattered because the man she now waited for, as the old grandfather clock in the corner tick tocked the time away, certainly didn’t love Mandy.

Mandys eyes traced the contours of the familiar wooden time piece. The hulking thing was a bloody bastard to keep going at the best of times and Mandy wasn’t immune to giving it the odd kicking to scrape off the mud from her boots as she bustled through the house on her more hectic days.

It was a rubbish time keeper as clocks went too; a gift from her grandad before he died. Her grandad, ironically had always been a man known for being late, something that had infuriated her grandmother chronically and which now made a bit more sense since she’d received his final gift. She shouldn’t have accepted it really, her mother would have killed him if she’d found out he’d been in touch with her. Mandy wasn’t one to cause trouble in the family but it was just that she remembered it from her childhood and it was a nice memory unmangled from the not nice ones. Mostly she kept the thing wound for the comforting sound it made. Bertie liked it too, it kept his days regular he said and anything that helped Mandy’s boy stay happy was more than welcome to stay in Mandy’s book.

A gust of wind shook through the cottages crooked chimney and the small fire in the grate guttered in its stained prison of iron. For a second the wrinkles in Mandy’s hands stood out in high relief as she shuddered.

The cuckoo clock hooted loudly; all springy mechanics and uncaring bong.

Mandy shivered again even with the fires warmth drying the air around her. The tea in her hands spilled over her shaking fingers and began to stain the busy red weave of her carpet. Mandy hardly noticed, she was too distracted watching the empty doorway to the hall as though she was waiting for something to happen.

10 O Clock she told herself. It was starting to be too late... That meant it wouldn't be much longer now surely? Never before had he been later than midnight. It might... It might mean he wouldn’t come here tonight.

Hope.

It was a good feeling, a good strand of thought to cling on to. The later he arrived the less time he'd have here and the quicker it would all be over with. She'd be fair and square for another month. Her debts paid.

Mandy took a slow drawn out in-breath, the warm air cooling in her mouth and stinging the sensitive backs of her teeth as she did it. Not that it really mattered what time he turned up or how long he stayed for really. The feelings when he was gone were always the same. Always had been, even at the very beginning. Some things never quite faded, the dirt just got worn in deeper. In many ways Mandy had long ago made her peace with the 'arrangement'. Sometimes, though she hated him and herself for it, she’d even managed to find some kind of sick enjoyment in a flash of insanity. Then the hatred would flood in straight afterwards, the self disgust and the shame. Her shame.

One night every month. Payment for the life she lived the rest of the time. It was like bargaining with the devil, she knew that, it didn’t much matter now anyway as she’d committed her soul long ago without hesitation. Although... somehow, Mandy had begun to feel like she was running out of soul these days. In any case, after so long, she did at least know what to do with herself afterwards.

The stiff scrubbing brush and the strong carbolic soap bought just for these moments were even now sat upstairs in her bathroom, hidden under her towel. She'd become very good at washing away his smell. She could do it in twenty minutes if she scrubbed hard enough although the essence of him lingered long afterwards no matter what she did.

God, when she thought about what she’d become she felt hollow inside. The 21 year old woman who danced at parties and grew her hair long wouldn’t recognise her now... But where was he? Mandy licked her dry lips silently. She hated this. She just wanted it over with.

It was always the waiting that tormented her the most. Mandy suspected that he knew that on some level, knew it was the part that scared her most of all and so he took pains to drag it out. To make sure she understood who was in charge.

Probably made him feel powerful.

Mandy scowled at the empty vacuum of the doorway, her hand still gripping her spilled tea cup tremulously. Games. That was all it was; stupid, pointless, games. Mandy had always hated games; she didn’t even let Bertie play boggle anymore. The sounds set her nerves on fire. After all these games weren't necessary; it wasn't like he really needed to hammer home how much power he had over her. That was obvious enough to Mandy sitting like a stranger in her own home.

Mandy tried to distract herself by drinking the remnants of her tea but it was cold. The sugar turning into a lumpy scum at the bottom of the cup where she'd been too absorbed in what was about to happen to pay much attention to something as dreary as tea making. She'd broken the first cup she'd tried to use, it had slipped from her fingers when she heard a car door slam shut outside; convinced he'd arrived. There was an answering cut on her finger where she had opened the hard pad on a particularly sharp shard now that bloomed a small drop of crimson off and on even an hour and half later. She hadn't bothered with a plaster.

The clock hummed to mark the quarter.

Quarter past ten now? Once again hope ballooned in Mandys stomach, maybe he really wouldn't come after all? Maybe he'd finally done what he'd been threatening to do ever since they met and gotten bored of her. Maybe she was being handed a monthly reprieve? Guilt swam its way up her spine as Mandy half imagined some other poor, faceless woman who'd been picked in her stead but she couldn't quite formulate any true pity. She'd been doing this for too long not to wish someone else would take her place just for once.

None the less it was odd. He'd only ever been late a few times over the years.

Mandy sat very erectly in her overstuffed arm chair trying to see why this should be. She hadn't done anything in particular to warrant his absence. They'd hardly even spoken this month now she came to think about it. She avoided him when she could but he usually found a way to see her, to taunt just a bit more.

Despite herself Mandy realised that pulsating sickeningly inside the pink novocaine fog of relief was the faintest blue streaks of disappointment. Mandy fidgeted in her seat, revolted with her own mind and drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair agitatedly. Disappointed that he hadn't shown up?

Pathetic.

She may as well be wearing a collar and answering Pavlov's bells. Although perhaps disappointment wasn't quite the right way to put it. Even the hardest criminal could become worn by repetition couldn't they? It wasn't that she wished he was here but that some internal routine had been changed without her knowledge. It unnerved her. More frightening was the ominous consideration of what this free night might cost her in the long run. What would she be demanded to pay in return for the gift of an untainted evening?
 
Mandy shivered. As if drawn there by something stronger than herself Mandys eyes tumbled from the door to her mantle piece where Lauras picture took pride of place amongst all manner of cracked and re-glued ornaments brought home by an excited Bertie over the years. Laura looked back at Mandy through the thin pane of glass her picture was placed in, her eyes bright, her smile false looking as she tilted her face towards the camera with Mandys scrubby head tucked under her chin.

They'd used that photo in her memorial sheet at the funeral. Mandy had given it to the priest when the event was being organised because no one had any others. Laura didn’t have much in the way of family or friends really and no one had come down for the funeral. Laura would have despised it if she'd known; she’d always used to say that photo made her look dowdy. It hadn’t really though.

Mandy had always made sure the photo was present on nights like this ever since Laura had died just in the faint hope he might notice it and feel an ounce of guilt for his actions. She knew he hated it when Laura was mentioned usually and the thought of Laura watching him as he tore his way through Mandys messy home as if he had the right helped Mandy push through everything that would follow. It was like having her friend back with her. It made Mandy feel just a little more brave.

What would Laura have said if Mandy had ever told her about any of this Mandy wondered?

Of course, Mandy had never told the blonde anything about this arrangement, even though it had been tempting more than a few times. The secret though, Mandy truly hoped, would die with her. Mandy wouldn’t want anyone knowing her business, wouldn’t want people gossiping. Not that Laura would have blamed Mandy if she'd known of course. Of that Mandy was completely certain. She would have been furious definitely, she would have railed at it all in her own peculiar quiet fashion and then she'd have tried to make Mandy go to the police.

And that, only that, had been the reason Mandy hadn't told her friend. Mandy had tried that route once and never again, she still remembered trying to stammer it all out at the sergeants desk while Bertie screamed around her ankles. She remembered too the way the officers eyes slid past her to gaze at her son and then back again; the disbelief and the judgement flashing through the years as it so often did on these evenings and Mandy flushed with embarrassment and shame just as she had back then.

She couldn't do it all again to herself twice.

Besides; she had her boy to think of. If it all came out then they'd have to move somewhere new, Bertie would find it hard to adjust, Mandy might not be able to find a job with such flexible hours. He might lose his funding if they went to a new county. Someone might take Bertie away from her, put him in some home where they wouldn’t care about his favourite colour or the fact he hated cheerios. Someone else would control Mandy’s boys life and she wouldn’t allow it. Not while she breathed air would she let that happen. It was why she had made the deal in the first place.

No, Mandy was stuck where she was in this God awful situation. No escape. Her eyes found Lauras again across the room and then filled with unexpected tears. Laura smiled as unreachable and fixed as the glass she stood behind.

What Mandy wouldn’t give to hear her friend make her laugh again.

Mandy was so lonely these days; it wasn’t like work was safe to make friends in. Laura had been a happy accident and even if she hadn't ever told Laura everything it had still been good to have someone to talk to during break and Laura always seemed to know the right thing to say to make Mandy laugh. Mandy missed laughing until she cried. She missed the company and the warmth of another human being who asked for nothing but companionship. Laura had been lonely too Mandy always thought though she chose never to pry.

They’d both kept their secrets.

The clock hummed again. Half past.

Well, that was long enough.

Mandy heaved herself to her feet decisively and walked slowly to the kitchen, cup in hand. She may as well wash up. Didn't seem like he was coming now. She usually saved the chores until he left, in one part hoping the mess might annoy him enough that he didn't linger and for another it gave her mind something to think about once he'd gone. When she was busy forcing herself not to break down.

The kitchen was a jumble of colours and styles. Bertie had a magpies eye for anything shiny and Mandy had never developed the knack to deny him something that made him happy. The old fridge buzzed loudly until she kicked it on the way past. Bloody thing was so noisy sometimes you couldn’t hear yourself think.

The various papers stuck to the front of the fridge fluttered at the slight movement. Primary coloured pictures draped in loopy handwriting obviously drawn with a great deal of care. There was all manner of art there, some so old it crinkled at the corners and others as new as last week.

Mandy loved them all no matter the quality and Bertie would stand and watch as she tacked his work to the fridge looking proud every single time. He’d be home tomorrow morning probably bringing something else he’d created in his absence. It had been hard to set up the respite care one night a month and they’d both hated the seperation but it had been necessary.

Bertie was 18 now and although his mind might not be that age he was still a young man with his own views on things. Mandy hadn’t liked the idea of him getting out of bed and seeing anything once he could open the stair-gates. She didn’t want to confuse or scare her boy and it was only one night a month that she couldn’t protect either of them from.

He’d settled quite well into his routine now, even started mentioning the disco they put on every other month. He wanted a yellow shirt for it; Mandy had meant to pick one up at the charity shop last time she was there but she’d been busy. There’d been-

There was a pile of dirty dishes and cutlery waiting for her in the sink, Mandy dropped her cup to join them in the washing up bowl and ran the tap loudly to drown out the nagging whispers in her head that worried about what ifs on auto pilot.

The cup bobbed in the vacuum of water as a sharp knife circled the rim of a plate.

When the water wasn’t loud enough she hummed to herself, barely restraining herself from singing. The hope flared and fled in turn as she yo yo’d between fear and happiness.

That was her error. She made herself so loud that she couldn’t hear herself think or the sound of the front door opening when it did. She only knew she wasn’t alone when a hand wrapped around her waist from behind.

It made her jump, the second cup of the evening smashed on the bottom of the bowl and spread wet pottery through the suds. Her eyes caught on the glinting tip of the knife.

When it was over she’d have to use a sieve to get it all out.

Her hand gripped the cusp of the side tightly as her thoughts yearned for the feel of the knifes handle.

The hand at her waist squeezed meaningfully.

When it was all over-

Patsy Mount stood poised and lonely on the precipice of a rickety bridge slung up between two cliffs. It should here be explained that this was not at all a nice bridge but, then again, it wasn’t meant to be. Bridges slung across two cliff tops are rarely referred to in travel guides for their warm handshakes and spectacular geographic views of fallen Sherpas. Somewhere far below her feet dark water gurgled merrily over sharp rocks. Above her head was a forgot me not blue sky. It was a middle place. The centre of the seesaw that never touched the air or felt the ground.

Patsy stood where she’d always stood. Trapped somewhere between the light and dark. Alone.

In her arms she carried a huge book that was attached with great iron chains to her shoulders and waist. In the non existent breeze the iron clinked against her legs. The book weighed far too much for its size and she’d been carrying it for far too long. It belonged to her, it was what made her her to some people and she’d learned to live with it, she just didn’t have to be happy about that fact.

And boy oh boy was she unhappy about it some days. She wished she could have had some kind of vote on this story, she wished it didn’t have to be hers.

She wanted to drop it over the inviting edge to the water below, the temptation was more than a little inviting this height up but she knew she couldn’t. It would take a bigger sacrifice than she could give. It would take all of her to let it go entirely.

Ahead of her on the other side of the swaying bridge was the dark mouth of a cave and all she could do was blunder forward. Perhaps there would be another way to freedom? Someone might have the key if only she could keep going.

It was hard though.

It was always so ridiculously hard to keep moving and especially here where there was no one to help her carry such heavy things. Patsy was sick of carrying heavy things. It was hers and hers alone to bare and the weight was cutting her apart. The chains dug soul deep and she was so tired.

The bridge shook and quaked all around her as she staggered onwards and Patsy groaned as she forced herself across. The water seemed to be rising. The walls booming.

By the time she’d reached the tunnel she was sweating. Her hair stuck to her forehead and the heavy things were somehow heavier. Her chest was burning, her hand and the road still went ever on and on.

The cave gave her no rest, no quarter or inch because it was a cave and caves aren’t known for their hospitality either. As she stepped panting into the gloom the ground below her feet quaked with an eerie echoing thump. The noise went on and on all around her as Patsy limped deeper into the darkness and all the while the heavy things she carried grew heavier and Patience Mount grew weary

There was someone here somewhere. There had to be. Someone she had been waiting for. There had to be.

It didn’t seem to surprise her when she came across the door; it reminded her of another one. A spinning bead on a wire and a screaming baby. She wanted to open it, she wanted to tell someone she needed help.

The chains snared around her wrist and tried to force her hand to stay at her side. All those damn heavy things weighing her down... But she hadn’t come this far to be stopped by the weight her own story. She’d waited for this. The door swung open at the lightest scrape and Patsy collapsed inside. It was light in here and someone really was there. Finally.

Someone was running towards her. Someone was here. Here for her.

Patsy looked up into the face she’d been searching for in the dark. The face merely puckered as hands pulled at the chains.

“Let them go.” The face ordered.

Patsy couldn’t do as she was told. The heavy things didn’t work like that, you couldn’t let them go just because you were told to.

“I talked to a woman about this today.’ Patsy said, she smelled home on the air, ‘I wished it was you.”

“Pats?”

Patsy couldn’t move, she couldn’t speak, the hand was slipping from hers. The heavy things were crowding round her, smothering the light as darkness flooded through the door, following her always. Delia was disappearing and Patsy couldn’t move.

“What are the wages of sin?”

Another voice loomed from the dark and Patsy hated it. Hated that voice. The heavy things were white hot and slipping from her grip to crush her stomach. Patsy couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see anything but swirling black. Delia had been right there and she was gone and Patsy had to find her. The voice was screaming.

“What are the wages of sin?”

Something swung in the air out of the darkness towards Patsy. Something shiny and heavy and it hit Patsy squarely in the chest; slicing through her skin. Slicing through her lungs and her heart and tearing everything-

“No!”

Patsy sat up with a yell, her hand outstretched protectively, still caught reaching to defend what she couldn’t defend herself from.

Sweat. She was sweating and her heart- She was in the dark place, Abraham- She had to- The girls!

Patsy sucked in air as she tried to understand where she was, steel bands were clutching at her chest. She was back in the dark place, she was dying, she couldn’t-

HOME!

Home. She was home. Her home. She was safe. The girls were safe. Just a dream.

Patsy reached out blindly to touch the soft cotton of her duvet with her right hand just to prove it to herself. All around her the murky shapes lost their edges. In the gloom of the night Patsy squinted at her dresser, her wardrobe, the wooden beam of her bed frame. The subtleties of her home. Her home. Not the dark place. She felt the give of her mattress beneath her body as sense prevailed. Vital muscles uncoiled and she realised her pyjamas were soaked through with sweat. Slowly, she pulled back her hand, feeling the empty space where her middle finger should be.

Dream. It was a dream. Not real. She had to calm down, someone might hear. Her racing thoughts surged as they hammered her mind hurriedly into a solid mass once again. She’d been getting a fair bit of practice at this recently and she squeezed her eyes closed to help the unyielding footsteps of progress.

Stupid. It had been that stupid counselling session this afternoon, it had brought it all back. She’d still been thinking about it when she’d got into bed. It had taken far too much control not to crack in the ridiculously chirpy woman’s office. How are you sleeping? What kind of question was that to ask someone anyway? Wasn’t even like she’d asked for a meeting anyway. It was all Ursulas doing.

Urusula had been a thorn in her side ever since she’d asked for early return actually.

She’d demanded all manner of exams and Patsy had hardly been in a position to refuse the demand had she? She’d done the physio, she’d taken the tests, she’d gone to occy health and squeezed as many sponge balls as the nurse had been able to throw at her and still Detective Inspector Ursula seemed not to have given up on her mission to punish Patsy for acting the hero. Even so, Patsy had overcome them enough to be allowed a meeting later that day to discuss her return to CID. If all went well it was likely she’d be returning to active duty by next week providing she played her cards right. Still... Patsy harboured suspicions her senior might have another card up her sleeve. Ursula made hoops faster than Michael Jordon on speed.

Taking in a deep breath Patsy wiped her forehead with shaking fingers. Just a dream. Didn’t matter about the rest. Abraham was dead. He was dead. He was dead. He was dead.

Heart still thumping uncomfortably fast Patsy uneasily forced herself to lay back down in bed. Sleep. She needed to sleep. Well, she tried to lay back down at least. The task was made infinitely more difficult however because the woman beside her had thrown out an arm into Patsys designated side of the bed. Patsy squirmed as she tried to dislodge the pointy sharpness of a wrist from between her shoulder blades before giving up.

Through narrowed eyes Patsy turned her head, the cotton pillow slip sticking to her sweaty neck, as she glared at her oblivious companion. The blonde was snoring the heavy sonorofic snores of the extremely drunk. Over the wavy tresses of hair Patsy spied a half finished glass of amber liquid discarded on the other bedside table and rolled her eyes.

Again? Seriously.

The smell of old spirits and unbrushed teeth wafted across the divide and Patsy fidgeted in frustration.

Still clinging to the faintest possibility she might fall back to sleep Patsy stared at the ceiling.

Her skin itched, the sweat was turning cold and Trixie had stolen the covers. Patsy didn’t feel up to what was fast becoming a night time tug of war habit and tried to ignore it. All of it.

Her chest hurt. Her chest always hurt now. The thick band of skin slowly drifting into a scar rubbed when she thought about it. The dream might have been just that but the scar was proof it hadn’t been that always. It had been the reality. It certainly felt real still.

Patsy stared forcefully at the ceiling, willing her mind to empty. To not think about everything that was wrong with this scene. A pulse beat behind her right eye, the clock in the kitchen downstairs ticked its tock through the silent house. Her hand clenched around the edge of the mattress anchoring herself to the present even as her body lived in the past.

It was alright. It was a dream. It was just a dream. It wasn’t real.

Trixie chose this moment to rip an almighty, ear bending snore directly into Patsys ear and dragged her arm from underneath Patsys back, smacking her lips loudly. Patsys sweating raw flesh flinched at the contact. Patsy squeezed her hand tighter against the hard reality of the mattress, her knuckles clicking warningly at her to be more gentle but she ignored them. Her other hand she balled into a fist and held close to her.

Trixie continued to dream onwards as Patsy forced herself to stay where she was. She wouldn’t get up. It had been just a dream but even so- It would be nice if her friend would sleep on the sofa for once as they’d agreed when she moved in.

Trixie complained about the sofas uncomfortably high arms cricking her neck but Patsy suspected that her friend just didn’t like sleeping alone.

A shame really because Patsy really could do with the odd solo night in her own bed. Sometimes a gal appreciated having a full blown panic attack in some semblance of solitude. Honestly! She couldn’t even nip into the toilet these days without someone-Seppie, knocking on the door to ask a burning question that simply couldn’t wait.

Patsy mentally read this back in her mind, the internal editor of her thoughts tapping its pen sullenly on the desk and then hurriedly rebuked herself. She didn’t have a problem with the toilet situation. Seppie could ask her whatever she needed to and... Even she could admit that Trixie had a good excuse for her issues. Patsy loved her best friend very much and she wanted to help she honestly did but this living arrangement was starting to do her head in. Sometimes it felt like she’d just let another teenager move in with her. Trixies mood swings were hardly pleasant at the best of times. Mix a few whiskeys in with that and Patsy was considering taking up meditation.

Or maybe she could just buy a pair of ear muffs to sleep in?

Not that she’d had any other choice available to her when Trixie had arrived on her doorstep announcing that Tom had asked her to move out. Patsy loved her friend and wouldn’t see her on the streets. They’d drunk a bottle of wine to celebrate their first night together, Trixie had called Tom a few choice names. It had all sounded so simple.

Trixie said she was saving for her own place, she’d hardly be here anyway with all the extra shifts she’d be pulling. Patsy had been happy to help; still was deep down. A month on though and even if Patsy could understand why her friend might feel like drowning her sorrows of an evening when she got home it didn’t hide the fact that this evening was the third night Trixie had stumbled into bed drunk and it was only Wednesday.

Patsy checked her watch blearily.

Well, Thursday now.

God. Go back to sleep said the sensible voice from the back of her head. She could do with it; she’d felt like a zombie for weeks and tomorrow was a big day. She needed to rest. Maybe enough sleep would make life easier.

Trixies arm struck out blindly as the remaining duvet was dragged away from Patsys legs. Outside the window the wind rustled nearby hedges. The walls were caving in around her. The air was sticky and hot. The clock tocked too loud for her head to ignore. The scar ached as if it really had-

“What are the wages of sin?”

Patsy expelled a great breath of fatigue and gave up as her heart spiked painfully again. Enough.

At least she could get out of bed quietly; she’d always been good at that after all. Even with that particular quality though it was still a laborious task getting out of the room quickly. The movements more akin to a sort of slow paced rise and trot than actual footsteps. Trixie had a lot of stuff and in a bid not to confuse the girls too much most of it was being stored in Patsys bedroom.

Patsy managed to dodge a particularly large stack of boxes labelled dresses by completing a complicated half limbo manoeuvre and edged out into the hallway.

The light out here was muted but still present; an admission to the youngest and, even if she wouldn’t admit it, the second youngests needs. The girls hated the dark and Patsy had already learned how to shut out the light when she went to sleep. It seemed to be helping with the girls nightmares even if it hadn’t made a difference to Patsys.

Out of growing habit Patsy tiptoed down the hallway to listen at Seppies door. The sound of a tiny mouth breathing loudly met her ears and she nodded in simple satisfaction before repeating the movement at Ferns door. It was probably ridiculous to think it but she supposed she could get away with it in the safety of her own head; knowing they were asleep and safe did really help. It was hard not to get lost at times in her own memories and at least when the girls were present she had a reason to keep holding on. They anchored her better than an hour with a too cheerful shrink.

Shaking her head at how far she’d come Patsy made her way downstairs. The sight was hardly a nice one waiting for her when she reached the bottom but it wasn’t unexpected. Trixie had been down here for a while apparently. There was a half drunk bottle of whiskey on the table and a pizza box left open. Patsy clucked her tongue irritably as she strode over to the table and picked up the bottle.

Her friend needed to slow down before she fell too far in on herself. Patsy was getting tired of cleaning up after her and quite frankly if she didn’t stop soon Patsy was going to have to say something.

It wasn’t only Trixie the drinking affected after all. The girls had their own monsters to fight; God knew Mick hadn’t been any kind of angel and neither had Allie. They didn’t need this shit in their lives anymore and Patsy was determined to keep as many of their monsters from the door as she could. For them she would break all the rules. All in all Trixie was starting to tread on very thin ice. Patsy was prepared to give her another fortnight at most to start getting her shit together before she’d have to be on the blondes case like a fat kid after cake.

God, she needed a fag.

Slinging the sloshing bottle in the child locked cleaning cupboard she picked up her crumpled cigarette packet from the inside of the pantry door and flounced through the kitchen, into the living room making a bee line for the back door. She hadn’t been smoking in the house much recently. She’d had to start hiding the fags too ever since Seppie had freaked out after a bad nights sleep.

The kid was paranoid about fires and it wasn’t like she didn’t have cause.

Patsy had so far managed to wean Seppie out of turning off everything that could possibly constitute a fire hazard just out a need for practicality but some battles were harder won. Cigarettes burned. Burning things caused fire. Seppie had been trapped in a burning building. Some things Patsy couldn’t change so, for now, the cigarettes remained hidden where little eyes couldn’t see and Patsy was spending a lot of her evenings craving nicotine.

Sighing at the state of her personal world Patsy pushed open the back door and flopped down heavily on the back step. Then, with a guilty peek around her in the fleeting possibility that a four year old ninja might be hiding somewhere, she tipped over the flower pot beside the door and pulled out the lighter that had been sellotaped to the inside.

It was raining outside, the September autumn driving the memory of summer time into the past with viscous ease.

Patsy lit her cigarette with delicacy looking out into the flat planes of her garden as the sky dropped its fine rain down around her. Her hands were still shaking she noted with disgust. Her hands shook, Patsy thought harshly, but at least the rest of her wasn’t anymore. The smoking helped, it gave her something to do with herself, a form of self medication they wouldn’t advise in any mental health manual she’d heard of.

The sweet Cassie Young would probably try and call it a bad coping strategy if she’d been about and she’d be correct in the unhelpful way shrinks tended to be. Helen would tell her she was being unnecessarily dramatic. Delia would say-

Patsy cut that thought off straight away and closed her eyes. She smelled the sharp tang of rain in the air while the heavier tinge of smoke drifted around her eyes and stung them. The sweat had cooled on her skin under the warmth of the damp outside and her pyjamas clung to her as she sat still and calm as a statue in the early morning light. No one would be able to know what was going on in Patsys head right now if they looked at her and that was how she wanted it. To anyone on the outside she looked to be in control.

She was always in control.

Patience Mount was a master of control when it came to some things. Less so in others. Feelings were one sphere she had always thought she had control over. She had long ago learned, before she even knew that she was learning how to do it in fact, that some feelings could eat you inside if you let them. The bad feelings, the bad memories. They were not something one could carry around on their sleeves.

When Patsy was very young, still living in the commune with her mother and her sister, she’d learned the hard way what happened to people who couldn’t hide their feelings. So she’d taught herself to put all of the bad memories away into a box inside her head. A big box. A box she didn’t need to open or acknowledge and with each addition to that box she’d always made sure to close the lid tightly shut afterwards. All of them had gone in there. Deeper and deeper she’d buried the memories until even she didn’t fully know how far they went anymore. The box was where they lived and she didn’t want it open. She didn’t know what she’d be if that box spilled out too much.

Probably something that would require popcorn from onlookers.

The box had been based on a real one; she could still see it like it was real if she closed her eyes. Bigger than a book and sharply rectangular, built from delicate rose wood with a gold inlay in the glossy top, so shiny it showed your face and golden hinges that squeaked when it was opened.

Abraham had owned the box of course, just like he’d owned everything and everyone in that commune. He’d kept his bible in that box, he used to wrap the bible in red silk before he put it inside. Patsy knew that because he’d shown Patsy how to do it on one of the nights he’d called her to his room. He’d stroked her hair that night and told her she would grow tall as an angel and she’d watched him as he loomed closer than she wanted him to be, too scared to speak and after she’d been allowed back into the dorm she’d remembered the box most of all.

Patsy squeezed her eyes tighter closed, rocking on the step and willed herself to forget. Forget everything because it wouldn’t change no matter what she did.

When the commune ended in fire she’d forced those memories away into her mental box too and only sometimes did its rattlings unnerve her. That had been before though. Before a few months ago when hell had decided to take a holiday in Poplar. Patsy had seen one lover to the grave and another drift into the wind, she’d gained two daughters and she’d been hurt. She’d lost and won. In the present moment her missing finger throbbed as she thought about what had happened. Her lungs ached.

She had been hurt and seen hurt dealt out to people she loved and now she needed to put those memories in the box like all the others. It should work like that except it wasn’t anymore. The problem was that the box was so full of the things, the memories and the pain. The feelings she didn’t want to acknowledge weighed her down and it was like she could actually feel the hinges groaning in protest inside her. The box rattled, unable to take much more, the contents of everything that had come before hounded her sleeping moments and she didn’t have another way to cope. She didn’t have another box to put them in.

Before she’d met Delia Busby Patsy had always used sex as a kind of release valve when the box rattled. The anonymous absolutions her weak way of evening the balancing act she played with herself every day. But sex wasn’t an option anymore.

Patsy had made promises, serious promises. The kind of promises Patsy wouldn’t have made to anyone before Delia Busby had come along. Patsy had promised herself and she kept her promises. Delia had agreed and now here she was.

8 weeks later.

It was hardly an age to wait for someone, they’d even managed a few stilted texts between them in the interim and it wasn’t like Patsy hadn’t been busy but still... It was long enough. The boxes rattle was so loud now she couldn’t shut it up, she needed someone to help her. Someone to stand beside her as an equal. She needed Delia. She needed this one specific woman because Delia had seen her demons laid out bare and Delia hadn’t flinched. She’d been almost strong enough to stick it out, still soft enough to be reserved. She’d gone home to Wales to clear her head and Patsy couldn’t blame her. She knew Delia had enough steel in her soul to hold Patsy where she stood and boy oh boy had Patsy fallen for the brunette good and proper.

She’d fallen hard enough not to go looking for something easy in the break at least and that was quite the feat considering Patsys natural instincts in these things. She’d waited just as she promised and tomorrow- Today, Delia would be at the school. Today was a big day for lots of reasons really.

Delia. Work. Seppie.

A lot of big things crowding around one another.

Maybe that was the reason Patsy had woken up this morning too. Nerves?

Patsy wracked her brain to try and twist out the reasons from the corkscrew of her soul.

It was getting harder and harder not to feel things she didn’t want to. Harder to bite down the sheer rage at what had happened to her. The unjust abuse of everything she’d been through. Not one piece of it was fair and Patsy couldn’t change any of it. Abraham was dead. There was only ghosts to hate now and the dead were beyond her jurisdiction. She had to find a way to move past the anger. She had to be okay. Too many people relied on her to be okay. To be in control.

Delia was the one person she could allow the veil to drop just a fraction. She hadn’t had to pretend to be easier or simpler. Delia had held her and for the first time Patsy had allowed someone to do it without reservations. Delia had seen her and Patsy had been enough. Finally Patsy had been enough for someone. Not Constable Mount or the pretty face in the bar. She, Patience Mount, scars and all had been enough for Delia Busby.

Sucking in a lungful of smoke Patsy pushed away the swamping textures of her memories and opened her eyes. Then she squared her shoulders to the world at large.

The dawn wasn’t far off now although the girls wouldn’t be up for a few more hours yet to see it. Trixie was rota’d off work until Friday now and Patsy would leave her to wake up in her own time. The whiskey was better than sleeping pills to the blonde and her mood when she did wake up wasn’t going to be anything to be admired.

Besides, today was not a day to fall apart in. Today was a good day, Patsy fully intended to make it one of the best days she could.

This was because, first and foremost, it was Seppies birthday today. Patsy smiled as a tendril of nerves coiled inside her stomach. Five years old was a big age according to Seppie although the concept of marking the date with a celebration was a new idea to both of the girls. Patsy had been required to patiently explain to Seppie several times over a number of days that people usually looked forward to this kind of thing but the girl had continued to view it with a sort of withering mistrust.

Patsy understood why and wasn’t really sure if making a big deal was the right path to choose in these circumstances but she still hadn’t been able to stop herself from buying a cake and packet of balloons at the shop. At least she knew the present she had in mind would be appreciated.

Appreciated might be an understatement actually. Patsy had been thinking long and hard about today. She’d come to only one conclusion in way of a gift Seppie wanted with all her heart.

Patsy felt her mouth tug up into an absentminded smile at the thought. It stayed stubbornly on her face as the cigarette burned to ash and remained there as she replaced the lighter back in the pot with care.

It was still there when she went back into the house too and to the untrained eye some could suggest there was even the faintest trace of a bounce to her step.

A big day.

She had things to do. Things to keep her busy.

Thank heavens for that!

Chapter Text

Patsy spent the early hours of the morning laboriously struggling with a bag of balloons and a cheap mini manual pump bought in a fit of optimism a few weeks ago in the pound shop. The grey rainclouds didn’t disperse outside as she worked and it filled the room with a gloomy light as she flitted about the space. Only the back kitchen wall retained a shred of cheeriness and it made Patsys stomach flip as she watched the faint wisps of stray sunlight bounce off the newly painted yellow.

Just a manufactured hope for sunlight to banish the shadows away. Maybe it would work eventually?

The task was a drawn out, fiddly affair, peppered with muffled curses and made far longer than it needed to be because of her missing finger. A fact that she resented Abraham for far more than she could ever convey. The pump was a necessary addition too. Her lungs weren’t as shot as the doctors had warned her they might be but she still wasn’t up to puffing away into fifty balloons. Unfortunately that wasn’t the only problem because of course it couldn’t be could it. No, the bigger problem was tying the damn things.

Patsy was getting quite good at working around the lack of middle finger but there really were some things that just required one and sadly balloons were one of those things. She had to dig deep not to quit when what felt like the millionth balloon tumbled away from her clumsy fingers and blew around the room wetly. It was definitely moments like this, Patsy reflected irritably, that most people advised shacking up with someone when raising kids. It helped to have someone there to put a finger on the knot.

Trixie probably didn’t count as a second person although there was another candidate possibly... Patsy had to very firmly stop her thoughts drifting down this mental avenue when it started. She knew who she wished would be here to help tie balloons with...

By the time the kitchen clock showed half past four she’d just about managed it. She huffed with smudgy pride to see the changes she’d wrought to her little house. Balloons hung from the beams and walls. The arch leading into the kitchen wore a spangly silver banner as did the front door. A few left over balloons cramped the floor simply because Patsy had stubbornly refused to be beaten by unyielding balls of rubber.

Nodding in satisfaction at a job well done Patsy set about tidying the kitchen to her satisfaction before hopping upstairs to grab a shower before Fern woke up.

Fern was usually the second up in the house. Trixie most likely wouldn’t surface until midday and Seppie would lay in all day if she thought she could get away with it.

In the bathroom Patsy shucked off her clothes quick as she could, studiously ignoring her reflection in the mirror as she did it. She was well aware of the mess her chest looked nowadays but it still bothered her when she caught sight of it. Her brain was slower late at night; she’d forget for maybe a second and then spot the flash of red and it was like she was seeing it for the first time all over again.

The scar was raised, red and ran from collar to breast. When she touched it she could almost feel the slice of the hook, the way it had splinted the skin as it was beaten through and down. She’d always quite liked her boobs before Abraham had got involved. Val had liked them. Delia seemed to as well. Now the idea of them and him and everything related just made her angry.

There were so many things she couldn’t change. So many things she should have been able to prevent if only she’d-

Enough.

Shrugging her shoulders to force some much needed momentum into proceedings Patsy turned on the shower and got in before the hot could kick in. The cold water hit her skin painfully and she flinched at the contact but she made herself stay under the spray until it warmed up before scrubbing her body. It helped to be clean, even if it didn’t last long it helped a little.

She might have dirt in her blood but she could at least smell of apples. Psychology be buggered.

To her surprise her morning ablutions were interrupted not by Fern but Trixie. Patsy was just washing the conditioner out of her hair when the door burst open and Trixie flung herself across the room to kneel at the porcelain alter. Patsy groaned as the sound of Trixies stomach unloaded at speed down the bowl with nauseating splashes as an accompaniment.

Rolling her eyes Patsy rubbed away the last of the suds and reached out to pluck up the closest towel. As she wrapped it round her torso she eyed her friends heaving back and snorted.

“Heard of knocking?” Patsy called acerbically and Trixie groaned.

“I think... I think... God I think I’m dying.” Trixie had to stop as she continued to retch and Patsy hmmphed unsympathetically.

“You’d better bleach that thing when you’re done, you’ll give the girls your germs.”

Trixie retched again but managed to grip the sides of the toilet long enough to raise a finger in wordless response.

Patsy closed the door on her friend without another word and then worried that she was a bad person for a half a second before shrugging off the worry like a coat she didn’t want to wear anymore. Wasn’t like Trixie wasn’t vomiting rather regularly recently after all; the whiskey went down fine enough but the blonde didn’t seem able to keep it down. So far even daily vomiting hadn’t been enough to curb her enthusiasm for the stuff though.

Patsy dried, dressed and primped as quickly as she could while she listened with half an ear to Trixie staggering about and flushing the toilet over and over again in the bathroom. Served her right, Patsy thought sanctimoniously as she did her worst with a few licks of mascara.

Trixie only exited the bathroom when Patsy was leaving the bedroom. Their eyes met across the hall and Trixie gave a half conscious wave of recognition.

“I’m making tea.” Patsy offered a little louder than strictly necessary. Trixies eyes fluttered closed at the noise.

“My heads pounding.” She garbled, her blonde hair hanging unusually limp around her ears.

“Heavy night?” Patsy deadpanned, Trixies answering groan echoed through the hall.

“I thought you said you were making tea?” She grumbled, wiping something oozy in texture from the corner of her mouth.

“Yeah yeah, wash your face and I’ll make you one you piss head.” Was Patsys reply as she slid past the blonde. She didn’t want to see her friend like this; it was depressing.

Patsy was as good as her word and had the cups ready by the time Trixie had made it downstairs like a good little housemate. Just as well she had done it too Patsy noted dispassionately, Trixies steps were tepid, her face drawn. She looked like she needed something vaguely wholesome in her system. There were dark circles under her eyes and an uncharacteristic flash of acne appearing around her red nose.

She looked like someone who needed a break from the bottle.

“You look smart, what’s the occasion?” Trixie asked hoarsely, accepting the cup of tea Patsy offered her with muted delicacy.

“Didn’t know there had to be an occasion to look smart?” Patsy evaded without thinking. She was busy watching Trixies hands and the way they shook and made the surface of the tea jolt.

“No, that’s very true, but Pats- Look, you’ve even polished your boots.’ Trixie pointed at the pair of boots which were indeed polished and waiting by the back door. ‘Who are trying to impress?” Trixie frowned as she plopped down the mug onto the counter and groped for something in her dressing gown pocket. Patsy spotted the flash of gold foil lid that suggested a bottle.

“Bit early in the day to be drinking don’t you think?” Patsy noted frostily, frustrated that Trixie was already hitting the drink at this early hour.

“I’m on twilights so no, not really.’ Trixie raised the bottle in a smug toast. Her lips were pressed tightly in a concentrating grimace and she still looked pasty. The hand holding the bottle still shook. ‘Besides,’ Trixie went on with forced cheer, ‘beside it’s five ‘o’ clock somewhere isn’t it?”

“5 AM perhaps. Maybe you should just drink your tea normally this morning, I don’t want the girls smelling whiskey on your breath.” And I don’t want to smell it either come to think of it Patsy sounded off in her own head.

“Oh please.’ Trixie looked at the ceiling haughtily as though seeking patience in the woodchip. ‘The girls father was a drug addict not a drunk. They probably can’t even tell, you’re being sensitive.”

“I can tell though.” Patsy said tightly, battling down the anger before it could ruin the rest of the morning. It was pointless to go over Allie and Micks lifestyle with Trixie. Trixie didn’t want to hear it.

“Oh of course.” Trixie breathed, suddenly speculatively as she appeared to be struck by something. Patsy braced tiredly and watched as Trixie poured a generous slosh of the whiskey into her tea before turning round to peer at Patsy as she sipped, eyes glinting with realisation.

“Oh of course what?” Patsy grumbled. Fully aware that Trixie was changing the subject and disliking the purposeful evasion. That was Patsys favourite trick damn it; it was irritating to be on the receiving end for once.

“I understand why you’re all dressed up now. Delias back today isn’t she?”

“Delia? Is she?’ Patsy ran a nervous hand through her hair with as much feigned surprise as she could muster. The movement fooled absolutely no one, ‘I hadn’t realised.”

“Course you haven’t sweetie.’ Trixie smirked as she sipped her tea with a gentile sniff of amusement, ‘I suppose it’s a good thing I am on nights then isn’t it if today’s the big reunion. What’s the system going to be? Hat on the door?”

“Today’s Seppies birthday Trixie.’ Patsy pointed out forcefully. ‘Nothings going to happen like that. I haven’t even talked to the woman properly for weeks.”

“Oh please, you two were making eyes when she still had that girlfriend. She’s probably got a picture of you tucked away somewhere in her diary and been sighing somewhere dreadfully romantic. You’ll probably be at it before lunch time.” Trixies lips curled into a sneer that barely hid the tint of jealousy. Divorce was making Patsys friend almost as cynical as Patsy on a bad day.

“Don’t talk about her like that,’ Patsy swatted at the table sharply, surprising herself with the unlikely urge to protect Delia. ‘You know she had no idea what she was living with. She’s been through just as much as the rest of us. Look, it’s a big day, I don’t want to argue but would it kill you to be less spiky for a bit?”

“Touchy? Pardon me for pointing out the flaws of saint Delia, yes yes, I know.’ Trixie rolled her eyes when Patsys hand slapped the table again meaningfully and she tilted her head still watching Patsy with amusement. ‘What are you going to say to her? Have you written a speech?”

“Speech?” Patsys face turned wooden. Something like anxiety but more insistent pulsed around her stomach region. She’d started feeling a shade panicked as the morning had properly dawned. She wasn’t sure what she would say to Delia yet but didn’t much fancy using Trixie as an independent opinion. The table was a nice one, it would look bad if it was thrown across the room.

“One knee, violins, maybe a fat baby with a bow and arrow.” Trixie offered blithely, entirely unaware of her housemates dark ruminations.

“Is that how Tom managed to reel you in?” Patsy teased unthinkingly and watched as the laughter drained from Trixies face like water down a sink. Trixie took a much more deliberately deeper swig of her tea and then placed the suddenly empty cup on the side. Her hands were shaking.

“No,’ Trixie said bitterly, ‘he told me he was a good man and I believed him.”

There was an awkward silence as Patsy watched her best friend over the rim of her mug. Well... There went that conversation. Still, she might as well ask while they were here. Trixie had said she would go and see Tom before work yesterday. They’d never got round to a catch up, Trixie had already gone out when Patsy got back from the shrinks.

“How did it go yesterday in the end? Did you manage to sort anything else out between you?”

“What do you think?’ Trixie patted her pocket reflexively, her voice fragile. ‘He wants a quiet divorce, the new girls all moved in. Bastard asked me if I wanted to store any of my things in the garage until I found somewhere more permanent, said he’d put a good word out for me amongst his parishioners if I wanted to buy locally.”

“And you told him to get in the sea I hope.” Patsy finished, trying to force a bit of levity back. Trixie was so changeable with her moods at the minute that it paid dividends to err on the side of humour to get through this kind of conversation. Trixie didn’t smile.

“I told him he could keep it all, I don’t want anything that he’s touched and furthermore I informed him that the tacky art work the new girls put on my walls makes the house look as bland as she is and if that was the way he intended to live now then it’s clear to me that I’ve dodged a very large bullet.”

The new girl. Trixie had taken to calling Barbara that; refusing point blank to refer to the brunette by name. It was a tricky situation. On the one hand Patsy disapproved of the way Tom had handled the break up so brutally but on the other hand Barbara as a person wasn’t as terrible as Trixie wanted to make out. Barbara and Phyllis seemed fairly close too which didn’t help all that much. Patsy had been forced to end more than one conversation with Trixie when Phyllis was in ear shot.

Phyllis Crane was definitely the loyal type.

“What did he say to that?”

“Not much,’ Trixie ran her finger along the wet circle left from her mug and pulled the liquid in shapeless patterns on the counter, her voice sulky. ‘He just said that he hoped we could move past this and be friends again.”

“Well I suppose that’s why he’s a priest.’ Patsy sighed thoughtfully. ‘They all do love a lost cause.”

“I just can’t understand it Pats.’ Trixie mumbled distractedly, evidently not listening to a word Patsy had said. Two lines cutting the space between her perfectly plucked eyebrows where she frowned. ‘I mean honestly what on earth does he see in her? The woman has no style, no charisma. She wears Kagools and crocs without a hint of irony. I don’t see... Why does he want her over me? What does she give him that I can’t?”

Patsy sighed, not in possession of the answers Trixie wanted and reached into her pocket to fumble for her day time packet of cigarettes. Trixie held out her hand for one and they both walked to the back door to smoke in silence. When they’d finished Trixie stubbed her fag out and walked back inside. Patsy followed her more sedately, fiddling with balloons as she moved through her living room and sat at the table to wait for Fern to wake up. Inwardly she was worried she’d gone overboard with the decorations. Trixie distracted Patsy quickly though and surprised them both when Patsy was seated by standing behind Patsy and brushing her chilly fingers through Patsys hair.

“You need a haircut sweetie, it’s a mess.” The blonde announced softly. The softness surprised Patsy even as she leaned away from the touch. Trixies breath could peel paint from nearby doors.

“Got to grow it out somehow.” Patsy grunted. She didn’t like talking about her hair; it was a sore spot and Trixie was well aware.

“Just a bit of shape would help,’ Trixie wheedled hopefully moving around the table to sit opposite, ‘it might help your cause with Delia if you didn’t look like you belonged in a zombie apocalypse.”

“It’s not that bad.” Patsy said, running a hand through her hair defensively. She felt a mite wounded, she’d fluffed it a bit at least.

“All women could do with working to improve themselves.’ Trixie warned in a sing song voice. ‘It’s a lifelong effort Sweetie.”

“I have word of the day toilet paper, how much more improvement could I possibly need?”

Trixie rolled her eyes and lounged back in her chair waving a finger in the air vaguely.

“You can laugh at me all you like but letting yourself go won’t do you any favours. Even lesbians have standards you know.”

“Quite often they’re even higher than you straights.” Patsy ribbed with a little bit more venom than usual. Trixie was getting under her skin far more than she did when they could go to their separate homes.

“Not from what I’ve seen in the company I keep.” Trixie snarked back, her delivery equally cool.

“Yes, however will I find a wife if I lose my good looks?’ Patsy said wryly, scratching at her nose with her middle and index finger pointedly. ‘The girls will need to grow up in the poor house if my dowry doesn’t cut it- And I have one of those too you know.”

Patsy stopped talking abruptly. Trixie had flicked Patsy the middle finger as she edged back to her bottle and Patsy raised her right hand in mindless response. Holding up the stub of finger hanging over the table pointedly. Trixie raised her eyebrows; considering the half limb disinterestedly.

“Not much of one. Is that supposed to impress me Patience?”

“No.’ Patsy said relaxing on her elbows lazily. ‘I just didn’t want to use the whole one with you, I realise it’s been a while and I’m safeguarding your self control. Not to boast but I’m terribly well endowed. Besides, the mops broken. You might quicken and then the kids will step in it when they wake up.”

“You’re disgusting.” Trixie said mildly as she topped up her empty cup with more whiskey.

“Just a slave to reality.” Patsy intoned sourly, annoyed that Trixie hadn’t at least pretended to hear what she’d said.

“What are you doing today? Other than working on your stand up routine I mean?”

“No.’ Patsy yawned and sipped at her untainted tea, for all the world looking like a content and relaxed woman at rest. ‘Got my meeting with Ursula. Hopefully I’ll get reinstated to CID.”

“I’m sure you will.” Trixie for once sounded more encouraging and Patsy melted a little. Her friend really wasn’t in a good place and Patsy shouldn’t be so harsh, she’d been worse in her time.

They both sat quietly for a few moments, lost in their own thoughts, until the silence was broken by slippered feet coming down the stairs. Patsy craned her neck round, anxious to gauge a true impression when Fern walked into the kitchen.

Fern was a tall kid, skinny from the feet up although quite how she managed this given the alarming rate that she ate anything not nailed down Patsy couldn’t fathom. Hollow legs was as far as Patsy had managed to guess. She was still wearing her pyjamas when she came into view and Patsy grinned as she took in the granddad set. She’d suggested new pjs a few weeks ago and had been quite touched when the girl had made a bee line for the plaid.

Ferns feet stopped when she reached the door from the stairs and Patsy spied the look of shock on the teenagers face as she looked at the balloons and banners. Hesitantly, her long fingers reached out to poke at the closest pair of balloons taped to the wall, her lips twisting into a shy grin.

“Morning sweetheart, we’re in here.” Patsys call was quiet enough but Fern still pulled back her hand like she’d been shouted at. The girl hung her head as walked hurriedly into the kitchen. Embarrassed at being caught looking. Patsy smiled affectionately in greeting and shot a warning look at Trixie and her pocket bottle.

“Well? What do you think? Do you think she’ll like it?” Patsy hoped Fern wouldn’t pick up on the genuine concern in her voice. To her relief Fern didn’t seem to.

“It’s...’ Fern glanced around, her attention caught by a banner above the door, ‘it’s like nothing I’ve seen before, I didn’t even know you could buy stuff like this.”

“Clintons and sellotape can do some real magic kid.”

“Did you get a cake?” Ferns eyes shone, the perpetual love for anything coated in sugar rearing it’s head. Patsy nodded indulgently.

“Course I did, it’s the best part, it’s in the fridge.”

Fern hummed to herself at that and had managed to half trip towards the fridge eagerly before she caught herself and stopped dead. Her head switched back to Patsy, indecisiveness etching onto her face and Patsy sighed inwardly.

“It’s okay Fern, this is your house too, you can look in the fridge. You don’t need to ask.” Patsy watched sadly as the girl sparked back up at the invitation and opened the fridge door.

Growing up with Allie and Mick had left their own marks. Maybe the girls didn’t have the scars on the outside like Patsy but they were still there. Fern had been raised to take what she could when she could. She struggled most of all now with was being able to take small things and trust that the rest of it would be there for her later; always a small part of her head held the rest of her body back. It was frustratingly reminiscent for Patsy who had learned quickly not to push on anything too hard just in case Fern clammed back up again.

Fern hummed appreciatively when she saw the cake and then walked over to the kettle to pour her own mug of tea. Patsy wanted to tell her to sit down, to offer to make the girl a cup but resisted. That was another thing she was learning to live with; Fern had practically raised Seppie growing up. She was used to being independent and rarely accepted help for things she’d been doing most of her childhood.

Patsy coughed, trying to clear her dark thoughts and smiled at Fern when she turned around a mug clasped in her first carefully.

“I didn’t know whether you wanted to wake Seppie up? You do it so well and I know she’d like to see you first thing.” Fern did do it well Patsy had to admit it but the offer wasn’t only for that. Fern was more than a sister to Seppie and Patsy wanted to make sure the girls had that time on their own. The world had changed so drastically over the last few months and for the most part the changes had been positive but even so... Some things needed to be acknowledged.

“Are Phyllis and Helen coming round?” Fern asked eagerly, a splash of tea flecking down her chin as she gulped the drink too fast. Fern had grown quite close to the older set and Patsy had wondered a few times on her lower days if the teenager didn’t on some level wish she’d moved in with them instead.

“No, not today but I’ll call them while your upstairs. They’ll want to see Seppie open her presents.”

“Presents!” Fern stood a little straighter in anticipation, relishing the foreign word and Patsy bit her lip to stop the smile from spreading too widely on her face.

“Presents.” She agreed cheerfully.

“What did you get her?” Ferns eyes were roaming around the room now and Patsy shook her head.

“Go and get your sister up and you’ll find out won’t you? Go on, I’ll call the others.”

Fern half sprinted out of the kitchen and Patsy winced as heavy footfalls stomped there way up the stairs. Trixie grinned a sincere smile now as she caught Patsys eye.

“The girls are going to freak out when you tell them. Where’s the bag?”

“In there-‘ Patsy pointed over Trixies head to one of the higher cupboards and Trixie stood up obligingly to retrieve it. ‘Better call the long haired generals while we’re at it though.”

The kitchen blurred a little as Trixie fumbled at the cupboard and Patsy pulled out of her phone to video call Helens phone. The phone had barely rung once before the screen was turned a brownish black.

“Hello, Phyllis Crane how can I help?”

“Phyllis?” Patsy squinted at her phones screen as she tried to work out why she couldn’t see the woman’s face.

“Speaking. Patsy is that you?”

“Phyllis,’ Patsy smirked as she realised the issue, ‘you’ve got the phone pressed against your ear. It’s a video chat, move it away-There you are.”

The phones screen was suddenly full of Phyllis Cranes face at close range. The slightly wrinkled mouth split into a smile as she called off camera to Helen.

“Hel! The girls are on the FaceTime, hurry up.”

“I’m coming, give me a second I’m just trying to find your specs.” Helens voice was muffled and far off. Something clunked in the background.

Phyllis and Patsy stared at each other through the phones screens a little awkwardly as they waited for Helen to finish whatever she was doing in the background. Patsy studiously tried not to focus on the fact that Phyllis still clearly seemed to be in bed.

“Big day today.” Phyllis offered routinely and Patsy nodded as neutrally as she could manage with someone who had quite clearly woken up with her mother this morning.

“Lots to look forward to.” Patsy replied in a beige tone.

“Claire says Seppies really settling in well in class.” Phyllis was a traditional woman, she bore awkard silences almost as well as Trixie bore sobriety.

“Yeah, she seems to be liking it, Claire’s really been a help with that actually, I think Seppie having someone she can talk to in class stops her feeling alone. Very invested too, she gave me her number in case I wanted to ask any questions.”

“Yes...’ Phyllis have a delicate kind of cough as though something was playing on her mind. ‘Claire’s a good lass, new to the area. She seems to have a high opinion of you.”

“She seems like a bright girl.” Patsy replied non commitally. Not at all that intrigued by Seppies school helper.

“She’s certainly very capable... We were very fortunate to get her in such short notice after Ellis’s accident.”

Ellis had been the previous senco. A retired teacher by trade who’d liked to keep her hand in the game even at the ripe age of seventy something. Patsy had been forced not to laugh when she’d found out the old girl had recently curtailed extra curricular work after losing a foot in her extreme sports trip to Swasi Land.

“Did they ever catch the croc she was diving with?” Patsy asked with a twitch of her lips.

“No.’ Phyllis intoned without the hint of a smile. ‘Although she told me she’s thinking of taking up mountain climbing instead.”

“Without a leg?” Patsy asked wryly, wanting to break Phyllis’s facade a little.

“Oh Ellis has always been a bit of an optimist, she says when someone shuts all the doors there’s always the cat flap.”

“They really don’t make them like that anymore do they?” Patsy said wonderingly as she heard a tell tale creak from upstairs that told her Fern had managed to extricate Seppie from her bed.

“Thankfully not- Ahh” Phyllis cut off looking relieved as Helens torso and arm appeared holding a pair of glasses in one hand.

Patsy watched as Helen carefully balanced the spectacles onto Phyllis’s face and then smirked as a blush ran up Phyllis’s neck.

“I said I didn’t need them.” Phyllis muttered off camera and Helen tutted as the phones angle moved and Patsy met her mothers smile with a wider one of her own.

“She hates wearing her glasses.” Helen stage whispered conspiratorially and Phyllis tutted.

“I have twenty twenty vision with good lighting.” Phyllis butted in sounding grumpy even if her lips finally twitched too. Helen apparently had a golden ticket when it came to melting the northerner.

“The optician said to wear them when using screens.’ Helens arm moved subtly to pat Phyllis’s leg as she spoke making Phyllis’s smile deepen. ‘Anyway, What have I missed? Where’s my girls?” Helens face enlarged as she drew closer to try and see past Patsy somehow.

“Charming? What am I, the next door neighbour?” Patsy huffed, only half joking and Helen rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be silly, you know what I mean. Have you got everything sorted? What time are you picking it up?”

“After work, I’ll probably be done around two today, Ursula will want to grade in my return to work no doubt.” In lew of the company Patsy managed to hold back most of the bitterness she was feeling towards her superior. None the less Phyllis’s eyebrows raised.

“Delphine will only do what she thinks is best lass. She’s always been by the book.”

“Right, well we’ll soon find out won’t we? Our appointments at half nine.” Patsy hoped her nerves weren’t showing. She didn’t know how often Phyllis spoke to Ursula. Helen had a tendency to evade any questions when the subject cropped up.

“Of course!’ Helen smacked her forehead dramatically. Too dramatically. Patsy was instantly on high alert as she felt her mothers interest land on her like a misfired rocket. ‘So how did your meeting go yesterday? You never called me afterwards. What did she say?”

“Meeting?” Patsy felt a twinge if guilt at the unspoken dig. She’d not been ready to talk to anyone when she’d left Young’s office yesterday. She didn’t feel like talking about it today either if it came down to it.

“The counselling Pats? I marked it on the calendar when you gave me the days. You did go didn’t you?” Helens eyes narrowed as she observed her daughter with well deserved suspicion. Helen was a kind, thoughtful and patient woman but above all of these traits she was also thoroughly realistic and had been the only person who’d managed to raise Patsy in her hay day. She had iron running through her bones. Patsy gulped.

“Yes of course I did. I promised you I would go didn’t I?”

“And you talked to her? Properly?’ Helen still appeared rightfully disbelieving. ‘You discussed everything? About how you’re managing and your injuries.”

“I am managing.” Patsys jaw stiffened stubbornly as she felt the insubstantial yet all together too real weight of Phyllis and Trixies eyes trained on her face. She didn’t appreciate being questioned like this and bit back the urge to snap at Helen for doing it.

If it had been just Helen and Patsy on their own perhaps it might have been easier to explain what had happened in Cassandra Young’s office. If it had just been them together Patsy might have been able to relax her grip on her self control ever so slightly but it wasn’t just them. Helen always seemed to be with Phyllis these days and as much as Patsy liked the northerner Phyllis simply didn’t have the right to judge Patsy. She hadn’t done nearly enough air miles.

“I know you are,’ Helen said a little more gently now as she read Patsys face expertly, ‘but we both know you need to talk to someone sweetheart.”

“Thanks.’ Patsy rolled her eyes, hoping Helen might let the subject rest. ‘Big vote of confidence there for me Helen.

“Oh stop being so prickly, you know what I mean.’ Helen inclined her head as she spoke but there was no heat in her words.,The indulgent lilt to her voice usually made Patsy cave in but today it seemed to have lost its magic. Patsys lips thinned in response, Helen went on anyway. ‘All I want to know is that you talked to her about everything? I mean everything, full disclosure, you need to decompress properly sweetheart.”

Patsy looked into Helens concerned face, at Phyllis’s equally focused eyes and felt Trixie fidget beside her intently. She couldn’t tell them the truth. They needed her to be okay. No one needed Patsy falling apart.

“Yeah.’ A guilty heat coated her tongue as she lied to them all but she ignored it. It was what they all needed to hear. ‘Yeah we really covered some ground. She was a great listener, it felt really good to get it all out. I came out feeling brilliant.”

“Brilliant?” There was the faintest tinge of suspicion residing still in Helens face and Patsy invented madly quickly as she realised she’d gone in too heavy.

“Well... Not brilliant maybe.’ She hedged. ‘Just easier in myself. She shrunk my head pretty good.”

“That was really brave of you lass.” Phyllis’s cheeks deepened as her mouth set in a grim smile. Her hand slipped over Helens shoulder when she spoke and Patsy saw the knuckles flex as she squeezed Helen a little closer.

“It’s a good start sweetheart.’ Helen was more reserved in her praise but she too looked to be finally mollified just a little. ‘I’m proud of you for doing it, we all are, I know how hard that must have been for you.”

“Yeah, thanks guys.” Patsy couldn’t meet anyones eyes as the guilt worked hotly inside her stomach. She was already regretting the lie, she never lied to Helen... But she couldn’t see any other options. How would they understand? They all wanted her to be better so that was what she had to be.

“So what was the outcome?” Helens voice shunted into Patsys thought process with all the acuity of a pin hitting a balloon. Patsy had to force herself not to physically wince.

“Outcome?” Patsy contorted her face into feigned confusion, trying to buy a few more seconds precious brain space as her thoughts scrambled around trying to foresee a reasonable add on to the first lie.

“What are they going to do for you next? Counselling, support groups? We can help with the girls so you can get to them as long as you give me the dates.” Helen was in full steam roller mode. A woman with a calendar and a pen was hard to negotiate with at the best of a times but Helen had clearly planned this.

“She...’ Patsy internally swore as she tried to dredge up what she’d been told before she’d left. ‘She said I didn’t need any counselling after we’d talked. Said I was managing really well.”

“She said what? You’re kidding me?” Helens eyes were narrowed again and Patsy was glad they’d agreed Helen and Phyllis wouldn’t come round today after all. In the flesh Helen would not have let this go.

“No, she said I seemed to have it all squared away and she said-“

“She didn’t offer you more sessions?’ Helens voice held the rising threat level akin to the crack of a whip. ‘I thought Delphine said the service was highly recommended?” Helen had turned to look at Phyllis now who blinked slowly at Helens ire before shrugging easily. Patsy inwardly cursed the fact circles within circles dogged her life; Delphine? It still felt strange to find out her superior had a first name. Or that she had a life outside of work after all.

“She did. She said she’d make sure Patsy was given emergency status.” Phyllis’s response was placid and Patsy envied the woman’s ability to absorb Helens annoyance so easily. Patsy had never been very good at that.

“Which wasn’t necessa-“ Patsy began feebly but Helen cut across her.

“Well they must have made a mistake then. Patsy, I want you to go back and ask for more sessions. This sort of thing takes time; they shouldn’t just let you walk away without a care plan in place.”

“They haven’t’, Patsy said quickly, wanting to head off the next avenue before it cropped up and hit her in the face, ‘they’ve said I can go back if I want to but not right now.”

“They did?’ Helen peered at Patsy through the phone, her eyes lazering into Patsys in that disconcerting way Helen had when she was guessing what Patsy was thinking. ‘So why don’t you have another appointment?”

“I said I’d prefer group work, you know, being with people who are going through the same thing and she said there was a waiting list. They’ll call me when there’s a place. Honestly Helen, I’m fine. I don’t need you to interfere.”

“A waiting list,’ Helens head jostled as she bristled at the word. ‘How can they just put you on a waiting list? I would have thought after everything you’ve done they would at least bump you up the queue a bit.”

Patsy allowed herself to relax just a little as Helens frustration aimed itself at a much more universal target.

“What can I say?’ Patsy said with a convincing sigh. ‘It’s bureaucracy at its finest. I’ll talk to Ursula today about it if you’re really worried.”

“Well, see that you do,’ Helen seemed to settle a little bit more comfortably against the headboard but she wasn’t quite finished yet. With a quick look at Phyllis she seemed to waver for a second before breaking; ‘and tell Delphine from me-“

“How about’ Patsy butted in quellingly before Helen could grab onto another stem of thought, ‘I talk about my career with my superior first before I go in throwing hand grenades about the room regarding my non existent mental health care needs.”

They stared at one another, both as hard headed as the other and then Helen smiled.

“Fine. I’m only saying it because I love you.” She muttered slightly abashed and Patsys heart fluttered in her chest.

She wished they could have talked about this without the audience.

“I know... You too.” Patsy said a little awkwardly, still keenly aware that the others were watching her.

“Right... So,’ Helen sounded like she had a slight head cold now, ‘what were you all talking about before I interrupted?”

“We hadn’t really managed to talk about anything, I was just about to mention Claire though.” Phyllis took it upon herself to fill the gap and shot Helen a meaningful look.

“Oh not this.” Helen tutted disapprovingly while Phyllis shuffled around on her spot looking a mite henpecked.

“I just wanted to make sure no lines could become confused.” She said doggedly and Helen sighed.

“Well if it puts your mind at ease but I’m telling you it’s not going to be an issue.”

“What issue?” Patsy said just as Trixie also said;

“Ooh this all sounds rather juicy Phyllis.”

Phyllis swallowed as she considered her answer and then she spoke very quickly.

“I merely wished to point out that ms. Snyde is a very kind lass whose new to the area and I don’t, that is to say we don’t... I would just hope that nobody intends to press their suit so to speak.” Phyllis trailed off, her face determined but her tone slightly embarrassed.

There was a ringing silence for two beats and then-

“Well, that’s you told Pats isn’t it.” Trixie laughed as she lightly punched Patsys arm.

“Pressing my suit?” Patsy repeated incredulously, her ears reddening.

“I’m only trying to look after my staff.” Phyllis said stiffly. Patsys eyes narrowed.

“I don’t intend to press anyone for anything. I don’t even own a suit and quite frankly Phyllis in future you can feel quite free to mind your own fu-“

“Patsy!’ Helen cut through Patsys anger swiftly, a protective edge evident in her voice that the child who had never grown up inside Patsys head secretly loathed. ‘No one is accusing you of anything, Phyllis just wanted to mention it. Besides, as I’ve already mentioned, I was under the impression you were already involved elsewhere.”

Patsys heart sunk as she felt her the tips of her ears darken a few shades. She didn’t have to take this and resorted to evasive action.

“You’re both looking very fresh this morning. Late night was it?” The insinuation wasn’t even slightly modest and Phyllis swallowed but Helen didn’t.

“Yes, it was actually.” Helen raised her eyebrow in silent challenge.

Patsy decided to give in but found that she was quickly saved from thinking of another distraction as Fern finally came back down the stairs with a startled Seppie in tow.

The girls entered the living room slowly, Fern holding Seppies hand very tightly as they admired the room as a whole.

Patsy took the opportunity while everyone was distracted to open the rucksack on the table and pull out a sheet of paper. She’d got Helen to print it off the other day and the rehoming centre had sent her a few pictures when she’d asked them to. The bloke from the center seemed quite nice actually, they’d been talking for over a month as Patsy checked in to see what was available. He’d called her last Friday with a prospective candidate and Patsy had fallen a bit in love.

Now she only had to hope she’d made the right choice.

Trixie was murmuring quietly to Helen when the girls finally walked into the kitchen. Patsy supposed Trixie was giving them the heads up but she didn’t listen too hard. Seppie was looking at her and Patsy world turned soft at the edges. She couldn’t help it.

“Good morning, happy birthday baby.”

“I’m not a baby.’ Seppie corrected immediately before faltering and getting lost in the decorations again. ‘Is this for me?” Seppie pointed to the balloons a look of awe on her face and Patsy nodded.

“I had to.’ Patsy winked at Fern over Seppies shoulder. ‘It’s not every day that someone turns 46.”

“Red!’ Seppie rolled her eyes. Forever exasperated by the strangeness of grown ups. ‘I’m not 46, I’m 5.”

“No, really?’ Patsy widened her eyes in feigned shock, ‘okay what about 64?”

“No!’ Seppie giggled as she signed big to emphasise her point, ‘you silly. I’m only 5.”

“Hmm, okay okay, 16 then?”

“Red!’ Seppie stomped her foot but still couldn’t stop laughing, ‘you silly. I’m not 16, 16 is really old!”

“You is old, you is old like Helen!” Patsys eyes crinkled when she said it. Little and large was becoming the new name for Seppie and Helen. Helen thoroughly enjoyed being a grandmother and Seppie doted on her something chronic.

“No Red! I is not as old as Helen.” Seppie rubbed at her smooth forehead as if to prove the point, Fern snorted as she walked past to put her cup in the sink.

“You is,’ Patsy teased in mock severity, ‘You is just using Helens magic wrinkle cream.”

“What was that?” Helen asked sharply from the direction of the phone, possibly spotting the tail end of the last sign.

“Nothing,’ Patsy winked at Seppie as she signed and talked, ‘we were just saying how well you look after your face.”

Helen hmm’d at the same time that Seppie crossed her arms and threw a disapproving look so reminiscent of Patsys mother that it was disconcerting. Patsys grin dulled as she pulled herself together; tugging free one of the chairs and tapping it so that Seppie knew to sit down there.

“What do we do now?” Seppie asked, a ripple of anxiety combing her face as she settled into the seat. All eyes in the room watched her carefully.

“Well, because it’s your birthday we all want you to have this. It from all of us because we love you.” Patsy pointed at the rucksack laying on the table. The bag was black and pink with an eye watering amount of coloured felt dogs glued on the front. Seppie frowned at it.

“Why do you give bags on birthdays Red?” She asked curiously, a novice traveller on one of life’s latest highways.

“Because some girls like bags.” Patsy shrugged.

“I like dogs.” Seppie offered absently, her finger poking at one of the felt adages.

“I think theres something inside the bag.” Patsy suggested, standing a little way back to make sure the others could see. Helen murmured something to Phyllis who laughed quietly.

Very carefully Seppie opened the zip. Something large and circular and wrapped heavily in bright silver paper tumbled out of the cramped space and nearly fell into the little girls lap. Seppie yelped in surprise and Patsy sensed rather than saw Fern fidget close by. Watching keenly.

The circle was lifted from the bag and placed on the table with a ceramic whine as it touched the wood. Patsy watched, her heart fluttering with nerves, as Seppie looked first at the gaudy mess of paper and then at the assembled group of adult watchers and then back to the paper once more. Patsy spotted the nervous way Seppie clicked her feet together under the table and signed hurriedly.

“It’s a gift for you. It’s yours.” Patsy wished she could freeze time. She wished she could banish the confusion from Seppies face. She wished she’d been quicker just to stop the addition of more trouble. She wished she had the power to change things easily.

Seppie frowned as she read Patsys hands and then stared back at the lump of wrappings even more dubious than before.

“Thank you... It’s good.” Seppie said eventually even as her hands hovered over the gift like a sad sort of question mark.

“It’s a present!’ Fern signed knowledgably as she bounced closer to the table, her face alight with excitement, ‘You’re allowed to open it.”

Seppie seemed to freeze as she mulled this over and Patsy silently nodded an affirmative that Fern was telling the truth as the little girl caught her eye uncertainly.

“I... I can keep it?” Seppie asked looking non plussed, inspecting the gift with more wary interest now as though it was a bomb that might be about to go off somehow.

“You’re supposed to rip it.” Fern said hurriedly, her own hands hungry to touch the paper. There was a lush tearing noise as the first sellotape tack was pulled apart and Seppie made a fascinated sound as something white flashed. Her hands flexed longingly as she watched her sister go mad with the wrappings.

Patsy let Fern have her moment and then stepped forward to tap the teenager on the shoulder. When Fern dragged her attention away from her task she turned such a desperately happy face to Patsy it made Patsy falter. There was a hunger for something that had not been found before laying in the teenagers eyes. A child’s excitement lost in an almost woman’s face. Patsy made herself smile even as something tightened in her chest.

“Well done kid,’ Patsy stage whispered gently, ‘ten out of ten for teaching but I reckon you can let Seppie have a go now.”

Ferns cheeks reddened with immediate shame at the slight admonishment and the air was suddenly full with flutters of paper drifting from her hurriedly slackened grip.

“Sorry,’ Fern mumbled in a small voice, stepping back from the table self consciously, ‘I was just trying to help.”

Patsy tutted swiftly and twirled the girl towards her by the arm before she could back away too far. Fern gave a surprised giggle as Patsy hooked her arms over Ferns head to hold Ferns back to her front securely. She felt Fern stiffen for half a beat at the hold and then the teenager sighed and rested her head on Patsys shoulder. Tethered where she stood to home.

“It’s not long ‘til Christmas, you’ll get your chance.” Patsy whispered quietly into Ferns ear so that the others wouldn’t overhear and embarrass the teenager.

“Sorry,’ Fern muttered again shamefully, ‘I’ve just always wanted to open a proper present.”

“Me too kid, don’t worry I get it. You’re not in trouble.” Patsy reassured on autopilot.

Truth was she really did understand and that helped more than she could explain. Hindered too sometimes.

Patsy rested her chin on the top of the girls head contentedly and made sure she didn’t squeeze too hard. She’d had to work hard to remember that bit quite a lot recently. It was harder than you’d imagine and she couldn’t always help herself either. There was an irrational and until recently long buried part of Patsy that wanted to hug the kids all the time; like she thought she could make up for the ones that hadn’t happened before this time if she did.

Fern swapped her feet ponderously and Patsy had to blow errant strands of hair out of the way of her nose. The idea made her grin. It was harder than it had been even a few months ago for Pats to see over Ferns head. Patsy noted the change with amusement as Seppie had a go with the rest of the paper. Both of the girls seemed to have sprouted upwards since their introduction to regular meals. It was nice to know she was doing something right at least.

Fern shifted a little in her arms, her eyes trained on her sister with excitement. Patsy smiled as she felt Ferns hand move to grip Patsys wrist tightly without thinking. She sighed, sparing a look down through Ferns mousy roots.

It had taken Patsy a long time to understand how helpful a hug was when she had first moved in with Helen. She was determined to teach the girls that lesson too. Fern could be clingy when she wanted to be but she still seemed to wait too often for permission. Half convinced Patsy might push her away.

They both watched as Seppie finished shredding the paper and held up a large ceramic bowl with one hand. Seppie frowned at it looking confused.

“What is it?” Seppies nose wrinkled as though she suspected a joke of some sort.

“It’s a bowl. For you.”

“Oh...’ Seppie paused, her shoulders sagging just a little as she battled disappointment before she recalled her manners. ‘It’s... very good. Thank you Red.”

“Keep looking in the bag.” Patsy suggested, unable to keep her face straight as she watched Seppie dip back into the rucksack.

Slowly the ceramic bowl was joined by a small red collar, a blue rubber bone, another bowl, a leash.

When the collar fell out of its wrappings Trixie snorted, still sipping her spiked tea sanguinely.

“Think you need to go back to the shop Pats, it’ll never fit you.”

Patsy ignored her, quickly distracted from forming a comeback when she felt Fern jolt in her arms as though the girl had missed a step that should have been there.

“No way,’ Fern breathed in disbelief, shocked incredulity brewing in her voice, ‘no way Patsy, there’s no way you’ve-“

“Shh,’ Patsy momentarily forgot that Seppies surprise would of course not be ruined by others spotting the ending before she did as she shushed the teen. Her own throat bubbled up with barely restrained laughter, ‘Shh, let her work it out in her own time.”

When all of the bag was seemingly emptied Seppie sat back in her chair, her fingers running along the bone curiously. Patsy gave Fern another squeeze and then let her go so that she could kneel down to eye level for Seppie.

“So... What do you think?”

“I... I think they nice. Thank you.” Seppies hands were nervous, wanting to please. Patsy forced her smile to fade as she mock frowned at the presents before shaking her head slowly.

“You like it?”

“Yes,’ Seppie looked down at the line of strange gifts and her tongue pressed hard against her teeth. ‘They very good.”

“Hmm’ Patsy tapped her forehead pretending to ponder, ‘no... No I think somethings missing.”

“It... It’s my birthday presents.” Seppie signed with a flash of spirit. The little girl glanced down at the table, her hands reaching to hold the bone very tightly as though she thought Patsy night snatch it away from her. Patsys heart clenched tightly but she kept going. She’d been planning this for far too long.

“You can keep this but I think you need one more thing so it’s complete.” Patsy waved a hand at the table, willing Seppie to make the connection.

Seppie looked around the room for clues, nervous at being unexpectedly put on the spot but no one else spoke. Patsy smiled and ran a thumb on the closest bowls edge.

“What do you think? What should we get to go with this?” Patsy probed, exerting all of her iron will into forcing her mouth to stay in one continuous straight line.

“I... I don’t know. I want keep my presents. You said I could keep them.” Seppies eyebrows folded as she tried to think through the unknown fear of loss. Patsy picked up the collar and held it up to the air for inspection, waiting for the penny to drop.

“You can keep them but... We should get one more thing,’ Patsy hinted hopefully, ‘so it can all be together properly I think. What do you think we should get?”

Seppie bit her lip as she searched the room for answers. Pinned by uncertainty. Patsy smiled and reached to squeeze the girls knee encouragingly.

“I don’t know.” Seppie signed slowly, her fingers pinching the words anxiously.

“Seppie,’ Patsy eyed the collar meaningfully, literally throwing the child a bone, ‘what do you really really want for your birthday baby?”

“I...’ It was not actually possible to whisper in sign but Seppies fingers moved so jerkily the sentiment still managed to translate, the girl looked like she might burst into tears at any moment. The pressure from the room seemed to deepen as she sketched out the nervous words ‘I want a dog?”

Patsy pursed her lips as though she was mulling this idea over carefully for one second before she nodded slowly.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Seppies bottom lip wobbled dangerously as she mimicked Patsy in disbelief.

Patsy broke, unable to stop the excitement bubbling inside her as she nodded frantically.

“Yes! Yes you can have a dog!”

Seppie froze, her fingers squeezing hard on the rubber bone as she wavered in the air like a reed in high wind. Her mouth opened and closed as she sucked in air and she reached out blindly to hold on to Patsys shoulder for support. Her hand shook through Patsys top.

Patsy felt like her cheeks were going to split as she kept nodding; a five year old reducing her to one of those bobbing head toys on a back shelf of a car. Patsy had promised herself she wasn’t going to cry today and she forced herself to ignore the burning behind her eyes as she reached to snag the print out from the shelter in her back pocket.

“What about this one?” Patsy held out the paper with the picture from the rehoming center to Seppie who seemed to be hyperventilating as she stared at the outstretched final gift in awe. Fat little tears were dripping down Seppies pointed chin as she closed her eyes and pushed her fingers over them.

“No way! We’re really allowed a dog!’ Fern squealed as she dived between them both to swipe the paper out of Patsys hand and dragged it to the phone to show the others. ‘Phyllis did you know! We’re getting a dog! Helen we’re getting a dog.”

Someone said something in the background but Patsy only had eyes and ears for one person at that moment.

Seppie had jolted a little as her sister took the photo and looked at Patsy through shaky fists.

“Can I really have a dog?” She asked sniffling and Patsy grinned as she nodded.

“Yes.”

“A real dog?” Seppie questioned carefully.

“Yes baby, a real dog.”

“Can I keep it forever not just a day?” Seppie seemed determined to iron out any possible loop holes before committing to anything. The fear warring against the hope in her face and Patsys heart tightened as she heard Fern giggle at something Phyllis said.

“You can keep it forever.” Patsy agreed solemnly.

“Can I take it to school with me?”

“No. Dogs don’t go to school but you can take it everywhere else.”

“Is... Can I really have a dog?” Seppies eyes were hungry, the bone still hanging at her waist limply.

Patsy took the bone gently feeling the slight resistance as Seppies grip tightened just for a second before letting it go. Patsy put the bone back on the table and stroked Seppies ear playfully as she forced herself to understand how hard trust was to the kids. How dangerous it could be to leave yourself open to the risk of disappointment.

“I promise you it’s a real dog. Your dog. We are going to get a dog when you come home from school tonight I promise.”

Seppie sobbed, finally convinced that Patsy was really being serious all in one moment and fell into Patsys waiting arms. Patsy felt a snotty face burrow into her neck and, even though if anyone else had done this she’d probably have worried about the germs, she found herself utterly elated at finally pulling off something exactly as she’d planned.

Patsy couldn’t stop the whoop falling out of her mouth as she stood up with Seppie clasped safe in her arms. Patsy gave the kid a few seconds to compose herself as she bounced Seppie on her hip idly and then she reached to pull Seppies hands away from her face so that they could talk.

“Happy birthday baby.”

Patsy pressed a kiss to the girls cheek and turned just in time to see how Seppies teeth were very white against her lips when she bared them in a wide grin. At a time like this Patsy could almost forget the rest of it.

For one golden moment the sun was too bright even for shadows and the clouds. Patsy could only hope it would last the day.

Chapter Text

The next hour was simple mayhem trapped in a too small cottage.

Too late Patsy realised her mistake; to promise a dog and not produce one at the same time was not accepted very well by the younger generation. Both girls seemed quite open to skipping school in order to get the new housemate. Patsy had had to resort to shouting in the end just to be heard over the high pitched applications from Fern only to then have to repeat herself again in order to tell Seppie that school was not optional.

Neither Fern nor Seppie was particularly impressed with Patsys attempt at parenting. Seppie had stalked off long before Patsy could explain again why they couldn’t all skive off.

The little girl had stomped up the stairs and slammed just about every door in answer which was irritating if only because Seppie had no way of knowing just how loud she was being. Fern chose to sniff and look beseechingly at Patsy like she’d personally grieved them both which, in the girls eyes, she probably had. Patsy hadn’t weakened.

“School.” She’d ordered firmly which made Fern flounce off after her sister with a hmmph noise.

Trixie snorted into her spiked mug as the sounds of music drifted from upstairs. She’d walked over to hover in the shelter of the back door for another crafty fag while the debate had raged.

“Thank you for all your help there Trix.” Patsy muttered caustically as she play punched a balloon sellotaped to the wall close by.

“Grateful things aren’t they?” Trixie observed with just the faintest beginnings of a slur. Patsy hadn’t seen the blonde refill her mug from the kettle but there seemed to be some kind of liquid there nonetheless.

“They’re just disappointed,” Patsy sighed rather forlornly, annoyed at herself for not planning things better. Trixie snorted into her mug and Patsy eyed her friend a little sadly as she mulled internally over the mental image of Trixie sitting in the house with the lights still off when they’d all gone, slowly polishing off as much of the whiskey as she could before she had to go into work.

She would be lucky if she didn’t get sacked in the end.

Shaking her head and trying not to dwell on things she couldn’t change right now Patsy reached for her cup of tea that had been left on the table to go cold. There was a bitty scum on the surface now and the brew was bitter with chill so she sipped it in tiny mouthfuls, rinsing it over her tongue before she swallowed.

“My dad bought me a playhouse when I was six.’ Trixie offered rather dreamily as she shut the door with a snap and walked back through the living room, cheeks flushed from cold. Her balance was already going Patsy observed glumly and she managed to kick the sofa as she passed. Whether she noticed that the furniture moved at her passing was anyone’s guess. When she got into the kitchen she sat down but she didn’t let go of her mug. ‘Horribly expensive. They tended to spoil me; only child and all that.”

“That sounds nice.” Patsy said as neutrally as she could manage with her mind fixed to the sound of feet apparently trying to stomp all the way through the ceiling above her head.

“It was pink.’ Trixie went on, ‘had curtains in the window, the ones you can see through. Great big hulking plastic monstrosity; my mother told me they’d gone without for weeks to buy it. Totally impractical for the house too but my dad said he thought it looked fit for a princess so he’d wanted to get it for me. He could be like that sometimes,’ Trixie sniffed tremulously, ‘my dad; I was always his princess he said.” Trixie swigged her mug looking melancholic, the whiskey dragging her down the usual dark paths. She’d be angry in an hour or so and then she’d climb higher if she didn’t sleep it off.

Trixies dad had died a few years ago; liver cancer. As far as Patsy could worked out father and daughter hadn’t spoken at all since the day he’d walked out on Trixies mother to start a new life alongside the secretary he’d been having an affair with for over a decade. Trixie had a brother somewhere she’d told Patsy one of the nights she’d been in a sharing mood. Her father had always wanted a son apparently.

“Hmm.” Patsy hummed non commitally, not really knowing what to say in answer to that titbit of information and unwilling to make up some vague reassurance just to fill the silence. Wasn’t like Trixie would listen to her anyway.

Wasn’t like Patsy could offer any soppy memories of her own childhood either was it?

Patsy had a vaguely uneasy sensation in her chest as she thought about the birthdays she might have had as a child. She wouldn’t have known if it had been her birthday or not; Abraham hadn’t been big on marking important dates. After the commune had ended there hadn’t been any birth certificates to tell her when the original date had been either; the doctors had been forced to guess at her age through dental work mainly and then some faceless member of social services had assigned a new birthday that they printed on a back dated birth certificate. It worried Patsy sometimes that they might have got her age wrong; maybe she was a year older than she thought she was.

Shaking her head to force the dark thoughts away Patsy picked at the handle of her mug. She certainly hadn’t ever been bought a present that meant much to her by anyone until Helen. The children’s home gave all the kids the same package at Christmas; shower gel, shampoo, a colouring book and something handed in by well meaning members of the public. Most of the good stuff was usually stolen by the bigger kids during the evening but Patsy had always managed to hang on to hers. She’d tried to stop some of the pilfering too. She’d been in trouble one year for breaking an older girls nose when she’d caught her stealing from the little kids bags.

Patsy had refused to apologise when the carers had found the two of them on the floor, faces bloody but she hadn’t told the adults why they’d fought either. It had cost her a mince pie pudding in the end but she hadn’t cared.

“Tom buys me perfume on my birthdays usually.’ Trixies cut in, her voice was brittle with bitterness unaware that Patsys attention had drifted. The tone was becoming the norm at the moment when this subject began. ‘I suppose...’ Trixie swallowed harshly, blue eyes flashing as she reached with shaking hands for the pocket of her dressing gown reflexively, ‘I suppose he’ll be buying the new girl perfume from now on. He’s nothing if not predictable.”

“Trixie,’ Patsy frowned and tried to reach forward gently and stop her friends tipping fingers on the neck of her bottle, ‘it’s early. Do you really need that? Honestly? You’ll lose your pin if you’re caught drunk on the job.”

“I won’t be drunk.’ Trixie snapped back, defensive immediately as her hands pulled the bottle out of Patsys reach. ‘I’ve got all day to sleep it off. I only got up because I knew you’d want me around for morale support.”

Morale support? Patsy barely suppressed a sneer as she glared at her friend while she drained the bottle into her mug.

“I thought it was because you were chucking your guts up.”

Trixie rolled her eyes; “I had a bad kebab yesterday that was all. Save your dramatics for someone who needs it sweetie.”

Patsy gave up.

“Make sure you shower before you go to work,’ she grunted shortly, standing up and walking to the living room, ‘you stink of spirits.”

They both sat stewing in their own irritation while Patsy waited for the girls to come downstairs. This task in some ways did serve as a distraction even if the distraction itself came in the guise of utter exasperation.

Before the girls Patsy had her free to leave the house without much thought. With the girls the once simple task was complicated somewhat.

Seppie had to be sent back upstairs no less than three times to change her clothes before she was ready to leave the house. The first time because all she’d done was put on a different set of pyjamas. Tolerant though Phyllis was towards their smallest family member Patsy highly doubted even Phyllis’s blind spot was big enough to overlook a massive black and yellow batman onesie. The second time the girl had finally slipped into her school uniform but, in the way only small children could, she’d decided to ignore the pounding rain outside and declared summer all over again by putting on her summer dress and cardigan. The third time she’d come downstairs with a book after conveniently forgetting she was supposed to be getting ready for school.

On the fourth go Patsy had been satisfied that Seppie was dressed appropriately only to realise that the drama hadn’t ended and that Seppie wanted to wear her wellies rather than her school shoes today.

There are many dictators in this world; they are most usually overly entitled old white men with rubbish haircuts and questionable facial hair choices but all of them faltered into nothingness when compared to a five year old girl who wants nothing more or less than to wear frog wellies to school. Wars were waged for less.

Nonetheless Patsy forced herself to try. The two of them had stood in the hall and had a brief discussion about the need to wear the proper school regulation shoes. Seppie had folded her arms stubbornly and stared Patsy out in the irritatingly direct way that she’d clearly copied from Patsy herself. Eventually Patsy had capitulated after a lengthy loss of diplomacy deciding just to shove the things in a bag and allow Seppie to change into them once she was in class. Barbara could deal with something for once, lord knew Patsy was cleaning up the brunt of the young teachers messes on a day to day basis with Trixie.

Then they’d had the usual coat debate. Wherein Seppie didn’t think it was necessary and Patsy, patience thinning, explained that it wasn’t actually a matter of choice and that any excursions outside the house without suitable outerwear would result in pneumonia.

This had very little effect in scare tactics however because Patsy didn’t know the sign for Pneumonia and Seppies vocabulary wasn’t at that level yet. Seppie did put on the coat in the end though. It was yellow and had a duck design on the hood which cheered her up a bit as she fiddled with the toggles waiting for Fern to join them.

Fern had been the last one down and Patsy had felt like a skipping record as she shouted up the stairs every few minutes that the teenager would miss her bus if she didn’t get a move on. When Fern did eventually return Patsy tried not to roll her eyes.

Ferns was too distracted to notice Patsys impatient tapping foot as she fiddled with the collar of her white shirt self consciously. It was tight and the correct fit for her neck. Fern was still getting used to it. Allie hadn’t ever had much spare money for uniform so the girls had tended to wear whatever second hand stuff their mother could lay her hands on; baggy shirts and faded blazers the wrong shade of blue. Patsy had made sure that this wasn’t the case now of course but she wasn’t entirely certain if that had been the right thing to do in hindsight.

Although Fern had said she was very pleased to finally have a blazer that fit and belonged to her schools stock when Patsy had bought it for her Patsy knew it made her uncomfortable looking so different to what she’d been. The newness of the fabric rubbed at her skin. Patsy hated knowing that she’d caused the teenager extra angst.

Patsy had asked Fern if she wanted to stay at her old school half way through the holidays and Fern had said that she did. Patsy had held reservations about this decision when it was made but had at least known not to voice them at the time. The local high school had a rubbish reputation and Fern had never had all that many friends there to begin with. It was familiar though and perhaps that was the pull to stay for Fern. Given everything else the kids had lost in the last few months Patsy had agreed, not wanting to uproot them any more than they were already.

So Fern had returned to her old school and her old friends and of course the rumours had been flying about what had really happened to Allie and Mick. Patsy had tried to talk to Fern about this, had offered to go to the school to talk to the headmaster but Fern had asked her not to. She’d said she didn’t want to talk about. She’d said she could handle it.

Patsy had her doubts.

Fern was changing; for one thing the makeup was beginning to be ridiculous. Patsy hadn’t ever really bothered with the stuff when she was a teenager so she couldn’t be certain if it was normal for someone to think their skin should be the colour of an orange. Fern hadn’t worn make up before but on the first night back from school she’d asked Patsy if she’d buy her some. Patsy had obliged thinking that at 16 Fern was just growing up. Unfortunately Ferns skills were still definitely in the developmental phase. Patsy was currently trying very hard not to interfere, knowing everyone had to find their own style.

Sighing at her own shortcomings, Patsy watched Fern slip on her shoes and wondered if it would be kinder to tell the girl that she shouldn’t do eyes and lips at the same time. Fern favoured bright lipstick and dark eyeshadow. The smudgy collection or browns, blues and blacks painted around her eyelids up to her eyebrows gave the impression of a bruise rather than sultry provocateur which, Patsy assumed, was the original intention. Patsy recalled Allies face, all the times she’d had to help patch the woman up after Mick was done with her and shuddered. Fern looked so much like her mother at times.

She made a mental note to bring up the subject of blending colours into conversation and wondered if she could rope Trixie into it too. Makeup was more the blondes thing than Patsys after all.

Fern looked up at Patsy once her shoes were on, adjusting her tie as she went and Patsy gave a pointed cough. Patsy didn’t actually care that much about uniform or that Fern left her top button undone but she felt that four was taking the piss somewhat. She might as well wear her bra on the outside if that was the reason for doing it. With a sigh Fern made a show of doing the bottom three up looking sulky. Patsy shook her head knowing full well the buttons would be undone again the second Patsy was out of sight and shouted a swift goodbye to Trixie who didn’t bother to answer as she shoo’d Seppie firmly out the door.

Fern heaved up her bag and shut the front door behind her as the three of them advanced through the front garden into the brisk September morning like the uneven fingers of an extending fist.

A boy was waiting at the gate for Fern expectantly when they got to it and beside her Patsy felt Fern falter. Patsy smiled in a friendly sort of way over at the newcomer when their eyes met. The boy was a local who got the same bus as Fern and he’d clearly developed a bit of a soft spot for her over the last few weeks. He’d been waiting at the gate nearly everyday this month and he followed Fern around like a lost puppy.

Ollie Frye was a red headed teenager who could only really be described as long. The word almost encapsulated everything that he was. He was still fifteen but his body seemed to be stretched somehow, the gentle scratch of fluff on his cheeks looked wrong on his young face. He had a long torso with long thin legs that never seemed to fit well inside his flapping trousers so that when he walked he was lost in a constant ambling gait. He had a long neck with a constantly bobbing Adam’s apple. His long face housed a long freckled nose that he scratched shyly at their approach with long fingers. His long feet backed away hurriedly as Patsy reached to open the gate.

“Morning ms Mount.’ He said in a voice too deep for his body, ‘Morning Fern.’ He whispered, voice cracking a bit as he smiled at the girl and then he started as he saw Seppies head over the hedge, his long arms rushed to make hurried swooping signs. ‘And birthday happy to you September.” He signed incorrectly with slow deliberation to Seppie who stared at him in surprise before smiling shyly up at the boy. Pleased that a stranger had bothered to learn how to talk to her.

Fern shook back her head, her hair flashing in the weak sun and bent down to kiss Seppie on the forehead as though she hadn’t heard or seen him at all.

“Have a good day at school, love you.” She signed in a motherly fashion to Seppie who folded her arms and reached to hold Patsys hand.

“Have you got enough money for the bus?” Patsy asked with wry amusement, feeling sorry for Ollie who stood statue like staring at Fern as though waiting for instruction on what he should do next.

Fern shouldered her bag carefully and nodded jerkily before turning and walking straight past Ollie, nose held high in the air, like he wasn’t there. There was an awkward pause as Seppie rested her head on Patsys hand and waved at Ferns retreating figure.

“Have a nice day! Love you!’ Patsy shouted, slightly annoyed that Fern hadn’t said it first. ‘You better get on too lad or you’ll miss your bus.” Patsy suggested softly at Ollie who hadn’t moved. Ollie gulped, his adam’s apple bobbing like a ball trapped in a tube and then nodded as he began to run after Fern. His legs flailed a bit as he rounded the corner.

“I think he wants to marry her.” Seppie signed seriously to Patsy as they walked over to the jeep. Patsy smirked, helping the girl up and into her car seat.

“No, she too young to be married.” Patsy signed back when the click of the seatbelt told her Seppie was in properly.

Seppie seemed to consider this before shaking her head, ‘that’s okay, he can be her boyfriend maybe to start.”

Patsy laughed, ‘what do you know about boyfriends?”

“I have twelve,’ Seppie breezed carelessly after a moments mental maths, she chewed her lip thoughtfully, ‘and nine girlfriends.”

Patsy stared at her daughter, adding up the number of classmates Seppie had in her head so quickly that a few neurons were left to rock in the corners of her brain in fear when she found the answer. 23.

“Boyfriends and girlfriends?” Patsy probed carefully.

“Yes.” Seppie replied simply.

“Right.’ Patsy swiftly decided she was not going to fall down this rabbit hole, ‘who aren’t you going out with then?” Patsy asked slowly, a little afraid of the answer.

“Kyle.’ Seppie answered darkly, immediately grimacing, ‘he’s very not my boyfriend anymore.”

“Why?” Patsy asked, transfixed at the dynamics of five year olds.

Seppie shrugged, “he doesn’t like dogs. I tell him we can work on it but..’ she waved a hand delicately in a comme ci, comme ça gesture. ‘I not holding my breath”

“Hang on, you going out with everyone in your class but Kyle?”

“I don’t want to commit too soon.” Seppie said with a terrifying lack of irony. Patsy found herself nodding weakly.

“Okay then, apparently you really are my kid.” Patsy muttered under her breath as she shut the car door and walked round to the drivers side.

The drive to the primary school was quick but silent. Patsy didn’t bother with the radio and after one trip out that had led to an emergency break Seppie knew not to talk while Patsy was driving.

Poplar school was as flat and green as ever when they parked up in the street beside it and made their way towards the small trail of people walking in the same direction. Seppie usually liked holding Patsys hand when they walked to school but today she was in a more calculating mood.

“What if,’ Seppie began idly as though she hadn’t been thinking about this all the way here, ‘we got back in the car and got the dog right now Red?”

Patsy grinned down at the little girls hopeful smile shaking her head at her optimism.

“You have to go to school baby.”

“Yes I know,’ Seppie signed impatiently, ‘I not saying we have to get the dog I just saying... what if.”

“And I just saying we will get the dog after school.” Patsy replied equally calm. Seppie hmmphed, her wellies splashing in the puddles as she stomped along the path momentarily out manoeuvred.

When they arrived close to the gates Patsy squinted through the throng to check who was on duty. Phyllis had told her in a round about way that Delia would be there but Patsy didn’t want to get her hopes up too high.

She spotted Claire first; her blonde head bobbing above the crowd like a cork lost at sea. Beside her and half a foot lower down a dark head stood close by. Patsy spied the fringe and a pair of dimples from a distance and felt her heart beat unevenly in her chest. Something electric pulsed along her wrists and down her palms.

Seppie was already striding towards the gates and Patsy didn’t feel ready. She didn’t know what she going to say.

“Wait,’ Patsy tugged Seppies arm without force so the girl had to turn back and opened her mouth. ‘look at my teeth.”

“What’s wrong with your teeth?” Seppie looked confused and a little bit weary as she stood on the grey pavement together with its grey sky.

“Have I got anything in them? Anything green maybe?”

Seppie glared up at Patsys mouth carefully for a moment before shaking her head. “No. You haven’t eaten anything green Red!” Seppie frowned up at Patsy as though she thought she’d gone mad. Patsy took a few exaggerated breaths, her hand clasped to her chest dramatically knowing it would make the child roll her eyes.

“But I made you smile.” Patsy pointed out.

“You silly.” Seppie crossed her arms in another of her Helen copy cat gestures.

“I am.’ Patsy replied feeling a warmth spread in her chest as she was struck randomly by the heady realisation that Seppie was hers, ‘I’m very silly and you is far too smart for someone like me. I super lucky.”

“Lucky enough to let me go and get the dog?” Seppie smiled toothily, batting her eyelashes.

Patsy laughed, shaking her head at the mind of the pint sized future debate captain she’d adopted. Or had Seppie merely adopted Patsy? The girl had certainly carved out a territory all of her own in Patsys life before Patsy had even realised it was happening. Patsy reached out a ran a thumb over the point of Seppies nose.

“Enough. After school we’ll get your dog, not before then.”

Seppie pouted but heaved an acknowledging sigh as she turned on the heel of one frog green welly with ill concealed frustration. Patsy watched in amusement as the tiny girl trudged towards the gates. The weight of the world seemingly resting on her bobbing back.

Had Patsy ever been in a position at her age to be so visibly upset she wondered.

Patsy shook off the ridiculous question immediately, angry at herself for even thinking about something like that. Of course she hadn’t and it was stupid to think about those things now. Seppie could wear her sadness for the short term simply for the fact that Seppie would not have her life ruled by others. She would not be prevented from feeling or thinking exactly what she wanted to. She would not carry Patsys scars. Neither of the girls would. Patsy would make sure of that. She would always make sure of that.

By the time Patsy had caught up with her daughter Seppie was already in Claire’s care. The two of them stood a little outside the crowd as they chatted excitedly.

Claire Snyde was a 24 year old woman who exuded so much raw energy that Patsy usually left any conversation feeling faintly exhausted. She was tall and plump with perpetually red cheeks and blonde hair that she braided up in complicated designs Patsy had yet to fully fathom. Seppie liked her though and that was the main thing. Seppie thought that she was cool because she had a tattoo along her right forearm. Patsy had been less impressed when she learned it was the word Claire in Arabic. She quite liked the odd tattoo but had never seen the point of having your own name inked into your skin. Presumably the only time it would help Claire would be if she was struck with sudden amnesia in the Persian Gulf.

Claire caught Patsys eye as she approached and ducked her head blushing.

Beside Claire Delia stood with her back against the fence, a steaming mug in one hand and the other hidden behind her back. Her eyes were fixed on Patsy too. Patsy pushed her bad hand deeply into the pocket of her coat and tried not to look like a woman who was close to a panic attack as she drew nearer.

Delia looked far better than Patsys memories; her hair was pulled back from her face. The break seemed to have done a good turn for her, the dark shadows on her eyes had disappeared. Her face and neck were stained darker from too much sun. She looked alive, solid and satisfyingly soft too. She’d been soft. It had just been the one night they’d been together but Patsy remembered it well. Too well.

Delia shifted against the fence, her bad leg straightening and it was almost as though Patsy could feel the weight of the limb in her hands again. There was a pulling sensation in her gut, a tugging thread that bound them was finally shortened. Delia was here.

Delia was right here and Patsy wasn’t going to let her go without a fight this time.

“Morning!” Patsy said brightly, looking at Delia but speaking to Claire. Her body didn’t feel like her own somehow, the strange heaviness was smothering her bones.

“Morning.” Both women replied to Patsy in unison before looking over at each other with the tiniest show of interest.

“So,’ Claire was the first one to break, she reached forward and patted Patsys damp shoulder boldly, ‘how did this morning go? Seppie tells me your households expanding.”

“Err,’ Patsy hesitated, glancing over at Delia who was looking down at her mug, ‘yeah, she wore me down I guess.”

“You’re such a softie.’ Claire gushed, shoving Patsys shoulder playfully and without force but the move still made Patsy wince. The ache in her chest flashed red hot as the still healing skin was pulled apart. ‘Will you be bringing it here after school? I’d love to see it.” Claire’s eyes traced Patsys with a familiarity and confidence that she didn’t really have permission to hold.

Patsy spread her lips into as genuine a smile as she could and stepped back just far enough that Claire would need to lean forward to follow her. Patsy saw Delia look up briefly to watch the exchange. Delias eyes narrowed just a little as they settled on Claire’s hand.

“I’ll do my best.’ Patsy promised, angling her body in Delias direction. ‘It’s good to see you.” She murmured across the divide to the Welsh woman. Delia licked her lips and dipped them to her tea as she smiled cautiously back at Patsy over the rim.

“And you. You look-‘ Delia glanced over at Claire ruefully, ‘wrapped up.”

Patsy used her good hand to pick at the thick wooden scarf muffled round her neck. It was a serious scarf meant less for fashion and more for warmth. She’d been feeling the cold more and more lately.

“Did you have a good summer?” Patsy was aware of Claire in the periphery eyeing the pair of them curiously but didn’t much care. All she could see was Delia. Something was inflating in her chest, pressing against her ribs as her lungs expanded.

“It was alright,’ Delia parried looking just as keenly back at Patsy, ‘my brother got married. Did some cycling.”

“You look great.” Too late Patsy realised she’d said that out loud. Delias cheeks pinked and Claire coughed. Patsy felt a hand on her thigh and her attention snapped downwards to meet Seppies gaze which was fixed on her, her mouth still turned to sulky points. ‘Right you,’ Patsy signed kneeling down to hug her daughter, ‘have a good day, learn things, don’t start any more relationships.”

Seppie giggled, ‘Red! They not proper boyfriends and girlfriends.”

“Whatever you say. Keep playing the field, I’ll be here when school finishes okay?”

“And then we get the dog?”

“Then we get the dog.”

Seppie squealed, running forward to wrap her arms around Patsy hurriedly before running off along the playground to disappear amongst a huddle of equally small children. The huddle opened up to admit her and swiftly closed again hiding her from view. Patsy stood up, brushing a few pebbles off her knees and winked at Claire.

“She’s a bit excitable today, you might have your work cut out.” She offered without any real apology. Claire waved the sentiment away airily.

“Oh she’ll be fine. The life she’s had she’d probably get excited by just about anything the poor thing.” Claire laughed.

There was a chilly pause, Patsys eyes hardened for half a second and then she forced herself to relax, knowing Claire hadn’t meant anything bad by it. She turned her attention over to Delia who hadn’t said anything and who even now was looking back down at her drink, apparently fascinated by the red surface.

“Probably.’ Patsy said tightly, ‘either way I’m sure you’ll manage it. Delia? Could I have a word with you?”

It wasn’t really a request but Delia must have been waiting for Patsy to ask because she stepped away from Claire almost at once. Patsy gave the blonde a curt nod and followed the Welshwoman until they were a little way away from the others.

The wind was stronger here, the fine misting rain arced in spirals around their heads. Delia licked her lips again but didn’t meet Patsys eyes.

“You’ve made quite the impression on her you know.” Delia said with a bitter quality to her voice.

Patsy rubbed at her nose as she stared down at the woman who’d haunted her dreams since she’d disappeared. She had a fleeting image of Ollie doing almost the same thing only fifteen minutes ago in front of Fern and dropped her hand immediately.

“Who? Claire?” Patsy could barely focus on the blonde as she drank in Delia. Her brain was shuttered into tunnel vision that ended with blue eyes and dimples.

“Claire’s been telling me all about you actually.” Delia said quickly, her spare hand touching her right hip in an unconscious move Patsy recognised as anxiety.

“Has she?” Patsy wasn’t really surprised and she didn’t want to hear what Claire thought about her. It wasn’t like she particularly cared about what Claire thought of her one way or another after all but a small insidious part of her wished Delia would agree with Claire’s opinions. A bit of praise would be nice right about now; a hint that Delia was still interested. A fucking clue.

“She has the most all mighty crush on you.” Delia breezed a little too easily, her knuckles whitening on the cup she held.

Patsy pressed her lips together in faint amusement that Delia could be in any way worried about Claire’s interest matching Patsys.

“She seems like a nice girl.”

Delia looked up sharply, her cheeks not just red from the cold now; “she seems lovely. Pretty.”

“Young.” Patsy supplied affably.

“Yes.” Delia said through gritted teeth.

“Smart with it too.’ Patsy went on neutrally, tracking the way Delias eyes were searching her own, ‘she won’t be on her own for long I don’t think.”

“That’s... That’s exactly what I thought.” Delia swallowed hard looking for all the world like her tea had been replaced with piss and Patsy cracked a wry smile.

“Not with me though.”

Delia finally met Patsys eye with a bit of defiance. “No?” The faintest whiff of a challenge drifted along the single word and Patsy wanted to kiss her.

Patsy wanted to-

“Did you think it would be with me? No, far too young; she wouldn’t have a clue about good music for a start. What radio channel would she pick in the car? That’s important you know and,’ Patsy leaned in conspiratorially, ‘between you and me I’ve never really had much of a thing for blondes. Too... Close to home for me I guess.” Patsy waved a hand over her hair vaguely by way of explanation.

“Oh, well, that’s a shame.” Delia said without much sincerity, her shoulders relaxing.

“Always preferred brunettes as it goes.” Patsy continued, finally on a roll.

“All brunettes?” Delia enquired slyly. Quirking her eyebrow.

Patsy bit her lip, “not these days.”

“Is it red heads now then?” Delia teased, the tips of her ears turning red.

“Not red heads either,’ Patsy smirked, ‘just one particularly brunette that I can’t seem to get out my head.”

Delia paused and looked down at her mug, “lucky woman.”

Patsy looked at Delia. She felt the ghost of pressure along her limbs, the itching need to be close to her. She was beautiful and Patsy could feel the anxiety choking her. She felt awkward in her own skin. Tongue tied as she fought back nerves. Subtle. She needed to play this cool, calm and collected.

She was Patsy Mount for Gods sake. This was what she did.

“You have got no idea how glad I am that you’re back. I really missed you.” Okay, not exactly subtle but it could have been worse as an opener Patsy told herself.

“I... I thought about you a lot over the summer.” Delias face was still guarded as she gave her admission but Patsy couldn’t stop the thing that was expanding in her chest from swelling just a bit more.

Delia had been thinking about Patsy.

“Missing my rakish charm?’ Patsy smirked, preening. ‘Stella personality? All that good stuff?”

“Something like that yeah.” Delia said dryly, her eyes warming unconsciously.

“Was it in fact something exactly like that?” Patsy pressed hopefully and was rewarded by dimples. Gawd she’d half forgotten those bloody dimples. They were so deep, Patsy wanted to run her fingers across them just to see how far in they went.

When Delia smiled at Patsy some very complicated muscles seemed to wind in tighter. It was like the sun had finally decided to shine.

“You had a good summer then?” Delia asked still smiling, changing the subject subtly and Patsy was helpless not to answer.

“It was alright. The girls kept me busy and there was loads to do in the house and everything; it’s really starting to come on actually.’ Patsy hesitated just a little nervously at this, teasing her way over the point of no return. ‘Doubt you’d even recognise the place.”

“I’m really pleased for you Pats.” Delias dimples were still there, the smile stayed in place but the conversation seemed too formal. Patsy deflated a little. Pleased? Delia was pleased?

Oh well, Patsy decided to just get this bit over. One way or another it would be easier to ask and know straight away.

“I thought... I thought you might like to see it yourself actually. The house I mean.” Coward. Patsy clenched awkwardly inside, holding her body stiffly, waiting for Delias answer.

“Pardon?” Delia blinked slowly like she was pulling out of her own thoughts with difficulty.

“The house?’ Patsy repeated with stuttering brightness, ‘I thought you... I was hoping that you’d like to come round at some point... Soon maybe.” God, Patsy could choke on her own eagerness right now.

Ahh well. So much for smooth.

“You want to see me?” Delia sounded taken aback. Patsy frowned, wondering if she’d got this wrong.

“Of course I do.’ With the last bit of nerve she had Patsy stepped forward and ran her thumb along the back of Delias hand. To her relief Delia didn’t pull away although she still looked on edge. ‘I’ve... I’ve missed you.”

“But... You didn’t text me.” Delia mumbled, not exactly pulling her hand away but not moving any closer either.

Patsy paused, thinking Delia was being a bit over the top here. She had text. Three times all in all... Which probably hadn’t been enough Patsy now realised with a sinking feeling.

“I didn’t know what to say.’ Patsy explained apologetically. ‘I tried a few times but I knew you were really busy. You said you needed space and I didn’t want to rush you if you weren’t ready to talk.” Half a truth. Patsy hadn’t known how to phrase exactly she wanted, hadn’t been quite brave enough to see it in black and white. Baby steps, she’d told herself, you had to start somewhere.

“Oh.” Delia didn’t really say the word consciously, her lips merely opened into a circle and she seemed push the sound out on an out breath. Patsy smiled shyly.

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot though.”

“And now?” Delias eyes tracked Patsys face; searching for something that Patsy didn’t know how to convey easily.

“Well...’ Patsy blew out a breath and fought back the urge to fidget. Ridiculous as it was she’d never actually had to do this sort of thing before now. Women tended to just turn up; Patsy had never had to chase anyone. ‘Now that you are here... I’d like to talk to you... quite a bit.” More than talk actually but it was definitely a start wasn’t it?

Patsy knew she wasn’t going to win any prizes for heartfelt chats but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try for Delia. She fleetingly thought that she’d do almost about anything for this woman which was a strange and slightly terrifying realisation.

“I thought you weren’t interested... I thought that you’d- I thought... ” Delia sounded like she was sleep walking, her voice muzzy at the edges.

“I told you I’d wait didn’t I?’ Patsy said gently. ‘I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it Delia.”

“You really waited for me?” Disbelief coloured Delias voice and Patsy tried not to be too offended by it.

She’d said hadn’t she? She’d promised Delia and Patsy always kept her promises. Okay they hadn’t talked much but Delia hadn’t text Patsy either. Patsy had assumed they were holding off the time to have a serious conversation for face to face. Had Delia honestly not believed her? After everything that had happened?

“Course I did.” Patsy affirmed heavily.

They stood silent for a moment, buffeted by the September winds, strands of Delias fringe blowing across her forehead. Patsy wound the fingers of her bad hand around a loose thread in her pocket as she waited anxiously for... What? What did she do now? She’d imagined this a fair bit and in every scenario it had been, well, smoother. Easier somehow.

In the most embarrassing of visions Patsy had secretly hoped for a bit of excitement, flirting maybe, a kiss at a stretch but Delia was merely looking at her with expression more akin to shock and something else. Something harder to define. Patsy focused hard on the woman’s face. Teasing out any kind of sign that Delia didn’t want this.

To her rising disappointment she thought that she might be on the right track. God. If she’d fucked this up already, if Patsy had done this wrong, she wasn’t sure what she’d do. She wished she was better at this kind of thing, wish she’d bothered to learn how to date at the same time as learning to fuck.

“If I’m overstepping the mark,’ Patsy said eventually in a dull voice, ‘let me know and I’ll stop. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.” Patsy felt uncomfortable though. She wondered if she could extricate herself with a bit of dignity.

Probably not.

“I’m free at lunch.”Delia seemed to have come to a decision, her empty hand reached forward to snag the zip of Patsys coat, tugging Patsy towards her.

Patsy hadn’t even realised she’d been turning away until Delia was pulling her back with cautious eyes. Patsy wanted to sag but forced herself to remain exactly as she was. Still and unknowing.

“You want to talk to me?” Needy. Patsy sounded too needy for her own peace of mind. She’d never been needy before. She didn’t like it much but she wanted Delia to say it back. Wanted to hear that Delia wanted her in some small way in return.

“I need to talk to you.” Delia corrected, her eyes darting over Patsys shoulders. Patsy blinked, remembering vaguely that they were standing at the gates of a school. People were walking past them and their positions didn’t exactly scream neutral.

With a sigh Patsy took a reluctant step back. Felt colder this way but it was probably for the best. Delias hand followed the movement, she still held Patsy and Patsy hoped she wouldn’t let go. Hoped it meant she wanted to stay and see where this went.

“Pats?’ Delia interrupted Patsys internal panic, ‘this lunch time? We could go for a walk maybe, talk about things.” Delia still looked nervous and Patsy wanted to say yes. Couldn’t really fathom a world where she would decline but her schedule poked its way into her head and she scowled.

“I can’t,’ Patsy groaned regretfully, ‘it’s my first day back. I’m meeting my boss and I’m not really sure what time I’ll be finished.”

“You’re going back to work!” Delias face shuttered, her hand dropping away as she stared at Patsy in astonishment.

“Yeah,’ Patsy rubbed her thumb along the metal patch Delia had touched, it was still warm. ‘Sorry, I should’ve planned this better.”

“But it’s too early, you said ten weeks.’ Delia said sharply, eyes narrowed. ‘Why are they making you go back to work so soon?”

“They’re not making me,’ Patsy defended mutinously, embarrassed that Delia might think she was incapable of pushing paperwork around for a few weeks. ‘I was going mad walking around the house all summer. It was my request.”

“But you need to rest up, you can’t go off gallivanting around town putting yourself in danger.”

“Gallivanting?’ Patsy scoffed, ‘I don’t even own a gally, I couldn’t gant if I tried. Come on,’ she bent her neck trying to meet Delias eye, ‘Poplars not dangerous, whats the worst that will happen? Some farmers call in for help with a rogue swan.”

Delia sucked in a breath, suddenly tense. “It was dangerous enough for you to nearly die a few months ago.” She said in a constricted voice.

“That wasn’t normal for Poplar.’ Patsy rushed, concerned that Delia was worrying about shadows. She threw caution to the wind again and ran a forefinger under Delias chin, holding her there for half a beat, speaking firmly. ‘It’s a safe town Delia. I’m not in any more danger than anyone else walking out their door every morning. Less than a lot of other places.”

“How...’ Delia began and then stopped as though she was forcing herself to say something she didn’t want to. ‘How is your chest?” Her eyes lasered into Patsys torso, her face too pale. The point of her chin between Patsys fingers had been too sharp. She’d lost weight.

All of a sudden Delias thin coat looked too thin, the air was chilly and Delia looked cold.

“Haven’t you got a scarf or anything?” Patsy asked with random concern.

“Pardon?” Delia blinked, perplexed at the change of topic.

“A scarf,’ Patsy repeated patiently, ‘you look like you could do with one, it’s bitter out. Here, take mine.” Patsy hurriedly unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and reached over to wind it about Delias. Intent on her goal as she was Patsy still felt a faint thrill at being able to touch Delia. Delia blushed at the move but smiled wanly up at Patsy when she’d finished.

“Still trying to save me?” Delia asked with a smile in her voice.

Patsy smoothed her hand along the scarfs end, securing it in place.

“Well you know what they say; if it ain’t broken.” Patsy muttered absentmindedly.

“Pats,’ Delia said firmly, refusing to be distracted, ‘you have been looking after yourself haven’t you? You’ve been taking things easy?” Suspicion laced itself among the curled vowels like snakes in a river.

“Me?’ Patsy widened her eyes as though she wasn’t someone who had been asked this question far too often of late. She gave her best brush off. ‘I’m fine. Honest. You know how it goes, wouldn’t know how to give up if they showed me how with a map.”

“I’m aware of your stubbornness,’ Delia deadpanned, clearly not at all convinced. ‘But you didn’t answer my question. Please tell me you’ve been looking after yourself?”

“Course I have. Fit as a fiddle.” Patsy said gruffly. Her neck was cold now and she shivered, guilt pricked at her as she met Delias gaze.

“And you’ve not been smoking. Your lungs are shot as it is, I hope you’ve helped them out a bit m.” Delia raised her eyebrow but her lips twitched.

“Err...’ Patsy teetered between an open lie and swiftly chose to hedge her bets. ‘Not- Not many. Only a few when the kids are in bed.”

“Hmm.’ Delia surprised them both as she leaned forward and pressed her hand right against Patsys heart. Patsys twitched at the unexpected warm touch. Delias eyes glinted and pushed Patsys jacket away to delve into an inside pocket. She returned almost instantly with a packet of cigarettes held in her hand. Patsys mouth hung as Delia waved it like a victory flag. ‘Knew it. You always get the same look in your eye when you’re lying.’ Delia breezed a little smugly ‘I did tell you that before didn’t I?”

“I’m allowed one vice surely?” Patsy muttered plucking the pack from Delias unresistant fingers.

“Just the one?” Delia challenged.

Their eyes met again.

“Have dinner with me tonight at mine.’ Patsy offered it on impulse, wincing at the way it sounded blurted. ‘Come home with me after school.”

“Isn’t it Seppies birthday?’ Delias smile faded. ‘You’ll be busy, it’s probably not the right time for all of this.”

“Please,’ Patsy hated that she was pleading. Hated that she sounded this pathetic. ‘I’ll be dead to them when the dog turns up, I could do with the company.”

“It’s a bit short notice,’ Delia shifted on her feet looking unaccountably guilty, ‘I’ve got a friend from Wales staying with me, I can’t just leave her on her own.”

“Invite her too if you want.” Patsy offered. In reality she wasn’t all that keen on the idea of someone there to distract them but if it made Delia feel more comfortable...

“You don’t know her,’ Delia supplied looking conflicted, ‘it might be awkward.”

“Then only come over for a cup of tea and go home afterwards. An hour tops, I’m sure your friend can fend for herself for another hour.” Patsy was determined not to lose this opportunity.

“Well,’ Delia said slowly, capitulating in one word but still maintaining an unwelcome guard about her. ‘Maybe an hour wouldn’t be too bad.”

“Just to talk. Nothing more.” Patsy reassured with far more confidence than she felt.

Delia sighed and shook her head as though exasperated with them both.

They stared at each other and Patsy opened her mouth to say something else but stopped when the bell released a tinny scream from its place on the school wall. The sound made them both jump and Delia straightened immediately looking at her watch.

“Shit. I’ve got to go.” Delia said rather pointlessly. Patsy nodded, already watching Delia hurry away from her again.

“I’ll see you later then.” Patsy called to the woman’s retreating back and was rewarded with a furtive wave in return which Patsy decided was probably an affirmative.

Patsy waited where she was for a while after that, following Delias form as she was swallowed by a swarm of children trying to line up and failing quite spectacularly. She saw Seppie standing with Claire on the periphery and waved at her. Seppie blew her a kiss in return; her previous annoyance apparently forgotten with five minutes play. Patsy couldn’t prevent the stupid grin plastered onto her face as she watched the kids file off. When they’d all gone inside and there was nothing left to watch Patsy turned around and began to walk back to the car, whistling quietly to herself as she went.

All in all it had gone better than she could have hoped for really.

She had an appointment to keep and a busy evening to look forward to. Things were looking up.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Patsy took a slow drive through the country roads to the station after dropping Seppie off.

It had only been nine weeks since she’d last driven this route and she’d been doing it for years but today the distance surprised her.

Had it always been this far? How many times had she sat in her car driving with only her own company? Why hadn’t it ever bothered her before now?

It wasn’t that she minded the length of journey as such and, she had to admit, it was almost nice to get away from Poplar for a while with its small town mentality but it was unsettling to realise something that she should’ve noticed long before now.

She’d been lonely and hadn’t had the insight to pay attention to that fact. The idea pissed her off more than she wanted to admit. The weather didn’t help with her dour mood much.

The grey drizzle seemed to follow her all the way along the A and B roads and her eyes watched the windscreen in front of her blur and clear with the rhythmic swiping of the wipers as she waited in a queue of traffic into Norwich city centre.

At least staring into the rain was better than seeing the half closed shop fronts and the endless succession of coffee chains that had sprung up everywhere. People might not have jobs in Norwich but they’d always be able to drink coffee.

Patsy hated Norwich and she missed her old station closer to home with its dodgy front door that never closed and its tiny winding stairs. She’d been eighteen when she joined the force and the place had been brilliant for its total bewildering refusal to adhere to the rules of architecture. You could lose a criminal in the mess and find them a week later having got lost in the cellar.

A golden age indeed.

Now they had Norwich station with its glass front and its shabby back rooms. Somehow it had never felt quite the same.

A series of government cutbacks had drastically reduced Norfolk constabularies buildings over the last six years; where once there had been local police boxes and small cell blocks dotted along the coast line there was now only two central stations that housed the main body of the police force across a regional patch of about two thousand square miles. Given that the staff number sat around 800 in full force with perhaps 200 officers in rotation on the streets at any given moment it was hardly surprising that the local papers complained constantly of the increasing crime rates. The force was fundamentally undermanned and even then it had to be acknowledged that Norfolk was considered one of the better staffed areas in the country.

Not that that was much of a positive.

Nearly all of the bigger cities were all always half an hour away from some crisis. The countries crime fighters held themselves together on a shoe string budget and resisted the neglect of official bodies; fire fighting rather than performing any real prevention.

The station hadn’t changed at all when Patsy parked up. Some enterprising member of the force had finally painted the old graffiti patch near the bins with a lick of fresh paint she noticed. This attempt at gentrification seemed to have been generally embraced by the more artistically inclined criminal minds as a cue for bigger and better masterpieces.

As expected the people did not disappoint and someone had predictably painted the words “cill da pigs” in loopy multicoloured writing that fully covered the fresh paint. Patsy nodded in faint civic pride as she stepped out the jeep and lit up a fag, leaning against the door.

Say what you liked but it was heartening to see that old fashioned illiteracy was being handed down to the next generation.

She stayed by the jeep for the length of a fag as she watched the comings and goings with indifference. Squad cars pulled up and walked a variety of individuals through the front doors. At this early hour the real criminals tended to be in bed so the perps all looked more on the domestic side.

Patsy recalled bringing Mick in one morning by the scruff of his weedy neck when Seppie was only a few days old. He’d battered Allie so badly she’d had to go back into hospital for a week because he’d managed to kick most of her postpartum stitches out. Allie hadn’t pressed charges in the end because she’d never had the spine for it and Patsy had had the girls at the station for the day until the social had found temporary accommodation.

Seppie had been tiny, a loaf of bread in dirty blankets with confused blinking eyes. Even then a part of Patsy had wanted to do more for the girls. She’d wanted to save them somehow from the shit hand life had dealt them... She hadn’t quite imagined everything as it was now though. Funny how much things had changed in such a short period of time really.

Patsy was mum, Helen was a grandmother and Allie and Mick were dead...

Maybe it wasn’t all that funny when she thought about it actually.

Patsy dropped the fag butt on the ground and crushed it under her boot as she straightened her spine and turned her mind to business forcibly.

Her stomach fluttered with nerves as she strode purposefully towards the side door. Even with everything she’d told the others a huge part of her wasn’t certain what would happen today. It couldn’t be plainer that Ursula was nursing a hell of a grudge at the moment. For all of Ursulas shows of concern Patsy wasn’t fooled for a moment; Patsy had gone behind everyone’s backs with Abraham’s case. She’d ignored procedures and kept Ursula out of the loop.

Not that she didn’t have a point Patsy had to concede.

People had died and it was all Patsys fault.

Ursula was beyond pissed and Patsy was hanging onto her badge by her fingertips. It would need to be a full charm offensive today.

Patsy would just slip through the front and head straight to-

“Patsy!” A voice boomed from somewhere in front of Patsy almost as soon as she walked inside.

Patsy jumped, her frayed nerves jolting as a high pitched squeal tore through her ear. Patsy tensed, nervous to receive a blow she wasn’t prepared for even as she turned into a pair of arms that enveloped her. Patsy had the faint vision of blonde hair before the arms around her neck squeezed a little more tightly and a breathy voice drifted up from somewhere around Patsys jaw.

“I had no idea you were in today you should have told me!” Alice Fuller, Patsys personal homage to hell, smelled of mints and desperation as she spoke and Patsy rolled her eyes over the womans shoulder. Relaxing infinitesimally.

“Alice.”

“God it’s so good to see you!’ Alices hands were hovering dangerously close to Patsys arse. ‘I’ve been meaning to pop by this week, you should have told me, we could have car-pooled.”

“Al you live Cromer.’ Patsy said in a muffled voice, half suffocated by hair and half by the woman’s desire to push her way into Patsys life. ‘Anyway it was a last minute thing.” Patsy tried to unpeel the desk sergeant with as much tact as she could. Alice’s grip swapped to Patsys wrist and she clung there like a limpet hanging from a cliff as she was pushed carefully back.

“You’re still a naughty girl, you should have sent me a message. I’d have made you a cuppa before you got here at least.” Alice waved an admonishing finger some few inches from Patsys nose as she spoke.

Patsy stared at the finger. Non plussed.

At an age of thirty one, with two children, a home and as much emotional baggage one woman can possess without taking out some sort of external storage unit, Patsy did not at all enjoy being called a naughty girl. She wasn’t a girl. She hadn’t even found the time to be a girl when she’d technically been one in the first place.

Nonetheless she forced a rather stiff smile onto her face because Alice seemed to expect it and Patsy didn’t have the energy for a full blown argument in her first five seconds inside the station.

“Err I’ve already had one but thanks Al. Actually I can’t really hang about, I’ve got a meeting with-“ Patsy began wavering on the spot.

“So,’ Alice crowed, clapping her hands expectantly and completely ignoring Patsys attempt at a hasty withdrawal. ‘How did it all go?” Her hand dug in a little bit tighter around Patsys wrist. Patsy could feel a fight or flight swooping down her hindbrain.

“How did what go?” Patsy asked too belligerently for polite company as she pulled her arm back sharply to break Alice’s grip. Needing the space.

Alice stuck out her bottom lip. She looked like a child forbidden from any more sweets.

“You’re so standoffish,’ She grumbled teasingly, ‘love to play hard to get don’t you?”

“Not really a big fan of games actually.” Patsy said dryly, wincing as she rubbed her red wrist.

“How did it go this morning? Did the girls like your present?”

“Err,’ Patsy paused, trying desperately to recall when on earth she’d been stupid enough to share her plans with Alice. ‘Yeah it... It went alright. Did I tell you about the dog?”

“A dog!’ Alice’s eyes widened, ‘no, you old softy, I knew you’d go all out. You mentioned it was the smallest ones birthday and I wrote a note down about it. I wasn’t sure if you might wanted me to come round after work if you needed any help? We could... Watch a film when the kids go to bed.” Alices smile was all teeth. A phone rang at the desk but she ignored it; a shark smelling blood.

“September. The smallest one is called September.” Patsy said quietly, recalling her daughters face and seething at the hasty dismissal.

“Such a sweet name. Are they here with you now?” Alice didn’t sound nearly as keen as before at this point, her eyes venturing absurdly towards the door as though she thought Patsy might have left the girls in the car park. Patsy tilted her head towards the blonde with a mock serious expression.

“Yeah Seppies just parking the car actually.’ Patsy nodded encouragingly, ‘She’s not the best driver but I’ve told her she needs to get the basics down at least if she wants to make it as a cab driver in Rio.”

“Sweet,’ Alice echoed again clearly not listening to a word Patsy was saying as she fluffed out her hair, ‘how are things now, have the girls settled in alright?”

Patsy smiled, sarcasm churning, which at least managed to penetrate Alice’s interest, “not really, they’re utter burdens between you and I Al. The smallest one doesn’t contribute anything to the bills. I’ve tried to get her sewing trainers of an evening but she flatly refused. Kids these days don’t even know they’re born.”

“Err.” Alice blinked, finally following the conversation with confusion, ‘that’s... Nice?”

“It’s brilliant really but look I can’t keep you,’ Patsy waved at the for once empty front desk, ‘you’ve probably got loads to get on with. I’ll give you a call another time maybe.”

This seemed to perk Alice up a bit although it didn’t seem like Patsy needed to do much at the minute. Her smile widened.

“I’ll hold you to that!”

Patsy tried not to roll her eyes as she stepped off. Refusing to look back although she felt Alice keep watching her until she’d rounded the corner.

Bloody women were like buses sometimes. She could only hope Delia would be this keen later on. Given the rather lukewarm reception at the school gates Patsy didn’t think this was likely though.

Patsy walked slowly through the stations halls; trying not to let the feelings of anxiety get any bigger. Half of her expected Alice’s reaction to be a one off; she’d worried about this bit too in the dark of the night. What had happened in the commune had been well publicised in the local news, everyone knew cops loved a good bit of gossip as much as the next person. What if everyone thought that she’d been working with Dyer somehow? What if everyone thought she was an idiot; desperate for her fifteen minutes of fame?

For once though Patsys cynicism seemed to be proved wrong.

To her relief no one seemed openly hostile and more than a few people tried to stop her to ask if she feeling better. It was a nice, if surreal, feeling to reassure people she barely knew that, yes, the girls were settling into the house just fine and yes, that she was completely healed up. Patsy suspected that Alice had been talking about her in the canteen.

For the most part Patsy didn’t stick around to chat for too long lest her colleagues falsely believe she was more socially capable than she actually was. She nodded at a few faces she knew a little better; Marshy a Constable on traffic gave her the thumbs up as she happily carried what looked like a stack of window blinds down the hall. Patsy didn’t bother to ask why.

Patsy did stop to talk to Chopsticks though when they crossed paths just outside of the CID office doors.

The man had helped Patsy a great deal with the girls and the house even if they’d not actually managed to speak to one another. For his addition of the drawing easel Patsy could almost kiss him; Seppie could get lost for hours.

Chopsticks had given Patsy a shy pat on the back when they were close enough and Patsy had quickly thanked him for all of his help with the house while she’d been in hospital. From what the girls told Patsy Chopsticks had turned up with his wife at least once a day to check in. A father of two with another one on the way the man was ambitious but he’d mellowed apparently since Dyers influence had disappeared.

Chopsticks had waved Patsys thanks away easily telling her not to worry so much.

“Honestly Mount after everything it was the right thing to do. My wife wouldn’t have let me rest anyway once she found out about the kids.” Chopsticks grinned over at Patsy who couldn’t help but return it.

“She’s got to be about ready to drop hasn’t she?” Patsy asked with interest, recalling guiltily that she’d been invited to Chopsticks last kids baptism and hadn’t gone.

“December although she’s huge and her feet are killing her,’ Chopsticks glowed with questionable pride, ‘on that score boss, she told me to tell you that if your little one needs any clothes then just give us a shout. The eldest is seven and the Mrs wants to flog some of the stuff she’s grown out of clothes wise before the baby gets here, it’s another boy and our Zed can’t wear all that pink so you can have first refusal if you want.”

“That’s... Thanks that would be great,’ Patsy felt as though she swallowed something too big, touched at the offer from a stranger. ‘You really don’t have to.”

“I know I don’t have to boss,’ Chopsticks rolled his eyes, ‘just following orders that’s all. Happy wife, happy life and all that.”

“Chopsticks you don’t have to call me boss, we’re the same rank.”

Chopsticks seemed to consider this and then shrugged lazily, “Only for now Mount. The rumour going around is that old Ursula wants you to take Dyers spot as sergeant. If that happens I’d appreciate first dibs on your job if you don’t mind.”

“Still want to be in CID then? Ready to lose a limb?” Patsy enquired grinning more genuinely now.

Chopsticks ran his hands through his dark hair luxuriously. “Wouldn’t go that far but I’ve always thought I’d look good in a deer stalker boss.”

“Well I think you’re hoping for nothing Chopsticks.’ Patsy advised warningly. ‘I don’t even know if she’ll let me back in. It’s just a return to work meeting.”

“Oh please,’ Chopsticks shook his head pityingly, ‘You’ve always been Ursulas favourite. She handpicked you to join CID didn’t she?”

“She agreed my application on the AIDS course but I wouldn’t say she handpicked me.” Patsy deferred cautiously.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re her golden girl, even Dyer used to say it. Just remember your friends when you move up the ladder right?” Chopsticks eyes glowed hopefully and Patsy was powerless not to agree even if she privately wondered if Chopsticks was on glue.

“Course I will.”

They chatted for a bit longer about Chopsticks eldest who was learning to play the recorder very badly by Chopsticks estimation and then Patsy bid a hasty goodbye to meet Ursula. Chopsticks watched her go with a wave, completely certain that Patsy was going to be promoted rather than chewed out.

Patsy doubted he was right somehow.

Walking into the main office was a strange sensation. The door swung closed behind Patsy as she stood quite alone in the big open plan space. Somehow despite the space being empty of her colleagues Patsy still shivered; it felt too much like ghosts stood beside her.

The room itself wasn’t any different. The squared off work spaces still smelled faintly of old coffee and old takeaways. The messy piles of endless paperwork still huddled on the edge of every desks out trays. The white boards on the back wall were filled with the ever present mismatch of half scrubbed hypothesis and buzz word working models. Still... It felt different to her.

Patsy and Phils shared desk stood off to one side. Their combined absence had left the area with a neglected air about it. Phil had always been messy, his desk had constantly encroached over to Patsys side as he flatly refused to acknowledge paperwork until given no other option. Now, someone, possibly someone from the investigation team had taken almost everything from the sergeants desk.

The under desk set of drawers had been wheeled away, they’d taken his diary, his wall calendar, they’d even taken all of the paperwork away and that must have been a few trips on its own.

They’d left the more personal affects though. Phil didn’t have any living relatives so there probably hadn’t been anyone to give them to. It appeared as though none of Patsys colleagues had wanted to touch the man’s desk. She hoped they weren’t harbouring grudges for bringing him down. There were still a few pictures stuck to his felt partition board.

A postcard with a picture of spitfire, a few pin up girls and lastly, half shoved below the line of the telephone, there was a single picture of Valerie.

It was an old picture, left to go grimy being so close to the desk top. Along the bottom edge were a few flecks of questionable stains from long digested take away meals. In the bottom right hand corner the date was typed by the cameras fuzzy red numerals.

Valerie’s face looked younger in the photo but it was still recognisably the woman Patsy had loved a little bit. The Valerie in the picture still wore the same forced smile and too much eyeliner that Patsy had found so enticingly frustrating.

Patsy wondered if Phil had been asked to supply a photograph for Vals funeral. Her sisters had come and taken the body in the end, apparently to bury her back in London. The idea of Phil being anywhere near Vals final send off made Patsys fist clench.

Val hadn’t ever been perfect, she hadn’t been easy but then again she’d never pretended to be any of those things. Perhaps Patsy hadn’t been the right person to help Val but God knew Patsy had been a better person than Phil. Val had always deserved something better than Phil.

Everyone deserved something better than Phil come to think of it.

Someone outside slammed a door loudly and Patsy jumped. Looking around she checked the area, embarrassed that anyone might have caught her gawping at a photograph. To her relief she found that she was still alone. Ursulas office door was closed, the blinds pulled shut but there was a light on inside and a suggestion of movement.

They’d agreed on half nine and it was nearly that time.

Patsy looked back down at the photo and made her decision quickly. Moving fast Patsy leaned forward and gently pried the picture of the felt backing and tucked it securely in the inside pocket of her coat.

She didn’t have any pictures of Val. It would be nice to have at least one to look at on occasion. It would be nice to have something that she could take before Phil asked for it.

On some level she spitefully hoped he would notice the loss.

Her move was made just in time. Patsy heard Ursulas door open just as she was adjusting her coat and turned around to see the inspector framed in the doorway.

Ursula was a tall woman probably in or over sixty by Patsys calculations. She was the same age as Phyllis and Helen if not a few years older.

She was tall and thin and her skin had a papery quality to it that hinted of vitamin deficiencies. Her face wasn’t beautiful but it did have an arresting edge to it. Her long nose and her thin mouth squeezed between hard cheekbones gave her a permanently harsh, frowning expression.

There were no laughter lines around Delphine Ursulas eyes or lips.

Detective Inspector Ursula did not waste tax payers money by smiling on the job.

She wore her uniform like a suit of armour. It seemed to hold her up and pin her in until it was hard to even imagine what she might look like without it. You couldn’t ever picture this woman in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt walking down the beach. You couldn’t imagine her sitting on the sofa watching some mindless soap opera. She onto seemed to have one mode and that mode was police officer.

If you cut her down the middle she’d have a thin blue line running through her body.

How Phyllis and Ursula had ever managed to date, let alone anything else was a mystery. They didn’t seem like a natural couple and maybe that’s why they weren’t a couple any longer. Still, Patsy pondered, Phyllis seemed fond of the woman though so it couldn’t have ended all that badly.

Maybe Ursula just never went home. She certainly was always here before the team and the last one to leave in the evenings. Married to the job.

Patsy met her superiors eyes across the room and stood to a relaxed attention without meaning to.

“Not lolligagging I hope Mount?” Ursula said crisply, a manila folder held in her pale hand.

“No ma’am, just taking it all in,’ Patsy supplied smoothly with a nod at the desk, ‘it’s good to be back.”

Ursulas eyes narrowed as she followed Patsys inclined head to the empty desks. Her eyes took in Phils felt wall and she snorted as she stepped back into her sanctum. “In!”

Patsy followed the command immediately, scurrying across the space as Ursula positioned herself behind her desk. The folder slapped on the table and opened slowly.

“Door!’ Ursula commanded and, once Patsy had complied and closed it, ‘sit!”

Patsy did so, not particularly enjoying being treated like a dog.

Ursula either didn’t notice or didn’t care if Patsy liked the attitude or not. Her long fingers opened a drawer and pulled out a silver nibbed fountain pen that she lay directly parallel to the file on her desk. Patsy waited demurely for the woman to begin but she didn’t do it straight away.

Ursula crossed her arms and surveyed Patsy down her nose. Her lips puckered in as she seemed to chew on her thoughts until, finally-

“You look like shit Mount.”

Patsy blinked in surprise but righted herself almost instantly, well, here went nothing.

“Apologies, I’ll endeavour not to from now on Ma’am.”

Ursula snorted again as though she didn’t believe Patsy as she lay her hand flat on the papers and rifled through them at the corners.

“The haircut doesn’t suit you.” She observed vaguely, pulling a sheet from the throng with relish.

Patsy scowled, unable to think of a retort that wouldn’t result in Ursula sending her packing. She glared at the older woman who was supremely unconcerned; knowing it was a plot to gain a rise.

“Right...’ Ursula apple briskly now, gears shifting smoothly with practised ease. ‘Well, that’s the pleasantries out of the way... Soo,’ she ran a long finger swollen at the knuckles down a paragraph of text, ‘we both know why you’re here. You have attended Occupational Health I understand.” Ursula sat proud as a queen on her pleather backed office chair. Her expression very vividly telling Patsy not to try her luck today.

“Yes ma’am.” Patsy agreed meekly.

“You suffered complications after the initial event?”

“Nothing too serious ma’am.”

“It says here that they had to go back and reopen the wound after an unexpected infection in the stump?” Ursula looked up sharply, those eyes that never missed anything tracked Patsys hand without a hint of mercy.

“A minor complication ma’am. Barely worth discussing.” Patsy forced a smile that hurt her cheeks as the muscles on her face rebelled.

This statement was, of course, a downright lie actually but Patsy was good at poker faces. She stared down Ursula with as honest and open an expression as she could.

Their eyes met over the silence that seemed to yawn out between them into the stale, flaccid air.

Truth was it hadn’t been minor in any way. Patsy had been rushed into a&e with a fever of 42 degrees and a hand a few hours off septicaemia. She’d been kept in for two days just to break the infections hold on her and then an offensively cheerful doctor had informed Patsy that she would need just a little bit more “taking off”.

Like it was a haircut or something fun instead of an appendage she’d never intended to lose in the first place.

On Patsys orders Helen had kept the girls at hers and told them Patsy had been called into work for an exam. Seppie had accepted the story easily but Patsy suspected Fern knew exactly what had happened. Patsy hadn’t wanted to lie to the girls but she also hadn’t wanted anyone to see her like that, hated being considered weak or some sort of fragile victim by people who needed her to be strong.

“Indeed?’ Ursulas lips thinned, her eyes as unreadable as Patsys. ‘I’m going to disagree with you Constable. As I have it your medical team had to amputate the wound further down to the,’ Ursula stopped, her mouth moving silently, sounding out the word for size in her mouth, ‘metacarpophalangeal joint.”

“The third knuckle ma’am,’ Patsy conceded a bad hand with grace and obligingly spread her hand out on the polished desk to showcase the stump in all its abnormal glory, daring Ursula to continue. ‘It’s probably easier if we call it that. Nothing to worry about.”

It was a lie. Every word of it and Patsy had gotten very good at saying it to people. In reality the second amputation had more than worried her; she’d nearly lost the whole hand. Probably would have if Helen hadn’t dragged Patsy off to the emergency room when she had. The event had taken a toll on her mother and Helen had kept turning up at random times to the house with fancy salt grinders to force Patsy into bathing her stump in boiling salt water; terrified of any more infections.

The salt water had helped a bit but even with them the remaining stump had hurt like hell, the seeping wound had stung like a bitch and looked too much like a prop in a Halloween film. The nerve damage meant she’d been forced to handle random electric shocks running down her wrist until the skin thickened which had resulted in the loss of almost a full set of crockery in the first week she was home again.

Most concerning of all symptoms though had been her grip which had been well and truly fucked. For a few weeks Patsy had despaired to herself as she’d signed sloppily to Seppie who, taking her cue from Patsy, helpfully pretended not to notice until the physio helped to strengthen it again...

But Ursula didn’t need to hear about all of that. No one needed to hear about that. Patsy had replaced the crockery before it was missed and she’d held it together without fail every day until she’d crawled into bed and could safely have a bit of a cry without anyone knowing.

Maybe it would have helped to take the painkillers prescribed during this time but she hadn’t. She’d never liked the taste of tablets since the commune, they brought back too many bad memories. The texture of chalk made her gag and the physical pain to her hand was by far the better option in result. Anything was better than remembering.

“The physiotherapy team inform me that you suffered with a fair bit of secondary spasms in the hand and wrist.” Ursula went on briskly, raising a querulous eyebrow.

Her frank expression told Patsy very succinctly without her mouth moving ‘you’re lying to me and and we both know it. I dare you to keep lying to me.’

“In the first few weeks ma’am,’ Patsy dismissed gruffly, ‘but I completed all of my sessions. If you refer to the report then you’ll also see that my improvements have been dramatic. There are no perceived long term disabilities in grip or dexterity.”

“Piotr does note your enthusiasm and determination Constable, no one is doubting your commitment to self improvement I assure you.” Ursula reached for her pen and frowned down at it while Patsy fidgeted in her chair.

“The idea of crushing tiny balls has always struck me as fairly soothing ma’am. I found it fun to be honest.” Patsy tried for humour, wishing there was something funny in all of this.

Ursula looked up, her eyes cold and Patsy felt the ghost of her smile fall away from her lips at once.

“Such commitment is admirable Constable. Admirable indeed.’ Ursula said vaguely, pausing ostentatiously here, the nib of her pen hovering over the form between them. Patsy could sense the descending ‘but’ looming on the horizon long before it struck, ‘however, I have here,’ Ursula tapped a thin sheet of paper at the top of the file, ‘a summary of your meeting yesterday with Dr Young.”

“I was under the impression that those meetings were supposed to be confidential.” All at once Patsy felt a slither of anger at this woman’s knowledge. It was like someone reading her diary if she was the soppy sort of person who kept a diary. Ursula might be her boss but she wasn’t God. She didn’t get to know all of Patsys business.

“The contents of those meetings are confidential Mount’ Ursulas voice softened minutely as though she’d sensed what Patsy was thinking, ‘however, Dr Young informs me that you have declined any more sessions. Is there any particular reason for that?”

“Tears and tampons have never been my cup of tea Ma’am that’s all.”

“So it would appear,’ Ursula said calmly, ‘none the less she believes you would benefit from further discussions regarding your experiences.“

“Is that an official requirement of the department ma’am?” Patsy asked boldly, knowing damn well Ursula couldn’t force her to go for counselling a second time without just cause.

Ursula drummed her fingers on the table, her eyes narrowed; “no Mount, merely a polite suggestion from one professional to another.”

“I’ve dealt with my issues ma’am. I’m ready to be back to what I do best.” Patsy stared impassively into her bosses face, refusing to back down.

“And that would be what precisely?” Ursula sharpened the last word so that it seemed to pin all the others firmly into the conversation with deliberation. The unspoken criticism hovered between them.

“Police work Ma’am.’ Patsy bit out bracingly, ‘I’m ready to get back on the horse.”

“And what will you do once you’re back on that particular horse Mount?”

“Err, I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re asking me ma’am.” Patsy had a terrible mental image of Ursula on a horse and shut down the picture quickly. The tension seemed too high for the situation and Patsy wanted to laugh in self defence. Dear God this woman was hard at the best of times. No wonder Phyllis hadn’t managed to make whatever they’d been to each other work.

“Forgive me, I’ll be plainer.’ Ursula places down the pen with a snap, ‘What I mean is; how will you behave once you’re back on the force Constable? Will you communicate with the team?”

“Of- Of course ma’am.” Patsy stuttered, a guilty flush rising up her chest at the accusatory tone.

“Will you allow others into your plans before you plough into them?”

“Of course I will ma’am.” Oh dear. Too late Patsy could see where this conversation was going. Ursula was still drumming her fingers on the desk.

“You believe you possess these abilities Mount?”

“I do ma’am.”

“Really?’’ Ursula spread out her hands like a cardsman laying down a fourth ace. ‘And yet you spectacularly managed to forget them in July? To the extent that several individuals died in order for you to play the hero.”

“That isn’t what happened ma’am.” Patsy could barely speak, her jaw seemed to be melting into one solid bone that wouldn’t move at her whim. She felt ice spreading through her chest as Ursula drummed her fingers on the paper.

“It is precisely what happened.’ Ursula said coldly. ‘You endangered your own life and the lives of those around you. You’re lone wolf attitude resulted in the death of a colleagues wife and a suspect in the case. You almost died yourself.”

“I didn’t see that I had a choice!” Patsy burst out, she knew she was raising her voice, knew that she was making a mistake but she had to defend herself. She had done what she had felt was best, she’d called the station when she’d needed them. Didn’t Ursula know that Patsy would gladly swap with any of the victims if she’d had the choice?

Did Ursula honestly think that Patsy wasn’t living with the guilt of Val and Allies deaths? What the fuck did Ursula know about Patsy anyway.

“There is always a choice Constable,’ Ursula pressed the point of her index finger against the desk and tapped it irritably. ‘I would have thought that even you would have learned that by now.”

“Dyer was tampering with evidence.’ Patsy hissed. ‘I had no idea who I could trust, if the information reached the wrong hands then the situation would be even worse than it is. I made the right decision in the moment and-”

“And yet you didn’t confide in me.’ Ursulas voice was louder now too, a vein pulsed in her temples, ‘I take it you believed that I would be complicit in my sergeants crimes.”

There was an ugly pause. Patsy glared at her senior as the temperature dropped a few degrees. Patsy wanted to say that she had trusted the woman but that would be a lie and Ursula would know it. Ursula had already deduced Patsys thoughts.

The grudge made more sense now.

“I was under a lot of stress ma’am. It won’t happen again.” Patsy said in the end just to cut the tension. Ursula took in a deep breath as though forcing composure on herself.

“I see... There must be trust within a team Mount. In the future I will expect loyalty is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am.” Patsys throat felt sticky. Her palms were sweating and she pulled them onto her lap to wipe them surreptitiously on the denim. Ursula returned to drumming her fingers as she considered her next move, her breathing shallow.

“I need a sergeant Mount.” Ursula said after a moments pause, the conversation veering wildly onto another course without effort. Patsy coughed in surprise.

“Ma’am?”

“A sergeant,’ Ursula repeated witheringly, ‘we are short staffed and I find that I need someone that the team will obey. I’ve considered the matter for a while and you appear to be my best option.” She reached into her drawer and pulled out something long made of fabric, Patsys eyes widened as she took in two stripes sewn neatly on the navy blue.

“But I didn’t take the test.” Patsy protested, unseated. Ursula raised her eyebrows.

“That can be arranged at a later date I assure you. In the meantime you will return to work as requested but,’ she had moved to pass over the stripes but pulled them back as Patsy reached to take them numbly, ‘I will expect you to report in regularly and behave in a manner expected of a senior member of staff. If you cock it up I’ll bury you so deep in shit you’ll be shovelling it away for the rest of your career is that understood?”

Patsy gulped but took the stripes.

“Yes ma’am... Thank you.” Patsy hadn’t planned for this. She hadn’t thought that Ursula would-

“We have a case opened this morning, you’ll lead it, you’ll be working in partnership with the fire service on this case.”

This snatched Patsy attention back with brutal force. Patsy looked up from the stripes so quickly she thought a few bones in her neck whined in protest.

“F- Fire service?” That one word, God it was enough to make Patsys brain shiver.

Fire. Fuck. Not fire. Anything but fire.

“Indeed,’ Ursulas eyes gleamed as she steepled her hands in front of her and rested the point of her bony chin on the tips of her conjoined index fingers, ‘there was a report of a fire in the new block of flats on Jesters Avenue late last night. One fatality, minor burns in neighbouring flats. The first response crew flagged the case up as a suspicious and on hearing of your pernicious desire to return to work I immediately thought of you to lead the case Sergeant as scene of crime officer.”

“Y- You’re going to put me on an arson case?” Patsy could feel the cold sweat running down her back, the sting of memories. She would never understand Ursula if she lived to be a hundred. She’d promoted her and now she was playing with her.

Was it just a sick joke?

“Do you have a problem with working on an arson case Mount? Something about the subject that makes you uncomfortable?’ Ursula stared at Patsy knowingly. ‘If so we can wait until your full 10 weeks have expired before revisiting the matter of your return?”

“No!” Patsy didn’t realise she was speaking. She didn’t think. The words just tumbled out in desperation, she couldn’t back down now could she?

“No?” Ursula repeated slowly.

“No ma’am, there’s no issue.”

“Are you quite sure Mount?’ Ursula sighed looking bored. ‘Now is the time to say something, don’t hide your light under a bushel on my account.”

“I wouldn’t dare ma’am, I assure you my light will be on full display sans bushel.”

“A sight many would applaud with mixed emotions I feel Constable.’ Ursula tapped the papers back into a neat rectangle, the repeated smacks on the desk seemed offensively loud to Patsys ears. ‘Now, you will lead the investigation by the book is that understood? I expect regular check ins and progress reports. We’ve garnered a reputation for slap dash attitudes since your escapades. I expect you to repair this with alacrity.”

“But...’ Patsy floundered, not entirely sure what alacrity meant and trying not to focus too hard on the escapades comment. ‘I’m a Constable ma’am.”

“I believe that’s not the case now Mount.”

“But... I can’t lead a case can I? Haven’t we got anyone on loan to cover the role of sergeant?” Patsy hated asking for help. She hated it more than anything and by the gleam in Ursulas eyes the old bitch knew she was torturing Patsy right now.

“I’m afraid there’s been something of a crime wave ever since your heroics.’ Ursulas cheeks tensed in as close to a smile as she could manage. The smile looked afraid to be in such unexpected terrain. ‘New fodder for old gangs, age old story, turf wars have been breaking out all over the south and north west regions. The outlying forces couldn’t spare us a replacement, we’ve been running on a skeleton crew since sergeant Dyers incarceration and your ill health.”

“So I’ll be working solo then ma’am?”

“No.’ Ursulas eyes flashed again across the table and Patsy sat up a little straighter, ‘in light of recent events I felt that it would be best you were not fully unleashed to the world without a partner. We wouldn’t want you playing the hero role a second time wouldn’t we?”

The flush rose another inch. “No ma’am.” Patsy breathed through her teeth.

“Right,’ Ursula said swiftly in an airy voice, ‘in that case you will be working with Kim Sanders. She’ll be partnering you on the case and assisting with the investigation. We’re lucky to have a local fire investigation officer within our area. She’s offered her assistance on this case and we’ve gratefully accepted.”

“Kim Sanders?” Patsy wanted to groan, this just got better and better didn’t it, she’d have preferred Alice over Kim bloody Sanders.

“You know the woman?”

“Fleetingly,’ Patsy pocketed the stripes as she spoke distractedly, ‘we’ve met on the odd job.”

“Is that going to be a problem?” Ursula looked suddenly wary and Patsy vaguely wondered how many of the rumours about her had managed to get past the main office into Ursula’s sanctum.

“No ma’am, I just wonder if it might not be helpful to have Sanders more office based. In the field she might be...’ Patsy pictured Kim dealing with members of the public by her side and inwardly cringed. ‘A bit of a hinderance.”

“In what way?”

“She’s a bit dysfunctional in groups I’ve noticed.” Patsy said awkwardly, despising herself for talking about something Kim probably couldn’t do anything about.

“Dysfunctional?” Ursula repeated without much interest.

Patsy nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

“I see, well in that case I’m sure you’ll get on exactly like a house on fire then Mount.’ Ursula raises her hand for silence, already moving through her agenda. ‘Now, as far as I can ascertain the team flagged the case up as a potential murder gone awry. Get down there and find out if they’re onto something or not and don’t fuck it up.”

As she spoke she closed the file on the desk and pulled out more papers. Patsy waited, expecting more information but it didn’t come. Ursula seemed to be writing on something with the word Budget printed on the front, seemingly forgetting that Patsy was still there.

After five minutes Patsy coughed pointedly, “Is... Will that be everything then ma’am?”

Ursula dropped her pen with a sigh and rubbed at her chin as she frowned at Patsy. Apparently annoyed to see Patsy still there.

“Well,’Ursula said witheringly, ‘I would expect a detective of your calibour to be able to answer that for yourself Mount.”

“Right,’ Patsy bit out, getting to her feet stiffly, ‘thank you for your time then ma’am.”

Patsy had just got to the door when Ursula seemed to have a change of heart and called her back.

“Oh, there was one small matter Mount.”

Patsys knuckles tightened on the door frame as she looked over her shoulder at the seated woman. “Ma’am?”

“I received an invitation from Ms Crane for her engagement party next Saturday. If you would be so good to pass on my apologies. I will not be able to attend. Carry through my goodwill to the happy couple on my behalf of you would, I would appreciate it.” Ursula was looking at Patsy expectantly. Patsy noted the use of Phyllis last name on autopilot as she stared.

Patsy realed at the latest change of direction, her brain racing to catch up.

“Umm, don’t you have Phyllis’s number yourself?” Patsy knew it was a stupid question; knew that if Ursula intended to speak to Phyllis she was more than capable of doing so.

Ursula raised her eyebrows, “I do.” She affirmed dryly.

“Right,’ Patsy hurried to think of a way round this. She didn’t want to be caught up in her mother’s affairs. “Was there any reason I can tell them?”

“No, I don’t think so.” Ursula said cooly, her hand reaching for her pen again.

“Right... ‘ Patsy swallowed. Steeling herself to do what she had to. ‘Ma’am my mother and Phyllis are very happy together...” Patsy trailed off not really sure what she could say. To outwardly step into the line of fire in this situation was daunting but Helen was Helen. Patsy would break Ursulas jaw herself if she ruined Helens happiness.

“I’m very pleased to hear it Constable,’ Ursula said in a surprisingly gentle tone of voice that threw Patsy off once again, ‘now do us both a favour and bugger off will you. The weather should be improving later on and you know what Trumpton are like. If you don’t get down there before they run out of work they’ll be stripping off for their latest calendar shoot. Off you go;’ she waved her hand in an imperial shoo, ‘spreading justice like a little sunbeam.”

Patsy hovered for another moment and then folded.

“Ma’am.”

Patsy walked as slowly as she could to the departments door, forcing herself to maintain an unaffected air.

When she was certain she was out of sight though she ducked into an interview room and closed the blue blinds. The tiny space looked familiar; Val had argued with Patsy in here hadn’t she? Before she died? Before everything went wrong.

Patsy sank to the floor and pressed her face into her knees. She couldn’t breathe and she had to breathe. She’d got everything she wanted and now she had to deal with it.

An arson case? Fan-fucking-tastic!

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Jester avenue was part of a new up and coming housing development off the beach road near Heachum. Despite the hefty price tag the houses weren’t particularly fancy; most of them having been dragged up in a matter of weeks. The designs barely changed as Patsy drove through the winding maze of identical looking streets. All brick filled squares with silver glass and match box front lawns with wilting flowers.

Suburbia was making a comeback with terrifying regularity. It was depressing really.

Didn’t help that there only seemed to be three designs and the developers, clearly aware of this fact, had merely paced them all out, changing the brick from a sickly yellow to an angry red whenever the pattern became too obvious. Neither of which looked all that appealing.

Mostly the neighbourhood was a quiet one. Old people wanting to live out their retirement dreams, a few single professionals living in groups and families starting out on the help to buy scheme. The crime rates were low on the whole bar the odd domestic and the police rarely bothered to patrol it.

They had bigger fish to fry.

Jesters Avenue however was an anomaly. A government mandate a few years ago had decreed that any development over twelve houses had to dedicate a few to the council as social housing. The premise had been to spread out the more difficult members of society and prevent anti social behaviour developing. Naturally this hadn’t worked at all and most developers merely passed the meanest looking or least desirable houses on to the council who promptly filled a streets worth of homes with people top on their priority list.

Jessters Avenue was just such a street and it wore its title well. The place looked like a bad joke.

It was odd really though. Most of the people here weren’t problematic; some were just single mums trying to scrape by until the kids went to school or truly unable to work. Honest people. That was the thing about poverty; it came mainly from people just like you who never asked to be born into this world. People forgot that most of the time though because it tended to make them uncomfortable. As Patsy pulled into the street she saw curtains and nets and welcome mats same as any of the other roads she passed through and she’d bet that some of the homes here were cleaner than many.

Pride.

When you didn’t have enough money to stretch to a full shopping trolley all you could really fall back on was pride. You might be poor but most of the mums made damn well sure the kids were clean. On Jesters Avenue your shoes might let in the rain but they could still shine.

Nestled amongst these people however were the very few troublemakers who, despite their tiny proportions, still managed to give the whole street a bad name. Patchworked along the rows of windows with curtains there were towels or magazine sheets. Some of the residents were fresh out of prison or else on some list or other. Somehow they were the ones everyone remembered when they thought of the Avenue.

Patsy supposed there were good reasons for that. There’d been that terrible case a few years back where a paedophile had been housed right next to a primary school for example. The man had lasted less than 24 hours before reoffending, the police had swept the embankments and beaches for nearly three hours before they found the little boy missing his trainers and a lasting mental scar that meant he’d never hold a strangers hand again.

The peadophile had been caught a week later. The media had exploded on that one; reckless placements by the council, lack of public safeguarding by the police. They’d probably be chomping at the bit for this story too if it got out. Especially a tower block. Patsy inwardly groaned as she imagined the scaremongering that was inevitable. The police would probably take the flack for it too.

Norfolk’s own Grenfell.

The block of flats in question were not hard to locate. Three stories high it had originally been made of dark red brick that despite the newness was already muting into a sad sort of pinky brown with a dreary grey mould trailing the right wall.

Well, half of it was still that colour at least. The top bits. The upper floors looked to be fairly untouched, someone had even left washing out on one of the balconies. They’d be less than impressed when they got it in Patsy noted. The wall had been thoroughly soaked by the fire departments attentions.

The main fire appeared to have been contained to the ground floors as a mercy. The middle flat being very obviously the source of the blaze.

There Patsy noted the way the windows had blown out, the specks of glass glittering like stolen treasures amongst the paving stones on the street. The door and windows of the property had warped and slumped against the heat and someone had propped them with bars. Patsy could see inside even from this distance.

Black and grey was the only colour left in the husk of the fires dirty work.

And someone had died in there.

Patsy pulled up short a few yards down the road and then sat very still in her seat. Stealing herself for this first test.

The glass caught her eye the most. The side of a silver car shone from a thousand refracted rainbows amidst the damp mist of the hoses and the grey sunlight.

Rainbows for a funeral.

She could well imagine how it would have felt to be inside that flat. She could practically taste the dry heat and the thick dust on her tongue. Her heart seemed to beat faster in her chest as she stared sightlessly through her windscreen seeing things that weren’t there. Remembering... Her knuckles tightened on the steering wheel. Clinging on to reality as hard as she could.

It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t her in there. Not this time. It wasn’t, it wasn’t, it wasn’t...

Parked sideways on to the street, effectively blocking out the sight from onlookers at the top of the road, was the obligatory fire engine. It’s lights were still flashing and the strong colours tinted the world blue and red.

Hypnotic.

There was an ambulance, its crews high vis yellow jackets mingling amongst the tiny crowd that had formed behind the taped zone. Just a little in front of Patsy was a police squad car; the uniforms already out and about.

The police tape fluttered where it had been hastily tacked, cording off the area to anyone not in uniform. Keeping the crime scene untainted was impossible though given the fact most evidence was probably burned to nothing. The scene in its morbid entirety caught Patsys eye and held it.

You almost never got forensics from arson cases. The fire took it all and reduced it to cinder and ash so it was hard to pick everything apart amongst the wreckage. Mostly arson was random. Small acts of idiocy.

Patsy had never liked the arson cases. She’d always hated arsonists as a matter of habit.

Abraham had loved fire. He’d said it purified the soul.

Across time Patsy remembered another moment, another fire. The sprawling mess of dying people and the shattering of a window. The sensation of dying and not dying.

Falling into nothing, listening to the screaming until even that ended and she’d been left floating in water until someone found her again and carried her away from the body bags and the choking soot. She’d allowed herself to be carried in someone’s arms then; cold and wet and lost. She hadn’t been able to move. The fire, Abraham, life itself had stolen her limbs, her will to live.

But she’d got better hadn’t she? She’d got past it all. She was an adult, she’d fought and she’d built and then.... And now?

She couldn’t move now; air was catching in her throat, expanding so that she almost thought she would choke on the memories as her brain whirred on and on. Her knuckles cracked as she clenched her fingers harder into the soft leather of the steering wheel, gritting her teeth. Fossilised amongst the ghosts.

What were the wages of sin?

Patsy squeezed her eyes closed convulsively. Not now. Not now. She didn’t want to remember any of this anymore.

Patsy could recall the feelings from back then, the soft rub of a starchy uniform collar, the indent of the buttons hard against the hollow of her cheeks, the smell of polish. Clean smells, new smells. The terrifying understatement of how hard it had been to be held so gently after such a long time. A voice whispering in her ear, telling her she was safe now. Promising and easily trusted. That voice had been all she could focus on as she’d been walked away from the commune.

Those kind arms and the promise of safety that hadn’t been true. She’d known it was a lie but it hadn’t mattered then. She’d still clung to those arms, that voice, those false promises until they’d disappeared hours later.

All of it had been lies.

She’d been dumped in a hospital with strangers and their questions that she didn’t understand. She’d been paralysed, cold without those arms and that voice, she’d forgotten how to talk outside of her own head. The fire had taken everything she had.

Patsy felt the cold inability to move again as she stared sightlessly at the scene in front of her. But anger flowed in around the fear now. Old anger, old survival tactics that had kept her safe for years.

Anger wasn’t a pleasant sensation but it was safe. Familiar and so very easy with such a big target.

Ursula. Abraham. Elizabeth. Didn’t matter who the face was, the anger was always there like an old friend.

She hated this! She hated everything about this. She hated that she was afraid. All she could do was sit here and stare. Grumbling under her breath she told herself to move, to get out of the car and do her job.

Move. She had to move.

Impossible. An impossible thing that she couldn’t seem to do.

Patsys chest hurt as she imagined what would be inside that building. The heat of the fire. The rank stench of the dead. Again. She’d have to learn to live with it all over again. She knew she had to do it and yet still... She couldn’t move. She couldn’t do anything but sit where she was; her limbs were locked and she didn’t have the key to release them.

Fire. Why did it have to be fire? Why the fuck did it always have to be fucking fire!

Cold sweat was forming on her neck. There was a spreading ice inside her chest and it hurt. Everything hurt too much, the weight of the dead followed her everywhere and they only grew in number. She had to get away from them.

She couldn’t do this.

Escape. She had to get away. That was easily enough done wasn’t it? She could just drive away, go home, call the station. She might not even need to speak directly to Ursula and even if she did she could say she wasn’t ready for all of this. She’d tried but realised it was too soon after all and honestly who would argue with her? It was too soon. Wasn’t that what everyone had been saying since Patsy started yearning for work again?

She didn’t have to do this. She didn’t have to do anything. She didn’t have to walk into the building. She didn’t have to play nicely with Kim. She didn’t have to do a damn thing.

“Weakling” scorned the old voice in Patsys head that was always watching and judging. Patsy grimaced as she realised the voice was right as usual. She was weak.

Pathetic.

She still had to go though. Maybe it was weak but it was honest too. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t deal with fire again. Not yet.

She wasn’t ready. Might not ever be.

Hating herself and shaking with self loathing Patsy just about managed to unclench her fist and blindly fumble for the gearstick. It took an age to find reverse. The thought of home, it’s soft retreat beckoned and she wanted to hide. Wanted not to deal with any of this yet.

It might have worked.

It should have been an easy enough plan to spur her into action but as the car lurched with an awkward foot on the clutch Patsy suddenly imagined Ursulas face.

Her thin lipped smile.

It was unappealing enough as a thought that she actually stopped dead where she sat as she imagined the dour old bitches face when she found out that Patsy hadn’t even managed to walk down the street.

That she hadn’t even lasted half an hour.

Smug. God, she’d be so bloody smug about it all wouldn’t she, probably grin as she rang Phyllis for a cosy little chat to tell her that Patsy had done exactly what she expected her to do. And what about Trixie and Helen? What would they say?

What would Delia think?

Patsys hand hovered in the air as two basic principles came into conflict. The desire to stay safe and unflinching pride battled it out in her head. Her breathing was coming painfully fast as clammy sweat smudged down her nose.

Pride was winning because pride always won out over fear. Patsy had never been able to back down from her own expectations; it was a well known fact.

How could she say she’d given up before she’d started? How could she allow the girls to think that she wasn’t strong enough to do her job? More important that all of that though was the burning question; how could she give Delphine Ursula the sweet satisfaction of winning?

Patsys jaw clicked as she chewed at her tongue. A trail of the old familiar defiance burning its virulent route down her bones.

Surely... Surely she could do this? This was her job, Patsy was good at her job. Just a simple arson case. She could do it... probably. She just needed not to think about it too hard. She’d been through worse. She’d seen worse...

Patsys hand dropped down to her lap and stayed there as she bumped her knee against the front console in irritable indecision.

She had to be able to do this. She couldn’t let herself be beaten. She had never let the past stop her from surviving. She just had to-

Her thoughts were suddenly interrupted, as someone opened the drivers side door impatiently fast. Flinching in shock, Patsy twisted her face towards the movement and immediately collided with something hard as she met whoever it was coming the other way.

“Jesus Mount what’s the matter with you? I’ve been waving at like an idiot for nearly five minutes.”

The voice was gravely but thankfully familiar. Kim. Patsy winced as she finally loosened her other hand from the steering wheel and rubbed ruefully against her temple. Kim was wearing her helmet and they didn’t make those things to break easily.

Five minutes on the job and she already had an egg forming on her scalp. It had to be some kind of record for her.

“Sorry,’ Patsy mumbled half heartedly, embarrassed and fully aware that Kim had seen her spaced out. ‘I was miles away, didn’t see you.”

“If you missed high visibility clothing at such short distances I advise you to seek an optician immediately Mount. I’m hardly difficult to spot.” Kim’s voice was clipped as ever, the stuffiness of her tone hinting strongly of someone who alphabetised their bookcase.

Patsy straightened in her seat as she dropped her hand and squinted hard at the woman who appeared to be possibly half stuck where she’d wedged her torso inside the jeep to lean over Patsy.

Taking a steadying breath Patsy finally let herself relax. So... Pride it was going to have to be then.

Kim’s knee had somehow insinuated itself onto the seat beside Patsy as the bigger woman rested a hand on Patsys shoulder for balance. The sharp point of the joint was a dull ache against Patsys thigh.

In the total lack of available space the two women’s faces were uncomfortably close. Close enough for Patsy to notice the way Kim’s eyes traced Patsys face carefully. Like she was concerned and didn’t know how to hide it.

Patsy inwardly groaned as she recalled rumour mills and bastard gossiping cops.

“I can’t help it if your mere presence renders me incapable of movement can I Sanders.” Patsy tried to smile but it must have looked wrong because Kim didn’t change her expression from cautious concern.

Tutting, Kim backed out of the car sharply, tugging Patsy with her by the collar, rag doll like, with offensive ease. “You look like you’re going to be sick to me. Here, get some air. Are you okay? Didn’t think I got you that hard on the head.”

Patsy wasn’t given a lot of choice about the matter of fresh air as she hung limply, half suspended by one of Kim’s massive hands. That was the problem with Kim, Patsy reflected a little too late, she never seemed to realise her own strength.

“I’d be okay if you weren’t pulling the big bad butch routine. Get off me would you.’ Patsy grunted, peeling away Kim’s inelegant grip so that she could actually stand on her own two feet rather than stand on tip toes as she had been doing. ‘I’m not going to be sick. Was just gearing myself up for a fun day out with the hosepipe fairies if you must know!”

Kim released Patsy with a sound like a car backfiring as she snorted but made no instant reply. The passive reaction was irritating, Patsy didn’t want Kim knowing she was a mess. It didn’t bode well for long term collaboration if her partner already suspected she was a liability.

Patsy shivered. The air felt colder than it should be outside of the car as it hit the sweat on her skin. Patsy could smell the ash and dirty water on the breeze, it made her stomach churn and her mouth fill with acid. Despite her protests she wasn’t entirely certain if she was going to be sick or not and the helplessness frustrated her.

Kim waited patiently for Patsy to gather herself as she took the keys from the ignition and locked the car. She had her arms folded over her chest when Patsy finally turned back to look at her; assessing an unconsidered opponent.

Kims face wasn’t one of those that the media might call beautiful but it was still handsome. Long with a flat nose and a strong chin. Her hair, what little of it there was, was currently hidden behind the shell of her hard hat but Patsy could picture the greying stubble at her temple with smatterings of dull brown.

Kim was one of the rare women a little bit taller than Patsy height wise and their eyes were on a level which was slightly offputting. Patsy was used to being the one in a higher position when it came to teamwork. Not that it would have made much difference, even if she wasn’t taller Kim would still look larger.

Kim was one of life’s loomers by sheer genetics.

She’d rolled up her coat sleeves at some point and Patsy noted the deep lines cutting along her forearms where the muscles turned along the crease of her bones and cut through what looked like a fresh red burn about the size of a fifty pence piece. There was a lot of muscle Patsy noted in the back of her head because some things just couldn’t not be noted.

Kim was strong and didn’t care to hide that fact, her massive body belied the commitment to healthy exercise and too much protein for any casual observer. Her hands looked like pink hams where they rested against her expansive chest.

She wore the usual fire uniform that all Trumpton did but on Kim it looked faintly wrong. Sharp. Almost unused. There were heavily ironed creases on her trousers, the reflective stripes were dulled where repeated brushes with hot metal had worn at them. She wore a blue t-shirt that looked fresh on just now and red braces that flashed out from underneath a heavy fire retardant coat. She looked like exactly what she was; smart, reliable and a little square.

Kim was watching the street behind Patsy with an air of expectancy, either unaware of Patsys scrutiny or simply unconcerned by it. Patsy sighed, resigned to this unexpected union for the moment.

“So... You’re my welcome committee then?” Patsy asked, trying to keep the resentment out of her voice. Forcing herself to recall this was her own fault. Ursula was intent on babysitting and she couldn’t stop it... Didn’t mean she couldn’t circumvent one or two things as they arose though.

“I am’ Kim answered levelly, her lips twitching. ‘Why? What were you expecting sergeant, a gauntlet run and a bag of tar and feathers?”

“You’ve already spoken to my inspector?” Patsy said sharply, noting the sergeant title used for the first time without much enjoyment.

Kim nodded, truly animated for the first time. “We’ve been in contact yes. She called me this morning to let me know that you’d be dropping by after I called in the body. I have to say that I’m very pleased that you’ve recovered. You looked a little unfinished last time I saw you.’ Kim sounded almost fond as she reached out with clockwork motions to shake Patsys hand formally her eyes locked on a space slightly to the right of Patsys head. ‘I have to say congratulations on your promotion Mount, your inspector tells me that you and I will be co-leading this investigation together and I must say I’m looking forward to running a fair and well evidenced case as soon as possible.”

“Right,’ Patsy said slowly, a little bemused as her shoulder creaked with each pull on her arm, ‘err... Kim?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think you could stop shaking my hand now?”

“What, oh!’ Kim released Patsy from her grip looking slightly flustered. ‘Sorry about that, just wanted to start off on the right foot. Your inspector tells me you may still be feeling a bit delicate.”

“Delicate?’ Patsy surreptitiously tried to massage a bit of life into her wrist as she scowled. ‘Ursula actually used the word delicate to describe me?”

“To me Mount most people look delicate.’ Kim’s teeth flashed. ‘Anyway, there’s no need to take offence. She merely told me that considering your recent injuries our involvement would be heavy in order to support you in your recovery.”

“What recovery? I’m already recovered.’ Patsy waved her hand slightly so that the stump caught the light. ‘It’s one finger and I’m fine. I don’t need extra support.”

“Well Detective Inspector Ursula believes differently.” Kim supplied primly, her eyebrows disappearing above the rim of her hat as she frowned disapprovingly at Patsy. Evidently Kim had already picked her side in this battle.

Patsy decided now was not the time to fight it. Sighing, she groped inside her coat pocket for her cigarettes and pulled one out.

“It would be wise not to smoke on an active crime scene.” Kim said sternly as she watched Patsy light up and take a slow drag.

Patsy childishly responded by blowing a stream of smoke out of her mouth without bothering to take any of it back.

“We’re not in a crime scene Kim, we’re in a street, besides, what’s the worse that could happen?”

“Cancer.” Kim suggested pointedly, side stepping the plume of smoke distastefully.

Patsy smirked and rolled her eyes. “I meant in the here and now. A fire? Isn’t that why you brave daffodils are here?”

“We’ve already put out one fire, I would prefer not to work on a second one in the same street.”

“Hmm,’ Patsys faint pangs of humour evaporated as she stared down the street at the block of flats with speculation now. ‘So what’s the situation then? You called this in as an arson and potential murder?”

“I have a strong evidence base that suggests to me the fire was started purposefully yes.”

“And the body?”

“Found in the middle of the living space sitting in front of the sofa. He appears to have died that way.” Kim said seriously.

“You don’t think it could have been a house fire gone out of control? The wiring in these places can be crap.” Streams of smoke funnelled around Patsys head as she considered the conundrum.

“Anything could be possible at this point but I believe it to be unlikely.” Kim was fumbling thickly against the pocket of her trousers as she spoke. Patsy heard the faint buzz of a mobile as it was pulled free.

Patsy waited as Kim read her message, expecting the woman to continue but she didn’t. Kim seemed entirely focused on her phone and her thumb pressed out a hasty reply, her forehead creased with concentration.

“So what do you think about it then?” Patsy prompted impatiently when Kim had finally finished. Kim looked up sharply, her cheeks flushed as though she’d almost forgotten that Patsy was there.

“What do you mean?” Kim said, her tone unexpectedly rougher now.

“The fire?’ Patsy expanded in exasperation, looking at the phone as it disappeared back in Kims pocket with interest. ‘You clearly think it’s arson or you wouldn’t have called it in so what makes you think that?”

“There are abnormalities in the fires profile.” Kim answered simply as though this should have been obvious.

“Such as?” Patsy could sense this would be a long case.

“For a start there appears to be multiple incendiary points of origin. When we arrived the sofa was burning but so were the bedroom and hall.”

“So the fire could have traveled?” Patsy suggested hopefully. If it was just a boring everyday fire she wouldn’t need to go in at all. Death by misadventure. Case closed.

Kim shook her head. “No. They weren’t connected. Three separate fires. I also think I’ve found glass in the living room and bedroom.”

“The windows have smashed in the blast though,’ Patsy observed reasonably, taking in the scene as a whole, ‘that doesn’t necessarily mean-“

“I know arson when I see it Mount.’ Kim cut in icily. ‘The glass I found was green, not clear. It’ll need to be sent to the lab to check for accelerants but the fire smelled of it. I’ve seen arson cases and to my eyes I believe it looks like a standard incendiary thrown at close range although whoever did it lacked finesse; they used glass instead of plastic.”

“Does that make a difference?”

“It’s an old trick, popular one in the 80s.’ Kim sighed as she focused, her hand brushing a minuscule spot of lint from her t-shirt. ‘The basic principle is to fill a container, in this case a glass bottle, with accelerant, close it off and add a wick. Once ignited the bottle is aimed at a target and thrown, the container splits on impact which causes the accelerant to spread along with the fire. A more experienced arsonist would have used plastic though as the plastic melts in the heat and all evidence is lost. To use glass is a rookie mistake.”

“Could we trace the glass, find a manufacturer?” Patsy wondered what Chummy would say about all of this. She could get alarmingly excited over polymers and the like if she wasn’t cut off early.

“I doubt it.’ Kim shrugged sadly. ‘A glass bottle is hardly a rarity but it is interesting.”

“You think our firebug might be testing out their skills.” Patsy concluded shrewdly and shuddered. Arsonists were dangerous and the potential damage could be vast but the main issue was that it was like an addiction. They tended to escalate until they were caught; the need to burn eclipsing sense. If there was a fully fledged fire setter in the neighbourhood than that meant this would happen again.

Patsy scanned the crowd suddenly suspicious. The fire was out and the crowd wasn’t that big but arsonists tended to enjoy watching their masterpieces and hung around to see the confusion. She made a mental note to check the uniforms notes for names. Might be worth checking them out to see if anyone pinged up on radars.

“Perhaps,’ Kim acknowledged Patsys theory with a nod, recalling Patsy to the present. Kim was frowning as she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. ‘But that’s not entirely congruent. There were three accelerant points. Three separate bottles.”

“Maybe they wanted to burn down the whole block of flats?” Patsy suggested, industrial arson was always possible. A big site like this would have cost a lot to build and someone might have been left out of pocket.

“Perhaps, perhaps, but if that was the intent then they didn’t do a very good job of it. The sites they hit were secluded. The fire struggled to travel effectively. They would have done better hitting the stairwells; the pipes are under there and would have given them a better airflow around the building.”

“Why didn’t it travel?” Patsy didn’t understand how it was possible. In her experience fire was a sneaky thing; it got just about everywhere.

“Not enough fuel for that...’ Kim kicked the dirt idly. ‘The flats odd Mount. Empty. I don’t like it.’ Kim looked at Patsy, her eyes fierce now. ‘The three sites are significant I think. The hall was the only exit route. The bedroom and the lounge were the main living spaces. If you can call the bedroom that; just a bare mattress on the floor that didn’t look slept in. To me it appears that our arsonist wasn’t interested in the building itself but the victim. He was trapped and the lounge and bedroom would have been likely places to kill him. That’s why I called it in as suspicious, I believe this was a targeted attack.”

“But what if it was the corpse who started it? Maybe they got caught out with their own weapon?” Patsy knew she was clutching at straws but the less noble side of her that was starting to panic willed her to find a reason, any reason, to shelve the investigation.

“That’s not for me to decide Mount.’ Kim said flatly. ‘I do fires, you do people. It’s better that way.”

“I hate arson.” Patsy admitted gloomily to the morning air, pushing her hands into her pockets to hide the fact that they curled into fists.

“If you want to wait for the arson to be officially confirmed than I’ll understand Mount. My word isn’t official.” Kim had taken a step nearer and she sounded guarded, expecting some kind of further argument perhaps.

Patsy peered at the woman through the corner of her eye. Kim’s shoulders had slumped, her eyes glued to the floor. Patsy pulled the dying cigarette from her lips reflectively and forced herself to see the world like Kim. It must have been hard to voice an opinion off the cuff.

“Your words good enough for me Sanders.’ Patsy felt her cheeks burn as she spoke; she hated this sort of touchy feely crap. ‘If you say it’s arson then it’s arson. I’ve never doubted your professionalism. The question is though that if it was murder then why do it in such a showy way? Why not just run the victim over or something? A fire brings in two departments, a hit and run brings in one traffic officer with a clip board.”

“Most people like showy things I’ve noticed.’ Kim still spoke to the floor although she was smiling now which Patsy took to be a good sign. ‘People don’t tend to be rational like us.”

“You’re right there.’ Patsy dropped her cigarette dolefully, unable to delay the inevitable any longer and made herself stand a little taller. ‘So is the building safe to enter?”

“We damped down best we could.’ Kim’s voice had switched back into work mode, the soft moment fading as reality demanded their combined attentions. ‘Structurally it’s sound enough and the fire itself was localised to the one flat; easily put out. As far as we’re aware there’s only been one fatality.”

“So... Suppose we better just get it over with then.” Patsy ground the stub of cigarette into the floor and took off at a half jog. She heard Kim grumble a warning about littering as she did it but ignored her. She needed a run up for this.

Close to the building Patsy recognised a few of the staff milling about. She heard Kim bark a clipped order to someone at the engine behind her.

“Alright Tripod, how the wife?” Patsy directed her words casually to a tall, good looking man winding a hose around a huge spindle as she flashed her warrant card at an officer near the door who stood back to let her pass.

The aforementioned tripod grinned, his teeth very white against the grime on his face. “Still walking with the limp Mount.”
 
“Good for her, through here is it?” Patsy didn’t wait for an answer, she couldn’t. She had to keep moving. When she stopped she’d have to think about the fact that she was standing inside a building that still smelled of smoke.
 
It was like edging out over a rope bridge with your eyes shut, daring yourself to be brave and take each next step.
 
Patsy half jogged through the destroyed corridor that separated the flats. Her body raced with adrenaline and it made her focus. Panic crystallising itself into hard, cold detachment. Crime scene; she was just in any old crime scene. If she focused on the things around her and not the actual thing she was inside then it stopped her from thinking about the memory of burning.
 
The smoke had stained everything with its sooty fingers. The smooth surfaces of the walls had bubbled and puckered under the intense heat but the black had faded as it had spread, losing impotence in the no mans land of communal living. The hall itself was deserted, just empty unused space. The darkest patches were circled around the middle door indicating where to go.

The yellow tape was a bit of a giveaway too really.
 
Just outside the front door there was a large stack of newspapers that was almost waist high. Patsy peered down at a heading dated 23rd January of this year. The heading wasn’t anything of note but it was odd for someone to keep it.
 
Details, that was important. Things too. Everybody kept things and they could tell you a lot about a person. Sometimes the lack of things said more than too many.
Patsy frowned at the door. She considered it as she caught her breath and then turned round to look for Kim.
 
“Was the door locked when you arrived?”
 
“It was,’ Kim answered absently, more focused on her phone again where she’d evidently been reading a new message, ‘the device was posted through the letter box. You can tell by the burn pattern.”
 
“So whoever did it would have come this way first. Block off the entry like you said; don’t suppose there’s any cctv out this way.” Patsy mused, picking at a corner of the newspapers. Below the first was an identical paper. She pulled a few more back and saw the same front page repeated. Strange.
 
“I don’t want to make any hasty hypothesis,’ Kim interjected, pocketing her phone warily, ‘I promised your inspector that we would deal with this case by the book. That means no theories that cannot be substantiated without clear evide-“
 
“Yeah alright,’ Patsy interrupted irritably, ‘I get the picture. Ursula says jump, we say what colour”.
 
Kim blinked very slowly looking faintly disapproving. Patsy wondered what the regulations said about trash talking a superior and smirked as she sensed Kims uneasiness.

“Are you absolutely certain that I didn’t in fact give you a concussion Mount?” Kim asked eventually, her tone serious enough to elicit a genuine answer from Patsy.
 
“Positive, I’ve got a very hard head. Known for it actually.”
 
“Would you like me to give you one then Mount?” Kim threatened sweetly.
 
Patsy grinned; Kim didn’t often make jokes and she recognised an olive branch when it was being handed to her albeit through clenched fists. Forcing away her harsher instincts Patsy made a conscious effort to calm down. It was hard to feel unsafe with Kim around, awkward perhaps, but not unsafe. Kim was different in work mode; she exuded a slow, methodical patience. Patsy wondered if Ursula had considered this when she’d put them together.
 
“No I think I’m alright... Look, I’m sorry,’ Patsy spoke sheepishly although, even as she said, she knew that she meant the apology. This wasn’t Kim’s fault. ‘It’s just a bit weird being back on the job like this.”
 
Kim stared at Patsy for a few seconds as though weighing up her response and finally nodded gracefully. “Weird is fine,’ she said, patting Patsy’s arm carefully as she opened the door and slid past Patsy inside the room, ‘weird is something I can understand. Weird is probably healthy.”
 
Patsy followed Kim mutely, watching her stride into the room with authority and speak quietly to someone else in a red and yellow coat. She got the distinct impression that Kim had moved away on purpose and that she was being given a bit of time alone. Patsy felt a slither of appreciation for Kims unusual flash of insight. She preferred her own head space at times like this, she wasn’t naturally a team kind of person.

People were what killed you in the end, you got attached and then- BAM! Patsy had lost too many people over the years. She didn’t need any more friends. Didn’t need to lose anyone else.

Forcing herself to focus, Patsy turned this way and that, taking in the room in its entirety. Filing away the details. There was a lot to take in considering the room itself was nearly empty of traditional furniture... Patsy stood slightly daunted where she stood wondering where she should start.

The whole room stank of petrol. The strength of it was eye watering.

The walls were a standard rentals magnolia but someone, most likely the victim, had decided to alter them. On the right wall it looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to the plasterboard. The relics of the surface were clumped all about the floor in talcum powder coloured squares. The hole revealed bare brick and remnants of that foil insulation mixed with polystyrene that developers tended to use on cheap building projects. There were more pieces of the foil scattered around the floor, half ripped out of the original flat sheet, like the destroyer had got bored or distracted halfway through. The jagged gaps and half bent polystyrene were stained a sad grey in the gloom of daylight.

The other three walls were still solid but they were a mess of graffiti. Patsy had to tilt her head to read the mangled streams of words that overlapped one another.

“The king inherits-“, “and is dead is dead is dead is dead is de-“, “fault isn’t mine she was-“, “the voices say” “the voice know”, “I am the king, I am the God”, “help me.”

Patsy stared at the mass of black and blue ink with a sinking feeling of dread in her stomach. Wonderful. The neighbourhood crazy had been murdered. By instinct she looked along the floor for needles. Drugs and mental health tended to be natural bed fellows in her experience.

There wasn’t any needle but there had been carpet down at some point. Someone had ripped that up too, bundles of it had been pushed against the walls to reveal a harsh concrete with a frayed and mouldy underlay under foot.

At last Patsy understood Kim’s warnings that the flat was odd, although on balance she should have realised really that if Kim Sanders thought something was odd it probably meant it was off the charts wacko. The fire not spreading made sense too. There wasn’t a lot to burn here, concrete and emptiness. The sofa must have gone up like a torch but other that that there wasn’t much else. No coffee table, no rug, no pictures on the wall.

Just lots of words.

There were other things though, strange things. Beside the sofa there was a mangled ball of wires and foil; Patsy suspected that there was the last resting place of the stolen insulation. Placed at random like a weird mini stone henge there more stacks of newspapers too. They were smaller in here but Patsy quickly counted five of them. Patsy frowned at that, walking towards the closest pile and eying the top page.

January 23rd. Again?

Patsy raked her fingers through her hair as she thought quickly.

There was, of course, the unlikely possibility that this was all some large coincidence, maybe the victim collected old newspapers on his day off... But coppers didn’t believe in coincidence very much, possibly because they were fed the line so often. It was amazing how many things could be suggested as coincidence to a working cop. A man wearing all black and a balaclava with a bag full of stolen candlesticks might suggest it was merely a coincidence that he had been seen in the street where the candlesticks had been stolen. A married woman might coincidentally be found naked in her friends bed with her friends husband because he had an interesting collection of ceiling art to show her.

It was all technically possible, the universe was a random place to dwell in after all. A suspicious mind could be such a cruel thing and yet...

Patsy shook her head and reached for her phone to snap a quick picture for reference later. Pocketing it she dredged up a pair of gloves from her coat and slapped them on before picking the closest paper up for inspection. It was local; Poplar Herald. Front page was a warning about storm surges on the soft rock beach fronts cutting off more houses. Frowning Patsy leafed through the first few pages with mild interest.

No one kept this many copies unless it was important.

“That’s evidence Mount, you shouldn’t be touching anything in here.” Kim had returned, her heavy boots thudding loudly as she waved a reproving arm at Patsy like she wanted to snatch the paper away.

Patsy sighed as she continued to flick through the paper refusing to be distracted by Kim’s now tapping boot.

“I’m gloved, just give me a second.”

“It’s evidence,’ Kim went on bullishly, ‘standard procedure says that all evidence should be photographed and logged as-“

“Yeah, in an episode of CSI maybe, this is Poplar.’ Patsy rolled her eyes as she reached the back pages; a mixture of obituaries and love letters. ‘You won’t get forensics after the smoke damage and I want to know why our boy was hoarding hundreds of copies of the same paper.”

“What are you expecting?’ Kim asked contemptuously, ‘a big black arrow pointing to our arsonists name and address?”

“Not quite,’ Patsy turned a page and felt her blood zing as she spotted what she’d been looking for. Smiling a little smugly now she waved the open paper towards Kim with a flourish. “But I’ll take whatever I can get. Here, have a look at this.”

The obituaries page had been spread over three which was unusually long even for seaside towns where the elderly liked to live out the golden years. The Christmas edition had clearly shelved the sad news to save sensitive festive readers and shoved them all in the new year paper. On the third page someone had circled a single eulogy.

“In memory of Laura Stoker, 39. Remembered fondly by colleagues and close friend Mandy. Gone too soon but not forgotten, always in our thoughts.”

There was a picture too, a stately blonde woman with a serious face smiling politely up at the camera, a smaller woman under her arm.

Patsy reached for her phone and took another hasty photograph of the woman. Kim watched her with resentment on her face.

“You got lucky.” Kim grunted.

Patsy shrugged, unconcerned by her colleagues frustration. “Hey, with my streak it was about time something went well for me. The question is why did he have so many copies of it though, girlfriend maybe?”

“We need to focus on the facts, guesswork won’t help us in a court of law.” Kim said oppressively.

“Yes but we aren’t in a court of law are we?’ Patsy tried a smile that usually got a girl phone number. ‘Come on Kim, this is all part of the process. We’re supposed to be partners, we should bounce ideas against each other. That’s how we find the evidence.”

“Inspector Ursula said that she wanted a well ordered-“ Kim started pompously.

“Well the DI isn’t her right now is she?’ Patsy interrupted hotly. ‘I bet even if she was here she’d be making suggestions because that’s what normal human beings do.”

Kim recoiled looking hurt, “I am normal.” She said quietly to her boots.

Patsy ignored her, annoyed that Kim had tried to pull rank so quickly. Advancing towards the sofa Patsy eyed the corpse. She’d been avoiding this bit for as long as she could. Dead bodies weren’t ever fun.

The victim was male, small, although that could just be the way he was positioned. He’d been sat in front of the sofa on the floor when he’d been burned. His body was blackened, the clothes baked onto him in charred strips of fabric, trapped in a forward hunch.

Patsy stared at the boys face which was prominent; it was still recognisable although the heat had left the flesh leathery and grey. His mouth hung open in a grotesque grimace where the jaw muscles had given way to rigour mortis. He looked young, his face unlined with the scraggy promise of a beard on his chin. Maybe late teens or early twenties no more than that.

Patsy closed her eyes as she tried to process the scene as a whole. Someone had killed a boy who looked as though he had more than enough problems to deal with. The dead woman didn’t seem to fit as a girlfriend, too old, so maybe his mother? Or a friend? Patsy thought about the words on the wall. Mental health teams? Social worker perhaps?

The boy had red hair although it looked like it had been cut messily. The fire might have singed it as he sat burning to death. Patsy remembered Chastity’s hair burning. The red hair that marked her as a half sister, the unwanted addition to Abrahams plans.

Patsy fought down the memories, bullying her own incompetence away and made herself think about only this victim, this young man.

Something was bugging her. Something didn’t fit, some fact. It took only a few moments, Patsy stood where she was letting the thoughts assemble and rise through the swamp of her thoughts. Why wouldn’t a young lad like this move if the fire was only happening in one area? Why not climb out the window? It was a ground floor flat.

Yet for some reason he’d stayed where he was. There wasn’t anything holding him down so what then?

Patsy tried not to think about how it must have felt to burn to death.

Been there, got the PTSD.

Kim cleared her throat pointedly close by and Patsys eyes snapped open. The body was still there, the job was still there. Everything was still there. Sighing Patsy tapped the toe of her boot against the corpses knee ponderously. “Fire wasn’t too hot, it didn’t burn the corpse too badly. Is that significant?”

“What makes you think the fire wasn’t hot enough?” Kim had obviously shelved her issues for the moment as she stopped on the other side of the body, her arms folded tightly over her chest.

In Patsys mind eye she saw the commune garden. A small blanket with an even smaller human being laboriously placed inside a steel wheelbarrow. The taste of ash. The wages of sin being paid in full by someone to young to have any in the first place.

“I... I read it probably... In a book somewhere.’ Patsy muttered vaguely. ‘Bodies take 24 hours to burn entirely and the heat needs to be constant doesn’t it? The look of this guy says it was localised like you said.”

“You read about it?’ Kim asked suspiciously. Patsy got the impression that Kim felt somewhat put out Patsy could discuss the topic with a bit of knowledge. ‘What book was that precisely?”

“Can’t recall, think the cover was blue.” Patsy parried quickly with as much nonchalance as she could muster.

“Right.” Kim patently didn’t believe Patsy but wisely chose not to push for more.

“Have we checked ID for the vic? Young lad like this probably has a family somewhere.” Patsy decided it was time to change the subject.

There would be a mother maybe, siblings. God, Patsy never enjoyed telling families their loved ones were dead but it would be harder now. Every flex she made into normality seemed to scrape at another set of raw nerves.
 
Ghosts. Patsy had too many ghosts.

“We can’t officially ID him until the doctor gets here and pronounces death.” Kim supplied in a stuffy, official voice.

Patsy looked down at the charcoal black corpse. The scent of paraffin lingered on the body.

“Pronounces death?’ Patsy repeated weakly, ‘tell me Sanders, do you really think that’s actually necessary at this point?”

“It’s procedure Mount.” Kim said plainly like the question offended her.

“Well yes, I know that.’ Patsy grinned because it was better than crying, ‘but I’m not a doctor and even I can tell you he’s not going to get up after this is he? I mean, being burned to death isn’t one of those things that one simply walks off like muscle pain.”

“It still needs to be confirmed by a trained medic in case there’s something that can be done.”

“A trained medic? What, is Jesus doing house calls again? Look-“ Patsy began quickly, impatience twanging in her voice as she scowled at the mountain of woman in front of her but Kim cut her off, squaring her huge shoulders to stand at her full impressive height.

“Your inspector impressed upon me the importance of running a tight investigation Mount.’ Kim had a learned by heart quality to her tone now. It made Patsys jaw clench. ‘I understand that procedure isn’t your forte but this a dual effort between us and I hold an equal stake. The procedure says we wait for a medic so therefore we wait for a medic.”

The two of them stared at one another over the body. Kim folded her arms giving Patsy a and-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it sort of look that was oddly reminiscent of someone Patsy thought she knew but couldn’t quite place.

“Fine.’ Patsy forced herself to count to ten inside her head, ‘fine, you wait here and I’ll go outside and make some calls.”

“What calls?” Kim scoffed.

Patsy pointed at the walls. “This flats a wreck. Writing on the walls, tin foil on the floor, old newspapers about a dead lady and a victim too drugged or whatever the hell it was to move? I’d say there’s a very good chance that our boy has a record at the very least.’ Patsy moved to take in the mess of silver near the corpse. ‘Tin foil tells me it’s drugs or he’s a loon. Trust me; people like this tend to be known by services Sanders.”

“Don’t use the word loon!” Kim jerked forward suddenly, her face a rising plume of angry red as she thrust a finger to point into Patsys cheek.

Patsy flinched at the movement, her leg stepping backwards instinctively by the unexpected outburst until she recalled that she was an officer at work. She didn’t have to put up with this. Opening her mouth to bite back an angry reply Patsy paused for half a second and realised that Kim’s eyes were wet, her finger was shaking against Patsys face.

Caution reared its head as the part of her that never stopped watching the world registered that Patsy was being an arse. Control wasn’t an easy option but it was the right one. Life didn’t have to be an argument and Kim was upset. For everything that annoyed Patsy about the woman Patsy found that she quite liked Kim. It didn’t have to be like this.

Sighing now, Patsy took a breath and reached to pull Kim’s hand away gently.

“I’m sorry.” Patsy said quietly, meaning it.

Kim glared at her and then pulled her hand away jerkily. “It doesn’t matter.” She muttered flatly.

“I’m still sorr-“ Patsy tried again.

“It doesn’t matter, make your calls Mount, you’re probably right. He’s just another loon.”

“I didn’t mean-“

“Yeah, whatever, make your calls.” Kim barked, turning away, her shoulders still stiff.

Patsy watched her walk across to the other fireman who’d watched the exchange stonily feeling like a complete knob. Sometimes Patsy really wished she could learn to be better with people. She wished she could be better full stop come to the think of it.

The two fire department staff stood with their backs to her and spoke quietly, forcing Patsy out. Patsy watched them for a moment and then decided to do as she’d said.

The walk out of the building seemed much slower than the walk in but Patsy was soon back in the cold open air. It had started to rain while they’d been inside and the drizzle coated her face.

She found that she quite liked it.

As she strode to the fire truck for cover she spotted a yellow coat making its way towards her and stopped to wait for it. The coat got bigger and became a nervous looking PC with clipped brown hair and a fat lip.

“Err are you the sarge?” The PC asked carefully.

Patsy nodded, still not ready to accept the new title. “Acting sarge, how can I help?”

“Me and PC Winters have been interviewing the neighbours sarge. Your victims been identified repeatedly as Daniel Coolage. 19 years old. I did a quick PNC check for you and he’s got a sealed file from adolescents but he’s also on the community mental health outreach list. I’ve got his next of kin details for you.” The PC shyly handed over a sheet of paper.

Patsy nodded as she took it and scanned the page. There was a mug shot printed on it, the dead body was older but the face fit well. Patsy drummed her fingers on her thigh. “His mums local, have you called it into the station?”

“Yes sarge,’ the PC looked awkward and stepped back, ‘they put me through to your DI,’ he explained apologetically, ‘she says she wants you to inform the next of kin with your partner. She said she wants a verbal report at the end of the day.”

Patsy gritted her teeth. “Anything else?”

“No sarge.’ The PC seemed to relax now that his message was passed on. ‘She’s a bit of a one your DI isn’t she but I bet she’s got nothing on you Mount. My mate Chopsticks told me you were one to watch sarge.”

“Yeah well only if you like a good show.’ Patsy said tired now. ‘Thanks for this, I appreciate it.“

Patsy walked away scanning the page more closely. The mother lived inland about forty minutes drive away. Patsy clicked her tongue against her teeth as she contemplated a forty minute drive each way with Kim.

She could just get in her jeep and leave the woman here. Ursula wasn’t to know the whole message was passed on.

An image of Ursula sat at her desk with her fingers steepled crossed Patsys mind. She sighed in defeat and, without much enthusiasm, turned back towards the building to retrieve her colleague.

Kim Sanders and sensitivity training was going to be a tough order.

Chapter Text

Home farm was one of those quaint old farms found at the end of winding country roads littered all across England’s coast line.

It would have been nicer with a better companion. Patsy liked seeing the sea, it had always called her home. The journey had mainly been a silent affair.

Kim had seemed to have gotten over herself by the time Patsy found her back in the flat block finishing up a phone call. She’d even managed to smile when she saw Patsy arriving which had been unnerving but in a worryingly nice way.

Patsy wasn’t really used to people liking it when she turned up. So far it tended to just be the girls and Helen who did that.

Delia had done that before the commune but now? The thought was a sticky one. Patsy tried not to worry about what might happen later but failed.

Kim had listened attentively to Patsy as they walked to the jeep and started out for the victims house but the good mood had soured instantly when Patsy pulled out her cigarette packet once they got to the open road.

“You can’t smoke that in here with me.” Kim’s hands actually reached for the door handle.

“This is my car,’ Patsy grit her teeth, falling into the public shaming trap readied for anyone still willing to smoke anymore. Everyone just had to give you their opinion apparently. ‘I’ll just open up a window or something if it bothers you.”

“Have you got any idea how many chemicals they put into those things?’ Kim had released her hand on the handle but Patsy may as well have offered to open the window to hell itself from the look in her eyes. ‘Passive smoking takes lives too. Even if you don’t care about your own health I care about mine.”

“I care about my health.” Patsy replied grumpily. Stuffing the packet back into her jacket pocket with regret.

“You run into burning buildings without training and get yourself abducted by mercinaries.” Kim spoke quietly but she could have shouted.

The words still hurt like a shout.

“Well if you’d gone in when I asked you too in the flat then I wouldn’t have had to would I?’ Patsy squeezed the wheel. ‘But you didn’t do I did and a little girl didn’t die that day. I’d call that a good life choice on my part... And I didn’t want to be abducted. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

There was an ugly silence as Patsy tried counting to ten in her head. Ghosts counted with her.

“How are your children now?’ Maybe Kim had read the room, she sounded softer but it didn’t suit her. ‘I didn’t want you to get hurt either Mount... Did you read ever that book? The Spock book... I hope it helped.”

“I- Yeah I did.’ Patsy pushed the anger away. It wasn’t Kim’s fault. It was hers. People had died and it had been her fault. All the way back to the cradle she’d always known it was her fault. ‘They’re good, the girls, doing well.”

“Im afraid I don’t really like children.” Kim said quietly, almost apologetic.

Patsy thought about Chastity.

“Yeah. I used to think that too.” Patsy hadn’t wanted to be near children. She hadn’t been able to trust herself not to be like Abraham.

They didn’t talk again after that until they got to the farm, the silence wound around the two of them like the jeep on the road until they reached their destination.

Patsy didn’t mind the quiet. She’d been alone long enough to know how to live with it.

When they pulled up at the farm road Patsy took a deep breath. She needed boundaries. If Ursula wanted them as a team then she couldn’t stop it but for the sake of the woman she was about to speak to she needed to know that Kim wouldn’t muck it up. She needed to find a way to make this work.

Kim made to undo her seatbelt but Patsy stopped her, placing her hand over Kim’s larger one to gain her attention.

“Before we go in we need to get our plan straight. I think I should be the one to talk to the mother.” Patsy was braced for an argument and Kim didn’t disappoint.

Swelling where she sat Kim pulled her hand away. “I don’t see why you should do it. I’m just as capable.”

“You know what,’ Patsy pulled the key from the ignition stiffly, ‘it’s fine that we’re partners on this but like you said; you do the fire stuff and I do the people stuff. Telling a mother that her child is dead definitely comes under people stuff so I think it’s best if you let me lead this part okay.”

“I have been on several courses in the last year to discuss the tactics deployed when dealing with grieving families.’ Kim said mulishly. ‘How are you in anyway more qualified than I am?”

“I’ve got over ten years experience on the job and I don’t refer to conversations with grieving relatives as tactics for a start off.” Patsy offered blandly.

Kim scowled and unclipped her seatbelt properly.

“Will you remove your hat?” Kim asked out of the blue, opening the car door.

Patsy frowned, not expecting the question, “What? Of course I won’t.”

“It’s customary to remove your hat when you speak to families.” Kim said in a know it all voice.

“Well I’d first have to put a hat on to do that wouldn’t I?” Patsy widened her eyes, willing Kim to see the point.

“You mean you don’t carry hats in the boot for just these occasions.” Kim stared at Patsy as though she was plummeting down in her estimation.

“Oddly enough it’s never seemed that necessary.” Patsy said smiling slightly.

“You should start doing that,’ Kim advised wisely, ‘it would add a fresh layer of professionalism to your day to day work.”

“Kim,’ Patsy rolled her eyes, ‘I’m a detective for CID in Norfolk not Poirot on a case in my home town in France.”

Kim tutted and blinked slowly at Patsy. “Belgium.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,’ Patsy got out of the car, amused despite herself, ‘but just so you know, for the record, I despise being bossed around.”

“You really don’t respond well to feedback I’ve noticed.” Kim observed as she slammed her door and straightened her t-shirt.

“I respond fine to feedback when it’s necessary, I just don’t like being told what to do.”

“Which is feedback.” Kim noted dryly.

Patsy stuck out her tongue as they walked side by side up the gravel walk way towards an old brick house.

As they came closer Patsy realised someone was standing outside the front door.

A man wearing a rumpled shirt and stained dress trousers with a pair of plimsoles peeking out from the ankle, showing off ghostly white feet was swaying up ahead. He wore his hair in one of those ponytails men like to grow to hide bald spots which in this case didn’t seem to be quite up to the job. Patsy could still see the white of his scalp through the thin strands. Over his top lip crawled a thin caterpillar of a moustache. He seemed to be muttering to himself as the women drew nearer, his hand groping inside his trousers pockets. In his free arm he held a bedraggled lump of fabric.

“Mr Coolage?” Patsy asked doubtfully when they were close enough.

The man looked temporarily startled by the name as he swayed on the spot and then he laughed. “Not in this bloody lifetime love.’ He looked back over his shoulder and then bellowed towards the door. “What are you playing at now you mad old bitch?”

“Sir I’m going to have to ask you to lower your voice and calm down please.”

“Oh yeah? What’s it got to do with you if I’m shouting? Who do you think you are exactly?”

Patsy flashed her warrant card. “DS Mount, Norfolk constabulary. I’m looking for Daisy Coolage? Is this the right address?”

The man stared at the badge, his mouth hanging open as he tried to focus through what must have been a fair amount of alcohol and then he seemed to relax as he laughed. “Oh very good girls. I’m impressed, looks almost real. This is a joke right? Did Daisy put you up to this? Paul says he’s had enough of her shit so she sends round a few tarts with a fake badge to scare me into staying.”

“I’m not sure what’s been happening sir but I can assure you that this isn’t a hoax.’ Patsy took a wary step closer. ‘I’m going to need your name and I’ll ask you to lower your voice while we’re in the street please.”

The man paused, a look of dawning comprehension growing in his pallid face as he took another weaving glance at the badge.

“Are... You guys are really cops?” The man said slowly.

“I’m afraid so,’ Patsy smiled tightly as she registered Kim a few feet behind watching the scene with interest. ‘Could I have your name please?”

“That bitch!’ The mans face was rapidly turning a purplish red as his teeth bared in an angry snarl. ‘She seriously called the fucking cops on me!’ Twisting towards the house the man waved an arm towards the empty door. ‘Daisy, you better get your arse out here. Calling the cops is way too far! They were my bloody grandmothers curtains anyway!’ The man whirled around again and almost fell over as he stared at Patsy with a drunken beseeching look, ‘these curtains belong to me. No crimes been committed here Officer honestly.”

Patsy looked down at the bedraggled assembly of cloth held in the mans arms. The backing was stained a tell tale nicotine yellow and there were holes at the hem. Hardly the great train robbery.

“I think there’s been some sort of mistake sir-Paul, was it? We’re not here about your curtains. Take them if you want and-“

But the now named Paul had obviously stopped listening as he clutched the fabric close to his chest protectively.

“I won’t give them up, you can’t frighten me, I’ve worked in retail you know.” He warned, specks of saliva pinging off into the air between them.

Patsy sighed. Men. Not even once.

Keenly aware that Kim was watching her and probably noting things to tell Ursula. Forcing her voice into the threatening quality needed for drunks at eleven in the morning Patsy took a step closer to the man. ‘Quite right lad, I’m not here to frighten people. I’m just someone trying to do my job and, hey, I know I’m not what anyone would find scary... However, if you’d like to take a quick look behind me.’ Patsy pointed a thumb over her shoulder to where the hulking shape of Kim loomed large in the late morning sun. ‘You may be able to see my partner over there. Now, Sanders, I’m sure you’ll agree is a little bit scary. I call her Sanders because no one knows her first name, as far as I’m aware she ate the last person to try and find out and her sense of humour is not at all what we’d call happy go lucky like myself...’ Patsy let this sink in for a moment and then went on in an altogether more soothing voice. ‘What I’m saying is that this conversation can go two ways and between you and I, I’m alright with either one, the choice is yours lad. Understand?”

The man swallowed and nodded meekly looking too much like an overgrown school boy as he watched Kim furtively.

“Good,’ Patsy went on, nodding pleasantly, ‘Now what was your name?”

“Paul. Paul Larkins. Am I under arrest?” Paul chewed out the words, half scared and half stupid.

“Not if you cooperate. Are you Daniel Coolages stepfather by any chance?”

“No he bloody well isn’t.’ A new voice joined the crowed from the doorway of the house. ‘He’s a waste of space scrounger who can keep his curtains as long as he fucks off my land.”

The newcomer was a short and wiry woman in her early forties who was stood clad in ill matching pyjamas and a fuzzy pink dressing grown. She had thin, reddish brown hair that despite tucking behind her ears still wafted around her head and stuck to her lips. Her face looked stretched and stained as though it had spent too much time in the sun. She had deep lines carved over her forehead and a thin lipped mouth that was currently clenched around the paper cylinder of a cigarette.

She was a short woman. Her body appeared to be comprised of so little substance that she could have been in danger of flying away in a strong wind. Patsy might have thought her vulnerable if she hadn’t noticed the woman’s eyes. They were the flat brown colour that people seem to develop when they’ve grown old too fast. Ancient.

“Daisy Coolage?” Patsy enquired, noticing the way that the man had backed off at the newcomers shout.

“That’s right,’ the woman folded her arms, ‘I’m Daniels mother and your cops am I right?”

“Ms Coolage, my name’s-“ Patsy began, wanting to control the situation from the offset and failing magnificently.

“I don’t care about your name.’ The woman interrupted with evident disdain, the cigarette dangling perilously from her bottom lip as she spoke. ‘You’re a cop asking questions about my boy, I don’t need to know your names, I just need to know what the little shits done now.”

“Perhaps this conversation would be better inside?” Patsy suggested without much hope.

“Cops aren’t welcome in my house without a warrant,’ Daisy Coolage sniffed, ‘there’s enough filth in my carpets without your dirt making it worse. So what is it then? Whose he hurt this time? I know it’s bad because there’s two of you and you lot only ever show up to bring me more bad news.”

“Ms Coolage I’m afraid there’s been an incident concerning your son-“

“I knew it!’ Daisy spat on the soiled ground. ‘The little bastards touched another kid hasn’t he? Well don’t come crying to me about it. I’ve got my own problems you know. He’s an adult now, it’s not my business anymore; you can tell him from me that he’s on his own this time.”

“Ms Coolage let’s go inside.’ Patsy soothed. ‘I’m afraid I have some difficult news for you.”

“Difficult?’ The woman’s lip curled derisively, ‘how much more difficult can you lot make things for me? Bet you love this don’t you, coming here and ruining honest people’s livelihoods? Do you know that no one in the village will even talk to me after everything my boys done? My fathers farm, left to me, gone to ruin now but does anyone care? Of course they don’t. Don’t think I don’t know you blacklisted my number at the station. Twice, twice I rang last week when those kids tried burning down my barn but nobody came. Everyone hates me and it’s not my even my fault. The kid came out ruined, I can’t be held accountable.”

“There was a fire in your barn?” Kim asked sharply, her mind clearly plummeting down the same avenues that Patsy was.

Daisy bared her teeth. “Oh so now you want to know all about it. All interested suddenly. Three hours I had to wait! Three fucking hours for one cop with a chip on his shoulder to poke around in there for a few seconds. I pay my taxes same as everyone else, I’m entitled to seek police assistance when I need it.”

“Ms Coolage,’ Patsy decided that diplomacy wasn’t going to work here, ‘we’re getting off track a bit here, my name is Patience Mount and I’m with the police. We’re here today to inform you that we have reasonable evidence to suggest your son has died in a fire at his flat this morning.”

There was a sudden lack of noise. No one breathed as the wind seemed to roar around them. Patsy forced herself to look into Daisy’s eyes; they were unfocused. Something creaked.

And then the moment broke as Paul finally lost control of his legs and fell to the floor with a muffled expletive. All eyes snapped to him in relief as everyone remembered to breathe again. Paul has dropped the curtains but they had tangled around his arm as he crawled on his knees to try and get back up.

“Sanders?” Patsy called, not turning to look at Kim but knowing she was there.

“Mount?”

“If you could see Paul to the gate and then, if it’s alright with you Ms Coolage, I’d like my colleague to have a look at the barn where the fire was?” Patsy looked back at Daisy who had come back to life long enough to wrap her dressing gown more firmly around her waist.

Daisy nodded. “The barns back there,’ she pointed to a metal roofed construction along the track. ‘I thought it was kids in the village playing pranks.”

Patsy walked to the woman and took her arm gently to guide her into her house.

“It could well be Ms Coolage but it might be relevant. Has someone tried setting fires in your barn before?”

“Err? What? No. No not a fire but I’ve had break ins. Bored kids from the village.” Daisy sounded dazed, not really thinking as she allowed Patsy to manoeuvre her through the front door.

As they stepped over the threshold Patsy had to work hard not to gag. The smell as they entered was nauseating; unaired rooms and rancid food mixed with old spirits and something suspiciously close to cat piss.

“Where’s your kitchen Ms Coolage? I’ll make us a cup of tea.” Patsys voice was muffled as she tried to keep her mouth as closed as possible. The smell was getting stronger as they walked down the narrow hall.

It probably hadn’t been made to be narrow but someone, most likely the woman she walked with, had filled it on both sides with precariously balanced piles. There was only one light bulb and the light was gloomy and oppressive.

“Daisy. I hate being called Ms. We can go in the living room, I don’t have any milk or teabags. Haven’t been to the shop yet.” Daisy was dragging her feet, the slap of footfalls were so fragile in comparison to Patsys own.

They turned left in the hall and Daisy moved towards a new room. Patsy followed behind, not because she wanted to let go of the woman’s arm but because the entry point was only big enough to allow one person in at a time. There was a dresser wedged into the space.

The living room was just as cluttered as the hallway. Towers of detritus loomed high on all three walls but there was at least a bit of natural light in here. The windows were mottled and stained by nicotine and neglect and the curtain rail above had been half dragged away. Patsy assumed Paul had taken his grandmothers curtains from in here.

Daisy slumped down into an arm chair surrounded by books and dirty crockery. There was a half finished bottle on the table beside her surrounded by empty glasses smudged with ancient finger prints and spit.

Patsy glanced around, searching for somewhere to sit that wouldn’t lead to a tetanus jab and found a dark wood chair upturned against a wall. It clunked as she hefted it gratefully the right way round and brought it over so she could sit in front of Daisy.

They sat in silence for a moment, Daisy routed around in a pile of socks on the floor and pulled free a packet of cigarettes, retrieved one and lit it. Patsy waited for her to finish, watching her knock the ask onto the carpet which was stained a dark black at the woman’s feet.

“So he’s really dead?” Daisy said eventually when she’s stubbed out her cigarette in an empty glass. The ash burned the dregs of whatever had been in the glass a mucky grey before Patsys eyes.

“The fire service were called to a fire at your sons address,’ Patsy answered clinically because at times like this facts were needed, ‘and a body matching your sons description was found at the scene. It appears to be him although we will need to formally identify him.”

“A fire?’ Daisy looked bewildered. ‘Of all the ways I thought it might go I never thought about a fire. How do you know it’s a murder?”

“My colleague is an experienced fire fighter, she knows the signs.” Patsy hated this bit. The grey time before the true reality of loss really hit. She recalled the numb shock too keenly. Val. Ursula had sat just like this when she’d told Patsy that Val was-

“I need a drink, you want one?” Daisy was hefting the half finished bottle and splashing some clumsily into one of the empty glasses.

Patsy blinked, forcing herself to concentrate and shook her head away from the ghosts. No. “I don’t drink on duty Daisy.”

“Suit yourself. I always say it’s five o clock somewhere personally.”Daisy had lit another cigarette as she swallowed a hefty mouthful of drink.

Patsy decided to move the conversation on. “Ms Coolage, do you have a photograph of Danny at all?”

“I- Yeah, somewhere I think.” Daisy finished her drink before she stood up shakily and walked over to the rooms fireplace with white bricks and dark wood. The strip of wood serving as a mantle piece was just as crowded as everywhere else. More empty glasses, stacks of paper, opened letters and receipts. They crackled as she lifted a few piles and flicked through them to retrieve a cardboard framed school photograph.

When she handed it to her Patsy noted that the back was sticky and oddly stiff like it had had water spilled over it at some point.

The picture was old. The little boy in the photograph couldn’t be any older than ten with tousled brown hair, one missing front tooth and a goofy smile that showed up the large, dark semi circles underneath his eyes. He looked tired and undersized.

“How old is Danny in this Ms Coolage?” Patsy asked as tactfully as she could.

“Eight I think.’ Daisy smiled wistfully down at the picture, a new cigarette half raised to her lips. Patsy hadn’t seen her finish the last one. ‘I’ve always liked it, he looks just like any normal little boy there doesn’t he. Might even be normal.”

“He’s a handsome young man,’ Patsy agreed gently, ‘but we were hoping for a picture that’s a little more up to date? Would you have anything like that around the place at all, something from the last year or so?”

Daisy paused, taking a slow drag of her cigarette as she pondered this and then she stood up again and moved to what had once been a dining table but was now nearly invisible underneath groaning piles of objects; a rusting clarinet was shoved aside to reveal a stack of DVDs covered in a thick film of dust. These were just as sharply shifted as Daisy reached under a bag of wool and pulled out a flat 6x4 picture. She walked back to Patsy dreamily and dropped it into Patsys lap like a leaf in the autumn from an indifferent tree.

Patsy looked down at the second photograph and recognised the face of her victim instantly. The boy had grown into a man in this image and his face looked flabby and red where he stood very erectly beside a man dressed as Santa Clause.

“When was this taken?”

“Last Christmas, just before he got released from St Matthews.’ Daisy blew a smoke ring as she tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair, her eyes drifting back to the bottle longingly. ‘They throw parties in those hospitals at Christmas. I don’t know why they bother, the ones who can understand know enough to want to be in their own homes and the ones that don’t wouldn’t know they were at a party anyway. Suppose it’s just something they feel they need to do.”

“Danny was in St Matthews? Like the mental hospital?” Patsy pulled out a notepad from her pocket and made a show of writing just to have something to do with her hands.

“Yeah.’ Daisy pressed her head more firmly into the head rest of her chair, her voice bone weary. ‘He was released this January. He’s been in hospitals since he was 12.”

“That was a long time... What was wrong with him?” Patsy cringed at her poor wording but couldn’t think of a sensitive way to phrase it.

“What was right with him?’ Daisy rubbed her knuckle distractedly, her voice flat. ‘The doctors said he had paranoid schizophrenia but who knows. He was insane I know that. They tried all sorts of medication to try and sort him out but nothing seemed to work for years. They didn’t want to give him too high a dose because he was still in puberty so it took a long time.’ She picked off a strip of nail as she spoke before sighing. ‘Too long really.”

“That must have been hard for the family...’ Patsy tried to imagine what she’d do if someone tried to take Seppie or Fern away from her and promptly stopped trying to think as a red heat burned her ears at the image. ‘What did Danny’s father think about it?”

“Father? What’s one of those?’ Daisy’s cheeks pinched in a mocking smile. ‘My Danny never had a father.”

“You were estranged from him when Danny was born?”

“We weren’t ever together in the first place love.’ Daisy sounded amused, possibly pegging Patsy as someone who had lived a sheltered life. ‘It was a one night thing at a party out of town. I never even knew the guys name.”

“Must have been difficult raising Danny on your own out here; running a farm and juggling school.” Patsy tried not to look around the room. Her need to bleach away germs was killing her. It didn’t need to be said that the housework wasn’t a priority in this house.

“I won’t lie the first five years were a nightmare. Danny never slept longer than four hours from a toddler. My friends said that was probably a good thing; the harder they are as babies the better they’ll be as teenagers.’ Daisy laughed bitterly. ‘Turns out that’s not true. I’ve had more heart ache over that boy than anything else in this world.”

“How did you know that Danny was unwell? Twelve is early to get so ill.” Patsy knew next to nothing about this sort of thing but every cop had been to the local 136 suite. These days there seemed to be more and more crazies on the streets.

“Yeah it’s a rarity apparently, aren’t we the lucky ones, most people get it around 19-25 after puberty according to his doctors. Trust our Danny to be special for all the wrong reasons.”

“Did Danny do something wrong Daisy?” Patsy decided to address the elephant in the room. It seemed the next step.

“Like you don’t already know.” Daisy’s rebuttal was whip crack sharp, the anger and resentment bubbling over as it mingled in grief.

“Daisy before today I wasn’t aware of your son,’ Patsy made herself as mild as possible but she refused to apologise. She was here for a reason. ‘I’m not your enemy here, my only job is to understand the facts, all of the facts. We have reason to believe that your son was murdered so if there’s something in his past that you think we should know about then I’d be grateful to hear it.’ Patsy leaned forward and patted the woman’s hand. ‘I’m not here to pass judgement on what your son did as a child, my jobs to assemble the facts so that we can find out what happened to him in the present, that’s all.”

Daisy stared down at the coffee table, at the picture of Danny as a child and picked it up shakily.

“I don’t like the recent pictures of Danny, never have.’ She said in a strained whisper, her free hand tracing the child’s cheek as though she wanted to carve her way through the years between then and now. ‘That man in this photograph isn’t my son, he’s just a sick person. My son... That little boy who liked to make me laugh- They aren’t the same people. That’s how I think about it; the before Danny and the after Danny.’ She handed the picture to Patsy the cardboard wobbling in her grip. ‘I would like you to take both pictures so that you can see him like I do. Just a little boy who didn’t know what he was doing.”

“What did Danny do?”

“He was such a good boy.’ Daisy’s eyes had filled with tears but she wouldn’t let them fall. They stayed caught in the corners of her eyes like a threat. ‘He was quiet, didn’t have a lot of friends but he was likeable; cheeky. Some days he used to have me in stitches with the stuff he’d come out with.’ She smiled sadly. ‘Really witty stuff, honestly, I didn’t know where he got his brains from but it wasn’t me... He used to like watching science fiction films a lot.’ The smile faded as she swallowed hard. ‘When he got to ten he used to have piles of videos all over the place. I used to shout at him; I’d trip over the things when I was getting up in the mornings. He never put anything away, used to drive me mad... At the time I just thought he was being a normal boy; just a normal little boy who would get over it all eventually.” She stared at the photograph mournfully.

“But he didn’t?” Patsy encouraged.

Daisy sniffed and wiped her nose with the cuff of her dressing gown. Fine strands of pink fluff caught on her wet lip but she didn’t wipe them away. “He used to get home from school and just sit staring at the television all night. Sometimes... I used to try and get him to play out but he’d cry and he’d make such a fuss about it so I thought it must just be a phase and he’d get over it when he realised girls were out there... And he did. Sort of.”

Daisy had tensed, the cigarette in her hand had burned down to nothing and a trail of ash sat on the curve of her thumb as she stared into the face of the past. When she spoke again her voice was constricted like the words hurt on the way out.

“He used to walk to school in the morning... I thought he went with friends and he did when he was little but... That must have ended. I was so busy with the farm I never thought.’ She broke off and lifted out another cigarette convulsively. Patsy waited for her to light up again. ‘There was a girl. A girl in the village. Erin Miller, she was five. He used to walk past her house... After that everything changed.”

“What happened to Erin Daisy?” The hairs on Patsys neck were on end. She felt the cold in her chest as the wound that never really went away seemed to throb.

“Danny used to like science fiction like I said... I think now... If I had made him watch a comedy instead perhaps...’ Daisy trailed off and then took a deep breath as she went on. ‘He became obsessed with the films. Started thinking they were real. He stole tin foil and put it over his pillow because he said aliens were trying to abduct him. He got excluded from school because he said his teacher was spying on him and got caught trying to break into her car. The few friends he had stopped coming to the farm... I tried to get him help.’ Daisy met Patsys eyes defiantly, expecting judgement. ‘I took him to the doctors every week it felt like and I told them that something was wrong with him but they told me I was being over sensitive, that Danny was just a healthy boy and that sometimes the start of puberty can make kids a little bit aggressive. Testosterone you know.”

“But that wasn’t right?”

“No.’ Daisy sucked on her cigarette ponderously. ‘He just got worse. Wouldn’t leave his room, wouldn’t talk to me but I heard him sometimes; whispering to himself. It was scary. I thought the best thing would be to try and get him out of the house. Fresh air, open skies, that sort of thing and it worked, sort of, he did go for the walks... I just didn’t know where he was going.”

“He was going to see Erin Miller?”

Daisy nodded looking peaky, the hand holding the cigarette shook. “Yeah, he was obsessed with her. I didn’t even know that she existed until they both went missing. He was supposed to go out for an hour and he didn’t come back and I thought... I thought something must have happened. He could be so wrapped up in his own head I thought he’d been hit by a car. I worried.’ Daisy sniffed again. ‘Imagine that. Worrying that something bad had happened to him like a normal mother. I called your lot and they found my Danny a few miles away on one of the fields... With the little girl. I didn’t believe what they told me he did to her until I saw the pictures.”

“Did he kill her Daisy?”

“No.’ Daisy bit her lip, smoke curling around her face looking sickened. ‘No he didn’t do that although l... in a way, maybe it would have been better if he did do that but he didn’t, didn’t kill her in the real sense. It was worse than that. Danny said the little girl was a robot, that some organisation had planted her in the village to spy on him. He took her to prove that he was right, he said that he thought if he could prove she was a robot then they’d have to give the real Erin back...’ Daisy discarded yet another cigarette to the glass. ‘He cut her eyes out to try and see inside her skull,’ she whispered as though the quiet could make the truth less awful, ‘he cut off her tongue and stabbed her in the back with one of my knives from the barn. She’s paralysed now, blind and mute. She still lives in the village with her mother.”

“And...’ Patsys brain was screeching ahead, trying to see the whole picture. ‘How did Erin’s mother react to the event? If she’s still local then I imagine it must be strained.”

“Cynthia?’ Daisy snorted. ‘She doesn’t talk to me, she doesn’t talk to anyone really. Just stays indoors looking after her daughter but everyone in the village knows what Danny did. I’m a pariah, they still won’t even serve me in the corner shop. They only let me in the pub to sneer. I’m the mother of the monster. A freak.”

“Where did Danny go after the offence? Did he spend time in prison?” Patsy made a note of the mother’s name and underlined it hastily. Trying to think a few moves ahead.

“I think they wanted to go down that route,’ Daisy watched Patsy write dispassionate once more, ‘but honestly he was so obviously mental they couldn’t. He was held in lots of places at the start; it was near impossible to keep track of it. Every time I called a place they told me he’d been moved again. The police kept him in custody for a bit I think but they couldn’t manage him so he went to a couple of PICU’s and then he went to CAHMS unit up in Liverpool. He was there for about five years, until he hit eighteen and then they shipped him back here to St Matthews.’ She shrugged and traced the fabric of her sofa arm. ‘There probably would have been murder if he’d come back any sooner; the family and all that. That’s why they had to house him the other side of Norfolk. He wasn’t allowed within 30 miles of the village. He hasn’t been back to the farm since he did the deed.”

“Did the hospital tell the family Danny was out?” Patsy didn’t really need the answer from Daisy. She’d do her own checks when she back at the station.

Daisy shrugged gloomily. “They must have done but I think they just wanted to put it all behind them. The girls father left after the attack, he never visits I heard. I’m the one they all hate.”

“How did Danny react to the crime? Was he remorseful?” Patsy saw the crime scene again. She’d thought the absence of possessions suggested a lack of life but now she wondered if it had been a penance if some kind. Refusing to live with nice things to make up for what he’d taken.

“I think he must have been.’ Daisy frowned at her nails; they were yellow and brown on the pad of her thumb and forefinger. ‘I didn’t visit him for the first couple of years; couldn’t make myself do it. The hospital staff told me he was suicidal for a while, he tried to hang himself a lot apparently.’ Her voice was detached, unfeeling. Patsy got the impression she’d had a lot of practice. ‘In a way maybe it would have been better if he had done it for real... Anyway, I got a phone call from them when he was 14. He’d cut his arms and they’d got infected; ended up nearly dead from it on a drip at one of the hospitals. I still remember that call; that God awful scouse accent. First time I saw him he was all hooked up to drips in this bed too big for him, his arm plastered up. He looked swollen, all those bloody meds they’d put him on. I stayed until he woke up, it was easier to be around him when he was unconscious I suppose, but he did wake up eventually and it was awful. Doubt he even knew who I was. He was crying, talking about aliens and a chip in his brain. Crazy shit.”

“When did he start to get better?”

“When he moved to St Matthews.’ For some reason Daisys voice shook with some new emotion that Patsy couldn’t identify, it was too tightly wound in. ‘It helped being in his home town maybe and he wasn’t classed as a minor anymore either so they could up his dosage. Took nearly two years altogether but when they released him he was better. Still not my Danny but he was normal sort of.”

“When did you last speak to Danny?”

“The week before last,’ Daisy answered promptly, a little too quickly. ‘I called to find out if he was alright, had shopping and stuff and he said he did. That was it.”

Patsy fixed her gaze politely on the photograph of the schoolboy as she mentally compared Daisy’s account of her sons life to the scene she’d witnessed only hours previously. They didn’t match.

“Daisy,’ Patsy began gently, ‘when did you last see your sons flat?”

“It’s not my fault.’ Daisy’s voice had lost its neutral tint, Patsy sensed walls careening back into place at the mere suggestion of judgement. ‘I have a farm to run, he made a choice and he suffered for it. I can’t be held accountable for that... Do you have children sergeant Mount?”

“I-‘ Patsy floundered, the question throwing her as she automatically opened her mouth to say no only to recall that she did have them now. ‘Yes, I do.” Patsy said shortly, angry at herself for the momentary lapse. What sort of mother forgot that sort of thing?

“You love them unconditionally I suppose?” Daisy asked sarcastically.

“We’re not here to talk about my children Daisy.” Patsy reinforced the boundaries, tapping her pen on the pad quickly.

“No. We’re not are we?’ Daisy hands bunched into a fist. ‘My son was a monster sergeant. How do you love a monster?... I’d be lying to say I don’t hate him for what he’s done.”

“Daisy who do you think would have wanted to kill your son?”

Daisy sighed sadly and picked at the paper lid of her rapidly dwindling cigarette packet. “Everyone in the village maybe, anyone who knew what he did. Maybe his neighbours, an old school friend, someone who saw him in the street. Probably doesn’t even matter does it? It’s just justice, from the second I knew what he’d done I knew it would end this way.” She sounded close to despair, the naked pain of regret was almost physical.

Patsy shifted uncomfortably as she looked at Daisy Coolages small frame. Arson. An arsonist didn’t have to be big.

“Can you tell me where you were last night Daisy?”

Daisy looked up sharply, her face was mocking but her eyes still threatened tears. “Me? I was here last night with a man from the village; Rob Buckle. We see each other sometimes. He’s the landlord of the pub; brings me beer and whatever else he wants when it’s a cold night and he’s lonely.”

“And Rob can confirm that when we ask him?” Patsy noted the name again.

“Not in front of his wife he won’t,’ Daisy’s voice glittered with malice, ‘but Paul will probably do it for him. That’s what the scene in the garden was about; the two of them met each other on the doorstep.’ The ghost of a smile drifted over Daisy’s lips, ‘never understood why people get so upset about that stuff. Like love really exists.”

“We’ll need you to come to the station in a few days Daisy to formally identify your son. Our liaison team will be in touch and in the meantime if anything crosses your mind you can contact me on this number.” Patsy passed over her card.

“What am I supposed to do now?” The question seemed to rip itself out of Daisy. It was desperate and Patsy didn’t have an answer.

She’d never had a good answer to that question.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t bring you better news Daisy.” Was about all Patsy could say. It was all anyone had told her in the past and she hated herself for saying it to someone else. She’d wanted to scream when the social workers had said that to her over the years. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry.

Sorry didn’t change things.

“Yeah yeah. Everyone’s sorry.” Daisy echoed Patsys thoughts so succinctly it made Patsy waver.

But Patsy didn’t have a response to that one either though so she turned to leave, her hands tracing her coat absentmindedly as she replaced her note pad feeling the solid markers of her life hanging in her pockets; badge, wallet, phone, cigarettes. Her hands lingered on the bulge of her phone as she remembered something.

“Actually, there was one more thing Daisy if you don’t mind. In Danny’s flat we found numerous copies of the same newspaper; one of the obituaries had been circled. I was wondering if you could shed some light on the matter?” Patsy held her phone up to show the blonde woman for Daisy’s inspection.

Daisy took a while to look up, a fresh cigarette already clasped in her hand. When she looked up-it was only a flash but Patsy was good at noticing things people didn’t usually like to be noticed- there was a flash of something close to fear and then it was gone.

Daisy looked back at her hand.

“That’s... That’s that psychologist from St Matthews. Killed herself I heard just after Danny got out.” Daisy’s tone was too casual. Reluctant.

Patsy gazed at the woman’s head as she waited for anything else.

“Did she work with Danny at all?”

“I couldn’t really tell you. It’s like I said already I didn’t really like visiting Danny. The teams, all the hospitals, the staff seem to change all the time. She might have worked with him but I don’t really know.”

“Danny never mentioned her at all?”

“Danny didn’t really talk to me when we spoke. We weren’t close like I said.” Daisy was lighting another cigarette.

She’d probably die in that chair Patsy thought to herself as she pocketed her phone.

“Right... Well thank you for your time Daisy.’ Patsy pointed to the card meaningfully. ‘Call me if anything else comes to you, I want to catch your sons killer and any help you could give us is welcome... And if anyone tries to set fires in your barn then call me for that too. You’ve got a right to feel safe.”

Daisy didn’t stand to see Patsy out of the house and there probably wasn’t anyway she could hear but Patsy still felt a prickle of unease as she stepped back into the courtyard. Kim was waiting for her but when they met and Kim opened her mouth to speak Patsy shook her head meaningfully. The windows to the living room were shadowed as though Daisy was standing behind them.

Patsy walked to the jeep and waited calmly for Kim to get in before driving back down the country road. Kim seemed to sense her mood because she didn’t try and speak again until they were well out of sight of the farm and Patsy had pulled up in a lay-by.

They both sat in silence. Patsy wound down the window wanting the smell of the house out of her nose.

“That whole place felt really strange.’ Kim said eventually, ‘that guy was raving. He told me he caught that woman with another man. I wrote down the name.”

“She told me.’ Patsy wished she’d slept more. She was back one day and already worn out. ‘What did you get from the barn? Do you think it’s the same person who set the fire?”

“There wasn’t a lot of evidence left.’ Kim leaned over the gearstick. ‘The place is a wreck, I don’t see how she’s making ends meet. There was animal crap everywhere but it looked old and there was only a few pigs. The fire looked localised, not too hot but we wouldn’t get any forensics. I checked out back and there’s a footpath without a lock, probably how the arsonist got in... There was graffiti everywhere on the walls. Someone had written baby killer but it looked older. Someone had tried to scrub it off.”

“Probably one of the locals. I imagine it’s a common occurrence.” Patsy stared out of the window, trying to see the case. The players.

“What did the mother say about the victim?”

Patsy explained succinctly, vaguely enjoying being able to hash out events and for once being listened to without interruption. As she got to the victims offence Kim’s eyes narrowed but she waited for Patsy to finish before whistling through her teeth.

“Do you think she’s our killer? Mothers are supposed to care about their children aren’t they?” Kim sounded as uncertain as Patsy was on the subject

“I don’t know,’ Patsy clicked her teeth as she thought about it, ‘my gut says no but I do think that she was lying to me about the dead woman. I just don’t know why.’ Patsy frowned and looked back to Kim who had been looking at Patsys chest. Patsy cleared her throat to remind the woman she was talking. ‘If Daniel did what she says he did though this is going to get complicated.”

“Every murder is complicated.” Kim sounded embarrassed but Patsy was used to being looked at.

The one thing Abraham had given her was his looks. It was ironic really. People wished they looked like her and she wished beyond anything that she could look like someone else. That she could go back to being no ones daughter.

“Yes but he hurt a kid.’ Patsy explained with exaggerated patience. ‘That always makes things more difficult. Facts of life. I want to talk to Cynthia Miller; if she found out our boy was back in the area maybe she’d want to get even.”

“The village is ten minutes away, you want to go and grill her now?”

Patsy checked her watch distractedly. “No, we’ll call first and try and set something up for tomorrow; cases like this call for mister manners until we know a bit more. I don’t want to spook the woman if she’s not done anything wrong. Besides; I want to go to the station and make a few checks and i need a shower,’ she added as a gust of wind spread through the car, ‘I smell like piss.”

“You think the mother might have a record?” Kim’s voice brimmed with enthusiasm. She’d probably talk about clues at some point and Patsy might need to kill her.

“She might do but there’s things that are bugging me. I want to speak to Daniels landlord, get a feel for what he was like as a tennant, maybe find out if he had any visitors and I want to know what happened with the psychologist. Stacks of her obituary at the scene of a murder and a mother that lies to my face about her tends to pique my interest. Might be a blind lead but I doubt it. St Matthews is a big place but someone must have known if they interacted in any capacity.”

“I can call them if you want?’ Kim said idly and then she seemed to stumble slightly looking embarrassed at her eagerness. Patsy said nothing, giving Kim the time she needed to recover which she did magnificently as she added in a rush, ‘I imagine the contact details are a matter of public record.”

“I imagine they are.” Patsy said kindly, watching her peer for a moment and knowing intrinsically that she was being lied to for the second time that day.

“We’ll need to give a handover to your inspector too, she wants to stay abreast of the case.” Kim looked ahead, at the road, her voice flat.

“Great.’ Patsy let the mystery go for the moment as she rubbed her neck and stretched lazily. ‘Always a cloud for every silver lining isn’t there?”

“Inspector Ursula is an impressive professional, she deserves our respect sergeant.” Kim said sanctimoniously.

Patsy smirked, “respect I can just about manage but I won’t be getting on my knees anytime soon for my inspector no matter how wonderful you think she is.”

“That’s not what I meant, must you make everything dirty.” Kim sounded aggrieved but it was too aggrieved to be real, her shoulders relaxed slightly as she settled into her seat. The momentary lapse fading when Patsy turned the cars ignition over.

“Only when your involved Sanders, you seem to bring it out of me.’ Patsy winked, enjoying the way it made Kim fluster. ‘Besides; you didn’t mind last time you saw me on my knees.”

“That was a momentary lapse of judgement.” Kim blushed, straightening her t-shirt mechanically.

“I like to think we had fun.” Patsy smirked turning left at a set of traffic lights.

“I thought you said we were going back to the station?” Kim had obviously chosen not to comment.

“We are, I just need to make a quick stop before that. I made a promise and I try not to break them especially when it’s a lady.”

“Promise? What promise?” Kim eyed Patsy curiously.

“A promise I made to someone important.”

“She must be a special woman if your going all over Norfolk for her?” Kim sounded just the smallest bit jealous.

Patsy smiled, picturing Seppies smile this morning in her head, her wellies with their frog faces. She felt the coldness fade from her bones.

“She’a very special, for this girl I’d go to the moon.’ Patsy made another left. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll still get to fawn over Ursula, I just need to see a man about a dog first.”

Chapter Text

Poplar primary school looked far more inviting in the afternoon light Patsy thought. The red roof and chalk alphabet snake on the playground shone against the damp asphalt and the promise of fresh rain was thick in the air; made it smell clean, fresh. Almost like a promise.

Delia was in there.

Patsy smiled into her cupped hand at the glowing fire of her cigarette. Rays of rogue sunshine were managing to peak through the clouds and the balmy hints of light caught along her hand and cast the fine lines of her skin into smudgy relief. Even the sunshine had come out to play it seemed; Patsy just hoped it was a good omen.

Patsys afternoon had gone much quicker than she could have hoped in the end. She’d pulled up to the kennels within twenty minutes of her detour, Kim had been sweating and sulky beside her; annoyed at the delay to their schedule and refusing to get out and go with Patsy on the basis of the noise.

Patsy had been forced to concede Kim’s point on that.

The kennels were more a ramshackle collection of ancient brick outhouses topped with thin iron roofs than actual buildings. The low sound of dogs howling a lonely chorus had permeated the air as she’d gotten out the jeep and the smell of wet dog had clung to the gates when she’d reached them.

The man who ran the kennels, a sciatica ridden pensioner called Perry, was an old friend. They’d worked together a few years ago in conjunction with the RSPCA and Patsy had kept in contact since. They sent Christmas cards to each other every year and Patsy usually popped in for a cuppa if she was passing; he’d never yet turned her away. Patsy had always been a sucker for a sad pensioner, she blamed Helen for the nobler side she couldn’t yet shake.

Perry was no nonsense, smoked like a chimney, but he loved the dogs and he had a streak of optimism that life hadn’t quite managed to steal from him yet. His working life had been spent racing Grey hounds on the local tracks but he’d left the profession when his wife traded him in for a horse breeder in Surrey.

He never put a healthy dog down if he could help it though, Patsy had always rather admired that trait in him. Perry wasn’t one to give up without a fight.

Patsy had been emailing him for over a month now, waiting for the right dog to turn up.

Perry was inside the kennels when Patsy arrived. His wellies were caked in shit as always and he’d been busy hosing down one of the empty pens. When he’d spotted Patsy edging in he’d laughed and strode forward to give her a swift hug.

Perry had a daughter all grown up somewhere in the country and a few grandkids of his own, he’d told Patsy that once, but Patsy had the impression they didn’t speak any more. He was good with kids though and he’d evidently been expecting Patsy to bring Seppie in. Excited to see a child that reminded him of the ones he had lost.

“I was cleaning out our best pen so she could have a bit of time here with him to get used to each other.” Perry had said, looking disappointed at the lost opportunity when he’d realised Patsy was alone.

“She’s in school til half three,’ Patsy explained hurriedly, ‘and I thought I might surprise her there. It’s her first birthday with me and I’m doing a tea for it, thought we might not have enough time.”

Patsy had toyed with the idea of bringing Seppie here but good sense had prevailed. Seppie surrounded by this many dogs would end in tears; she would’ve wanted to bring them all home and as much as Patsy loved her daughter she didn’t particular fancy thirty pets at a time.

Perry had perked up a bit when Patsy promised to bring Seppie round to his for a cup of tea to say thank you though. His face had creased in amusement as he’d surveyed Patsy through rather mucky glasses.

“What a change for the books you are now Pats... Suits you though. You look happy girl.” He’d told her gruffly as he’d led Patsy along the corridor with its succession of concrete lined pens towards his office round the back.

A dog had been sleeping in a basket when they’d arrived.

Seppies dog as a matter of fact.

A cocker spaniel mixed with some kind of terrier was about all Perry could tell Patsy. The dog was all long ears, wagging tail and wet nose. Seppie might die from excitement.

Perry had run through the paper work as the dog yawned and padded over to sniff at Patsys boots with interest. Large brown eyes had watched Patsy calmly as Patsy signed her name on the dotted lines.

That had been about it.

Perry had promised the dog, Neil, was one of the gentlest animals he’d come across in quite some time. A family who’d had to go into rented housing and couldn’t keep a pet with them anymore had brought him in a few weeks ago. Neil had been somewhat depressed at the split and Perry had quickly sent his information to Patsy; hoping to make a good match.

“He’s a bit needy though,’ Perry warned with professional authority, ‘he’s used to kids fussing him all the time. His old owner says the little ones used to ride him like a horse. Never bitten or growled. I’ve been trying to train him for you-Here, look.”

Patsys heart had melted a little bit as she’d watched the old man sign without much skill for the dog to sit. Neil had obeyed instantly.

Patsy had fallen just a little bit in love.

When she’d got back to the car about an hour later with Neil in tow and what felt like half a sheep’s worth of dog blanket and a huge bag of feed under her arm Kim had still been sitting in the passenger seat. Patsy had sensed her curiosity as she’d reversed back out onto the main road waving at Perry all the while but Kim hadn’t asked any questions.

The lack of response wasn’t surprising.

They’d got back to the station about half an hour later. Kim had jumped out of the car instantly while Patsy slipped a leash onto Neil’s collar and trailed behind hoping the dog wouldn’t pee in the main office. Ursulas reaction would be anyones guess to an animal in the workplace but the cleaners were tenacious at best. No one wanted a repeat of March 2014 when Phil had left a bag of shit in one of the sinks for a laugh. The cleaners hadn’t entered CID for nearly six weeks in protest until Ursula forced Phil to write an official letter of apology.

He’d done it eventually too because everyone would have killed him if he hadn’t but Patsy knew he’d enjoyed himself in the mayhem. Phil hadn’t ever respected those beneath him. Patsy was almost certain that he hadn’t even written the letter himself; probably made Val write it at home.

When Patsy arrived in CID ten minutes later Kim had already got to Ursula. Patsy had watched with surprise as the two women chatted in a much more friendly manner than she’d ever have expected from either of them towards her. Ursula had even cracked out the good mugs and a biscuit barrel that Patsy had never seen before.

She’d scowled as she’d slid in beside them both; an unenthusiastic third wheel.

Patsy had expected Ursula to demand reports and information as soon as they spoke, wary of being in cautious, but she’d surprised Patsy. Patsy had been allowed to explain the scene and the mothers back story succinctly as Ursula listened to her looking thoughtful. When she’d finished Ursula had nodded, told her to follow up the hospital lead and then waved Patsy out.

Kim had stayed though and Ursula had been quick to close the door. Patsy didn’t bother to wonder about the whys of that, she had enough mental scars to get on with without adding the awful possibility of what those two might be up to. Besides; best not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Most of her colleagues had been out then and Patsy had breathed a sigh of relief as she managed to spend the next uninterrupted hour phoning round to Daniels social worker, landlord and bank with Neil laying contentedly on her lap.

Patsy hadn’t managed to get through to the social worker; the office secretary had given her name as Aida Adibola and promised to pass of whatever message Patsy wanted. Patsy had asked for a call back tomorrow and she’d left her mobile number.

She’d had a little bit more success with the council. She’d got through easily to the social housing department but they hadn’t been able to give her much information. Daniels flat hadn’t been council as Patsy had believed. A few of the flats in the block was sub rented out to private landlords. Interestingly, Daniels flat had been leased by a third party. The chatty bloke with the posh southern accent on the other end of the line hadn’t had the details to hand for the guy taking the money but he’d told Patsy he would do what he could to find out the real landlords number.

The bank had stonewalled her. It was always a 50/50 knowing if they’d play ball with the cops; usually depended on the manners possessed by whoever answered the phone. The background had been noisy when Patsy got through, the sound of mechanical beeping and someone shouting loudly over another broken copier. The snappy woman on the other end of the line had asked for a warrant and when Patsy hadn’t been able to produce one she’d ended the call.

Patsy had just been about to call the hospital to speak to the admissions office when Ursula had broken her concentration and called over to her across the room.

The older woman had been leaning against her door frame, Kims greying hair just a smudge of colour behind her. She hadn’t smiled exactly but she’d seemed oddly soft as she’d told Patsy to go home early.

“It’s your daughters birthday isn’t it? Best knock it on the head for today, you can pick Sanders up from the fire station tomorrow and start fresh. No point disappointing the kid.” Her tone had been business like but sincere.

Patsy hadn’t even bothered to ask why Kim couldn’t meet Patsy at the station because she’d been too busy stumbling to her feet in surprise at the unexpected and generous offer. She’d tried to give some word of thanks but Ursula hadn’t waited for them, she’d been too busy closing her door again.

Patsy decided she wouldn’t wonder how Kim was going to get home. She filed it mentally under things she’d rather never know.

Patsy had raced home for a shower. She could still smell Daisy’s house on her and didn’t want Seppie to notice and freak out. Or Delia. Eu de pissé was never a good scent on a first date situation.

Shit. Was this a date? Could it be a date with two kids in attendance? Patsy didn’t really know. She’d never really bothered with actual dates. Things always just seemed to happen without them. An electric anxiety crawled down her skin as she plopped Neil in the boot and jumped in the car.

By the time she got back to Poplar, missing most of the school traffic, Trixie had already gone out. Patsy noticed another bottle in the sink and a small forest of empty glasses; discarded with little grace. The image reminded her too much of Daisy’s house and she’d quickly washed them up in disgust before throwing herself in the shower to scrub off the smell of decay and bad choices.

She’d tried not to think too hard about what to wear when she got out the shower and if anyone asked her she’d lie to their face that she only took five minutes.

It was longer than that though.

Miraculously she’d still managed to get to the gates a little early though and all she could do was wait now. At her feet Neil sat with his stumpy tail smacking the pavement, sniffing the air around him hopefully. When Patsy looked down, still smiling, the thumping increased and Patsy shook her head before bending slightly to rub a long black ear.

Two kids and a dog. Life never really did go the way you thought it would.

Six months ago she’d probably have been hoping for a text from Val. Maybe she’d have banked on dinner at Helens or Trixies at the weekend. This set up wouldn’t have even crossed her mind; waiting for a five year old at school gates. Especially not her five year old. If someone had tried to tell her what was about to happen she’d have probably thought they were drunk. Or insane.

Everyone had known Patience Mount didn’t do baggage.

The dog licked her hand and Patsy recoiled, thinking hurriedly of germs as she wiped the soggy appendage on her jeans. Neil didn’t seem to mind the hygiene based rejection. His tongue was still hanging out of his mouth as he stared up at his new master with slavish interest.

Patsy reverted back to puffing on what would have to be her last cigarette for the next few hours as she waited for the bell to ring and the hoard of excited kids to sweep towards their parents baring all manner of paperwork and half eaten lunches.

She wasn’t alone. A few steps away from her a bustling hive had formed at the main gates. Mothers mostly with the odd father sprinkled in for good measure. Patsy sensed eyes on her where she stood away from the crowd but refused to be drawn in. She had more than enough people in her life for the moment and didn’t much fancy chatting about school politics with Brian the bore of Nancy something or other who ran the Boy Scouts jumble sale.

Growing up with Helen had meant that she’d spent more than her fair share of time sat on a chair at the back of PTA meetings. She’d learned how to read people there.

Patsy had scoped this crowd out by the end of the first week.

Two of the mothers she’d met professionally at domestics. That was the thing about being a cop; the job didn’t stop when you stepped out the front doors. Neither women had pressed charges as Patsy recalled even when one of them, the dumpy looking grey haired mother of four near the back, had been diagnosed with a cracked pelvis. Patsy had been there when the surgeon begged her to seek legal protection but it had fallen on deaf ears. Her husband had stamped on her when he’d finishing throwing her down the stairs. Patsy had watched him take her home in their car; all apologies and promises everyone knew he wouldn’t keep. She must have had another child with him going by the pram she pushed. So far Patsy hadn’t tried to talk to her.

A few she recognised from drunk and disorderly calls. Bored housewives drinking too much and deciding to make life interesting again with a fight wasn’t all that unusual for a Saturday night. Patsy was almost certain she’d locked up the brunette they called Frankie. Frankie had thrown a shoe at a man for refusing to serve her. Nearly knocked the poor bloke off his perch and Patsy had been given an earful from her too when they got back to the cells.

The queen Bee though, the crowning glory of it all and the source of Patsys self inflicted isolation was Lorna.

When Patsy had been growing up in the commune she’d met women like Lorna. There had been a lot of women there to watch; quiet types mainly because Abraham disliked the noisy ones. They’d banded together because that’s what you did when you lived in hell, her mother amongst them; they’d helped one another out with their chores, planned things.

As a child Patsy hadn’t thought anything about it; the adults behaviours had been mundane, meaningless and she’d assumed that everyone lived that way but now, seeing it through adult eyes, she understood there had been a pattern to it. A hierarchy surrounding Abraham.

He’d been the leader, the guide, the axis on which they had all spun but there’d been a second position. Nothing close to an equal but perhaps a favourite pet. Elizabeth had been ensconced into the role when Patsy was very small. Patsy the unwanted prize and living proof of her place in their world. Abraham had been controlling about almost everything and although he’d most certainly slept with most of his flock it was only Elizabeth that he’d allowed to carry his child. For that honour she’d been elevated above the rest.

Patsy could never quite decide whether her mother had wanted her or not. The murky question mark of how she came to be usually depressed her enough that she tended not to delve too hard into it.

She recalled vividly though how much the other women had despised her mother behind the false niceties. They’d been jealous of the fact that she held something special to the man they loved. They’d hated Patsy too; tripped her up or pinched her if she came too near to their less prestigious children. Elizabeth had seen it happen sometimes but she’d never intervened. Abraham had enjoyed the controlled chaos. More likely to kill Patsy himself and make a birdcage from her ribs than set her free from the misery of the existence she lived.

Patsy had spent too many years isolated. The commune a lonely place already made lonelier by other people’s choices and regrets.

Looking back on it now Patsy could understand to a degree why she’d been so hated by them. No one had ever officially proclaimed it but everyone had seen the way that Abraham favoured Elizabeth. The others had wanted the luxuries such a position afforded her. That had all changed though when Chastity was born. The birth of Patsys sister had dragged Elizabeth from her pedestal instantly and then it had been like a silent war; players vying for position.

Before Chastity Patsy had been barely tolerated, the others forcing themselves to talk to her when necessary to keep Elizabeth on their side. After Chastity though, life had become more like hell. There had been no more attempted pretences. Perhaps it had been the fact that as she’d grown older she had looked so obviously like her father that it had been the final provocation to the other women. The proof that he had chosen someone and that that someone had not been them.

The women had blamed Patsy for their misery. When Chastity had died so had Elizabeth in many ways too. She’d never tried to protect Patsy from the others, she’d looked upon Patsy with nothing short of disgust but the death of the child she’d truly loved had robbed Elizabeth of any friendly feelings she might have once attempted. It had taken almost any feelings she had away.

Elizabeth never did recover from the loss, just distanced herself further and further from Patsy as Abraham had continued to rage.

Lorna Bentwicke reminded Patsy of those women. The perfect blend of spite and bitterness hidden behind false superiority.

She was tall and glossy. A polished doll with an hour glass figure that was slowly losing its sand. She looked more like the idea of a mother than an actual mother to Patsys untrained mind. Too tidy. Probably baked in the evenings and she controlled the groups; dealing out casual cruelties she could later explain away if challenged for nothing more than boredoms sake. She was late twenties to a kind eye or early thirties to a more honest one, she had carefully curled hair and a professionally achieved white smile. She wore a lot of designer clothes, her wrist jangled with expensive jewellery and her feet were always clad in varying pastel shaded Jules wellies.

Lorna didn’t appear to work in the traditional sense but her kingdom existed here in this sacred space. The other mothers were depressingly in awe of her and Patsy sensed that they lived in fear of the women’s child coming to tea. God forbid they feed Lornas son too many nitrates. A chicken nugget might kill the tyke off entirely.

Lorna irritated Patsy immensely for a lot of reasons; some not entirely the other woman’s fault. Still... Lornas unwarranted supremacy, her snide looks and her self important attitude grated on Patsy. Lorna laughed at the poorer kids too, sniffed at those who couldn’t afford a certain standard of clothing. For Seppie and Phyllis’s sake Patsy held her tongue but one day soon Patsy had a feeling she would need to have a little whisper in precious Lornas ear. It would only take five minutes.

And maybe a well placed pin to prick Lornas overinflated ego.

Chummy had once told Patsy after an autopsy that the human body contained almost a trillion nerve cells and somehow Lorna managed to get on every last one of Patsys.

She reeked of second hand money. Her ‘hubby’ was some kind of investment banker working from London. They lived in one of the big houses near Blakeney but Lorna hadn’t approved of the local schools ratings so she’d chosen Poplar instead until her son was old enough to be shipped off to boarding school.

The boy himself was in year 5 and Patsy pitied him. He was short with straw coloured hair and a weak chin. Too often Patsy had watched as he was made to stand at his mothers knee like a sort of prize as Lorna scolded him loudly for dirtying his expensive school shoes with something as frivolous as play.

Lorna had tried to loop Patsy into the mummy clan on the first day. Patsy had watched Lorna sizing up her short hair with barely hidden disgust but she’d seen also the way her eyes had lingered on the cut of Patsys shirt, the shape of her face. Patsy had let it happen, answering the intrusive questions vaguely as she smiled over at the other women standing a few steps behind their leader. Patsys lack of interest had obviously piqued Lorna who hadn’t been used to it.

No. Patsy hadn’t wanted to attend the bring and buy. No. She didn’t know how to make jam. No. She didn’t feed her kids vegan themed salads. Or teach them Latin. Or go to Salsa club. No she didn’t want to host Anne Summers parties or Candle shows. She was just here so her kid could get an education. Thanks Lorna.

When Patsy had reluctantly explained that she was a police officer Lornas face had creased with beautiful confusion. Lorna had enquired what Patsys husband did if she worked. The concept of female emancipation clearly passing her by some years ago.

Patsy had wavered here, never one to lie about being gay it had chaffed to do so now but she wasn’t thinking about herself alone anymore. Seppie. She hadn’t wanted Seppie picked on for having a lesbian as a mum even if it was 2018. She’d have enough to deal with being deaf. Patsy had stumped for the easy yet unsatisfying half truth that she was “just single” in the end even though it made her skin crawl to do it.

That answer had got a raised eyebrow from Lorna. When Patsy had shaken the baffled woman’s hand at the end of the exchange Lorna had spotted the missing finger and recoiled with shock. Patsy had enjoyed herself far too much as she’d explained with the first piece of true animation that she’d recently had a plague of extremely aggressive cannibal moths. No one else had laughed but Patsy hadn’t minded. No one ever did.

She had minded however, very much, when Seppie arrived twenty minutes later. Patsy had seen the mothers gossiping being their hands about them, a few of the more impolite individuals even pointing over at Seppies frantically signing hands as she’d told Patsy about her day. Maybe at the fact that they were different colours.

In any case no further attempts of invitation to the yummy mummy club had been offered since.

Patsy wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. If she had she’d probably have just wiled away her time watching them all pretend they weren’t miserable and sleeping with one another’s husbands. She could do that at home watching Jeremy Kyle if the urge struck her. Besides; she’d never been that good at parties. Never quite willing to belong anywhere long enough to grow attached.

A door opened in the playground cutting through Patsys thoughts and there was a fluttering of heads in the crowd as the sentinels spied out any alterations to their daily routines.

Patsy took the opportunity of a distraction to quickly stub out her fag in the gutter. There’s been a letter about littering last week and she didn’t want a lecture for it. She was certain that she still heard a few tuts from those watching her though. Bloody nosy bastards.

The gate creaked again as someone with Curly hair poked their head through. Patsy had half a second to meet Phyllis’s excited eyes and then it was hidden as Lorna stepped into the line of sight.

“Oh Phyllis!’ Lornas voice rang out instantly. An eager child wanting the teachers approval. Patsy hid her smile lest one of Lornas disciples see and report back. ‘This is wonderful, I was wondering if you’d had time to read my email regarding littering in the village? It’s really becoming a problem. Me and a few of the girls were thinking we could set up a committee, maybe take it to the WI for a drive. I’ll be going there to chair this evening so simply say the word and-“

“That sounds delightful lass,’ Phyllis was breathless but firm, ‘but I’m afraid I haven’t had the time yet. Later perhaps, but for now, I’m afraid that I need to talk to ms Mount on an urgent family matter. Patsy? If you wouldn’t mind following me?”

All faces turned to stare at Patsy who stood up straight to follow the bobbing head of Phyllis as she walked with purpose down the small path. Patsy didn’t feel panicked by the request; Phyllis had been too calm to have been honest. Besides, she’d have called Helen first if it was something to do with Seppie.

Lornas eyes narrowed at Patsy as she squeezed past to get through the gate with Neil following at a trot, her expression close to jealousy. The gate closed with a satisfying clunk in the woman’s face. Patsy tried to tell herself that enjoying the other woman’s discomfort made her almost as bad as Lorna herself.

She did enjoy it though.

Phyllis had ducked round a corner when Patsy caught up and they almost collided. Two spies in enemy territory. Patsy offered a shy smile, still not used to talking to this woman without the buffer of Helen to fill in the awkward pauses. Phyllis didn’t seem in the slightest perturbed though as she instantly bent down to coo over the dog once they were out of sight.

“I hope you don’t mind Pats, I saw you through the window... And then I saw this little thing with you.’ Phyllis looked like a child caught in an unapologetic lie. ‘He’s gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous, our Seppie is going to be beside herself, does she know your bringing it here for when she gets out?”

“He,’ Patsy corrected automatically, ‘he’s called Neil and no. I thought I’d surprise her. Phyllis? Did you really just lie about a family emergency just to fuss the dog?”

Phyllis looked up from where she was enthusiastically rubbing Neil’s stomach. Neil, for his part, lay on his back staring up at Patsy with his tongue out as a back leg kicked when Phyllis found the right spot.

“With great power comes great responsibility lass.’ Phyllis said seriously, appearing almost as stern as the first time they’d met for half a second until the effect was rather ruined when she winked. ‘As a future grandmother I thought it best to survey the families newest addition with my own eyes.”

Patsy mulled over the usage of family and then discarded it quickly.

“Do you want to be there when she see’s him?’ Phyllis looked up, perhaps surprised by the offer. Patsy shuffled her feet feeling uncertain as she added quickly. ‘I know you probably have other things to do but the offers there if you want it.”

Phyllis’s mouth widened into a broad grin and she got to feet to pat Patsys shoulder eagerly.

“That sounds wonderful lass.” She glanced back down at Neil who’d sat up looking rather forlorn at the loss of attention. ‘He’s a fine specimen, the ears will grow in I imagine.”

Patsy didn’t get a chance to say anything else as the bell rang at that moment. Throwing a wink at Phyllis Patsy pressed a finger to her lips and passed over Neil’s leash as she strolled, hands in her pockets to stand in the playground.

They tended not to allow every class out at exactly the same moment. Patsy wondered if it was a health and safety thing or merely an innate British requirement to imbed the urge to queue at a young age. Seppie was normally a few minutes late as she got caught up grabbing her coat and bag. Patsy waited patiently as she watched the older children greeting parents or childminders.

One boy caught her eye and held it. Timothy Turner, his body looking like it had been stretched somehow. Timothy noticed her too, his skinny face made sharper in the tang of the cold on the wind, he sent a quick wave in Patsys direction as he met his mother near the climbing frame. Shelagh smiled over at Patsy too and Patsy nodded back easily but she didn’t try and talk to them.

Patsy recalled the Turner family home, the pictures on the fridge and the way Shelagh had looked comfortable with her children. Patsy doubted anyone would ever think that she, Patsy, was quite as adept.

Then the wind was taken out of her as a small body collided hard against her thighs in an excited hug. A scrubby head bashed against her waist as a bag containing wellies and spare clothes was dropped unceremoniously for Seppie to wind her arms around Patsy. Her arms weren’t quite long enough for the job but it still made Patsy laugh, any other thought forgotten as she bent to lift Seppie high into the air.

Seppie seemed to vibrate with energy inside the circle of her arms, a single A4 sheet in her hands rattling as it bent between them.

“Red!’ Seppies hands swung up to nose level, happy to be home after the tedium of a day apart and full of pride. ‘I made this for you, it us. Look! I made it on my own, I did the writing and everything.”

Patsy spotted Claire strolling towards them looking expectant and threw her a quick smile before reluctantly putting Seppie back down to peer at the picture.

It was a smudgy thing, the lines blurred where Seppie had clearly got a bit over excited with the crayons but she could clearly make out the scene. A tall stick figure with yellow fuzz for hair was holding a brown sticks hand and sort of dog shaped sausage the same size as Seppie was next to them. Above them was the clumsy words ‘my burfthday’ Patsy widened her eyes and made a note to thank Claire. Seppie had come to writing later than a lot of kids but she was learning quickly. The B was nearly perfect.

“You made this?’ Patsy shook herself as she felt a wave of something thick nearly choke her. ‘Look at those words! You so good. And the drawing, wow, looks exactly like us baby. You’re so clever.”

Seppie preened, her hands holding her cardigan pockets as she twirled on the spot. Patsy wanted to pick her up again, the love shocked her. How could one small human being possibly elicit so much love? How did Seppie manage it? Patsy hadn’t any idea but was a welcome slave to the emotion anyway.

“Can we get the dog Red? Like you promised? Now?” Seppie was all big eyes and twirly shoes, snapping onto her main agenda with impressive speed.

Patsy pursed her lips and tried to feign confusion as she squinted down at her daughter. Thinking quickly.

“We can go... but before we do you need to thank Phyllis for her card this morning. She’s round there.” Patsy pointed towards the corner where Phyllis was stood hidden from view.

Seppie stopped twirling, her eyebrows knitting into a hard frown as she looked in the direction Patsy had pointed to. Patsy could see her considering her options; wanting to forget responsibilities so that she could have what she wanted immediately. It was a strong effort from both sides but eventually manners won.

Patsy watched Seppie plod towards Phyllis, shoulders slumped as she gave way to adult decrees with minimal grace. Patsy followed quietly, weaving in between parents and kids alike so she could watch. She spotted Claire hovering from the sidelines still but didn’t stop to call her over. She wanted the moment to herself; hoarding memories.

Phyllis had gone back to rubbing Neil’s belly when Patsy saw her again. Seppie was closer, her vision unobscured and she’d stopped dead where she was, her small hands rubbing at the sleeves of her cardigan as she stared open mouthed at the little dog. Patsy put a hand on her daughters shoulder when she reached her and Seppie looked up, her eyes already shiny with tears. Patsy smiled gently.

“Phyllis wants to give you your dog baby. Go on and say thank you.” Patsy gave Seppies shoulder a squeeze.

Seppie paused, a moments uncertainty holding her hostage and she wound one arm around Patsys leg for comfort. Patsy gave her thirty seconds to gather herself and then detangled the arm gently. Holding Seppies hand the two of them took the last few steps but the pace was too slow and Seppie began to pull away as soon she was near enough to touch the dog. The pull impossible to ignore.

Patsy let her go, watched Seppie fall to her knees, the asphalt probably ruining her new tights as she ran a shaking palm along Neil’s back. The dog shivered and then bounced up to lick Seppies face. Seppie squealed. Phyllis said something but Patsy didn’t hear it. The look on Seppies face was the only thing she really cared about and the stark fact that despite all of Patsys flaws and failings, she had been able to make her kid happy.

They didn’t put those feelings in bottles. You couldn’t buy it but occasionally it happened. Patsy wished she’d brought a camera.

Someone cleared their throat close by, not a rude sort of sound, just a gentle acknowledgement that a person was there. The hairs on Patsys neck stood on end and her bad hand automatically slipped inside her jacket pocket. Shy of offended eyes.

When Patsy turned she found Delia standing a foot from her. The sun was at her back, the dark flair of her hair seemed darker from the light and she was smiling at Patsy. A genuine smile now, not the strained expression from this morning.

Patsy gave a tentative smile in return, her heart beating unevenly in her chest. She thought that if she’d been Neil at this moment, her tail would have wagged.

“Hello.” Delia said a little uncertainly and Patsy realised that she’d been staring.

“Umm hi.” Patsys throat was dry as she watched Delia.

Delia was wearing Patsys scarf around her neck and Patsys eye kept being drawn there. She’d given it to Delia this morning without thinking about how it might appear to others but now she could see Delia in it, wearing something that Patsy had given to her almost casually, the reality took her breath away. Nervous too. The nerves made her shy. The enormity of how much she wanted to get this right was terrifying.

She had no frame of reference for what they were doing. She was terribly afraid that she’d mess everything up. That Delia might see through her once and for all.

“I saw you walking over with her when I let the kids out.’ Delia explained quietly when she saw that she had Patsys curious attention. ‘I hope you don’t mind, I thought I’d come to see what you were up to. You had a planning look about you... I was intrigued.”

Patsys stomach gave a satisfied lurch when she thought about Delia knowing her face well enough to read it. No one else really knew how to do that besides Helen. Even Trixie got it wrong more than she got it right.

“I don’t mind. I like it.” Patsy admitted shyly. Aware of the awkward tinge as they adjusted into one another’s space after the summers distance. She wasn’t really sure how to break it fully but Delia didn’t seem to need her to.

Delia winked as she stepped closer and crossed her arms to watch Seppie laugh at Phyllis.

“Phyllis wanted to be there when she got her dog.’ Patsy mumbled, her voice rough as she tried to fill the silence. ‘I thought it would be better away from the crowd.”

“Very wise, there might have been a mad rush.” Delia was grinning as she stepped forward again so that their shoulders were a few inches apart, warmth like a sun leaking out into her words.

Patsy felt herself relax. They both stood easily together watching Seppie play for a few minutes as the crowd in the playground thinned and drifted away.

A moment as close to perfect as Patsy had ever experienced.

“I’m surprised you brought the dog here,’ Delia broke the silence, niceties needing to be observed. Probably got taught consideration young. Patsy could picture her in Wales, surrounded by a sprawling family, ‘first day back I thought they might put you under a pile of paperwork.”

“Not enough time for paperwork,’ Patsy replied simply, enjoying the interest, ‘they stuck me on a job soon as I walked in. The boss let me out early though, couldn’t miss this moment could I?” Patsy caught Seppies eye from her vantage point and stuck out her tongue because Seppie liked having an ally in the war against sensibility. Phyllis was fishing around in her coat pocket, looking for dog treats.

Patsy couldn’t tell if Phyllis had planned to give them to Seppie before they left or merely always liked to be prepared. Probably the former.

“You know, sometimes, I have no idea if you’re real or not.” Delia sounded almost wistful, she’d torn her eyes away from Seppie to peer at Patsy while she’d been distracted.

Patsy laughed, amused by the idea. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

“It’s a good thing. Definitely a good thing.’ Delia licked her lips as she bumped her shoulder against Patsys. ‘You do realise that you’ve just made that little girls day.”

“I do my best.’ Patsy said modestly, watching Seppie press her face into Phyllis’s shoulder as she laughed. ‘To tell you the truth it’s still a bit weird. Being someone’s mum. Kids are a lot harder full time. They don’t come with a manual.”

“You seem to be managing just fine.”

“Ahh well you haven’t seen us first thing in the morning.’ Patsy fidgeted, confessing her sins to a considerate ear. ‘Last week she had a temper tantrum because she couldn’t dress up as Batman for school. Half the time I’m probably just mucking it all up.”

“I assume you talked her out of it.’ Delias lips twitched, idly swapping her weight from one foot to other. Bringing her arm just a shade closer. ‘No superheroes have been reported as far as I’m aware.”

“Yeah, in the end I had to lie.’ Patsy had been about ready to beg in reality. They’d had a Mexican standoff in the upstairs hallway as Patsy held a summer dress up against the black plastic suit, gradually losing patience with Trixie snoring loudly from the bedroom. ‘She only changed her mind because I said that I was planning on wearing my batman costume that day. The world might ended if we’d clashed.”

Delia laughed and the sound made Patsys skin itch, the electric static dancing on her palms. God, she was such a goner. Delia slipped her arm through Patsys and leaned her face closer, tongue pressed against her teeth.

“Now that I want to see.”

“See what? Me in a batman costume?”

“I feel like it would be an experience.”

“I’m afraid I only wear the costume for very specific crimes,’ Patsy could smell Delias perfume and her mind was losing focus, she ploughed on hoping it would catch up, ‘you know, on full moons in months ending in H and only if I haven’t got ironing to do.”

“So it doesn’t happen that often then?”

“Not that often but...’ Patsys cheeks burned and she ducked her head. ‘I’m kind of hoping you’ll be there for it though.”

“Planning ahead.’ Delia noted approvingly, ‘What will Trixie say about that?”

“Oh she’ll probably just roll her eyes.’ Patsy could feel heat creeping up her chest. She didn’t seem to be able to support her own weight, she was leaning in towards the solid shape of Delia who didn’t look like she minded. ‘She’s getting bored of hearing about how much I talk
about you really.”

“You talk about me?’ Delias hands found the hem of the scarf and she rolled the rough edge between her fingers. ‘What do you say?”

“Just the usual things, you know;’ Patsy waved her good hand in the air expansively, ‘how many sheep did she see today, which pair of shorts do you think she’s wearing? All the vital questions.”

“You talk about my shorts.” Delias dimples were deep curves around her mouth now.

Her mouth-

Patsy shrugged, unabashed as she dragged her mind away from that particular temptation, aware they still had something of an audience. “What can I say? They weigh heavy on my mind sometimes.”

“I didn’t realise you’d become so fond of them.”

Patsy gave up on politeness and brought her mouth closer to Delias ear. “Well they looked pretty perfect on the bedroom floor don’t you think?”

Delias cheeks flushed and she pressed her lips together, shaking her head as she took a deep breath. “You’re terrible and this isn’t a conversation for work. Behave.”

Delia gave Patsy a stern look as Patsy raised her hands in surrender and crossed her heart.

“You’re the boss Miss Busby.”

Delia rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to even try and comment on that one. So...’ Delia bumped her shoulder into Patsys again. ‘Am I still invited to dinner?”

“Of course you are,’ Patsy beamed, ‘I thought we could walk through the village to mine. It’ll give Seppie a chance to throw a few sticks.”

“I’ll just need to get my coat, can you wait five minutes?”

“Take your time, I’ll be here.” Patsy promised amiably, meaning it far more than she could say.

Delia threw Patsy a quick look as though double checking that she was really there and then sped off up the step to her classroom fire-door. Patsy watched her go, absorbed with far too much interest on Delias bum as it disappeared from view. It was a good bum.

She sighed. She really had liked those little shorts although she could see that chinos might join the group. Honestly, those legs weren’t fair.

When she looked around her she realised that most of the crowd had vanished off to their houses and lives. The playground held only the last stragglers; Lorna was holding final court near the bins and Claire had come out to stand by Phyllis. Seppie, momentarily unsupervised closely, had taken the opportunity to clamber onto one of the benches and Neil was jumping up, barking at her excitedly.

Patsy raised an eyebrow when Seppie glanced in her direction and hid a smile as her daughter hurried to get down. Helen had taught her that look years ago although Patsy had usually been doing something worse than standing on the furniture.

When Seppie had gotten down and straightened Patsy saw that her tights really were ruined and frowned as she crouched by the bag at her feet that Seppie had abandoned. She was sure she’d packed a fresh pair somewhere but her hands only found a half eaten apple and a soggy pair of socks.

She should probably get her to change before they walked back. Seppie could catch a cold, the air still felt too damp.

She was so absorbed in her task that when a hand tapped her on the shoulder it shocked her. Her body reacted purely on instinct. Her mind might have accepted that the world was a safer place but her body remembered the pain too much. Muscles locked, a dried up felt tip pen clattered onto the floor as Patsy spun round to find out who’d surprised her.

Lorna.

The woman must have crept up because Patsy felt sure that she’d have heard those high heels on the floor. Lorna had taken an automatic step backwards as Patsy loomed up fast.

“Yes!” Patsy spat out, the adrenaline making it hard to be polite as her heart beat painfully fast.

“Oh,’ Lorna gave a fake cough of surprise, barely hiding a smirk and Patsy realised that she would probably be telling the other mothers about this later for their shared amusement. ‘Sorry to startle you Patience. I was just wondering if we could have a little chat.”

“I was actually just about to go Lorna. It’s Seppies birthday so I’m a bit busy.” Patsy tried to sound polite but it still came out as dismissive. Lornas lips curled slightly at the tone.

“I’ll make it short then shall I?’ Lorna said with saccharine sweetness. ‘I simply thought that you and your...’ Lorna paused, taking a moment to glance at Seppie with a hint of irony, ‘child, just needed to know that the rules still apply, even out of official hours.”

“What rules?” Patsy asked distractedly, Seppie had decided to come to her, Neil’s leash trailing on the ground as she rested her head against Patsy hip to watch Lornas mouth. She’d be getting tired. For all of the excitement Patsy knew that Seppie was still adjusting to full school hours; she’d be clingy by six and grumpy by seven with or without a dog. Right now Seppie had stuck her thumb in her mouth and was sucking industrially, her body pressing heavy against Patsys thigh. Patsy put a hand on her shoulder protectively. Hating what she saw in Lornas attitude.

“Faculty rules, they’re on the school website, I put them there myself.’ Lorna sounded far too smug about that, her chest puffing up as though she’d admitted that she’d been involved in Earth shattering matters. ‘There’s a section on pets.”

“Really, whole sections?’ Patsy tried to stifle the scorn. ‘Is there a section on minding your own business too?”

Damn. That one just slipped out. Seppie had decided to put a cold hand underneath her shirt and she spoke without thinking as she’d hurriedly reached to hold it away from her skin.

“I beg your pardon?” Lornas eyes widened in indignation.

Then beg, a dark part of Patsy dearly wanted to reply but she didn’t, too aware of Seppies hand now securely latched onto the loop of her jeans.

“Just my joke Lorna, no offence meant, what’s the rules about pets?”

“Well,’ Lorna made a face as she attempted sincerity. ‘I’m sure the headmistress will tell you herself but animals aren’t allowed on school premises.”

“The dogs on a lead.” Patsy pointed out calmly. Admittedly Seppie wasn’t holding it and the thick chord rushed along the floor but it was definitely still on.

“Everything alright?” A brusque voice interrupted them. Phyllis had arrived, seeming to have sensed the potential clash as she placed herself in the middle of Patsy and Lorna, one hand on Patsys shoulder.

Claire was standing behind her looking on with interest. Patsy saw that Lornas self satisfied expression had faded with the introduction of actual authority.

“Phyllis,’ She simpered, ‘I was just reminding Patience about the school rules. I know you’re busy and I would hate to see standards dropping.”

“Which standards?” Phyllis raised her eyebrows with what appeared to be genuine confusion but her hand tightened warningly on Patsys shoulder.

“Nothing too serious.’ Lorna was backpedaling a bit now. Patsy wanted to stick out her tongue. ‘I just noticed that she brought a dog onto the grounds, as you’ll be aware the board of governors revised the rules regarding the matter last year.”

“I do remember, I was there. The rules were based on an animal knocking over a child as I recall.’ Phyllis answered smoothly. ‘The governors agreed that an accompanying adult supervising the animal wouldn’t be an issue. I appreciate your dilligance though lass.”

“And it’s not your job to enforce the rules anyway. You’re not an employee Ms Bentwicke.” That was Claire, chipping in on the back of her boss. Her eyes focused hard on Lorna with undisguised dislike.

Lorna paled with anger, her painted smile spreading dangerously as she glared at Claire.

“It’s everyone’s duty to enforce the rules young lady.”

Young lady? That was a low blow, Patsy thought. Claire swelled where she stood and Phyllis let go of Patsy to focus on her staff. Patsy felt Seppie tugging at her shirt.

“Can we go home now Red?” Seppie wasn’t interested in the adults she couldn’t understand. Her thumb fell back into her mouth as soon as she’d spoken, her eyes half closed with Neil nosing at her shoes.

Patsy decided to take the easy exit when it was presented. Delia had just reappeared on the step, buttoning her coat as she went, Patsys scarf still around her neck.

“Yes, we can walk back home. We can have ice cream if you want.”

This seemed to perk Seppie up a bit. She let go of Patsy to rub her cardigan sleeve again; a hopeful habit. Patsy knew she should probably announce her goodbye but Claire and Lorna were still arguing, Phyllis caught in the middle trying to find an opening in the discourse.

Patsy mimed a hasty goodbye wave that nobody acknowledged as she picked up Neil’s lead and backed away from the fray with Seppie tucked safely under her arm.

She met Delia at the gates and the three of them made their way down the main path together heading towards the pocket park not speaking much. Behind them someone shouted in the playground and Patsy desperately hoped that Claire was winning.

Seppie held Patsys hand until they reached the park. Once there though, the shadow of school authority fading, Seppie let go to run off ahead. Trusting that Patsy wouldn’t let her go far. There was a stream running near the trees and Seppie sank down, busy searching for a stick. Patsy craned her neck to keep her in sight but when Seppie settled onto one patch she let her pace slow.

It had shocked her how casually Seppie had accepted Delias presence. She hadn’t even asked about it. The easy acceptance was a surprise and Patsy wondered about that; she’d known that Delia had made a mark on the girls of course. Even Fern had asked about her. She’d been with them when she’d been taken by Abraham. According to Fern Delia had saved the day.

A real life hero.

Patsy snuck a glance at Delia as she thought about it. Delias face was pink with the cold, her fringe blowing across her eyes in the wind as she walked steadily beside Patsy.

Patsy shivered. Finally having Delia here, seeing her, being able to talk to her, made Patsy feel slow inside. It was like the last brick in a big wall had been snuck into place. For the first time in a long time Patsy stopped worrying.

This was them. They couldn’t really go wrong after everything that had happened. Patsy felt that the universe owed her something of a happy ending.

“You look like you’re a million miles away,’ Delia interrupted, ‘are you worried about her? She’s just playing Pats. We can go a bit faster if you want.” She nodded towards Seppie.

Patsy glanced quickly to double check for Seppie herself and found her safely kicking at the floor. She shook her head. “Not a million miles away. I’m just enjoying the company; I’ve been looking forward to this all day to tell you the truth.”

“Me too.’ Delia admitted coyly, her teeth worrying at her top lip. ‘Although it might just be hunger. We only got back on Sunday and I haven’t been up to bracing the shops. It didn’t seem fair to send Caroline out to get the food in so we’ve been living off takeaway. I’d kill for a carrot.”

“So I’m just a free meal then?” Patsy felt slightly deflated, momentarily disappointed.

Delia frowned at herself, reading the room and rethinking quickly. “No. That sounded awful didn’t it? Don’t take it personally. I’m led by my stomach, always have been, I remember when I was training my mentor used to tell me off because I’d sneak a bag of sweets in my pockets. My mam used to hate taking me to the dentist.”

“You’re in luck.’ Patsy smacked her good hand on her hip like a stall runner at a fairground. Inviting the spend of a less loved penny. ‘I’ve got cake at home if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you might have to thumb war Seppie for the first slice though.”

“I’ve never really been a huge fan of cake,’ Delia frowned, ‘that’s weird isn’t it?”

“Ahh but you’ve never eaten my cake have you.” Patsy waggled her eyebrows, enjoying the way Delia blushed.

“I’m going to assume you’re referring to pastry and nothing more Patience.” Delia sounded like a teacher now; prim. Patsy didn’t believe it for a second though.

“Can’t imagine what else you think I might mean Deels.” Patsy forced an innocent expression but inside she wanted to sing. Delias eyes had darkened, their pace slowing as the world around them seemed to shrink.

Delia blew out a shaky breath and pushed a hand down her scarf with too much force as though she was trying to ground herself again. “I don’t think I said thank you for this earlier.’ She held the scarf up, changing the subject. ‘It’s kept me warm all day.”

“Always happy to help keep you warm.”

“Smells like you.’ Delia admitted this quietly, tucking her chin under the top loop, ‘it’s nice.”

“Well, like I said, I do my best.”

“I know you do...’ Delia paused here, a break interrupting her stride as her tone shifted suddenly. Patsy sensed that she’d been thinking about what she planned to say next for a while. There was a measure of concentration that hadn’t been there so far. ‘But it’s not just that...’ Delias tongue clicked for a second as though she was deliberating on a point. ‘I think that I owe you thanks for something else.”

“I doubt it somehow.” Patsy straightened reluctantly, aware of the odd tension about the two of them. Delia was staring at her with a too sharp knowing to her gaze that gave Patsy the uncomfortable sensation that Delia was trying to read her mind.

“I got a call at the start of the summer.’ Delia went on finally, a question burning in her voice. ‘It was from the police; the team leading the investigation into... What happened to us. The man in charge told me that I wasn’t a suspect anymore, they dropped me from the investigation. I have to assume that’s down to your input.”

“That investigation was conducted by another region.’ Patsy uncoiled a bit at that, relieved at the easy to fix issue. ‘Nothing to do with me Delia.”

“Yes,’ Delia peered up at Patsy still suspicious, ‘but they also told me that I’d been cleared after a strong succession of character statements and an eye witness account. No one from another force was there Pats.”

“There wasn’t ever a case against you,’ Patsy huffed, thwarted and awkward, ‘you were a material witness and a victim as much as any of us. It was ridiculous that they were investigating you anyway.”

“I killed him Pats.’ Delia wasn’t smiling now. The absence of the feature made the others stand out more clearly on her face; she looked too pale, the dark moons under her eyes were too dark. Patsy wanted to rub them away but knew it didn’t work like that. ‘He was choking you and I picked up the chair leg and hit him with it. I murdered a human being. I know why you did what you did... But you and I both know that I’m guilty.”

“No.’ Patsy stopped pretending to walk finally, demanding her stillness convey how entirely she believed what she said. ‘You saved lives. You saved me, you saved Helen and you saved yourself. If you hadn’t stopped him I wouldn’t be here; Seppie wouldn’t have any of this,’ Patsy pointed her head up the path towards Seppie who was spinning on her feet as the dog jumped around her. ‘You saved so many lives... besides; when he’d finished with me he would have got up and tried to kill the two of you too. Men like Abraham never know when it’s time to quit; you did the only thing that you could to protect everyone. That’s not murder sweetheart. It’s survival. You’re a hero.”

“I don’t feel like a hero.’ Delia sounded lost, uncertain. She rubbed her hands against the scarf again, wiping her palms along the wool. ‘I see his blood every night... And you. You were dead.’ Delia swallowed. ‘I thought you were dead.”

“But I’m not dead,’ stomach fluttering Patsy prised Delias hands away from the scarf and held it to her chest, right over her heart. The organ thumped against her flesh like it sensed an owner at last. ‘See.’ Patsy said firmly. ‘Definitely not dead because you did the only thing you could. Stop beating yourself up for it, it’s unnecessary.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him.’ Delia didn’t move her hand away, speaking fast she sounded like she was trying to force all the thoughts she hadn’t let out since she’d left Poplar spill out between them now. ‘I’m sorry. I know... He was a monster but he was still your father.”

Patsy snorted. Vaguely disgusted at the title spoken out loud and let Delias hand fall away from her chest but refused to let it go entirely. They fit well together, Patsy didn’t want to let it go. She wasn’t ready yet. “He wasn’t my father. Not a proper father; hell, Phyllis is a better parent than him and I’ve only known her for a few months, although do me a favour and don’t tell her I said that.”

“She’s ridiculously proud of you you know,’ Delia seemed relieved at Patsys reaction. The tension draining as they resumed walking, their joined hands swinging between them. ‘I heard her telling Barbara in morning meeting that she respected your work ethic. That’s high praise coming from her.”

“She said that?” Patsy felt a prickle of surprise but it wasn’t unpleasant. Just unexpected.

Delia sighed and rubbed her fringe out of her eyes. “Yeah... She’s very protective of you isn’t she? I mean I was half expecting her to ask me about my intentions towards you at break time. It’s adorable.”

“Well she’s marrying Helen, I think she just feels like she needs to do it because of that.” Patsy deflected the concept of Phyllis liking her quickly. Batting away the responsibility of someone else she needed to not disappoint.

“Phyllis?’ Delia raises her eyebrows looking mildly surprised. ‘Pats, Phyllis doesn’t do anything she doesn’t agree with. You should have seen her when they fiddled with her rolodex; poor Barbara nearly lost an eye. She’s not a woman who does things for the sake of it.”

“Well, like I said, she’s marrying Helen.” Patsy parried uncomfortably.

“I got an invite this morning to their party next Friday. It sounds like it’ll be fun. True love after so long, they should have their own movie. Barbara says it’s Disney love; she’s going to be a bridesmaid apparently. Honestly, it’s so romantic. Really reaffirms the belief anyone can fall in love doesn’t it?”

“You had your doubts about true love?”

Delia squeezed Patsys hand and sighed as she let it go finally. “Let’s just say my beliefs have taken one or two knocks this year.”

“Well we’ll have to see what we can do to fix that won’t we?” Patsy said mildly.

Funny that the prospect of doing just that didn’t make her run for the hills with this woman. A year ago she probably would have been sick at the idea.

“You’re always willing to be my knight in shining armour aren’t you...’ Delia sounded half exasperated. ‘Pats?”

“Yes?”

“It was you wasn’t it?’ Delia brooked no argument, demanding an answer. ‘You called them and told them what happened? That’s why they dropped the case against me.”

Patsy fidgeted. Her bad hand cramped where it was hidden as it grazed the seams of her coat pocket and came into contact with the clammy warmth of a sweating penny she’d left there. “You would have lost your pin, maybe your clean DBS check.’ She hedged. ‘Your house. It wasn’t as though I did all that much, I needed to give a statement anyway. I didn’t do it for thanks. It was the right thing to do.”

“Thank you...’ Delias voice was thick, her breathing shallow. ‘Even if you don’t want my thanks... Thank you Pats.”

Patsy felt a bit sick accepting gratitude from this woman. She’d never been all that good with appreciation in any form; suspicious of anyone who liked her too much but coming from Delia it felt different. Not unwelcome exactly just misplaced. Misplaced simply because it was Patsys fault; her family, her mistakes, her incompetence that had drawn the woman into this mess in the first place.

She wanted to talk about something else and searched for a topic.

“How is everything? The house and... How are you?”

Too late Patsy realised that this probably was too big a question to ask. Delia breathed quietly as she considered it for a moment. They’d come to the trees. The gate to the village green was in sight and Seppie was almost there. Patsy hoped the girl would wait at the boundary. She’d have to run and get her if she didn’t.

“Tired mostly.’ Delia answered thoughtfully. ‘I spent a lot of time thinking about things; my mam drove me mad. Kept trying to feed me. She doesn’t trust English cooking, she thinks it lacks heart.’ Delia laughed, the dimples flashing at Patsy like beacons as they came back into view. ‘I think it was the right thing to go home for a bit though. At least the people up there don’t hate my guts. It made a nice change.”

“No one hates you Delia.” Patsy said, frowning at the idea.

“Oh they do.’ Delia corrected darkly. ‘Well, Maryanne does. She’s been calling me a few times a week, leaving messages. Last one was Saturday just gone. She told me not to come back... It’s been hard ignoring it. She says I killed Jessie.”

“You didn’t kill Jessie, Abraham did.’ Patsy didn’t want to talk about it again. She didn’t want to be thanked. ‘Who’s Maryanne?”

“Jessie’s mum.’ Delia said it like a swear word and then must have realised how bitter she sounded because she shrugged self consciously, looking tired again. ‘She’s been a nightmare; hates my guts. Wants the house. Wants Jessie’s insurance pay out. I told her that she can have it but I don’t think she wants it given to her. She’s more the taking sort. She’s got a right I suppose; not like we were married and...’ She shrugged. ‘Well, it doesn’t matter, I don’t want it.”

Jessie’s mum... just the thought of it was a hard knuckle to her brain. Patsy realised with regret that she should have stuck to gratitude after all.

Patsy had stopped again as she’d listened, her heart sinking and only realised that she’d fallen behind when Delia was a little ahead of her and turned to look back surprised to find Patsy wasn’t with her anymore. Patsy hurried to catch up, hoping she’d been fast enough to hide the fear.

She’d never been that lucky though.

Delias face turned grey as she realised what she’d said. The link that wasn’t asked for. “Oh God, Pats- I’m sorry, I didn’t think. We don’t have to-“

“It’s fine,’ Patsy said shortly, ‘honestly, I just hadn’t really thought about it that’s all. Hey, it’s okay,’ Patsy had pulled up level again and gave Delias shoe an encouraging nudge with her own, wishing she was being honest. ‘I want to know if something’s bothering you. No matter what it is... Sounds stupid but I kind of want to be the person you can talk to about things, anything. I want to hear about it.”

“That’s not stupid at all.” Delias eyes crinkled when she smiled, she’d have laughter lines when she was older.

Patsy thought that she’d like to be there to see them grow.

Patsy gave a toothy smile that made her cheeks ache. “Sounded better in my head.”

“It sounded just fine to me.”

“It did?”

“Would it be stupid if I told you that I like talking to you too? You make me feel... Very safe.”

“I make you feel safe?” Something warm spread along Patsys spine. Made her feel ten feet tall. Tall as angels just like Abraham had told her.

Delias lips twitched as she leant on her tip toes under the guise of wanting to straighten Patsys collar. It was a strange move. Patsy hadn’t expected it and her stomach clenched as their faces came close enough to see the blue of Delias eyes cutting through her. Delia smelled of old perfume and coffee and Patsy had never wanted anyone quite so much as this.

When Delia let go, Patsy sagged with her, wishing she’d stay that close just a little longer. She missed the warmth.

Delia clearly had her own preferences though because after a seconds consideration she leaned forward, a determined set to her mouth and reached to snake her hand inside Patsys coat pocket.

Patsy stiffened, her bad hand curling tighter against the smooth lining of the pocket.

“Do you mind?’ Delia searched Patsys face carefully, ‘you’ve been hiding it all day. I thought we should get it over with don’t you?”

Patsy sighed, knowing what she was trying to do and wishing she wouldn’t.

“It might ruin the mood.” She volunteered. Aware of how warm Delia felt against her skin. Her fingers laying flat against the tendons of Patsys damaged hand. Tracing the shape.

“It won’t.” Delia promised.

When she gently began to lever Patsys bad hand out into the daylight Patsy considered fighting it. She stared at Delia trying to guess what she was really looking for.

Delia just squeezed her limb encouragingly and Patsy gave up. Unable to deny something that Delia wanted she allowed her hand to be pulled out and examined carefully in the harsh afternoon light.

“I’ll never play piano again.” Patsy said eventually with forced cheeriness, caught between wanting to be truthful and hating that this had happened to her in the first place.

Delia didn’t reply instantly. She was tracing the knuckle of Patsys middle finger with infinite care.

“It looks sore.” She commented, her thumb rubbing the thicker band of scar tissue at the edge of the stump. ‘Is it hurting you?”

Patsys mouth opened automatically to trot out her usual replies but she stopped herself. Delia didn’t look disgusted, just concerned. Concerned about her.

Patsy didn’t want to lie. “Sometimes, at the end of the day mostly.”

“Have they given you tablets?”

“I don’t like to take them to tell you the truth. They make me tired.” They reminded her of the commune.

“Of course you don’t.’ Delia sounded exasperated but fond as she entwined their hands carefully again looking satisfied. ‘I’d expect nothing less from someone as stubborn as yourself Patience.”

“You think I’m stubborn?”

“In a good way,’ Delia corrected, her thumb running along Patsys wrist idly, scouting their way across the veins, ‘always in a good way.”

“Did your friend mind when you told her you were coming to mine after work?”

“Caroline?’ Delias voice changed, her grip slackened as she almost lost her balance on a patch of wet grass. Patsy moved to help her but the brunette managed to right herself quickly, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. ‘Oh, you know, she didn’t mind. I told her about you over the summer so she told me to take my time.”

“She sounds like my kind of person.’ Patsy grinned appreciatively, ‘she must be a good friend to come back with you?”

“Yeah, we- we’ve known each other since the wheel.’ Delia licked her lips, not meeting Patsys eye. ‘She was Bernard’s best friend at school and we ended up in a little gang as teenagers. I sort of fell out of contact when I was with Jessie and, well, we met again at Bernard’s wedding. She’s going through a nasty breakup, her ex boyfriend found some stuff out she didn’t really want sharing and she wanted to get out of Wales for a bit.”

“I’m glad. I’m glad you can talk to your old friend again. It’s nice.” It was nice. Patsy couldn’t ever see Delia as someone without friends. Anger smoked like an old bonfire in her chest at the petty cruelties couples dealt out under the guise of love. Delia should have friends.

“It’s alright I suppose.’ Delia said non commitally. ‘At first I thought that we’d both changed a lot but now I’m thinking; same old Caroline.”

“She’s got bad traits?” Patsy concluded shrewdly.

Delia squirmed. “She’s just Caroline.’ She broke off and glanced down at their joined hands, ‘I still might sell the house. Buy somewhere smaller maybe. Jessie was the one who chose it, it’s too big for just me.”

“What does Jessie’s dad think about everything?” Patsy didn’t really want to know but she still asked. She couldn’t stop herself. It was like pushing at a bad tooth and knowing it would hurt but still doing it anyway.

Maryanne. It was an enigma. The name hadn’t come up in the file Chummy had given her about Abraham but Jessie had said she was Abraham’s youngest sisters child. Maryanne might have changed her name like Abraham. Or been adopted and had it changed for her.

Patsy hadn’t thought much about her before now. Hadn’t wanted to.

“Graham?’ Delia seemed pleased to answer the question, eager to supply information. ‘He never says much, Maryanne talks for him mainly. Nice man though, he took on Maryanne and Jessie and you wouldn’t ever know that he wasn’t Jessie’s biological dad- not that it matters. He was on the scene before she was even born. They used to be quite close I think but Jessie never talked about it much.”

Patsy had to take a breath, she felt suddenly sick. A creeping nausea seized her as a terrible possibility presented itself.

“Who- Who was her father?” No. Please not a mystery sibling. She didn’t need any more shit falling from her family tree.

“I don’t know.’ Delia understood her fears instantly. ‘Jessie didn’t like talking about it- I don’t think it was him though Pats. Maryannes mad but I don’t think she’s that mad.”

“But you don’t know for sure?” Patsy doubted her father had ever cared about rules. She wouldn’t rule him out of any amount of evils.

“No.’ Delia shook her head. ‘I’m sorry.”

“Right.” Patsy wished she hadn’t asked.

“I’m sorry Pats. She’s still your aunt... You could probably speak to her if you wanted to.”

“I’ve never met her.’ Patsy spoke bluntly, angry at all the things she couldn’t escape. ‘Wouldn’t be able to pick her out on the street and it’s not like she’d be a person to visit. If she’s anything like him I’d probably want to kill her myself.”

“She banned me from Jessie’s funeral.’ Delia confessed gloomily. ‘Made Graham stand outside the hall and everything just in case I tried to break in.”

“Did you really want to go?” Patsy didn’t like funerals and it was unsettling to imagine Delia standing by Jessie’s coffin. The woman had tried to kill them. She’d killed Val. Patsy wouldn’t have gone if she’d been paid to do it.

“I would have liked to have a better last memory of her that’s all.”

Patsy didn’t know what to say to that and was relieved to find she didn’t have to when Seppie reappeared in front of them. Her small fists pumping the air as she raced to a skidding half in front of Patsy.

“Careful. You’ll fall.” Patsy signed sternly, Seppies ripped tights catching her eye again.

Seppie ignored her, clutching her side at a painful stitch, she’d run nearly the length of the field far too quickly but she still made her hands talk, desperate to share her information.

“Red!’ Seppies mouth hung open in delighted horror, ‘Red I just seen Fern get off the bus with a boy. She...’ Seppie rubbed her mouth, stifling a laugh at the absurdity of what she’d witnessed, ‘she was kissing him Red.”

Patsy blinked. Seppies giggle rebounding inside her head as she translated the meaning into a strange new world. Fern? Boys?

Seppie snorted in the way of younger siblings getting one over on the older ones.

Patsy groaned; teenage romance.

Wonderful.

Chapter Text

Oliver was leaning against Patsys front garden gate when they approached the house.

Or, The Crime Scene, as Patsy had decided to refer to it inside her head.

His long arms were stretched out along the prongs of wood, his hands invisible, deeply buried in the hedgerows. He looked, Patsy thought, like some sort of overgrown giant; his body too big for his surroundings.

Then Ollie caught sight of Patsy, Seppie and Delia careening towards him and his expression slipped from contented daze to guilt in a flash and suddenly his size meant nothing. Patsy could see the little boy peeking out behind his eyes; frightened of scolding. His hair fluttered in the breeze, the untidy back sticking up at all angles as though someone had ran their hands through it not too long ago.

Fern was conspicuously not there.

When they were close enough Patsy noted the small constellation of acne around his mouth. They stood out more pink against the paleness of his skin.

A man-child. Stuck in the awkward stage between being too much and not enough.

“Evening Ollie,’ Patsy called over with forced brightness imagining herself strangling the boy. ‘Good day at school? Eventful?” Like snogging my daughter, Patsy added irritably internally.

Oliver’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down his neck as he swallowed forcefully. He’d scooped up his school bag from the floor now and he was holding it in front of his groin as though he was afraid Patsy might take a run up and kick him.

“N-Not bad miss Mount.’ Ollie stammered, a goofy grin spreading across his face as he ran a nervous hand along the back of his head. Trying to smooth the hair back into place before Patsy noticed.

Patsy stifled a feral smile and glanced down at Seppie who was surveying the young man from knee height with considerable interest. Neil panted at her side.

“You kissed Fern.’ Seppie signed expectantly. ‘Red going to break your legs now.’ Seppie eyed Ollies spindly legs carefully. ‘You should be running.”

Patsy held her breath. Hoping that Ollie was exactly as smart as he looked. Sign language wasn’t designed for subterfuge; from the snort behind her even Delia had grasped the meaning. To her relief Ollie didn’t seem to understand understand and swiftly looked at Patsy beseechingly for a translation, his goofy grin fading to merely a goofy frown.

“She says that she hopes you have a nice evening.’ Patsy lied hurriedly, steering Seppie firmly up the garden path by the shoulder before the girl could sign any further threats so obviously that only a blind man with a bucket on his head could possibly miss them. ‘Sorry Ollie, I’d love to stay and chat but we’ve got company. You know how it is.”

Patsy didn’t wait for a response, stepping aside to let Delia pass, Patsy closed the gate firmly behind her and followed Seppie and Delia into the house. She didn’t wait to see if Ollie continued to stand there.

Seppie had left the front door open, downing tools instantly to drag Neil into the house to find Fern, when Patsy got to it. Coat, lead and shoes had been deposited pell mell in a crumpled heap by the door as she’d apparently run bare foot through the house. Something clanked from the living room and Patsy winced, envisioning broken furniture.

Delia was waiting for her in the hallway though, smiling as Patsy grumbled and bent down to pick up Seppies coat and shake out the creases.

Delia chuckled.

“What?’ Patsy was too aware that she was being watched and felt her face burn.

Delia shook her head and reached to take Seppies coat out of Patsys unresisting hands. “Nothing; just you.’ Delia said warmly. ‘Making nice with Ferns dreamboat out there. You’re going to be a nightmare when she starts properly dating aren’t you.”

“Dreamboat? Please tell me you’re not talking about Oliver.’ Patsy rolled her eyes. ‘I could use him as a ladder. No meat on his bones and tall as a tree.”

“Oh it’s sweet.’ Delia coo’d. ‘Don’t you remember your first major crush?”

Patsy nearly dropped the shoes she’d just bent to pick up at the question. They banged loudly on the shoe rack, the sound rocketing off the walls.

“Not really,’ Patsy said abashed, ‘they were probably inappropriate.”

Patsy had spent too many nights half comatose with drinks paid for by strangers. She tried not to remember names; it hadn’t been about their names after all. It had been the thrill of the rebellion.

“You really can’t remember?” Delia seemed curious at the answer and Patsy decided to change the subject from her mucky past swiftly.

They only had this evening planned so far and she had a feeling any revelations about her early sexual history might result in Delia running from the house in disgust.

“I try not to if I’m honest. Nothing important to report.’ Patsy shrugged and tilted her head, trying to sound like the subject was throwaway. ‘Who was your first crush then? Someone wonderfully respectable I imagine.”

“What makes you think that?” That had distracted Delia, she’d raised an eyebrow, a slight challenge in her voice.

Patsy stifled a grin. Delia didn’t strike her as someone who’d rocked the apple cart young.

“Just can’t imagine you with a bad girl that’s all.”

“You’re so wrong.’ Delia stuck her tongue behind her teeth, gloating. ‘Ellis Groves happened to be the baddest of bad girls I’ll have you know.”

“Ooh she sounds fun.”

“She was in the year above me in school; had a motor bike and a tattoo.’ Delia rubbed away her fringe, a reminiscent gleam in her eye. ‘I thought she was the coolest girl I’d even met.”

“And did you ever tell Ellis that you liked her?”

“Me?’ Delia looked aghast and shook her head. ‘God no, far too chicken for that. I told Caroline though, she still takes the piss. Ellis has at least four kids now, married a local farmer apparently.”

“Caroline knew you back then? You guys must have been close.” Patsy burned with the need to know this woman. Everything. She wanted to know everything Delia wanted to tell her.

Delia looked awkward for a moment, sweeping her hands along the plastic back of Seppies coat, rubbing at a hem. “Oh yeah, we were friends, like I said. She even went out with Bernie for a year or so; totally in love with him.”

“So she could have been your sister in law?” Patsy wanted to meet Delias family. They were important to her and Patsy wondered how it might go.

Would Mrs Busby and Delia look alike? The same frank stare and blue eyes? She was a twin too, what about Bernard? What was he like?

It seemed one sided and unfair to Delia that she be thrown into Patsys family so early on when Patsy hadn’t even really asked about the Busbys. Wasn’t that part of relationships? Knowing the other persons family? Patsy made a mental promise to try and learn what she could to keep it even.

Delia seemed to be considering her answer. Her grip on the coat tightened just a little, her eyes hardened for a second and then she seemed to sag, placing the coat on the rack carefully as she rubbed her hip. “Something like that maybe.” She said quietly.

The lack of answer was intriguing.

“What-“ Patsy was about to ask what had happened to break Bernard and Caroline up but the question died as the door leading to the kitchen was wrenched open in a burst of speed.

Patsy flinched at the noise, her nerves still fragile, only just managing to brace in time to catch a shouting Fern who launched herself into Patsys arms with a squeal.

The weight wasn’t very much but Patsy still staggered as Ferns arms wrapped tightly around her neck, the two of them half falling into the coat rack with a clatter.

“Pats! You did it! You really did it!” Ferns voice was high pitched and Patsy cringed as her ears protested.

“Course I did,’ Patsy blew Ferns hair away from her mouth, ‘a promise is a promise.”

“Thank you, he’s so gorgeous and you really- Oh.‘ Fern broke off mid flow, her eyes catching sight of Delia finally.

For one agonising moment there was complete silence. Patsy could hear Neil wagging his tail against the living room coffee table. A car passed by the house.

Ferns arms tightened against Patsys shoulders and then, with some reluctance, she released her grip. Sliding down Patsys front to stand on her own two feet still pressed tightly to Patsy as though she was poised to defend a blow from the stranger to their home.

“Delia just got back,’ Patsy said in a falsely cheerful voice that no one believed, ‘I said she could stay for dinner... I thought it would be nice for us all to see each other again... So that’s nice, isn’t it Fern? Fern?”

Fern was still staring at Delia, her expression calculating as she took in Delias bag, Patsys scarf. Delia raised her hand in silent greeting and opened her mouth to say something but Fern ignored her.

Turning to face Patsy the girl said tartly. “Does this mean that Trixies moving out?”

Shit.

Patsy became acutely aware of Delia and the recollection that she hadn’t yet mentioned she had a house mate.

She’d sort of been planning to bring it into conversation a little later.

Feel free to take your foot out your mouth any time Pats.

Patsy gaped at her daughter distractedly as Fern looked at her with a mingling trail of hope and petulance.

“No,’ Patsy decided it was best just to act as though the subject was public knowledge. It was better than out right lying. Carefully she detangled her arms to put a bit of space between her back and the wall. Her voice gruff. ‘Not yet, she’ll move out when she finds her feet.”

Fern tutted, pouting. “But she’s been here ages.”

“She’s been here for a month.” Patsy corrected more calmly now.

“Feels like ages.’ Fern muttered darkly, ‘she threw up again last night, in the bathroom. I heard her.”

Patsy wanted to smack her forehead. Annoyed at Trixies drinking and herself for not knowing how to stop it. This was the sort of thing she’d been worried about. Still, she tried.

“Maybe she caught a bug. Hospitals are known for sick people sweetheart.”

Instantly Patsy realised that she should have tried a different tack. Ferns eyes hardened at the blatant untruth; offended that Patsy would try and mislead her.

“Sure,’ Fern drawled sarcastically, shooting Patsy a dark look, ‘I know that bug. My dad used to get it a lot.”

Damn. Probably should have expected that one. Patsy realised trying to protect Fern from the truth of alcohol was rather pointless. The horse had already bolted some years ago.

Patsy ran a thumb underneath Ferns chin and shot her an apologetic look. ‘She really woke you up last night?”

“Twice.” Fern said emphatically. A mithered fifty year old looking out from a sixteen year olds face.

Patsy sighed. “Okay. I’m sorry. I’ll talk to her about it.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“I just don’t see why she has to stay here at all.’ Fern burst out, annoyed at the easy end to the disagreement. ‘You said we’d live together. We’re a family. She’s not your family. Why can’t she just try and get a council bed like everyone else?”

“Because she’s a friend.’ Patsy said sternly now, ‘and she needed our help. It’s important to help people Fern.”

“She talks to you like shit. I don’t like it.” Fern glowered mutinously; protective.

Patsy didn’t quite know what to do with the idea that Fern felt she needed protecting, surely that was wrong? Surely that wasn’t what this family thing was about?

“She’s hurting baby,’ Patsy said it gently, not trying to start an argument but stating the bare facts that Fern might not be able to understand. ‘People who are in pain don’t always remember to be kind. Sometimes it’s important to take our time and give people the opportunity to change on their own.’ Patsy glanced over at Delia who was listening to the conversation with careful interest. ‘Look, lets talk about this later shall we? We don’t need to argue in front of our guest. Can you get changed and keep and eye on Seppie while I get dinner on please?”

Fern had seen Patsys gaze slip to Delia and had followed it with narrowed eyes. She huffed, affronted at the unusual brush off.

“Fine!’ Fern spun on her heel stroppily, muttering loudly enough to be clearly heard as she slammed the door on them, ‘not my fault you don’t want to scare off your girlfriend.”

Patsy stiffened, blushing as she was left alone with a smirking Delia in the gloom of the hall. She half wanted to follow Fern and lecture her on the need for control but stopped herself. She’d need a bit more practice before trying that little speech out aloud, maybe check it through with Helen first.

Delia seemed to be waiting for Patsy to say something. Patsy wondered what she was thinking; wondered if she was judging Patsy for her shitty grasp of motherhood. Or mulling over the revelation about Trixie.

“Teenagers.’ Patsy said shyly, the word an explanation and an apology. ‘Sorry about all that, she says what’s on her mind most of the time. Sixteen, angry. If she ever isn’t pumping out at least one hormone not designed to drive me completely nuts once a day I’ll assume she’s broken.”

“She does seem like a chip off the old block.’ Delia admitted, her voice unusually cool. ‘No need to be sorry though, it sounded like she had some valid points.”

“Did I, err, did I tell you that Trixie was staying?” Patsy asked sheepishly, the loss of warmth in her companion leaving her on edge slightly, already knowing the answer.

Delia smoothed her hand across the hem of her t-shirt. “No, no you didn’t.”

“Trixies only here temporarily;’ Patsy mumbled, her hands finding her pockets without her noticing. She tapped the floor with the toe of her boot, nervous energy running down her spine desperate to escape. ‘Tom kicked her out, wanted Barbara in and I couldn’t leave her in the streets. I’m sorry, I probably should have told you.”

“I already knew actually.” Delias admission was delivered breezily, her stance easy as she folded her arms across her chest.

“You did?” Patsy frowned.

“Yes. Barbara told me, she called me over the summer actually.” Delia seemed very interested in the cuticle of her index finger. She wasn’t looking at Patsy at all.

Patsy swallowed, aware of potential mine fields as she passed them. “I’m sorry.” She said again and meant it.

“Why? What for?” Delia looked up sharply, her eyes suddenly too focused, pinning Patsy to the back wall.

“I should have been the one to tell you,’ Patsy verbally groped for a safe space to stand, ‘it just happened quickly. She turned up with bags, I couldn’t send her away. She’d already lost her husband and her home, I’m her best friend, I couldn’t let her down too.” Patsy hoped that Delia could see the truth.

Delia watched her wilt for a few moments and then cleared her throat carefully, looking back down at her fingers.

“Pats,’ Delias hands balled into a tense fist, ‘this is your house, you don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

“But I want to explain myself.’ Patsy said firmly, deciding that this was the moment to go big or go home. ‘I don’t want you to think that I kept this from you on purpose. I want you to be part of my decisions,’ Patsy stole the space between them and touched Delias hands gently. ‘You’ve got the right to an opinion on what goes on in my life.”

“Is...’ The question was started and then stopped uneasily as though Delia almost didn’t want to ask. Patsy watched as a muscle twitched in the woman’s jaw and then Delia took a deep breath and began again. ‘Is there anything going on?’ Delia bit her bottom lip, rolling it between her teeth in a way that made Patsys brain turn sluggish. ‘Between you and Trixie I mean?”

“Me and Trixie?’ Patsy laughed forcefully, the idea ridiculously uncomfortable. ‘God no. She’s a good friend and I love her like that but I’d rather lose my whole hand than go there. Between you, me and the gate post she’s a tad high maintenance.”

Delia paused as though thinking the answer through and then smiled; the affect rather like clouds parting. “High maintenance eh?”

“Yup.’ Patsy relaxed as the tension melted away. ‘She has more shampoos in my bathroom at the moment than I have socks.” Patsy confided.

“Pats...’ Delia squeezed Patsys hand, looking up at her with an odd sort of disbelief. ‘There’s really nothing going on?”

“There’s nothing happening. Nothing that’s happened, not since you left. I promise.” Patsy stared at the woman who’d been haunting her.

Believe me. Just believe me.

“You make a lot of promises.” Delia noted quietly, releasing Patsys hand to rest against the back wall. The shadows hung on her face, made it hard to read.

“Only to the really important people.’ Patsy said seriously. ‘Only when it matters. Everyone else gets the finger.”

Delia rolled her eyes, amused despite herself. “Does that mean that I don’t get the finger?” She asked almost sweetly.

Patsy grinned, encouraged by the suggestion but tried to look offended. “Moi? What do you take me for? I want dinner and a movie first, I’m a lady you know.”

Delia snorted and looked away, her face pink in the grey light. “And you’re a mother...‘ the statement seemed to limp uneasily between them and then Delia was straightening up, turning brisk. ‘So... What are you cooking me for dinner?”

“Chicken, greens and garlic bread. Seppies favourite.” Patsy answered promptly, too focused on Delias face. The line of her jaw.

“And cake?” Delia was smiling now, Patsys answers accepted for now.

“As much cake as you want; pastry or otherwise.” Patsy waggled her eyebrows, hoping for a laugh.

“Oh, get in there,’ Delia grinned and shoved Patsy towards the door, ‘before I decide to continue this line of thought.”

“Hey the room might change but the conversation is within us.’ Patsy held her ground and Delia rebounded from the push to lean into her front. Warm and solid. ‘You’d have to be Mo Farah to escape it fast enough.”

“Who said I wanted to run?” Delias hand pressed against Patsys chest.

Patsy wanted to keep her there. Wanted her close... But she’d promised dinner and she didn’t want to rush this.

She had to get it right.

“Come on,’ Patsy said regretfully, opening the door to the kitchen. ‘I’ll show you the place.”

The tour of the house took less time than Patsy had thought it would. She’d bought a chicken in a bag and Delia waited as she shoved it in the oven before allowing herself to be led around the lower floor.

There wasn’t all that much to see really but Delia seemed to like it. She stopped at the kitchen wall, taken by the yellow paint and Patsys shy admission that she’d wanted something to remind her of Delia in the interim.

Through mutual non conversation Patsy skipped upstairs for now. She wasn’t sure how much of Trixies crap was spread everywhere.

They both waited at the back door, watching Seppie trail about the garden with Neil until Fern came stomping back down to take over.

Fern didn’t look at Patsy, still annoyed but she softened a little when Patsy pecked a kiss to the top of her head as she led Delia back to the kitchen.

Then there wasn’t much to do until the chicken was done but Patsy still enjoyed the relative ease of having Delia in her home. The two women stood at the counter while the kettled boiled.

In this light Patsy could see Delia better. She’d taken off her coat and scarf now and Patsy thought again that she looked thin. She’d lost weight while she’d been away and altogether she seemed tired around the edges.

Patsy wondered what Delia saw when she looked at her.

“You look different.” Patsy remarked, saying her thought out loud, as she reached for mugs and tea bags.

Delias face crumpled instantly; surprised and a little hurt at the statement. Her hand smoothed against her leg self consciously even as she tried to seem unaffected. ‘Different? How?”

“I don’t know’ Patsy lazily looked Delia up and down, enjoying the sight for no other reason than the fact she finally could, ‘shorter maybe.”

Delia froze for half a second and then laughed, swiping at Patsys arm. “You are such an arse. For your information I’m travel sized and I like it.”

“Travel sized?’ Patsy poured water into the mugs, tea bags bobbing to the surface like escaped buoys. ‘Sorry. Don’t think they do those stickers at Gatwick for luggage.”

“I told you before, they do stickers for anything Patience. Sugar?” Delia shot Patsy a sanctimonious look that made Patsy want to kiss her as she opened a drawer, found a spoon and pointed it at the sugar caddy.

“No, I’m sweet enough,’ Patsy said slyly, taking the bait, ‘and you say that but I never did get my sticker did I? Starting to think it was just a phantom of memory.”

“You still want a sticker?”

“Me?’ Patsy pushed her tongue into her cheek, walking to the fridge and extracting out a bottle milk ‘oh, I want all kinds of things from you.”

The spoon rattled against the inside cup.

“Well,’ Delia said in a rather high voice, ‘the stickers are only when you do something good.”

“Yeah?’ Patsy rested an elbow on the counter in front of the cups, watching Delia closely. ‘So what do I get when I’m bad?”

Delia swallowed, the spoon still held in her hand sagging as she forgot to hold it. “Red marker and absolutely no smiley faces at the bottom of your report.” She said blankly.

Patsy leaned closer. “I get a report?” She breathed, delighted.

Delias eyes drifted down to Patsys lips. “Annually.”

“So you’re thinking long term then?” Patsy withdrew slightly, taking the spoon from Delias hands and placing it quietly in the washing up bowl.

“I like to plan.”

“Me too...’ Patsy turned back and tucked a stray hair behind Delias ear, the length of their legs touching. ‘So you wouldn’t give me even one smiley face huh? I mean I painted a wall for you. That doesn’t get me a sticker?”

“You don’t get a sticker just by wanting one you know.” Delia leaned into Patsys leg, the warmth was distracting.

“Hey I’ve already earned my sticker unless you’ve forgotten.’ Patsy tried to look offended but she couldn’t stop the smile. She wanted to whoop, unable to stem the tide, like the happiness was physically escaping from the pores of her face. ‘You’re the one who didn’t pay up.”

“Well a lot of things happened. You’re a mum and I’m...’ Delia shook her head as though she couldn’t really grasp the enormity of the situation, eventually settling on a weak; ‘single.”

“Yes, yes you are.’ Patsy took a sip out of her tea and eyed Delia over the brim beadily, her heart beating too fast in her chest. ‘How’s that going?”

“Right now...’ Delia took her own mug, her hand was clumsy and tea splashed a little over the sides. ‘I’d say it’s got an end date.”

“That’s a shame.” Patsy said brightly.

Delia gulped at her drink and fixed Patsy with a rueful smile. ‘You’re such a bad liar Cariad.”

With that Delia moved away, the warmth leaching from Patsys leg. She had a lovely arse Patsy thought as Delia sat at the table, Patsy trailing behind, unable to stay away.

“Yeah. This time I’m definitely lying.” Patsy called as she dragged back a chair and sat down, one foot crooked against the leg of the table.

“Pats-“ Delia began slowly but Patsy interrupted. Too intrigued to stop herself.

“So how was Wales?”

“Oh,’ Delia leaned forward, her hand propped on the table, her fringe covering her eyes, as she rubbed at the table unconsciously. ‘You don’t really want to hear about all of that do you?”

“Course I do.’ Patsy bit her lip and tried hard to keep her eyes on the top of Delias head and not at the flash of cleavage as Delia bent over. Chivalry might not be dead but it could have been made easier. Lovely eyes... Just focus on the eyes dammit. ‘I want to hear anything you want to tell me.”

Delias hand slipped as she overreached the edge of the table and Patsy hurried to hold her up by the elbow. Delia blushed and gripped her mug tightly, her lips pressed together.

“Are you alright?” Patsy wondered if she was coming on too strong.

She really needed to buy a book or something.

“I’m fine.”

“Is this too much?’ Patsy took a sip of tea for something to do, hoping she was wrong. ‘Being here?”

“What?’ Delia blinked. ‘No. No of course it isn’t.”

“Thinking about those stickers again then?”

Delia snorted. “You’re incorrigible.”

“I prefer dogmatic.”

“Been hitting the thesaurus?”

“No.’ Patsy drummed her fingers on the table top, itching to hold Delias hand again. ‘Word of the day toilet paper actually, I find it gives me something to read in those unformed, quiet moments that might otherwise be devoted to unprofitable boredom.”

“Excellent.’ Delia deadpanned. ‘How far have you got in the roll?”

“So far I’m trapped at sympathy.’ Patsy clicked her tongue sadly. ‘It’s in between shit and syphillis.”

Delia looked thoughtful, swilling the edges of her drink idly. “That sounds like a tricky place to be.”

“Gripping, I thinks that’s the correct word.”

Delia grinned and took Patsys hand, “God, you’re a nightmare.”

“At least I’m not bad though.” Patsy supplied hopefully.

Delia sighed and propped her head on her spare hand to stare at Patsy. “No.’ She agreed softly. ‘You’re not bad at all are you.”

“Well you know... ‘ Patsy said in an undertone leer, ‘In very special circumstances I-“

“Red!’ Seppie chose this moment to interrupt, nearly skidding on the smooth floor in her haste. Patsy had to half fall out of her seat to catch the girl before she fell into the table corner.

“Be careful!” Patsy signed in exasperation when she’d deposited her daughter vaguely upright again.

Seppie paid her no mind. ‘Neil did a big poo in the garden. It’s huge Red! Fern says you should come and see it.”

“How big?” Patsy asked regretfully, aware that the cosy chat was probably done for now in favour of faeces.

“It’s big.” Seppie said impressively, full of a five year olds pride in anything to do with the toilet habits of living creatures.

Patsy sighed and turned to Delia resignedly. “I need to go and see dog poo apparently, could you put the garlic bread in for me.”

If Delia was in anyway surprised by this statement. She hid it very well; getting to her feet instantly, taking up the now empty mugs as she went. Probably used to this sort of request from work.

Delia waited as Patsy told Seppie to wait for her outside and then asked; “Pats?”

Patsy heard the thinking tone again and took a breath. “Yeah?”

“Do you think maybe I could stay for a little bit after dinner.’ Delia was plucking oven mits from the cooker. ‘I’ll text Caroline, she probably won’t mind.”

Patsy felt a trickle of unease. “I don’t want to pressure you into staying.”

Delia swallowed and then dropped the mitts to take Patsys hand, their fingers sliding together too easily.

“You’re not pressuring me,’ she said in a shaky voice. ‘I want to be here with you it’s just... it’s hard.”

“It’s hard to have dinner?” Patsy didn’t know what to say to that.

“No, it’s just hard not to like you.”

“You don’t want to like me?” Sometimes the way other people thought was a constant surprise. People who thought lesbians understood women entirely were deluding themselves. Patsy would never know.

“I already like you Pats... ‘ Delia confessed heavily. ‘A lot.”

“I don’t see the problem.”

“Could we talk later?’ Delia still had that deliberate note in her voice that Patsy didn’t trust. ‘Properly I mean. I really want to talk to you.”

Patsy floundered. Ten weeks of making up speeches and scenes in her head it felt odd to realise that Delia had probably been doing much the same thing. They both had things they needed to say. It wouldn’t always be simple but Patsy hadn’t expected that.

“I like talking to you.” Patsy said finally.

“Just talk?’ Delia looked into Patsys face, laying down her qualifications firmly. ‘Not anything else until then?”

Patsy tucked a strand of hair behind Delias ear; understanding the reluctance. “Whatever you want I’ll do.’ She said it seriously, meaning every word, her voice sounding tinny and far away. ‘I said I’d wait didn’t I? That didn’t have a time limit on it. This evening wasn’t a ploy to get you into bed I just really wanted to see you... I’ve missed you. A lot.”

“I thought about you over the summer, I kept wanting to call but I didn’t know if you’d be busy... Or something.” Delia looked embarrassed at the statement and now Patsy could too well see what that something might have been.

“I should have called too,’ Patsy said quickly, ‘I’m not very good at this sort of thing.”

“I find that hard to believe. You seem pretty good to me.”

“It’s the truth.’ Patsy could feel the burning blush rising in her neck as she lined up the next words in her head but she didn’t waver from them. This was Delia. She wouldn’t have a hope in hell if she wasn’t honest and Delia deserved honesty. ‘I’ve never wanted to something as much as I want us to- To go well. I’ve never wanted to try and do that before you. No ones ever made me want to do that like you do so whatever pace or way we go about it I’m easy.”

“That’s...’ Delia eyes were dazed as she stared up at Patsy before she raised a hand to touch Patsys collar. ‘Jesus. You can’t say things like that to me.”

“Why?”

“Because you have to go outside and scoop poo and I have to stay in here and not be a mess.”

“I make you a mess?”

“You have no idea.” Delia said darkly, pulling on the mitts again like a general taking up a sword.

Patsy grinned feeling inordinately smug about Delias admission. “Seppie goes to bed at 8 but to be honest with the day she’s had she’ll probably be asleep before then. Maybe you could stay until after that and we could talk then? Just you and me.”

“I’d like that, just talking.”

“You can tell me about your summer, your brother got married, that must have been eventful.”

Delia gave a shaky laugh. “I was a bridesmaid.”

“Even better, you can show me pictures.” Patsy might have agreed to just talking but that didn’t mean she couldn’t window shop.

“It was an ugly dress.”

“Was it short?” Patsy tried to sound casual and forced herself to not look down as Delia turned to reach for the garlic bread on the side.

Delia looked over her shoulder at Patsy, not fooled in any way. ‘It might have been.”

“Definitely going to have to see the pictures.” Patsy said a little hoarsely.

Delia laughed, pushing Patsy away by the shoulders. ‘Go and scoop dog shit, I’ll put the garlic bread in.”

“I love it when your bossy.” Patsy admitted, sighing as she walked slowly towards the back door. Her footsteps felt feather light when she heard Delia laughing back.

The dog shit was indeed a large one and once duly admired by the entire household under Seppies proud surveillance Patsy called an end to garden time.

Seppie hadn’t changed and her knees really were mucky but for once Patsy decided not nag her about cleanliness. Her resolve didn’t go past hand washing before food though and it was with ill grace that Seppie eventually took her place at the table fifteen minutes later for dinner. Her face and hands deep brown from scrubbing.

Patsy started cutting up her food as Fern snuck glances at Delia.

“This is chicken Red.” Seppie waved her hand over the plate, still annoyed at the impromptu hand cleaning.

“You like chicken.” Patsy signed clumsily back, still trying to manoeuvre cutlery.

“Here she goes.” Fern mumbled across the table, older sister harmonics piercing every word.

Patsy couldn’t blame her. Seppies food preferences were mercurial. After living without most food groups for four and half years of her life she was now suspicious of new things. Patsy had taken a whole week to coax her into trying an orange.

Chicken had so far been accepted as acceptable food and that’s why Patsy had chosen it but taking in Seppies face now it seemed like this fact was not going to remain so for much longer.

“But my friend told me her mum said they kill chickens horribly.” Seppies lip turned. A born vegetarian in the making.

“Told you.’ Fern muttered from the end of the table at no one in particular. ‘Every day she does this. It’s food, just eat it.”

Patsy ignored Fern, impressed at the vocab. Horribly was a new word for Seppie. Patsy nodded as she allowed her mind to slip into autopilot.

“This chicken had a very nice life, it’s not like that at all.” She lied.

“They cut off their nose.’ Seppie went on, looking sick. ‘I don’t want to eat bogeys.”

Patsy swiftly decided evasive actions were required, putting down the cutlery and rolling up her sleeves.

“Okay, I tell you about this chicken.’ She signed energetically, her brain rocketing into fiction. ‘She was called Rose right... and she had a good life. She was from a big fancy chicken home, she was free range and her owners did nice things for her.”

“Like going to the cinema?” Seppie asked curiously, hanging on to Patsys every word now.

Fern snorted, translating out loud to Delia.

Patsy nodded gratefully, “exactly like the cinema, yes baby.’ Perhaps unwisely it was at this point that Patsy allowed a little bit of inventiveness to carry her away. ‘Oh, she’d seen all the classics at the cinema; Chicken run, Wallace and Gromit. She went on long walks on the beach and she had a boyfriend chicken called Jack.”

“Chickens don’t have boyfriends.” Seppie was giggling now, amused by the ridiculousness of adults.

“They do to!’ Patsy signed emphatically, ‘and girlfriends. Rose met Jack on a boat.”

“Chickens don’t go on boats!”

“They do, chickens can’t fly so they have to go to see other places on boats obviously. You tell me how she’d see America if she didn’t go on a boat.”

“Well...” Seppie shrugged, logically beaten for a moment.

“And that’s where they met.’ Patsy went on triumphantly, enjoying herself possibly too much. ‘Jack was from a bad farm but he got away. Won tickets playing cards. Jack and Rose were from very different worlds but he show her how to like life.”

“Is this true?” Seppie directed her question shrewdly at Delia, another adult, who was smiling at her fork.

Delia nodded, her face a mask of attentive agreement. Seppie turned to face Patsy with narrowed eyes.

“What did they do on the boat?” Seppie enquired with pernicious fascination.

“They went on barn dances and sat in some cars. You know,’ from across the table Delia was biting her lip, eyes twinkling while Fern was having a coughing fit trying to translate for their guest at the same speed as Patsys hands. ‘They had this wonderful moment standing at the end of the boat, their chicken wings all touching romantically and Rose said ‘I’m flying Jack’ and it was very sweet. A lady singer was there and she was singing away in the background really nicely. It was beautiful.”

Seppie looked down at the chicken on her plate dubiously. “But I don’t want to eat Rose.”

“Well you should,’ Patsy signed firmly, ‘she died at a very old age with pictures of her chicken children all around her just like Jack told her too.”

“Where was Jack?”

Patsy looked down at the little girl and decided that she’d done enough good work for today, “that’s another story for another night baby. All I’ll say is this... In this house we share doors, okay?”

“Err okay.”

Seppie didn’t ask about the chicken after that. Knives and forks scraped against plates as they ate. The four of them existing in the lull, talking about easy things.

Patsy stared around at the table, the people all assembled. Her people. For one blinding moment it all seemed possible.

She really could have a happy ending; a family.

All these years she’d been terrified of just this prospect but now that it was here... Patsy felt like crying. She wanted to go back in time and tell her younger self how ridiculous she was. How unfounded the fears were.

She could be happy. She had as much right to happiness, to family as anyone else.

The rest of the meal seemed to fly by. The washing up completed and put away in time to catch the last half an hour of some tv show Fern was obsessed with.

Patsy sat beside Delia on the sofa. Hyper aware of Delias body pressed against her side. The rub of her arm against her arm.

Seppie started to flag around half seven. Her head, which had been resting on Neil’s back on the floor, sunk periodically lower and lower as the television flashed. When her eyes closed for longer than a minute Patsy decided to call it a night.

Seppie was so tired that she didn’t even fight when Patsy tapped her foot on the floor to get her attention and signalled to go upstairs. Patsy and Delia watched from the sofa as the little girl tottered across the room, drunk on tiredness.

To Patsys relief Delia offered to wait until Patsy was done.

Fern was already running Seppie a bath when Patsy arrived upstairs. The two sisters appearing to be locked into a silent argument. It was a familiar part of the routine and Patsy watched from the doorway as Seppie flatly refused to get in the bath while Fern played mother with a fraying temper.

Seppie wasn’t fond of washing every night. The concept of daily hygiene had arrived late in life. Mick and Allie had had a bathtub in their flat but it had been full of crap from the first time Patsy had known them. The girls had been used to stand up flannel washes from the sink. The luxury of being clean had been well revived by Fern but Seppie mistrusted it. Deciding that there was more to life than bathing once a day.

“It just dirt! I fine!” Seppie signed angrily up at her sister.

“You not clean. You get in bath right now!” Ferns foot tapped menacingly against the floor, barely controlling her temper.

“Why?”

“Because I say so.”

“You not the boss any more. Red the boss.” Seppie signed smugly, a smudge of red in her cheeks as she faced down her sister defiantly.

Fern blanched, her face creasing in surprised pain. She glared down at Seppie, her temper flaring as she ground her teeth.

“I think-‘ Patsy cut in, moving into the room and surprising the girls, ‘that I can take over here Fern if you want?”

“Fine.’ Ferns eyes were filling with frustrated tears. ‘Fine. You’re the boss.”

“Fern,’ Patsy tried to pull the girl back but Fern had already ducked underneath her extended hand and rushed out of the room, her bedroom door sounded too loud in the closed space. Even Seppie registered the vibration.

Patsy sighed and turned her attention to Seppie first. “You is having a bath.” She said sternly.

“I don’t want one.” Seppie crossed her arms, her bottom lip sticking out.

She swayed though, tired and cranky.

Patsy raised an eyebrow. “Who’s the boss?”

Seppies sighed, a large huff at grown ups.

“You.” She pointed miserably at Patsy.

“Right answer.’ Patsy signed without a smile. ‘Get in.”

Patsy waited until Seppie had stripped off and clamboured mutinously into the sparse amount of water, airing her grievances to the world, before leaving her to reluctantly splash about. The addition of a squeaky duck not really helping the atmosphere along.

Fern was laying on her bed with a book in front of her when Patsy knocked and entered the bedroom. The space had been left for Fern to decorate how she wanted when they moved on. Fern had picked a furious hot pink that left Patsys eyes tired. Her bed had used to be Patsys, the posts solid wood. Most days Patsys attempted not to think about all the uses she’d put the bed over the years; lest she attempt to lose it in a freak volcano accident.

Patsy ignored the book, didn’t believe the still calmness Fern was trying for. She was too still. Rigid as she forced herself to stay calm.

Patsy could too easily understand uncomfortable rage. The trickling worries that built up until it ended in a sad, half ashamed anger.

“She didn’t mean what she said.” Patsy said, deciding not to bother with pretense.

Ferns hands shook as she turned the page of her book. “She thinks you can do a better job than me, she loves you more than me.”

Patsy sat on the bed, her weight making the book spill off onto the floor and Fern look up at Patsy in mute outrage.

“I’m older, that’s all.’ Patsy said gently. ‘She doesn’t listen to me any more than she listens to you, you know that really.”

“I used to be all she had.” Fern said with a pained expression. ‘I used to be the one who looked after her.”

“And you still are, look, come here,’ Patsy levered her arms underneath the teens torso and lifted her into her lap. Holding her. Fern didn’t protest but her body was stiff. ‘You’re her big sister. You will always be her big sister Fern. What you did to keep her safe and stay sane took a lot of bravery and hard work and I will never allow that to go unacknowledged.”

“You got her a dog.’ Fern said, mouth pressed into Patsys arm. ‘You said that you’d do it and you did. You always keep your word even when you don’t need to and she- Allie never did that. She never even bought us new shoes.”

“Is that what this is really about?’ Patsy asked, aware of splashing from the bathroom that signalled a possible flood, her hand stroking Ferns hair cautiously. ‘Your mum?”

“She never got me a birthday present Pats. She never even cooked proper food. It was just about him. Always, she always chose him over us. Every single time and I hate her so much for it. I hate her.” Ferns head butted harmlessly against Patsys arm.

Patsy looked at the girls pale scalp, the dirty blonde hair that was frazzled at the end no matter how much shampoo Fern had now. It would take a long time to grow out of the bad times. Maybe not ever completely.

“You can still love someone even if you hate them sweetheart.” Patsy stated quietly.

Fern coughed, choking on her righteous anger. “She never learned to sign. She never took us to the park. She barely even noticed us.”

“I know.” Patsy was torn between wanting to defend the dead and wanting to agree to make it better. It didn’t work that way though; you couldn’t make people walk a path they haven’t chosen yet. Everyone got to their own place in the end.

But that wasn’t now.

“Why?’ Fern banged her head harder, ‘why couldn’t she just for once-‘ Ferns voice broke. ‘Why couldn’t she just get rid of him, be a mum like you are?”

“I can’t answer that sweetheart. Some people are just made to live for other people. Sometimes they’re the wrong sort of people. Sometimes they make bad choices. She still loved you.” Patsy thought darkly of Elizabeth; her own mother’s poor choices.

“Do you think....’ Fern sounded agonised. The what ifs and maybes harder to discuss now they weren’t possible anymore. ‘If she’d thrown Mick out, do you think it would have been different?”

“This isn’t just about today is it?’ Patsy moved forward and tried to make Fern look at her. The behaviour wasn’t out of the norm entirely but Fern was a tough nut. ‘Has someone said something to you at school?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Fern muttered, sitting up and hugging her knees.

Patsy tutted and recalled too many talks like this with Helen. Helen would have been so much better at this than Patsy but she still tried.

“Baby you’re upset, of course it matters.”

“Someone was standing outside school today.” Fern said into her knees.

Patsy frowned. “Someone you know?” She had worried about this. Someone Mick or Allie owed money to demanding payment from Fern.

She should have pushed for a different school.

“No, just some mad old lady. She was shouting at me; said my mum and dad deserved what they got. Said I should count myself lucky.”

Patsy scowled, outraged. “I’ll go to the school tomorrow. They shouldn’t be letting anyone hang around the gates when you’re on your own.”

Ferns face, the slither visible, suddenly became very pink. “I wasn’t on my own,’ she mumbled, ‘Ollie was with me. He told her to get lost.”

“Ahh,’ understanding came in fits and starts. ‘So that’s why you snogged him.” Patsy said thoughtfully.

“Who told you about that?” Fern had straightened. Mortified.

Patsy laughed. “Oh no. I’m not telling you my sources.”

“Is this the part where you give me a lecture on safe sex?” Fern demanded, her face a picture of disgust.

Patsy shuddered. “Fuck, I hope not. Do you need me to give you a lecture on safe sex? Are you planning on having sex?”

Fern dipped her head down again. “No.” She said contritely.

“Good.’ Patsy got to her feet, aware of ominous clunking from the bathroom, ‘because you can do so much better than Ollie sweetheart and just so you’re aware any future boyfriends will need to be vetted by a panel of judges including me and Helen.”

“Does that mean I get to judge Delia?” Fern snarked back instantly.

Patsy opened the bedroom door and shot Fern A Look. “If we get to a third date I can’t stop you can I?”

With that Patsy closed the door smiling. Unfortunately the smile didn’t last very long.

A scene of devastation was waiting for her in the bathroom. Seppie had managed to splash quite a lot of water on the floor before somehow spidermanning her way out of the actual bath. A pair of brown eyes blinked solemnly up at Patsy from underneath a Batman towel when Patsy walked in.

Patsy decided not to blow her top and settled for dumping five towels on the floor as she carried Seppie to her bedroom.

Seppie didn’t object to the human transport and stuck a thumb into her mouth when Patsy deposited her by the bed and began to pull out pyjamas from drawers.

Superman and power rangers were quickly thrown aside in favour of a panda onesie.

Patsy had just managed the complicated feat of pulling the correct limb into the correct hole when Seppie decided to break the comfortable silence.

“Red, you like Delia don’t you?”

Patsy frowned at a stuck zipper that was stubbornly refusing to go up, her answer absentminded. “Yes, I do.”

“Do you like her more than us?” Seppie asked with interest, stifling a yawn.

Patsy wasn’t fooled and pointed to the bed before replying.

“No, it different type of like. I love you because you is my baby. I love you like the sea loves salt.”

“That’s a lot isn’t it?” Seppie had climbed into bed laboriously, managing somehow to kick all the duvet off in one.

“That’s lots and lots baby.” Patsy said, picking them up again patiently.

“So how much do you like Delia then?”

“Why you asking?” Patsy decided she didn’t need to have this conversation right now with her five year old. She’d be doing it for real soon enough with Delia. Luckily, Seppie didn’t seem to notice the diversion.

“Because if you like her,’ Seppie signed her thoughts painstakingly slow, ‘then she maybe going to be your girlfriend. That can happen.” Seppie signed the last bit with a worrying amount of certainty.

“Sometimes that can happen, yes.” Patsy agreed, pulling back the duvet and ushering Seppie to lie down.

“But she can’t be your proper girlfriend until you ask her what her favourite dinosaur is.” Seppie signed thoughtfully as she reached under her pillow to pull out her bear bubble.

Patsy had done a bit of painstaking DIY on bubble in the first few weeks. He was a bit more patched now but he’d had a whole new lot of stuffing inserted and his new eye might be wonky but at least he had two of them. Trixie had helped her with the stitching on a rainy weekend, the bear laid out on the kitchen table with a bit of kitchen towel draped over the teddies body like an operating theatre.

Patsy and Trixie had amused themselves calling for scalpels with face masks stolen from the hospital covering their faces, a hastily erected desk lamp bathing the scene in clear yellow light as Seppie watched on intently from a chair.

“Is dinosaurs important?” Patsy asked cautiously, worried she’d have to have to talk about boys with both of her children this evening.

“Very.’ Seppie signed emphatically, ‘I like the one with a tail.”

“Tails is important for dinosaurs.’ Patsy agreed, smiling as she pulled the duvet up to Seppies shoulder and bent to kiss Seppie goodnight. ‘And now you go to sleep.”

“Kiss bubbles too.“ Seppie held out the bear and Patsy obediently pressed her closed lips to the bears scraggy head. The fur had been almost been worn smooth from Seppies rubbing thumb.

“Don’t stay up when I’m gone.” Patsy warned.

Night time wanderings might not sound too weird but Patsy had nearly had too many heart attacks when she finally found the arms of sleep to be ripped from them again by cold fingers pressing into her eyes. A trick Seppie had learned from Allie that usually garnered a response.

“What about Neil?” Seppie was sitting up in bed, a worried tinge as she twisted her feet together anxiously.

“He going to bed downstairs.”

“What if he gets cold?” Seppie looked poised to get up again.

Patsy leaned against the doorframe.

“He got a coat on baby.”

“But it’s dark downstairs at night.”

“Night time is dark baby, Neil will be fine.”

“He can sleep in my room.’ Seppie offered with a heaving breathing as though the offer was given with a mob at her back. ‘I got room.”

Patsy could too well imagine Seppie acting in a play at some point. She’d make a fabulous diva.

“Upstairs is where humans sleep. The carpets are new.” Patsy pointed out evenly.

“But-“ Seppie began, never one to let an argument lie.

Or maybe a lawyer, Patsy considered fairly.

“But the rules are he sleeps downstairs baby. He’s not allowed in bedrooms. He a dog, you can’t bring him in here.” Patsy gave Seppie a parental stare she’d seen Helen use for years.

It didn’t work.

Seppies eyes fluttered as cogs whirred in her head. “What if he comes up here on his own.’ She sketched out a good attempt at guile. ‘That wouldn’t be against the rules.”

Patsy rolled her eyes, not willing to fight Seppie today.

“Maybe.” Was all she’d say as she turned on the night light by the door and the main light off.

She left Seppie sitting in bed. Thinking and plotting.

When Patsy got to the top stair she started to count to ten in her head.

Chapter Text

Delia was standing in the kitchen, pouring boiling water from the kettle into two of Patsys polka dot mugs when Patsy came back downstairs. She’d tidied up Patsy noted guiltily, there was a stack of washing up waiting to be put away and the television had been switched off. The light from outside stained the downstairs a cold blue.

Patsys feet disturbed the quiet lightly in the relative peace as she strained to listen out for the tell tale creak of Seppies bedroom door. When she reached the bottom step Delia turned to face her, a mug of steaming tea in each hand, a determined set to her mouth.

"I thought we might be able to have that talk now." Delia said deliberately, placing the cups down neatly, side by side on the dining room table, her voice higher than usual with nerves, 'I- Pats we really need to talk about a few things... This summer-"

Patsy was only half listening, a tiny sound had echoed down the upstairs landing and she felt a rush of triumph. Occasionally, it was nice to know that she could still read people. Especially when the people in question happened to be her people... Admittedly though Seppie tended to be a book with very large print.

A floor board creaked above her head and Patsy quickly calculated how long it would take for Seppie to appear.

Delia coughed to bring Patsy back to the moment. She was still waiting at the table, looking expectant, keyed up by something Patsy couldn't identify. Patsy realised too late that she’d zoned out on a part of the conversation and hastened to focus on what she’d missed.

Something about Wales?

Patsy gave a quick nod to show that she’d heard but beckoned Delia over, aware of another creak. 

"There's a lot we need to talk about and I promise that we will, but right now...’ Patsy cocked her head towards the door meaningfully. ‘Do you mind if we wait another few minutes? It'll be worth it."

Delia sagged, her hand rubbing despondently at her hip as she stared down at the mugs.

"I really don't think that I can put this off any more Pats." Her hand traced a knot on the wooden surface of the table, the thumb rigid making the wood squeak.

Patsy thought that she looked adorable but couldn't blame the nerves. She felt them too; something large was yawning out in front of them. Not unexpected but necessary; Patsy had never been comfortable with heart felt conversation before now, always more for dealing with problems on her own, but the prospect didn't frighten her this time. She was too certain of the future to be afraid.

Above them the door to the stairs whined, a low pitched groan that Seppie wouldn't register. Patsy made a mental note not to ever oil the hinges; she had a feeling she'd need all the extra helping hands she could find when her daughter hit her teens. Grinning now, Patsy strode over to Delia and eased her hand from the table top to tug her backwards towards the living room determinably.

"Pats,' Delia sounded surprised, exasperated by yet another delay but she followed Patsy even so.

"Shh,’ Patsy whispered excitedly. ‘I've got a theory that I just want to see out, it wont take more than five minutes, don't worry, then it'll all be over."

"Yes,' Delia sighed as she folded herself down onto the sofa looking anxious, 'that's what I'm worried about."

Patsy smiled, slipping her arm casually over Delias shoulder like she’d done it a hundred times before, spying over Delias shoulder to squint at the open door. Seppie probably would have gone down on her bum, less chance of being heard that way. Delia was watching Patsy in
some concern and Pasty threw her a sly wink.

"Want to see a con artist in the making?" She offered wryly.

Delia gave the door another look and then nodded uncertainly, trusting Patsy not to be wrong.

Patsy ran her finger along Delias shoulder. “Close your eyes and pretend to be asleep.” She advised in an undertone that wasn’t strictly necessary.

Delia raised her eyebrows. "Are you being serious?"

"As a heart attack."

They managed it just in time.

From his basket Patsy heard Neil sit up, his collar jangling as someone doing a good impression of Darth Vadar after the volcano appeared at the doorway. Quietly, very quietly and slowly, a pair of hands disturbed the air. The fabric of Neils basket rustled as a tail wagged hard against the wall.

"Please tell me she’s not doing what I think shes doing?" Delia breathed carefully, laughter in her voice.

Patsy squeezed her eyes closed a little harder, fighting back the urge to leap up and yell gotcha.

They both waited, their eyes closed as six feet scratched on the floor and then, with a few thumps, padded up the stairs.

The not so perfect crime committed.

Neither Patsy or Delia moved until the door upstairs had closed a little more loudly as Seppie forgot to be stealthy. When she was certain they were safe Patsy snorted and opened her eyes; Delias face was very close.

Patsy thought that she was beautiful, couldn’t stop the wistful hoping from leaping out at her. She loved this woman and it was the best kind of weird she’d ever experienced.

"Deels?’ Patsy stroked Delias hand, the skin feeling warm. ‘You can open your eyes now sweetheart. She’s gone."

"I thought you said no animals upstairs." Delia said, peeking through her lashes.

"I did."

Delia reached out to hold onto Patsys shirt in a bid to sit a little straighter. ‘And yet,’ Delia said archly, ‘the dog is now upstairs Pats."

"Well,’ Patsy shrugged easily, refusing to remove her arm from Delias shoulders, ‘its still her birthday for a few more hours and between us; I secretly approve of a little bit of rebellion.’ Patsy smirked, cocky until she registered Delias hand and the way they were slowly moving up to rest on her face. ‘It's good for her."

"You're such a push over. Neils going to be up there every night from now on".

"No he won’t, I'm good at chess.’ Patsy gave Delia a lazy grin. ‘You’re forgetting that I know almost every trick they might try."

Delias thumb rubbed Patsys chin, the touch so gentle that Patsy wanted to close her eyes again, the sensation far too intimate.

"Pats, what am I supposed to do with you?" It wasn’t a question that Delia seemed to need an answer for but Patsy still had a go.

Leaning forward Patsys kissed the pad of Delias thumb. The rough edge of a chewed nail grazing her lip.

"I've got one or two ideas if you're game."

"Pats...’ Delias eyes were very dark but there was something wrong, something wrong with her expression. Patsy couldn’t understand it. ‘When I was in Wales something happened... I need to tell you." Delias voice was feeble. Their faces too close, Patsy could feel the warmth off her breath on her cheek. The smell of her perfume.

“What’s your favourite dinosaur Delia?”

“My- What?” Delias eyes were unfocused as they fell over Patsys mouth.

“Dinosaurs?’ Patsys cheeks twitched as Patsy decided to up the ante, running her hand along Delias thigh, knee to hip. ‘Prehistoric animals, scaley buggers. Fossils.”

Delias breathing hitched as she tried to scrabble around for an answer.

“Umm, I always liked diplodocus when I was little.”

“Diplodocus?” Patsys nose rubbed against the point of Delias. Her hand fit so well on Delias hip. So well.

Something was pounding in her ears. Sounded like drums. The itching thrum of electricity was back.

“I think so.” Delia quavered, her hand resting on Patsys back, the fabric bunching up against the limb.

“Well,’ Patsy couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop, ‘we’re a match. Seppie will be pleased.”

“Pats-“ Delia sounded wound up. Asking for something.

Patsy answered.

Delias lips were right there and Patsy decided ten weeks was about long enough for the moment.

The kiss wasn’t huge. It didn’t have any specific end point; it was simply kissing for the sake of kissing. An easy brand of kissing that meant there would be more, the simple easiness of two people who didn’t intent to stop.

Patsy didn’t want to stop kissing this woman.

Delias hands were pulling her closer; one buried in Patsys hair, the other pushing its way under her t-shirt to greedily trace the rounding path of her spine and Patsy swore she could hear the universe cheering.

Patsys fingers found the soft skin of Delias hips, felt the thin line that was the waistband of her trousers.

And then the moment was gone, snatched away because Delia was pushing her back, gasping for air.

"Wait!’ Delia said desperately. ‘Pats please wait. I need to tell you something."

Patsy couldn’t catch her breath. She stared non plussed as her heart rate slowed back down.

"What?’ Patsy felt punch drunk, her mouth tingling as she watched the rise and fall of Delias chest. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?"

"Caroline!’ Delia practically shouted the word. ‘Pats that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.... When I was in Wales I- something happened with Caroline." Delia looked mortified as she watched Patsy laboriously trying to make the connections. 

It didn’t take too long. Patsy froze.

"With-With Caroline?' Patsy repeated blankly, her back was suddenly too cold where her t-shirt had been pulled up. 'Something... You did something with Caroline?”

Please be friendly bike rides. Please be friendly bike rides.

"Only once,' Delia looked relieved that Patsy had grasped the concept so readily. 'It was at Bernys wedding; it shouldn't have happened but I thought... I had to tell you before anything else happened."

"You... You and Caroline?” Patsy spoke the words very slowly, unable to make it real inside her head, not really believing they meant anything important. The words didn't add up to reality.

Something thumped upstairs. Neil. Jumping from Seppies bed. Surreal.

This couldn't be happening. Please don’t let this be happening.

"It was a one time thing I swear.’ Delia spoke in a rush, anxiety speeding her along the story like she could force it to be less awful that way, her bent knee bumping into Patsys leg. ‘It happened weeks ago... I just needed to tell you.’ Delia licked her lips. ‘You said you wanted to take things slowly and I want that too Pats... but I couldn't take it further if I wasn't up front from the beginning. At least now we can make a clean start; you and me...’ Delia stared at Patsys still unmoving face fretfully. ‘Pats? Please say something."

Patsy couldn’t seem to pick apart what was happening. She felt detached, like she was watching someone else’s world fall apart.

"You slept with Caroline...’ Patsy tried the phrase out in the real world, her tongue clumsy as something fragile seemed to curl up inside her chest. One burning question seeped out of the rapidly growing pile. The important one. ‘Why?"

"It was stupid,’ Delias hand wrapped around Patsys wrist and held it tightly, anchoring them physically as the emotions dragged them further and further apart. ‘I made a stupid mistake that’s all. Does it really matter why?”

"It matters to me." Patsy could barely say it, her jaw felt too tight.

This mattered. This mattered to her. Delia mattered. Fuck-

"Barbara called me.’ Delia swallowed hard, her face pallid in the dull light of the lamps. ‘At the wedding... Bernie’s wedding. She said... She said that Tom and Trixie had a fight before she left for good.” Delia stopped, her fingers clinging to Patsy tightly.

Delias hands were so warm; like a house with all the lights on in winter when you hope it can be your home.

Patsy felt cold. A great fallout of air seemed to be billowing away from her; the roar of the losses was deafening. The shining moments of the evening were crashing to nothing behind her eyes. All gone-

“Trixie told Tom that she was sleeping with you, she told Tom that you'd told her to move in.’ Delia swallowed again, her hand shaking as she chewed the words out. ‘Make things official. Barbara said she thought it was the real deal, Tom thinks you've been having an affair for years apparently.' Delia glanced up here, searching for answers she didn't want to ask out loud.

Patsy said nothing, her eyes unfocused as she stared at a point just to the right of Delias head.

Trixie was going to pay for this.

She felt too numb to respond so Delia went on hurriedly, trying to fill two peoples halves of the conversations content by herself. 'I... I believed her- For one day, that's it. I got drunk and then Caroline showed up and it was so stupid Pats...’ Delia shook her head. Embarrassed or ashamed; Patsy wasn’t in a position to know. ‘She's been having a rough time with her boyfriend and we ended up drinking the bar dry. We were so drunk.’

Delia screwed up her face, ‘I never do that. I’ve never done a one night stand like that, I was just so angry... But it didn't mean anything Pats, I swear. For either of us. We both regretted it in the morning. I still regret it.” She added firmly, her hands groping higher, her thumbs mapping out Patsys elbow feverishly.

Patsys brain was so sluggish, she couldn’t seem to take a hold of events. Couldn’t process the whole thing; her mind focusing on the big parts of the picture and the lone, agonising realisation.

"Wow...’ Patsy breathed. ‘You really did sleep with Caroline." The reality was setting in a bit now. Patsy felt a wave of nausea, her face still paralysed into shocked stillness for the moment. The slow shifting of tectonic plates playing out along her skin.

"Patsy I'm really sorry.' Delia groaned, she looked like she wanted to cry but strangely the sight didn't stir Patsy.

It was like watching someone act out a scene from behind thick glass, the emotions couldn't bridge the gap. Patsy felt a rising swell of something painful in her chest. It was like being stabbed again and, somehow, Delia was still talking. A soft wash of words that Patsy couldn’t seem to grasp.

“I was an idiot. I thought about calling you that night to have it out with you; I nearly did but the signal was crap and I was already pretty pissed.’ Delia took in a shaky breath. Her fringe was sticking to her forehead, the hair stiff with sweat. ‘I called Phyllis the next day to ask if she'd heard anything, I thought- I thought if I could get some sort of external information then I’d know what to do... and she told me that Trixie really had moved in but just as a friend.’ Delias face creased up miserably. ‘I realised that I'd fucked up but I didn’t want to just call you and say-‘ She broke off and started again. ‘I decided to wait until I got back; I didn't want to do this over the phone."

Patsy just stared at her, cogs stuttering into life as she tried to wrestle with the truth. A glaring reality struck out and hit her squarely in the heart.

"You brought her back with you." Patsy noted icily, a voice of deadly calm that threatened an avalanche with one wrong move finally cutting through Delias monologue.

"She's been going through a break up,’ Delia answered quickly, ‘someone saw me leaving her flat the next morning. They told her boyfriend and it all went to shit, she needed to get out of town. I said she could stay at mine until she worked out what to do next."

"So...’ Patsy said ponderously, pulling her eyebrows together with difficulty, her face felt foreign and not under her control, trying to knit the facts out. She couldn’t look at Delia. ‘You're in a relationship with her?"

"God no.’ Delia looked appalled. Her hands gripping tighter and Patsy wished that she wouldn’t. She wanted a moment to think. ‘Pats, please look at me, its nothing like that I swear. We're just friends."

"But she's staying at your house." Patsy pointed out coolly.

"She’s in the spare room." Delia gave a nervous sort of chuckle, her face slightly green now.

"I WAS IN THE FUCKING SPARE ROOM!" Patsys control cracked, gone in an explosion of sound as the anger merged with the hurt and she was suddenly on her feet; ripping Delia away from her.

Delia flinched at the abrupt move and put her face in her hands. 

"I know,’ Delia moaned, ‘Pats, I know what it looks like okay. That’s why I had to tell you before we went any further; I'm sorry Pats. I fucked up... I thought if I told you then we could- I don't know, I hope we can move forward. You said you would wait."

"You thought I’d just ignore the fact that you fucked someone else while I was waiting for you to come home?" Patsy snarled the words. She wanted to seize the closest tangible object and break it, throw it all away until it wasn’t close enough to hurt.

“You slept with Jessie,’ Delia defended stallingly, her voice high, ‘and I didn’t blame you like this.”

“So what’s this then?’ Patsy wanted to rip her hair out in frustration, an animal need to move had begun in her spine and she began to pace back and forth in a tight, angry rut. ‘Payback.”

“No of course it isn’t!’ Delia got to her feet too, her arms outstretched in frustration. ‘I’m just saying that it didn’t change the way I felt about you. The way I still feel about you.”

“So I shouldn’t be upset that you’ve fucked someone else?’ Patsy stopped walking long enough to smack her hand on the CD rack; it rattled ominously, ‘because I had a one night stand with a stranger before we even met! The two things aren’t the same. This woman’s actually living with you.”

“It’s not the way you’re thinking about it!’ Delia was shouting too now, the two of them arguing across the room. ‘I don’t think about her in the same way that I think about you. It was a one time thing and she’s not you Pats. She’s not even close to what you mean to me. I knew that as soon as it was over.”

“No,’ Patsy couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t listen, the walls seemed to be closing in on her. Abraham’s face leered up inside her head and she felt sick. ‘Must have been appealing, someone from home, no baggage, no fucked up backstory. No wonder you picked her.”

“This isn’t about baggage.’ Delia began to cry, hot tears of frustration welling up and trickling down her face as she stamped her foot on the floor. ‘I knew you’d think that. Patsy, I don’t care about your baggage; it doesn’t matter to me.”

“You cared enough to sleep with someone else!” Patsy went on forcefully, relishing the solid truth of it. Trying to force away the pain and wrap it into stubborn anger like a grubby cloak.

The two of them stared at each other; the silence very loud as they both forced in a breath.

“I’m not sleeping with her now.” Delia said eventually. Her voice more level as she tried to make herself calm. It didn’t work.

“How am I supposed to believe that?” Patsy was better at feigning indifference, had had far more practice but somehow that didn’t matter right now. She felt like she was bleeding somehow, like Delia had taken a chunk of her.

“You’ll have to trust me won’t you,’ Delia said tartly, ‘in the same way that I have to trust that you’re sharing a bed with Trixie and not sleeping with her.”

“I-‘ Patsy floundered, stuck for a moment as the the blood pounding in her ears made it hard to think past the flash of guilt tripping her up. ‘How did you know that?”

“I didn’t.’ Delias face was white as she wiped her nose dejectedly. ‘Not until right now... There’s no blankets down here.’ Delia gave a self deprecating chuckle. ‘I had a feeling.”

“I’m not sleeping with her.”

“I believe you.”

“I’m not.” Patsy had to say it again. She had to keep saying it because a tiny part of her head shivered with guilt she didn’t want to accept.

“I just said that I believe you.” Delias said simply.

“I promised you I would wait. I always keep my promises.” Patsy was insistent. She did. Patsy Mount never gave up on a promise. Everyone knew that didn’t they?

“Doesn’t mean I’m not jealous though.’ Delia muttered archly. ‘Doesn’t mean I don’t want to throttle you for it.”

“You could have stayed if you wanted to.” There, Patsy found the way out and groped hold of the fact.

This wasn’t on her.

Delia grit her teeth, her fingers tapping at her hip. “I know that.”

“You don’t have anything to be jealous about.” Patsy felt too big, she wanted to escape. The overwhelming shape of her skin was wrong.

She didn’t know what to do, she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t want to fight and she didn’t want to stop shouting either.

“I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that point Patience.” Delia folded her arms stiffly.

Patsy went back to pacing, needing to move. Delia watched her carefully, the pale light from the lamps bleeding into the shadows.

“So this Caroline’s waiting for you at home right now?” Patsy struck out as another thought hit. She couldn’t make her brain work, she didn’t know how to not think in straight lines at the moment.

“Pats-“ Delia began.

Patsy had had enough, she stopped in front of Delia, her mouth too full of words. “You shouldn’t keep her waiting, she’ll worry. You should probably go.”

“I don’t want to leave it like this.” Delia looked wretched, her eyes scanning their way to the door.

“Neither did I.”

“Pats...’ Delias voice shook, desperate to be heard. ‘I really care about you.”

Care. The word stung.

There it was, right there, staring Patsy straight in the face. It had been there the whole time. Care. Only care. Not love. Never love. It was never love when it was about Patsy was it?

Good to fuck. Good to rely on when you needed something or wanted someone to do the hard stuff but not love. Not love.

Stupid. God she was so fucking stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

And it wasn’t even like Patsy could blame Delia because why the hell would anyone love something like Patsy?

Fuck. Love?

Why though? Patsy wanted to shake herself, shake the bad things away. What was wrong with her? Why wasn’t she enough?

Why wasn’t she ever, ever, ever enough for someone? Why!

“You should go.’ Patsy barely recognised her own voice, the sound of it in the ringing silence startled her. Didn’t sound like her voice, sounded too quiet. Empty. ‘I’ve probably taken up too much of your time this evening already. You’ve got someone to get back to after all.”

“No.’ Delias lip wobbled as though she wanted to cry again but it felt a long way away. Patsy couldn’t feel it. ‘No Patsy that’s not true. I had a lovely time tonight. It was-“

“You should go home.” Patsy repeated dully. She wanted to shut the moment down, end it, just to stop the stabbing pain in her head. She was born to do this; push the thing that was hurting her away. She’d done it her whole life. She could do it now surely.

No matter who or what the situation was, the survival instinct inside Patsy always guided her. She always made sure that there was a Patsy sized space where she could put herself, a way of retreating from the pain. She had always been able to walk away from anyone, she never let herself get so attached that she couldn’t stop ties from being forged.

Patsy had always been alone. She was good at alone.

Delia stepped towards her, she was reaching to take Patsys hand.

Patsy pulled them away, shoving both of them in her back pockets childishly, trying desperately not to fall apart or show an ounce of feeling.

Before Delia had come along this was the sort of thing she’d shrug off. Who cared about a woman? Who cared if the girl she was screwing wanted something else? There would always be someone else. Someone better or different.

But even as she thought this something hard and cold seemed to lodge itself inside Patsys throat because... Deep down, Patsy already knew that she’d never find someone like Delia again. She wouldn’t fall for someone in this way again. She wouldn’t allow it to happen twice. Wouldn’t bare this kind of loss willingly.

“Patsy... I’m really, really sorry... I’ve messed everything up haven’t I?” Delias voice was half way between panic and grief. She didn’t seem so worried about showing her feelings; tears still leaked out the corners of her eyes and dripped down her face.

Patsy found that she couldn’t blink, her body was frozen. Thin ice.

“You should go home.” Patsy repeated for the third time. She didn’t know what else to say. Delia closed her eyes and bent forward like the words were a blow.

Patsy couldn’t do or say anything differently; she didn’t believe that Delia could ever understand how hard it was to stay so still right now.

“I never wanted to hurt you... I thought telling you was the best thing... I didn’t want to start something serious with a lie.” Delia said it bleakly, maybe she expected Patsy to listen, to understand.

And maybe Patsy would understand that when she was thinking properly but that wasn’t now. Right now Patsy needed Delia to go before she lost it.

Patsy screwed up her face, the need to shout and demand answers were barely suppressed... But the tearing need to fix this was there too, simmering away in the background. It was like being ripped in half. She wanted to take the distance away, she wanted to put her arms around Delia and tell her it didn’t matter.

And did it really matter?

Patsy had been Vals side project for almost a year and it hadn’t quite killed her.

Perhaps... Perhaps she could do it again for Delia.

No.

Something snapped shut tightly in Patsys head. One word screaming in her ears. No. No. No. She might not be worth loving but she was worth more than a side lined thought. All she wanted was to be more than that. Somewhere in the festering depths of her soul Patsy wanted to believe that there was someone that could love her without reservations.

Besides, the idea of sleeping with Delia only to watch her leave afterwards and go home to some faceless stranger was impossible.

It had hurt with Val. It might kill her with Delia.

Patsy took a step backwards needing the physical barrier. Needing the space to force herself into breaking off all of these feelings.

“I’m sorry Delia; I’ve been stupid.’ Patsy felt uncoordinated, dancing faulty steps. ‘I shouldn’t have- Thank you for coming here tonight. It meant a lot to me.”

“I wanted to be here.” Delia insisted feebly.

“It’s late though.’ Patsy rubbed her knuckles hard against her elbows, focusing on the sting. This evening had been too much of a dream, she needed to wake herself up. ‘We’ve both got work tomorrow; I really don’t want to take up any more of your time.”

“You’re not taking up my time!’ Delia stamped her foot again in frustrated exasperation. ‘Patsy, for God’s sake, it’s not what you’re thinking, I swear to God it’s not anything like that.”

“You don’t know what I’m thinking.” Patsy said flatly as she turned to walk through the kitchen to the hallway and the front door. Her legs felt like jelly; adrenaline cashing it’s cheap cheques.

She’d make sure Delia got into a taxi, she’d make sure she was safely away and then she’d work out what to do next.

Crying seemed a plausible option. Anger could come into it too if it liked. Hell, self pity could turn up with booze and the feelings could all make a right old evening of it.

She couldn’t make these sort of decisions with Delia still here though. Delia just confused everything; made it hard to do what she always did. Patsy wanted Delia too much and it would make her hope if Delia stayed. Make her soften.

Patsy shouldn’t have bothered to hope for anything in the first place.

Stupid.

Delia didn’t follow her immediately. Patsy could hear her dragging her feet, fumbling in the kitchen with her coat and her bag. Killing time in the hope that Patsy would change her mind. Keys rattled on the tiles as though Delia couldn’t quite get a hold of them.

Like her hands were shaking.

Patsy ignored it all and opened the front door, facing the breeze, her hands clenched at her sides. So much of her wanted to lie; wanted to shut the door again and go back into the kitchen. To Delia. The urge to block out the night was crippling. To ignore the truth of everything.

She wanted to say; it doesn’t matter. She wanted it to be different. Patsy wished desperately that she was different.

Enough.

But she couldn’t be enough could she?

What are the wages of sin? What were her wages?

So Patsy didn’t do anything, she just stood in the doorway and forced herself to be still. To not move or say or do because it wouldn’t help and she needed to be in control.

Eventually Delia did come to the door when she’d run out of things to stall with, her face still pale, her coat and bag hanging forlornly over her crooked elbow. The bunched fabric swinging dangerously close to the floor as Delia walked. Close enough to be felt. Patsy sucked in a breath, her chest hurt and she wanted so badly to touch Delia, the dilemma was excruciating.

Stupid things. All of those stupid things she’d wanted were so pointless. Patsy should have known this would happen.

Patsy shouldn’t have touched this woman in the first place. They had never been realistic. She could see it now; glaring clarity showing through the pain. People like Delia didn’t fall in love with people like Patsy. Them together wasn’t what a fairy tale ending looked like at all.

Patsy willed herself not to speak when Delia stopped in front of her. She didn’t think she could say anything sensible; didn’t think she could pull off calm right now.

Patsy assumed that Delia would just leave straight away but she didn’t. Delia stayed standing in front of her, a taunting shadow, until Patsy gave in and looked at her. Her chin was set and her eyes were still too big for her face.

Those eyes.

Patsy willed herself to walk away but that noble intention folded like a house of cards when Delia stepped over impatiently to wrap her fist around the hem of Patsys t-shirt, forcing her attention. Refusing to go. Patsy could feel the shape of her knuckle brush the skin of her stomach and swallowed.

The tiny sensation was stronger than a brand and it was confusing.

Patsy looked down into Delias face; she looked as upset as Patsy felt which helped a little bit.

Patsy watched silently as she waited for goodbyes. Delia had come here to say goodbye. To tell Patsy it wasn’t going to happen. Patsy was letting her go, she was doing exactly what Delia clearly wanted her to do. She wasn’t making a scene, she wasn’t shouting or raging. Patsy was behaving pretty well in her own estimation.

So why wasn’t Delia just saying it? What did she want? Blood?

Delia seemed to be waiting for something and Patsy didn’t know what it was. Did she have to do a speech about Delia finding the right person? Was Patsy meant to pretend to be happy right now?

All of a sudden Patsy felt utterly exhausted, the weight of the feelings bubbling up unexpectedly were so immense that her knees sagged a little where she stood, her head tilted forward and she wanted to cry.

She’d really thought that just this once she could be enough for somebody.

Delias mouth thinned and she reached up to run her spare hands fingers along Patsys neck. Patsys skin must have been cold because Delias touch felt like burning. Patsy stiffened and Delia sighed.

“I’ve left your scarf on the table.” Delia said in a see saw voice that wavered up and down.

“You can keep it.’ Patsy looked up at the ceiling, couldn’t look Delia in the eye, her mouth numb. ‘I wouldn’t want you to catch a cold.”

“Wouldn’t you?” Delia sounded surprised at this and Patsy blinked, glaring at a mysterious stain in the far left corner of the fading artex ceiling design.

“Just because I’m pissed,’ Patsy spoke deliberately slowly, controlling the words, ‘doesn’t mean that I want you to get sick. Just take the bloody scarf Delia. Okay, unless you think your new friend is going to ask questions.”

“She really is just a friend.” Delia tried again, her body edging closer tentatively as though she thought Patsy might throw her off if she moved too quickly.

Patsy didn’t do anything, she stood with her back against the wall and her eyes closed as she felt the heat of Delias body pressing through the thin fabric of her t-shirt, her hand fixed at Patsys neck like it belonged there.

Patsy wanted it to belong there.

“I think you should go home if you’re going to go home Delia. I’m trying to be okay but honestly I’m not great company right now.” Patsy warned thickly.

“It’s not done.’ Delia whispered with steely certainty, shaking her head. ‘When you’re ready to talk to me then I’ll be waiting. I’m not finished with you Patience Mount. I’m not finished at all.”

“I don’t know what you want me to say.” Patsy said honestly, the hurt and bewilderment at being found in this situation with this person palpable.

“Just say we can still be friends?’ Delia coaxed. ‘You can be mad. You can be sarcastic and angry about what’s happened and you don’t have to talk to me straight away but eventually, in a few days, we can try again. Tell me we can be friends Pats?’ Delias fingers were running gently through the short hair at the back of Patsys head. Her breath too warm on Patsys throat.

Patsy shut her eyes tighter, willing herself not to fall into this trap even as she leaned close enough that she could bury her face in Delias hair. It smelled of old shampoo and dried out rain. The smooth strands of it itched at Patsys cheeks and Delias hands didn’t pull away this time. Her face was resting against Patsys neck.

Patsy could feel the warm, damp stickiness of Delias breathing staining her skin.

Patsys arms, oblivious to the battle going on in Patsys head, decided to dump the brain for the moment and wrap themselves around Delias waist because, despite everything, it was all they really wanted to do.

It wasn’t natural for Delia to fit so perfectly into the circle of Patsys arms. It wasn’t fair that Delias fingers chose this moment go for broke and run fully through Patsys hair, a slow touch from crown to nape and back again.

Soothing.

“But I never wanted to be just your friend.” Patsy muttered eventually, her voice muffled through the mass of curls, willing herself to do the right thing and let Delia go.

Let her go. Let her go.

Delias hands paused for half a second, her thumb pushing against the empty space between Patsys jaw and ear as though thinking this through carefully.

“Me neither.” Delia admitted finally as she gently kissed the hollow space between Patsys collar bones in answer. Patsy felt it but she didn’t move to stop it.

Patsy stood with her face hidden and felt the kisses as Delia moved up to her neck. Patsys hands were flat against Delias back. She could feel the fragile inclination of her spine through her top.

“You really should go.” Patsy said for the last time, so quietly that Delia could pretend not to hear it if she wanted to. Delias hands had let go of Patsys hair, they were drifting down to lay flat against Patsys shoulder. One palm stopped just above the place where the scar that Abraham had left her ended. Heart height.

Too much. The sensation was too much and not enough.

Patsy snapped.

Hands tightened without her realising and she pulled her face away from Delias hair to see Delias expression.

“Do you want to leave?” Patsy asked again more firmly, wanting an answer. Demanding one.

Delias hands tightened on Patsys t-shirt, the closed fists balling around thin fabric. Their eyes met in wordless communication as the coat that Delia had somehow managed to hold on to in the bend of her arm for the last few minutes finally lost its struggle with gravity and fell to the floor.

Patsy gave in; out of options. She’d asked hadn’t she? She’d been polite hadn’t she? She’d waited. She’d promised. She’d done everything the right way round for once and none of it had worked so she would just have do this the old fashioned way.

Everyone left after that.

Patsy smiled grimly to herself as she leant forward and stole a kiss from Delia.

Old habits died hard.

The first time they’d done this- The last time they’d done this, Patsy had been half recovered from a beating. Delia hadn’t seen Patsy when she was fighting fit and Patsy would by lying if she said that she hadn’t hoped that they might...

Enough. No more hoping.

Patsy shrugged off the regrets as she reached back down to Delias hips with new authority. Delia was pliable in her arms as Patsy pushed her to the side, pressing her weight with the move until Delia was backed up against the wall and Patsy was holding her there.

If Delia was surprised by this move she didn’t seem to worry for long. Her hands swept underneath the hem of Patsys t-shirt to grip the soft skin of Patsys stomach, trailing upwards instantly to grope at Patsys chest.

Patsys heart was beating too hard, something painful howling in her head as she hoiked Delia off her feet, gratified when Delia wrapped her legs around her waist. The weight of her was wonderful. Too perfect. Too right.

Even now it made her marvel.

Patsy kissed the Welshwoman like she was starving because it was exactly what she’d felt like. She’d been famished for this. All she’d wanted was this.

Something like this anyway.

They grappled blindly; the deal made between them without anything as uncouth as words. What Patsy would take and what Delia would give was expected.

It should be easy to lose herself in this; too many time Patsy had done this before and it had been easy. But this- This was wrong. Patsy felt out of control. Too angry. A dark and ugly part of Patsy wanted to be harsh, wanted to wound somehow, to hurt Delia back in some small way but she couldn’t quite manage the impulse.

Delias skin was too soft, they fit together too well, she was too less a stranger. It still felt like love.

Patsy pressed her fingers to the scar hidden from her at the woman’s hip and thought fleetingly of bruises in the morning. The image made her recoil. Her hands giving way before she could hold too tight, touch too deeply.

Delia didn’t seem to notice; too busy kissing Patsys mouth, her throat. Inviting Patsy in. Her hands dragging at them both until they unbalanced and nearly fell.

Patsy took the weight of the fall but still couldn’t stop. Something too powerful was forcing her to keep going. She felt like she was sixteen again as she hunted without elegance for more skin, the promise of unbuttoned trousers and damp heat. Delia arched towards her, her hips rising up to meet her as Patsys fingers forced their way past a spilling zip to spread Delia apart too quickly as she realised just how easy this was going to be.

Delia opened her mouth when Patsy touched her, the two of them lost when Patsy found her opening and pushed inside.

“How the fuck do you make me this crazy.” Patsy mumbled the words unthinkingly, lost in the feel of Delia pressing around her finger, holding her there as she thrust inside of her blindly.

The angle was awkward; if Patsy had been thinking properly she’d probably have lost the trousers before they got this far. But it was too late for that and somehow between them Patsy managed to wriggle the addition of a thumb into the equation.

Delia had managed to push her hands inside the cups of Patsys bra, her mouth biting Patsys neck, marking the skin in a way that made Patsys heart thump too hard, her hips crushing their way into Delias, nudging her own fingers deeper.

Delias palms were hot against Patsys breasts, ‘Fuck, Pats-“

“Pats?” A new voice, a grounding voice, burst into Patsys head through the closed door and demanded the same response as fireworks to a beaten dog.

Fern.

The voice had the effect of a bucket of ice being poured over Patsy and Delia. The two of them froze; stone statues in daylight as they both craned their heads in horror to stare at the closed door.

“Pats, is everything alright?” Fern said again, sounding concerned now and much closer.

Patsy snatched her hand away just in time to lunge at the door handle and hold it there to prevent it opening when Fern tried to turn it.

“I’m in here sweetheart,’ Patsy shouted hastily in a guilty voice, ‘just- Just give me a second and I’ll be out. I’m just seeing Delia off.”

Delia hadn’t moved, her hands were still wedged inside Patsys bra as Fern seemed to deliberate on the other side of the door.

“How long are you going to be?” Fern asked curiously as Patsy tried to marshall some blood back to her brain.

Thinking would be helpful right now.

“Not long, just give me a few minutes Fern.”

There was an agonising pause and then Fern obviously took her at her word. They both heard her huffing as she walked away.

Patsy waited until she was sure they were safe and then let go of the handle. It rattled in the silence. Mundane in light of their culpability.

The spell broken.

The two women broke apart guiltily. The hand that had been inside of Delia was dragged back and pushed deep into Patsys jeans pocket where it could do no more damage as she staggered away from Delia and caught her breath.

Patsy couldn’t meet Delias eyes as she realised the mess they’d made. Coats had fallen from their hooks without them noticing, a shoe had tumbled from the rack. They had probably made too much noise.

“Pats.” Delia was straightening her top, clumsily securing the button on her trousers.

Patsy felt sick at her own stupidity. Fumbling around a hallway like a pair of horny teenagers. It was embarrassing.

She was supposed to have control.

“I need to go and see if she’s alright.” Patsy said by way of an explanation, her voice distant as she tried to come back to herself. She ran a twitching hand through her hair and realised that the cause was already lost.

They both looked like they should do right now which wasn’t going to help when Fern saw.

“I could... Wait? We could go back in when-“ Delia started to offer hopefully.

Patsy shook her head. “No. Shouldn’t have happened like that. I meant what I said, you should go home.”

Delias face fell. “Can I call you tomorrow?” She asked, still seeking a better answer.

Patsy tried to shrug as she pulled her t-shirt down firmly and reached for the door handle again; needing to escape. “Probably best you don’t, I’ve got to go.”

“Pats-“

“Night Delia.”

Patsy opened the door, refusing to look back and stalked into the kitchen. She closed the door quietly and tried to pretend that she hadn’t seen Delias pale and shocked face staring back at her when she did.

She stood by the closed door, waiting for some response, half expecting Delia to follow her.

The kitchen didn’t look different.

Somehow she felt that it should do. The mugs were still on the table. Patsys scarf, as promised, was draped over the back of the chair, the colours washed out in the soft blue light. Fern was sat waiting for Patsy on the edge of the sofa.

Like nothing had happened.

Except it had.

Patsy took a trembling step towards the chair and ran her fingers over the threads of the scarf. She felt as though she had swallowed a golf ball, couldn’t seem to get past it.

All at once she had a crushing urge to turn around. To go back and apologise. Regret poured in from all sides. She couldn’t just leave it like that, she had to say something, she had to-

The front door slammed shut. The sound of feet thumping up the garden path shouldn’t make so much noise and yet it did. Patsy felt it all like a blow.

Her legs wavered beneath her despite her best efforts and she reached for the chair, the chair legs dragging on the floor as she sank down to sit.

She couldn’t catch her breath. Her heart was beating too fast and a cold sweat was suddenly breaking out along her spine. A desire to throw up, to rock or just stick her head between her knees presented themselves just as Fern cleared her throat noisily.

Patsy had just enough presence of mind to notice and to sit up straight in her chair when she looked up at her daughters pale and pointed face.

“Hey.” Patsy croaked, feeling that short syllables were her friend right now as she felt another wave of sickness rock her.

Fern stared down at her. She was holding a set of folded bed linen in her arms and she was surveying Patsy cautiously, her eyes darting to the door and back again.

“Delias gone?” Fern asked suspiciously as though the facts weren’t obvious.

Patsy nodded, sucking in a breath as she forced herself to smile, the muscles on her face protesting vehemently as she did so.

“Yeah, she has work tomorrow.”

“I heard raised voices.” Fern stated matter of factly, her cheeks pinching in at the bones. She looked like her mother.

“We- Voices?’ Patsy repeated stupidly as she tried to find a smart answer through the fog. ‘Oh, that, we were just talking-“

“I heard a thud too, sounded like you were fighting.” Fern went on darkly.

Patsy felt a burning start up around her ears and creep traitorously across her face. “We weren’t fighting.’ She said shortly, ‘we were just saying goodbye.”

“Didn’t sound like a goodbye.” Fern still looked suspicious.

Patsy propped herself up with her good arm. “So I like to bust out a bit of emotive dancing at times. Don’t look so serious kid, nothing bad happened.” Actually it had but she didn’t need to know.

“If she hurt you,’ Fern glowered, ‘I’ll kill her.”

Patsy took a deep breath, non plussed at the threat and then struck out for a change of subject that didn’t involve investigations into what she’d been doing with Delia.

“What’s with the bedding? Did you have an accident?” Patsy nodded at the linen and watched Ferns shoulders drop automatically.

“I thought I heard shouting.” Fern whispered shamefaced.

Patsys insides clutched with guilt; should have realised sooner that arguments might freak Fern out. Only 50% of her kids couldn’t hear.

She really was doing the rounds tonight. shit mother, shit lover. The list of her faults was just not something that ever ended.

It had all started so well too.

“Well,’ Patsy said with forced brightness, ‘it doesn’t matter now, won’t take us five minutes to make the bed. We can go-“

“I can do it myself!’ Fern snapped instantly, predictably prickly about receiving help, ‘I’m not a baby Pats.”

Patsys temper shivered, too close to the surface but she tempered it. Fern wasn’t her enemy and she’d been afraid. “I know kid, I was just trying to help.”

Fern wasn’t listening, her eyes fixed on Patsys neck as a smirk ghosted unexpectedly across her face.

“What?” Patsy asked gruffly, wiping her hand over her neck angrily.

Fern giggled and placed the bedding more comfortably in her arms. “Your neck, it’s all blotchy!”

Patsy touched her neck again and realised at once what had been spotted, the flesh felt tender. So much for secrecy then.

“I walked into a door.” Patsy said woodenly.

Fern snorted and turned to swagger away. “And you wanted to tell me off about Ollie.” She muttered smugly.

Patsy watched her go, too annoyed to reply as she slumped forward in her seat.

The shadows grew around her as she sat there listening to Ferns feet through the ceiling and then the soft rustle as her daughter went to bed.

After an hour it occurred to her that she should get up, wash up the cups of tea Delia had made, go to bed. She didn’t do any of it, listlessness gripping her as she fell into brooding.

When the clock in the living room said it was close to midnight she managed to rouse herself long enough to walk to the back door and smoke a damp cigarette.

Her thoughts were trapped in a loop. Anger crashed into self pity and then collided with shame and then drifted off as she lost her thread.

She’d lost control back there, she’d forgotten who she was. She didn’t get angry like that anymore. She wasn’t like her father.

Abraham’s smooth voice cut through her brain, his laughing mouth tarnishing her thoughts.

What are the wages of sin bean?

Was she? Was she just like him?

Fuck.

And Delia? What the hell was she supposed to do about Delia now?

Patsy mulled over the scenes of the night again and again, picking apart her faults until they grew meaningless in their multitudes. She’d ruined everything.

Patsy Mount, destroyer of worlds had struck again.

No ones choice.

And what about Trixie? That would need to be addressed. Patsy was incensed at the injustice of the lies and frustrated at not being told. At the stupid machinations of too many others; Barbara, Tom, Trixie, Phyllis. Why hadn’t any of them bothered to include Patsy in the circle of conversation.

For once she’d been good and no one had even noticed.

It was times like this that Patsy sorely missed Chastity. A sister would have been nice about now; Patsy knew she could of course call Helen but some things were not the business of mothers.

What would Chastity have thought about it all.

Chastity’s death had stained her soul somehow and no matter what she did she never could move past it fully. Her greatest failure, the first person she ever let down. Abraham was gone where no curses could touch him but Chastity followed Patsy like a private ghost.

She’d have been a young woman now; twenty seven. Maybe she’d have kids too or maybe she’d have pets but, most importantly, she’d have understood. All of it would have made sense to Chastity; she’d have known the whys of the pain without asking. There was no one else on Earth like that, no other human being who could truly understand all of the damage that had been wrought.

Chastity would know about the rosewood box, the taste of ash, the sins of a father.

And what would Patsy have told Chastity now if she’d been here?

There’s this girl Chas, I think I love her.

And Chastity would have laughed and called her hopeless but listened.

Chas would have liked Delia, would have told Patsy to pull her head out of her arse for once and take the humble route.

Could Patsy even blame Delia for doing what she’d done?

Nah, the Chastity in Patsys head smiled widely and pushed her tongue between the gap in her teeth, that’s Abraham talk. Quitters don’t prosper Pats. We all make mistakes.

The wages of sin.

“Thanks Chas.’ Patsy muttered to herself as she sparked up another cigarette with a lazy wave at the stars. ‘It’s not that easy though.”

Patsy was still standing at the back door when the front door opened, a key scrabbling in the lock loudly until Trixie realised that no one had bothered to put the latch on.

Patsy didn’t move, her fingers tapping away ash tremulously as she listened to Trixie tripping her way into the house.

The clunk of her bag, the swish of her coat, the clink of a glass and and the hiss of a bottle being undone travelled easily through the empty house.

Patsy focused on them, her fist curling as she seethed silently.

Patsy wanted to turn around and seize the damn bottle. Wanted to shake her friend until she stopped moping. Wanted to punch something and leave it as broken as she felt.

“Oh- You’re up?” Trixie sounded surprised, a floor board creaking as she stumbled still.

Patsy puffed the last letter of her fag, her little finger cold in the chilly night air.

“Pats? Where’s Delia?” Trixie was closer now, a fly in a trap and Patsy saw red, pleased with the chance to explode so soon.

Not that she needed a reason right now.

“Did you tell Tom that we’ve been having an affair?” Patsy asked the garden silkily, refusing to look at her friend. Slightly afraid she’d take a swing at Trixies head if she did.

There was a pause, a sip of whiskey passing through parched lips as Trixie tried to figure out what Patsy had said. “What?”

“You heard me.’ Patsy dropped the deadened butt of her fag and closed the door stiffly. ‘Did you?”

“Did I What?” There was the barest hint of slur in Trixies voice and Patsy wanted to kick the door in temper. Really? Already drunk?

“Answer the question.” Patsy hissed, twisting round to finally take in her companion.

Trixie was still in her uniform, powder blue scrubs and depressingly sensible shoes bookended between long legs. She’d had her hair up for work and it was still stuck at the back of her head with yellow strands floating south as she stood holding a glass tumbler.

“Who told you that?” Trixie sounded aghast as she gaped at Patsy.

“So you did tell him that then!” Patsy seethed in grim satisfaction even as her background thoughts whirred off torturously.

Delia might have believe the lie but... Why wouldn’t she?

“Patsy...’ Trixie raised her hands in surrender, a movement which might have been successful if the glass didn’t catch the light and serve to piss Patsy off even more. ‘We were arguing, I just said it in the-“

“Why!’ Patsys open hand slapped the doorframe loudly, cutting through Trixies explanations, ‘why in God’s name did you do that? What the fuck is wrong with you that you thought you had the right-“

“It’s not like I hired a skywriter,’ Trixie interrupted hastily, ‘I told Tom because I wanted him to think I didn’t care what he did.”

“Tom told Barbara.” Patsy fumed from where she stood, her hands crushed into fists that were shaking with so much emotion Patsy didn’t know how it was going to escape. She felt out of control again; she didn’t know whether she was going to cry or throw something. The palpable rage was like a living creature trying to rip its way out of her, cutting through skin and reason.

“Good!’ Trixie snapped. ‘I hope he told her. I wanted it to play on his mind.”

“Barbara-‘ Patsys breath caught in her chest, swaying on the spot, she was so enraged she could barely get the words out, ‘Barbara told Delia.”

The words hung in the air between them, they were said quietly enough but the accusation seemed to echo off the walls. Trixies face drained of colour.

“Oh.” She mouthed meekly, comprehension dawning in her eyes now.

“You’ve ruined everything!” Patsy yelled, the words echoing back on her.

You ruined everything! You ruined everything.

“Pats I didn’t-“

“Delia thinks we’ve been sleeping together.’ Patsy spat the words. Rage spiralling out from her like smoke. ‘She told me tonight. You could have at least warned me if you were going to screw with my life too just because yours is a fucking pile of shit.”

“Pats I’m sorry!’ Trixie looked mortified and just the tiniest bit afraid as she glanced down at Patsys fists. ‘I didn’t realise. I didn’t make the connection between Barbara and Delia, I was just thinking about Tom. I didn’t do it to ruin your plans.” She sounded frightened.

When Patsy took a stumbling step towards her she flinched.

She flinched.

The gesture was so odd, so unlike Trixie that it brought Patsy up short. Made her stop dead where she stood, seeing the situation through her friends eyes.

Coming home after a shit day at work and your flat mate looking about ready to murder you? Being afraid of your friend?

That wasn’t who Patsy was. That wasn’t who Patsy wanted to be no matter what the circumstances were. She wasn’t a bully, she wasn’t like her father. She wasn’t like Abraham.

She always had control.

She could have control now.

Patsy took a few deep, calming breaths, counting to ten in her head, the sound of her gasps rattling the air as she forced herself to relax. Forced the anger down into that familiar rose wood box inside her head.

Walking more carefully now, so that she didn’t frighten Trixie again, Patsy made her way to the sofa and sank down into the cushions. They were cold, the heat from Delia and her having long since evaporated.

And it wouldn’t be warm again like that.

The realisation was a stabbing pain to the heart. She sucked in a gust of air, trying to stifle the hot rising tears, staring down at her hands. They seemed too big to her all of a sudden. Clunky. The missing finger outlandish and gary. She didn’t know what to do with them.

She’d touched Delia and it had been ugly. She’d been ugly.

She didn’t want to cry about this. She wanted to be in control of the emotion. Tame it to nothing and throw it away.

Trixie had deposited her drink warily on the coffee table to put her hand on Patsys thigh. It caused a weight against the skin and Patsy twitched. Still staring at her hands as she tried to force an encouraging smile. It felt wrong on her lips.

A lie.

“I’m sorry,’ Patsy said mutely, lost in a monotone, ‘I shouldn’t have shouted at you. It won’t happen again.” Shouldn’t have happened in the first place, the voice that sounded like Helen chided her.

“Patsy I’m so sorry.” Trixie was worried now as she watched the fight fizzle out of her friend.

“S’alright. These things happen.” Patsy lied; she hated cliches. Who else did this happen to? Who else had to put up with this much crap in one lifetime?

“We were arguing. He said that it was my fault he cheated.’ Trixie was full of excuses; Patsy didn’t care about any of them. ‘He told me things hadn’t been right for months so he’d had to look elsewhere. That’s why I told him that I’d been sleeping with you; I could bare the idea of losing face. Not then. Not to him. I’m sorry sweetie.”

“It’s fine. I’m okay.” Another lie. If Patsy said it enough though maybe it would be true eventually.

“How did things end with you and Delia?’ Trixie asked tentatively, nervous to push in case Patsy started shouting again. ‘Are you going to see her again?”

“She works at Seppies school.’ Patsy rubbed at her eyes wearily. ‘We can’t pretend not to see each other.”

“But tonight? How did things finish tonight?” Trixie was insistent, willing Patsy to give her an answer that didn’t make her feel bad.

Patsy sighed and tried to burrow her neck into the back of the sofa. She wanted to sleep for a year.

“On reflection,’ Patsy said flatly. ‘I think it could have ended better than it did.”

“She dumped you?” Trixie sounded incredulous now, angry on Patsys behalf.

Patsy let out a bitter chuckle that sounded too much like a sob. “No, she wanted to talk it through.”

“Well there you are then,’ Trixie slapped Patsys thigh, relieved as she reached again for her drink and downed it, ‘you can call her in the morning and make it up. It’s still fixable.”

A muscle in Patsys cheek twitched as she imagined taking the empty glass Trixie had just put on the table again and throwing it against the wall. “She slept with someone in Wales.”

Trixie yawned and rubbed her bun of hair idly. “And?” She asked without much interest.

“What? No friendly outrage for that fact?” Patsy cracked open an eye, forcing herself to sound matter of fact, to ignore the fresh welt of pain at the easy dismissal of her predicament.

She had that sensation of bleeding again, secret cuts.

“Well, Patsy,’ Trixie looked embarrassed but unwilling to ignore the elephant in the room. ‘I don’t want you to get upset again but you’re hardly the poster child for fidelity are you?”

“This was different!’ Patsy rose in the chair, stiffening before she could remind herself that she didn’t want to argue with Trixie. ‘She was different! She wasn’t just some random woman okay. She was different for me, she wasn’t a one night stand and she wasn’t just a shag. She was different.”

“Okay, fine, she was different.’ Trixie removed her hand hastily as though worried that Patsy might throw it off if she didn’t. ‘So, if that’s how you feel then call her tomorrow and tell her that then.”

“It’s not that simple.” Patsy closed her eyes again. She might as well be talking to herself.

“Why not?”

“The woman’s staying with her.’ Patsy said it harshly, the hurt too fresh to dampen. ‘Caroline. Her names Caroline apparently. Delia brought her back from Wales.”

“Oh.” Trixie sat back, her shoulder jostling Patsys.

“She said they’re not sleeping together but... who knows. That’s got to mean something hasn’t it?’ Patsy looked over at her friend, needing reassurance that she wasn’t insane. ‘Bringing someone back from home? That’s more than casual.”

“I don’t know.’ Trixie sounded genuinely sorry now. ‘I’m sorry sweetie.”

“Yeah,’ Patsys eyes burned, her throat too thick. ‘Me too.”

“Come on Pats,’ Trixie said bracingly, her face coaxing, ‘this isn’t like you, crying over some woman. Where’s the Patsy who breaks hearts for fun gone? There’s plenty more fish in the sea you know.”

“I know that but...’ Patsy shook her head, unable to articulate the thoughts in her head into something tangible just yet. ‘I don’t think I want another fish. I can’t explain it Trix. I don’t know why it was now or why her... but I really liked her. This whole time I just thought that was it. I thought she was the one.”

“I’ve really messed things up for you haven’t I?” Trixie muttered despondently.

Patsy certainly seemed to be getting her nonchalant shrugging practice tonight. “It’s fine.’ There was that word again. ‘I’ll get over it.” She wouldn’t though.

Not for a long time.

“I’m sorry Pats.”

“You did what you needed to.’ Patsy wanted to talk about something else, she didn’t want to think but she couldn’t stop herself. She scrubbed her face, she could still smell Delia on her hands and it didn’t help. ‘I’ve said worse in arguments and besides, it’s not all on you. I should have called her, checked in more.”

“She could have called you too sweetie.’ Trixie snapped back, trying to create a response from Patsy. A fight. ‘Communication runs both ways. Anyway, if she’s got someone else shacked up why did she come here tonight? That’s a liars trick if ever I saw one.”

“She came because I asked her to.’ Patsy said fairly, disliking Trixies tone. ‘She’s not a liar.”

“She’s slept with someone else.’ Trixie seemed up for turning the heat against an outsider. ‘Trust me, you can do better Patsy. I never liked her in the first place.”

“Please.’ Patsy almost smiled for real at her friends attempt at solidarity. ‘You hardly know her and there’s nothing about her not to like. Anyway, weren’t you the one who warned me off her first time we met? You seemed to like her well enough then.”

“And she can’t have much of a backbone.’ Trixie went on, ignoring Patsy as she warmed to her subject. Laying into the witch hunt with relish. ‘Staying with that Jessie for as long as she did. Strikes me that she must be a total pushover; you’d be bored by next week. You don’t need someone that pathetic, she’s probably done you a favour.”

“She’s not pathetic.’ Patsy felt a twinge of real annoyance now, the comment felt below the belt. Undeserved. ‘She’s braver than me and she’s smart-“

“Pats, listen to yourself,’ Trixie shook her head indulgently. ‘I know you like to be the knight in shining armour but if she’s cheated on you already then she’s a tart. Plain and simple. Some low-“

“Don’t talk about her like that!’ Now Patsy didn’t care if Trixie was scared or not. She was taller than Trixie with the both of them sat down and the irrational anger, the need to shut Trixie up was like an invisible hand on her soul. She squeezed her eyes closed, trying to control herself, making herself appear calm, ‘just don’t talk about Delia like that okay. I can’t- I don’t want to hear it. She’s not a tart, don’t you understand that? She’s not any of that stuff. I get it. She made a mistake, she slept with someone else because she’s been through hell and she thought I was sleeping with you... I’m angry and I’m tired but I’m asking you politely, here and now, please Trix, please don’t talk about Delia like that.

You don’t know her story and you don’t know what she’s been through. I wouldn’t let anyone talk about you like that although believe you me some might say they’ve got a right just-‘ Patsy deflated back against the sofa, exhausted, ‘just leave it alone alright. I don’t want to talk about it.”

She didn’t. She was so sick of talking.

“I’m sorry.” Trixie said again.

“I know,’ Patsy pinched the bridge of her nose, ‘me too.”

“I didn’t know you liked her so much.”

“Why would you?”

“Is she going to get rid of this Caroline?”

Patsys body felt exhausted, a heavy suit all around her. She wished she’d gone to bed. Sleep would be so helpful right now...

“No idea.’ Patsy answered bleakly. ‘I didn’t ask.”

“Pats,’ Trixie was busy looking back at the kitchen, eyeing up the bottle on the side, her interest waning. ‘If you feel that strongly shouldn’t you at least call her to find out?”

“Find out what?”

“Find out if she feels the same way as you.” Trixie rolled her eyes in exasperation as though she thought Patsy was being especially dense.

“I don’t know if I can do that.” Patsy said slowly, the ache in her heart pulsing at the idea.

“So... That’s it? You’re going to just walk away.”

“Why break the habit of a lifetime, right?’ Patsy tapped her knuckles on the arm of the chair. ‘It’s always worked for me so far. I’m still here.”

There didn’t seem to be anything more to say after that. The two of them sitting in silent cogitation, their thoughts unaired as the clock ticked away the time and turned it into history around them.

Patsys eyes began to droop as her mind turned fuzzy at the edges.

When it was close to two in the morning Trixie yawned hugely and got to her feet stretching. “Are you coming to bed?” She asked, eying the bottle in the kitchen longingly.

Ahh, another promise to keep occurred to Patsy.

No time like the present.

“No.”

“Pats,’ Trixies patience appeared to be running thin, ‘you’ve got to sleep, there’s no point being a martyr.”

“I know,’ Patsy sighed, laying her feet on the end of the sofa Trixie had just abandoned, ‘I’m going to go to sleep down here tonight.”

“Any particular reason why?”

“Delia made a good point tonight.’ Patsy looked at the ceiling, her thoughts drifting, ‘you and me, it doesn’t look right Trix.”

“God, Pats, are you breaking up with me?” Trixies mouth twitched, amused at the joke.

Patsy didn’t smile back.

“We can’t keep sleeping in the same bed Trix.’ God, could it sound more domestic if they tried Patsy wondered moodily. ‘I know when you moved in you said you’d use the sofa but you haven’t... So I’ll just stay down here in the meantime. I haven’t really thought about how it looks from the outside; the girls. I don’t want the girls to get confused.”

“The girls aren’t going to be confused Pats.’ Trixie rolled her eyes again. ‘Honestly, you’re being-“

“And that’s the other thing...’ Patsy interrupted calmly. ‘The drinking Trix. It’s got to stop.”

That stopped her. Trixie narrowed her eyes as she glared at Patsy; offended. “And what are you Patsy? My mother.”

“I’m your friend.’ Patsy argued tiredly. ‘I love you, I want to help you, I really do, but the drinkings too much. If it doesn’t stop you’re going to have to find somewhere else to live. I can’t keep covering for you; I don’t want to.”

“I don’t believe this; you get screwed over by some girl and suddenly you want to take it out on me. You’d actually throw me out?” A vein pulsed in Trixies forehead, I’ll advised indignation all over her face.

“Trixie,’ Patsy began wearily, ‘I don’t want to throw you out but it’s not just down to me anymore. The girls have to come into the equation, the drinkings not fair to them, you know what their home lives were like before this.”

“You’re comparing me to a drug addict.” Trixie looked affronted but Patsy saw the flash of recognition too.

Something had hit home hard.

“No.’ Patsy said shortly, ‘I’m saying they lived in a chaotic atmosphere and I won’t allow that to continue in this house. They have a right to feel safe Trix and the drinking bothers them. I have to put them first.”

“I barely drink in front of them.” Trixie hedged testily.

Patsy shot her a bittersweet smile. ‘Ferns not stupid Trixie, she knows a drinker when she sees it and I won’t ignore her when she’s telling me that it’s freaking her out.”

“I’m supposed to be your best friend.” Trixie mumbled sulkily.

“And they’re my kids.’ Patsy said back sharply, not falling for the ploy. ‘Don’t try and make this a contest Trixie.”

“Are you saying you’d pick them over me?” Trixie put her hand on her hip.

“Yes.’ Patsy said simply. ‘Every time. It’s how it has to be Trix, you’d know that if...” Patsy stopped abruptly, realising what she’d insinuated too late. Trixies face had lost its blood as she folded in on herself.

“If I had children.” Trixie finished the phrase coldly.

Patsy closed her eyes, defeated. “Well it’s true, you don’t have any children Trixie.”

“That’s not my fault!” Trixie hissed, ‘And since when did you become a supermum? You really think you can do this forever? You’re more of a wreck than I’ll ever be. Raised by fucking wolves.”

Patsy went still, the blow a low one and took a deep breath. Trixie was hurting and she’d made it worse like always but she couldn’t lose the thread. She wasn’t fighting just for her at the moment.

“I’m doing my best... The point isn’t up for negotiation.” Was all the answer Patsy could give.

Trixie jerked, her legs moving like she was trying to jog on the spot.

“What? That’s all I get? No witty comebacks?” Trixie baited, spoiling for a fight.

Patsy lay her head back on the arm of the chair tiredly. “Not tonight.’ She said flatly, ‘you should get to bed Trixie, it’s late and I’m tired.”

Trixie stayed where she was for a moment, staring at Patsy angrily, willing her to fight back but Patsy ignored her. The dismissal obvious. Too exhausted to keep going.

Patsy didn’t hear Trixie leave, already asleep when she turned on her side.

Tomorrow was still on it’s way after all; that, at least, never changed.

Chapter Text

For all of Patsys good intentions of getting a good nights sleep she still woke up early the next morning when a cold nose snuffled into her face. She’d woken sweating, heart racing as she was ripped away from confusing nightmarescapes of shadowy beaches and the memory of screaming inside her own head.

Waking up didn’t particularly help either.

Delia.

The name spun around her head, banging off neurones, trying to make a spark happen. Patsy ignored it.

Luck alone had meant that Neil hadn’t relieved himself somewhere in the house during the night. Patsy let him out on jelly legs and watched him piss against the wall tiredly as she smoked a bedraggled fag. Last nights poor show of rain had condensed somewhat into a bedraggled mist that caught in her hair.

Patsy thought about her scarf, still folded over the back of the kitchen chair and puffed harder on her cigarette. She hoped Delia would be sensible enough to wrap up this morning. She’d catch a cold.

Patsy already felt like she’d come down with something.

Her head felt like it had been stuffed with glue. Her thoughts stuck together and jumbled about. Try as she might she couldn’t stop wondering what Delia was doing this morning.

Would Caroline be up? The two of them chatting away? What happened when Delia got home?

It was with a great sense of relief for the distraction that Patsy flicked away her cigarette butt hastily when she heard Seppies small feet knocking down the stairs half an hour later.

Seppie, it quickly became apparent though, had not woken up on the right side of the bed. The face she showed to Patsy as their eyes met didn’t bode well. Seppie could be irascible in the mornings, sometimes tearful and other times just contrary; Patsy was not the only inhabitant in this household haunted by bad dreams after all.

Today looked like Seppie had not only come out of the bed the wrong way but also a small forest and a large lake. In fact, if Patsy wasn’t fully aware that her daughter was five, she would have diagnosed a rocketing case of PMT. Seppie sat scowling at the table as Patsy made toast, changing her mind between jam and marmite six times until Patsy lost patience and did half and half. Once put in front her Seppie merely sat scowling at the table, tapping her uneaten toast on the plate, her bottom lip jutting out as she glared at her breakfast as though it had done her personal wrong.

Patsy sipped her tea and tried to ignore the urge to check her phone. She wasn’t sure if Delia would have the balls to try and text her and she wasn’t quite brave enough to check yet.

The morning was not improved when Fern sloped downstairs half an hour later with yet another load of soiled bedding, her hair sticking up at all angles where’d she’d slept and throwing Patsy a muted snark that Trixie was throwing up in the bathroom again.

“She can’t be.’ Patsy frowned at her eldest, gulping down tea that was already going cold and wincing as Fern slammed the washing machine door closed too hard. ‘I watched her go upstairs myself Fern, she hasn’t been drinking.”

Fern rolled her eyes, a sixty year olds cynicism trapped in a sixteen year olds body. “And whoever heard of an addict who could hide their addiction? Mick used to hide Crack in his slippers when the social came round.” Fern muttered witheringly as she yawned and dumped two slices of bread into the toaster.

The toast Seppie had been holding slipped from her fingers and dropped on the floor where Neil swiftly worked as a stand in hoover. Seppie have a grunt as she signed angrily at the dog for eating her food.

Patsys temper felt raw as she listened to the dog chomping on the toast. Fern didn’t look at her as she made her tea and put another slice of bread in for Seppie.

Patsy had the childish urge to ask for a break.

Just one tiny break from everyone. She was doing her best dammit.

But she didn’t say a word as she waited for Fern to finish and then poured Trixie a cup of black coffee from the blondes fancy packet in the cupboard and sloped wordlessly upstairs. It wasn’t the kids fault and she was the adult here.

To her surprise and slight concern Trixie really was in the bathroom. Patsy paused in the hallway as she listened to the sound of retching and spitting before pushing open the door cautiously. Trixie was there, kneeling before the porcelain throne, her head supported by shivering arms.

Patsy felt a pang of sympathy.?Withdrawals could get you like that sometimes.

Trixie spat one more time and then looked around. Her skin grey as she breathed through her nose and flushed the toilet.

Patsy waited for the flush to quiet down before speaking, allowing Trixie to concentrate on clambering over to the edge of the bath. “I brought you some coffee.” Patsy explained rather pointlessly as she handed over the cup.

Trixie made a face as she sipped it and sniffed with feeling, the skin under her eyes gleaming with sweat still. “Bile and coffee. Never a good combo.”

“Ahh so I’ll cancel Heston Bloomington’s seasonal special blend then?” Patsy risked a half smile, needing someone to be vaguely friendly to her this morning.

“Well...’ Trixie took another sip thoughtfully, ‘if it’s Hestons.”

“Are you alright?’ Patsy eyed the door, wondering if she should close it in case one of the girls came upstairs. ‘Do you think that you’re coming down with something?”

“I must be.’ Trixie wiped at her forehead with a limp wrist, her hair unusually dishevelled. ‘I didn’t drink at all last night.”

“Might be withdrawals.” Patsy suggested in the most neutral voice she could manage.

Trixies eyes flashed menacingly for a second and then she sagged, the coffee sloshing in the cup and spilling over as her hands shook.

“You’re worse than Tom was...’ she muttered irritably. ‘I don’t even drink that much.”

“I’m just trying to help.” Patsy said gently, ignoring the barb.

“I can do this on my own.” Trixie snapped stubbornly.

“Right,’ Patsy took a breath and shoved her hands in the pocket of her pyjamas forcefully, ‘well, maybe I should come back around lunch time anyway though? Check to make sure that you’ve not got any worse.” Or fallen into a bottle, Patsy added to herself silently.

Trixie put the cup down on the corner of the bath very heavily. Obviously gathering the direction of Patsys thoughts despite the censorship.

“You can do whatever you want. It’s your house.’ Trixie said dismissively, ‘I wasn’t planning on staying up here and drinking myself stupid today if that’s what you’re implying.”

“I wasn’t suggesting that.” Patsy backed off instantly, embarrassed by her own nagging as she tried to find something else to talk about. ‘It’s just a bit odd for you to be sick so much don’t you think?”

“Maybe I have an eating disorder.” Trixie suggested smiling wanly, her chest sucking in air.

Patsy rolled her eyes, unamused. “I was actually thinking about something more likely.”

“Like withdrawals?” Trixie mimicked testily in a good passing imitation of Patsys voice.

“Or,’ Patsy hesitated wretchedly as something presented itself to her in a flash of suspicion. ‘Trixie, you don’t think- You don’t think that maybe... that you could be, erm, you know-“ Patsy trailed off, her hand gesturing to her own stomach pathetically.

Trixie tracked the movements owlishly. “Or what? I could just be fat? I’ve only put on three pounds. Do you want me to get an eating disorder?”

“No!’ Patsy nudged the bathroom mat with her toe, straightening it to the edge of the bath. ‘I was just thinking about timings that’s all. You’ve been yacking up nearly every morning this week... That could be a symptom of something couldn’t it?”

“It could be a symptom of a lot of things Patsy.” Trixie replied pertly, finishing her drink and put it down. Probably planning on walking out.

Patsy bit her tongue, concern making her continue. “You know what I’m trying to say though.”

“Not really.” Trixie was peeling strands of hair that had clumped together with her fingers disinterestedly.

Patsy decided to take the bull by the horns. “Morning sickness.’ She said bluntly. ‘I was suggesting that it could be morning sickness. I mean,’ Patsy laughed uncomfortably, ‘look, when did you last do the deed with Tom?”

Trixie had stiffened, her face starting to get back its colour. “That’s not really any of your business Pats.”

“Yeah, trust me I’m not enjoying it,’ Patsy qualified wretchedly, ‘but it is possible isn’t it? I mean, birds do it, bees do it-“

“You know,’ Trixie interrupted coldly, ‘I don’t come to your station and start telling you your business. I’m a nurse, you don’t think that I’d know if I was pregnant?”

“But the timeline fits,’ Patsy persisted doggishly. ‘Couldn’t you be pregnant? Just a little bit?”

“No.’ Trixie stared at Patsy, ‘the idea’s ludicrous. I might as well ask you if you were pregnant.”

Patsy chewed her lip but took the bait. Being around Trixie these days was too much like hard work, it was like treading on egg shells no matter what you said. In a show of surrender Patsy raised her hands in the air. “Hey, if I was up the duff it would have to be Jesus.”

“But it would still be more likely than me.’ Trixie said far more quietly, waspish and tight. ‘I can’t get pregnant, we both know that.”

“It was never confirmed that you were the problem Trix.’ Patsy consoled softly, wishing that she could stop the pain her friend was in. She wished she knew how to help people. ‘I suppose you haven’t slept with anyone else since-“

“So Tom text me this morning.’ Trixie interrupted this possibility with a note of finality to her voice and just a dash of something terribly close to excitement.

It derailed Patsy entirely and she stared at her friend in confusion. “Oh?” She asked, intrigued.

“Yes,’ Trixie got to her feet, a manic brightness filling her face. ‘We’re meeting one another this afternoon, he says he wants to see me.” There was a definite bounce now. Trixies smile would have been pretty if she didn’t look like she was ill.

“Where?” Patsy asked the question only because Trixie seemed so keen to be asked. A thrum of concern loomed through her.

Trixie gave a hum of satisfaction. “Our place.” She answered smugly.

Patsy watched her friend warily, aware of potential eggs about to be trod on.

“Why would he want to do that?’ Patsy asked cautiously. ‘I thought you two decided that you weren’t communicating anymore? You’ve already got your stuff out of the house.”

“Who knows?’ Trixie rubbed her neck, an old flirtatious habit she’d never shaken. ‘Perhaps he’s seen the error of his ways.” Trixie tried very hard not to let the hope show but Patsy still saw it.

Patsy heart sank.

“You really think he’s going to ask you back?” Patsy couldn’t stop the surprise and disbelief bleeding into her voice. She didn’t want to. Trixie sounded too excited and it left her stomach churning with worry. Trixie was so fragile at the moment.

Trixie shrugged, unwilling to answer but smiling mysteriously none the less. “Let’s just say that I, well I sensed a definite tone... He said he’d missed me.”

Patsy shook her head, forever the bringer of bad news. “Trix... I don’t want to burst your bubble but he’s moved on. Barbara’s already moved-“

“I thought’ Trixie snapped, her faint aura of happiness disappearing instantly and an ugly look growing in her eyes. ‘That we’d agreed not to say her name.”

Patsy backed off. Not strong enough for another argument today.

“Yeah, okay, sorry. What do I know right? I was just looking out for you that’s all.”

“I’m a grown woman Pats.’ Trixie had fished out a hairbrush from the side and was dragging it through her hair forcefully. Hair pulled away from her scalp and into the brush but Trixie didn’t flinch. ‘I can look after myself just fine.”

“So I’ve seen,’ Patsy muttered pointedly, arms folded, ‘when I think of world class self care you’re definitely the name that pops to mind Trixie.”

The two women stared at each other for a moment, the unsaid retorts hovering between them and then Trixie laughed, the tension breaking instantly as she sank back down to the bath and reached for her mug.

“I sound like an idiot don’t I?” Trixie asked still laughing. The laughter sounded wrong though, her eyes were too shiny.

Patsy pushed her thumbs into the pockets of her pyjama bottoms and bit her lip.

“I love Trix, you know that right? I really do love you.”

“I know you do.” Trixie gave Patsy a rueful smile that still didn’t meet her eyes. ‘I know it sounds crazy. Me and Tom...’ she shook her head and spared Patsy a condescending look. ‘I can’t explain it. You just don’t understand what it’s like to be in love properly Pats, you never have. He’s my husband. That sort of thing means something to some people.”

Patsy felt the comments like physical slaps. Her hand tightened around soft cotton, needing something to hold on to that wasn’t Trixies neck but forced herself to smile back.

“Speaking of love I don’t understand. I don’t suppose you’d do me a favour and take Seppie to school for me this morning?” Patsy tried to bat her lashes.

A shame that trick only worked on warm blooded women.

Trixie gave Patsy a slow, appraising look. “Sure,’ She said with awful sarcasm, ‘book me in for a domestic at the gates when I see that bitch any time you like.”

“Yeah, never mind,’ Patsy sighed in defeat, ‘stupid question. Just a thought.”

Patsy went back downstairs. Not really sure about the time but aware that they’d probably be late if she didn’t switch it up a gear. She definitely didn’t want to get caught signing Seppie in by an inquisitive Phyllis.

Or a determined Delia at that.

That idea left Patsy half yearning and half panicked. She still hadn’t allowed herself to think about what to do. Last night she’d run away from it but the truth never did go away.

She needed to check her phone and- What? Call her?

Patsy wasn’t usually the one who called anyone back. She didn’t even think she’d bothered with Val.

She had to use all of her self control not to pick up her mobile as she came back into the kitchen to find Seppie laying on the sofa with Neil. Apparently unconcerned that school beckoned. Fern had obviously slipped away upstairs and left Patsy the hard task in punishment.

Patsy girded her loins.

It was not a pleasant experience having to dislodge Seppie from her nest on the sofa. Seppie allowed herself to be taken upstairs to get changed but the attitude striking out from the five year old continued to wave about unchecked.

She stalked around her bedroom in a mingled daze of confused grumpiness she couldn’t explain or control when Patsy put her down. Kicking at her duvet.

The tension only grew as Seppie refused to put on her uniform. Even choosing socks became a battle as Seppie pushed away each pair in turn, her temper spiralling until it broke when Patsy tried vainly to tug a pair of pink socks onto her feet in exasperation.

Seppie kicked them off angrily waved a frantic NO and then pushed her face in her hands and burst into confused tears.

Patsy caught sight of her own face in the reflection of the window, her mouth hanging open in exhaustion. Abraham stared back at her. His face, her face. Two sides of the same grubby coin.

What are the wages of sin?

She pretended she hadn’t seen it as she gave up on dreams of brushing her teeth and settled for pulling Seppie into her lap and rocking her until she calmed down.

She should have expected this really. Too selfish with her own crap to consider Seppie.

Yesterday had been a busy day, a very good day it was true, but still it had been busy. Possibly too busy. Too many new things, too many good things for Seppie to process. Now it was tomorrow and the busy day was over but Seppie still wasn’t over it. All of those emotions, all of those new experiences clumping together into a congealing soup she couldn’t tred through easily.

It was overloading and Seppie didn’t know what to do with it all.

Patsy recalled the few days after they’d moved in. Seppies nightmares had been really bad for weeks afterwards. All the good stuff burning reminders of how bad it had all been.

In her arms Seppie mouthed against her wrist. Non sensical movements.

Patsy stroked her ear consolingly, angry at herself. Of course she’d be needy today. Today Seppie would want the small normalities she was barely growing used to, everything else simply wouldn’t feel right. A five year old wouldn’t know how to deal with that. Hell, Patsy didn’t always know how to deal with changes like that.

Delia popped through her head again and Patsy shook herself.

Patsy rubbed Seppies back, sensing a slight loosening of muscles as calm drifted back and briefly contemplated calling in sick, keeping Seppie with her. Spending the day at home to keep an eye on things until she perked up again. In the end Patsy demurred. She didn’t entirely trust her own judgement; uncomfortably aware of how much she didn’t want to chance across Delia.

Besides, it was Saturday tomorrow. They could all go to Helens and Seppie could have her down time with the family then. Somewhere nice and calm. Maybe they could go to the beach.

Seppie seemed to reluctantly agree with this proposal in theory when Patsy put it to her fifteen minutes later. That was to say that she at least allowed her uniform to be put on and Patsy to get changed which was almost the same thing.

Fern was dressed when they came down stairs and mooching by the curtains. As Patsy came into view Fern dropped the heavy material and stood guiltily with her back to it. Her cheeks unusually flushed.

Busted.

Grinning and unwisely allowing Seppie to get view of the sofa again Patsy sauntered over to the window and peeked over her eldest daughters head. As she’d suspected a certain lanky red head was waiting at the gates; his face expectant and nervous.

Fern wouldn’t quite meet Patsys eye when Patsy looked at her.

“Checking out your escape route eh?” Pasty filled the silence, winking.

Ferns cheeks, if possible, reddened a few more shades of rouge. “I was just checking to see if the bus had come that was all.” She muttered in embarrassment.

Patsy sighed and draped an arm around Ferns bony shoulders. “Fern, there’s a dreamy boy outside though isn’t there?”

“Urgh.’ Fern made an almost convincing grimace. ‘Ollie? Per-lease. He’s pathetic.”

“Yeah,’ Patsy poked Ferns ribs and the teenager folded up giggling despite herself, ‘but he’s still a little bit dreamy right?”

“W- Patsy!’ Fern gasped. Escaping fast hands breathlessly, looking like the kid she was meant to be for a moment. ‘Ollie is so not dreamy. Who even says dreamy anymore anyway? You’re so embarrassing sometimes.”

“Hey,’ Patsy shrugged easily. ‘I can’t help it; it’s the gay agenda.”

“The gay agenda is you embarrassing me?” Fern queried sarcastically.

Patsy winked. “Yep. It’s in the purple charter. Pretty much the whole agenda in fact. Always embarrass your kids at all times. Sorry kid,’ Patsy have a theatrical sigh, ‘it’s bigger than the both of us.”

“You’re lying.”

“Fine. It’s the kids thing and minor tsunamis but!-’ Patsy raised an admonishing finger, ‘between you and me it’s only the show offs who do that bit. Too much jumping makes me sea sick. Not got the knees for it.”

“Patsy!’ Fern practically wailed in frustration. ‘What am I going to do? He’s just waiting out there for me... I mean it’s not like he’s my boyfriend now.”

“Do you want him to be your boyfriend?”

Fern gave a non committal head shake. Patsy rocked on the toes of her boots, squinting outside at the waiting boy.

Fleetingly she recalled being sixteen. Helen had never been that much help diving these sorts of situations. Too often if a girl came looking for Patsy at home Helen would let them in and make them a drink.

Whenever Patsy complained about this Helen had merely stared her down and told her firmly that she wouldn’t aid bad behaviour.

Patsy took a deep breath, thinking fast. “Okay. I’ll give you the out Helen never did me. Go out through the garden, I’ll distract him, give you a five minute head start.”

“You will?” Ferns eyes shone as she mooned up at Patsy.

“Get your bag. Go on or you’ll be late.”

Fern didn’t need to be told twice, stopping to drop a kiss on Seppies head and to give Patsy a shy squeeze she slammed into the garden.

Patsy would have laughed if she wasn’t all too aware that she wished someone could do the same thing for her.

Seppie was standing by the door with her shoes on for once, an all knowing smile on her face.

“She’s definitely going to marry him.’ Seppie informed Patsy simply as she stepped through the front door and down to Ollie.

Ollie waited for the to come down the path expectantly, his eyes flickering from Patsy to the door.

Patsy gave him an apologetic smile as they got close enough and pointed a thumb at the house by way of explanation. “Sorry Ollie, she’s running a bit late today. Could you give her five minutes?”

Ollies smile shrunk just a little but to his credit he didn’t lose it completely. “I thought I’d walk her to the bus.” He said, his voice faltering.

“She’s already gone.’ Seppie signed at him calmly, ‘you should chase her.”

Still fixing a manic smile on her face Patsy manoeuvred Seppie onwards and into the car.

Ollie was still there when they drove off, waiting by the gate and Patsy felt bad for him. She’d have to talk to Fern about him at some point.

Add it to the list.

Delia wasn’t waiting for Patsy when she got to the school.

Patsy wasn’t sure if she was happy about this or not. She’d certainly felt exposed as she handed Seppie off to Claire at the gates. She’d been red faced, expecting Delia to simply appear from nowhere. To demand some kind of explanation of last nights fuckery.

As if Patsy would have some kind of answer for her.

She’d been so distracted that she’d barely listened as Claire tried to pump her for information about the fire. The Facebook warriors had let the news out and Claire was intrigued by the prospect that Patsy might be involved in the investigation.

“So do you ever wear uniform when you’re at work?”

“What?” Patsy had been watching Seppie run to the playground, frowning as she followed the line of tarmac to Delias classroom. Would she be in there already?

“Barbara told me you were single?” Claire had apparently given up all attempt at guile.

Patsy blinked at her stupidly, realising too late that Claire was standing very close. Her chest pressing against Patsys arm.

Patsy glanced up at Delias classroom again and thought she saw the blinds twitch. Instinctively Patsy took an automatic step back, guilt she couldn’t understand flashing before she could stop it.

“I’ve got to go, busy day.” Patsy bit at Claire, not really caring that the woman looked after her slightly offended as Patsy wheeled back towards the jeep.

The yummy mummy’s club were assembled close by and Patsy felt Lornas eyes on her when she passed.

Someone laughed from the pack and Patsy had to fight the urge to turn around and ask Lorna what exactly she thought was so funny.

Getting into the car gave her the pretence of safety and she took advantage of it; letting out the breath she’d been holding as she closed her eyes.

Almost instantly the phone in her pocket rattled and she cracked open an eye as she felt it.

Delia?

Patsy paused, not sure if she wanted to know but not really in a position to come up with more excuses.

Had she seen Patsy with Claire.

Probably thought she was fucking Claire too because of it, Patsy thought savagely. Wasn’t as though Delia had any trust in her was it?

Restlessly Patsy pulled out her phone and thumbed in the key code. It wasn’t Delia this time but Delia had tried to call her. Ignoring this fact for the moment Patsy opened the newest message. Kim. Short and snappy wanting a lift from the fire station.

There was another one from Chummy, details about the victims body. Patsy blew past it, only glancing long enough to pick out the time early this morning.

Heart racing in anticipation, barely able to muster a snort for the fact that she was being used a stand in free taxi for her colleague as she exited the messages and went back to the home page.

Three texts. One voicemail. All Delia.

Patsy stared down at the little boxes on the screen, slightly blown away at the scale of attempts.

It had been late when she’d left. Patsy wouldn’t have bothered for at least a week if it were her.

Delia, apparently, was a bit more fast paced.

Patsy flicked through the texts against her better judgement. Soaking up the slight contact.

Delia [22:47]: I’m home safe... Could you call me please?

Delia [02:13]: Pats, I’m going to bed. Listen to my voicemail. Call me.

Delia [07:42]: Morning Pats.

Patsy flicked through them in turn, disappointed somehow.

Well, what had she expected, an insidious voice coiled inside her brain asked.

More words maybe?

Patsy wasn’t sure what Delia could say to her that she’d really want to here anyway. I’m sorry was a small thing and it didn’t make it go away. Patsy would have to let it go if they wanted to move forward and she didn’t think she was ready to do that.

Would Delia have talked to Caroline about all of this? Would Caroline have had much the same conversation as Trixie last night? Or would it have gone differently?

Patsy tried to summon up some idea of what Caroline would look like but all she managed was a soft sort of murky figure with eyes. She didn’t know Delias type. She didn’t know Delia at all really.

As if drawn to it Patsys finger hovered over the voicemail. It was stupid to admit but she wanted to hear Delias voice.

She wanted to talk to Delia. She wanted Delia not to have done what she’d done.

Patsy clicked onto the voicemail and pulled the phone up to her ear.

“New message received at 23:35... Patsy, hi, it's me. Delia. Err, Delia Busby.”

Patsy heard the voice like lightning, heard the inflections and something poisonous seemed to burn in her veins. Suddenly she was enraged. Gritting her teeth she ended the call abruptly. Her hands shaking as she threw the phone onto the spare seat and put the car into gear.

Driving to the fire station took longer than necessary given the traffic and Patsy turned up the radio for something to focus on. She wanted any kind of distraction, too angry to think.

She hated Delia. She hated Delia for what she’d done to her. She hated how badly this hurt. She didn’t want to care. She didn’t want this anymore.

It was done. It was so done.

The car park was half full when Patsy pulled up for Kim. Patsy could have gotten out and got her but pure stubbornness kept Patsy in the car.

She might be a taxi but she was damned if she’d be Kim’s fucking doorman too.

When Kim still hadn’t come out ten minutes later though Patsys patience was dangerously thin. The radio had long since been abandoned. Her brain was too full of things she wanted to say, wanted to shout.

At Kim. At Delia. At just about anyone who even dared to breathe the wrong way around her.

Why full name herself anyway? Delia Busby? As if Patsys wouldn’t recognise her instantly? As though Patsy had a long list of Delias leaving her voicemails to choose from.

Patsy sniffed and pressed her knee hard enough to hurt against the bottom console of her steering wheel.

Probably exactly what Delia thought. She’d believed Patsy was sleeping with Trixie just from a third hand party. She clearly didn’t trust Patsy at all.

What were the wages of sin? Was it this?

Five minutes on and Kim still hadn’t shown her face yet. Patsy looked over at her phone resignedly and picked it up like a house proud mother disposing of a dead animal.

She wasn’t going to torture herself and listen to the whole thing. She didn’t fancy hearing Delias pathetic attempts to dump her properly.

Because that’s what it would be wouldn’t it?

Wouldn’t it?

Clicking her tongue at her own mental ramblings Patsy typed Kim a quick warning text to get her butt out here before she was left to find her own way. She watched until the message bleeped to say it had been sent and then sat, clasping her phone between both hands.

Fighting her own wants badly.

What would Delia say to her? What could she possibly say?

Patsys chest felt too tight. Something undefinable clutching at her. Delias voice was so annoyingly kind.

Delia. Delia Busby.

Patsy would have made a James Bond joke to that if they’d been talking. Delia would have laughed.

Would she find Patsy funny now? Did she even care?

Three text messages though... It might mean something.

Again, Patsy thought about Chastity. She wished she had someone to talk to about everything. Someone who understood her.

Delia had understood her. Patsy had thought that Delia had understood her.

She hadn’t believed in Patsy though. She hadn’t trusted Patsy word to be good enough.

But she’d still text her three times...

Hating herself, making a mental note to get better at decision making in the near future, Patsy pressed the voicemail for a second time. Her spare hand gripping the steering wheel hard enough for the knuckles to crack warningly.

Stupid, masochistic-

“New message received at 23:35. Patsy, hi, it's me. Delia. Err, Delia Busby... Which is a stupid thing to say because you have caller ID and you already know my last name.' Delia gave a half chuckle and took a deep breath.

Patsy could feel her blood pressure rising where she sat, her hand squeezing the fragile tube of metal and glass like it was the only thing to cling on to. Like she was drowning.

‘I realise that I'm probably not who you want to hear from right now but I couldn't just- We need to talk about this Pats... You're probably asleep right now, I'm heading that way myself.' Delia paused, Patsy could imagine her in her house, the phone pressed against her face. Thinking.

Thinking what though?

'But I can’t, I can’t go to sleep without saying something to you first, I'm just not sure what that thing is really.’

Patsy felt her jaw clench. Well? Here it came. She’d messed this whole thing up.

‘I really want to talk to you Pats.’ Delia sounded bleak, ‘I want you to talk to me. Back there, it all went nuts and I don't want you to think that I ambushed you on purpose. I didn't want it to turn out the way it has. I didn't want to hurt you and I understand that you're angry and you've got a right to be but’ Delia paused, something drumming against a hard surface. Probably fingers. ‘I had to call you tonight because, ignoring the last bit, although’ Delia chuckled again hurriedly, ‘I mean maybe not the last last which was pretty good even if it shouldn't have happened quite like-' Delia cut off as she took another long breath, flustered. Patsy felt her lips twitch despite herself. 'God, I'm fucking this up aren’t I?’

Delia seemed to be reading Patsys mind. Without noticing it Patsys free hand loosened its grip on the steering wheel.

‘Okay,’ Delias voice wobbled dangerously. ‘Lets just ignore that last bit. I’m rambling. Don't know whats wrong with me, sometimes I swear to God I just stop thinking. I once gave a girl in a club completely the wrong number and had to explain to my mother the next day why she was getting random messages from a woman she’d never met- But you don’t need to hear about that either. Okay, forget that last bit too. God. Shut up anytime you want to Delia.’

Patsy had never heard Delia this flustered before. It was annoyingly endearing.

‘Suppose I probably should have practiced this before I made the actual call... I had a really great time tonight Patsy; seeing you again was really... And it was great seeing the girls and the dog...’

Something drummed harder in the background. Definitely nervous fingers. Patsy counted Delias breaths.

‘I really really like you Patience Mount. Just remember that.’ Delia might have whispered it but Patsy heard it clearly, something warm bubbling up in her chest at the admission.

‘Look, I'm going to go, hopefully you haven't hung up yet... I realise you probably have but if you are still listening to this then do you-‘ Delia took a deep breath. Brave. Patsy couldn’t help but marvel at the bravery. ‘Do you think that you could call me back? Or I could call you again?... Just don't- Don't give up on us Pats. Please. Not until we both give it a proper go of things... I'll try and call again tomorrow, or you could... So. Bye Patsy."

The line went dead.

Patsy couldn’t let go of the phone. The mechanical voice asked her if she wanted more options.

Too fucking right she did.

At last Kim finally appeared. Slamming her way into the car, two cups of coffee balanced precariously in one massive hand. Patsy dropped the phone instinctively and had to bend to pick it up. Her heart flutteringly nervously.

“You took your time.” Patsy barked in way of greeting once upright again, unable to quite shrug off her residual sour mood in the face of such an easy target to vent at.

Kim’s didn’t answer. Her face unchanged as she handed Patsy one of the coffees and settled herself more comfortably in the chair. She reached blindly behind her for the seatbelt and then fumbled for the clip still not looking at Patsy.

“Good morning to you too.” Patsy said with somewhat less chutzpah, eyeing her companion without much interest.

Kim looked terrible close up. Her usually tidy number two haircut was unusually messy, her shirt was creased too and, unless Patsy was mistaken, looked like it had been the one she’d worn yesterday. Her cheeks were very white and her eyes too pink.

She looked like someone who’d been crying and the idea of Kim Sanders, the block of wood herself, having emotions in any way more complicated than stoic boredom made Patsy blink.

Kim swallowed hard, chewing her tongue as she stared purposefully into the front windshield. Patsy had the sudden sensation of a voyeur into someone else’s misery and felt a wash of guilt at the opening snark. She looked down at her coffee, embarrassed to realise Kim had bought the expensive brand and toyed at the plastic lid with her thumb as she thought for a moment.

“Busy day ahead.” Patsy tried hopefully and when this didn’t work she reached out with some concern to put her hand on Kim’s forearm, shocking her out of her daydream.

“Hello? Earth to Kim. Hey, are you alright?”

Kim’s head snapped up instantly at the touch, focussing on Patsy blearily as though she’d only just noticed that she was there.

“I-‘ Kim’s voice came out strangled and she swallowed hard as she forced herself under control. ‘Fine Mount. Just- Just a long night, that’s all.”

Patsy removed her hand. “Makes two of us. You sure you’re going to be alright coming out with me? It’s not strictly necessary and we could-“

“No.’ Kim sat straighter in her chair, a stubborn set to her square face. ‘No. I’m fine.”

“Right.’ Patsy let Kim have her moment; understanding how irritating it could be to be pushed when someone wasn’t ready. ‘Well we’ve got a fun packed day. I called Chummy at the morgue and she’s going over our victim this morning. Probably be done by the time we get there. Then we can go and meet Cynthia Miller, see if we can eliminate her from enquiries and then,’ Patsy paused like a parent handing out sweeties, ‘you can go back to the office and fill the DI in.”

“Right.’ Kim mumbled distractedly. Patsy wasn’t really sure she’d heard as she put the car into motion and they began the short drive together in silence.

They got to the second traffic light before Kim spoke.

“Mount... Pats?” God. She sounded rough. Patsy wondered if Kim had been drinking.

“Yeah?”

“You’re good at understanding women aren’t you?” Kim hadn’t given up staring through the glass and Patsy decided to take her cue from that.

She was intrigued despite herself. Kim had never been anything but uptight professionalism.

“Not really.” Patsy answered simply.

“But women like you.” Kim went on slowly.

Patsy snorted, amused despite herself at the irony thinking about a variety of options to that one. “Not particularly.”

“But you know how to talk to women.” Kim insisted, annoyed now.

Patsys hands flexed on the wheel. Weighing up her answer. “Depends on what the conversations about. Why?”

“Doesn’t matter.’ Kim mumbled, rubbing her hand over her face tiredly. ‘You’d just make a joke of it.”

Patsy bit her lip thinking about Trixies parting shot.

“Oh go on,’ She said bracingly, ‘try me. You know you want to. You look like you had a rough night.”

There was silence as they approached a slowing line of traffic. Then Kim heaved her body to angle towards Patsy.

“If...’ Kim paused, assembling her thoughts with a poor attempt at guile spreading across her face. ‘Suppose... Suppose that you were seeing someone, sort of casually but not really casually and then they broke it off without an explanation when you thought everything was going really well... What would you do? Would you try and find out why? Or should you just walk away? I mean,’ Kim went on looking tortured, ‘if neither of you actually said out loud that you were maybe hoping that it might become a thing... Then that means it probably wasn’t going to be a thing to start off with doesn’t it?”

It’s must be my face, Patsy reflected as she stopped behind a car with a broken tail light. I must have one of those faces that says ‘tell me all your troubles.’

“That sounds like a straightforward sort of misunderstanding to me Kim.” Patsy said eventually, reminding herself not to take the piss instantly.

Kim’s forehead creased in confusion. “It does?”

“Yeah,’ Patsy felt her phone like a lead weight in her pocket. ‘One person wanting more than the other person. Tale as old as time. Not a lot you can do in those situations; it’s one of those immovable object and unstoppable force things.”

“So you think you’d leave it there then?” Kim asked, sinking back into her seat looking dejected.

Patsy ran her tongue across the back of her teeth thoughtfully. She’d always been nosey, it was why she’d liked CID in the first place. Kim presented something of a conundrum. Patsy hadn’t ever considered Kim might be in a relationship.

She probably should have asked.

“It depends,’ Patsy said slowly, still keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead. ‘What were you- Sorry, what was I doing before the dumping?”

“What do you mean?” Kim sounded confused now and Patsy knew that she was thinking about geographical locations.

“I mean,’ Patsy explained patiently, ‘what was the nature of the relationship. Is it just sex or is there dates involved?”

“Depends what you constitute as a date.”

“Okay, so did you talk about things other than sex? Did you sit down and eat a meal with each other? Did you spend time getting to know each other? Did you get a vibe that it meant more than just sex.” Patsys throat burned as she said it.

Unbidden she felt the ghost of Delias arm around her shoulders. The two of them eating pizza. Talking.

Walking with her bike.

It had felt like more even then. It felt like years since it had happened. So much had happened. Black clouds hanging over her golden day.

God, golden day? Patsy mentally shook herself thinking that she’d royally screwed herself over. It was done. Over. And yet she couldn’t shake the woman. The feel of Delia had burrowed too deep, Patsy felt bruised to the bone and it hurt.

It hadn’t ever hurt like this, the gnawing background ache. No one else had ever-

“Well there was definitely sex.’ Kim cut across Patsys meandering thoughts and Patsy started as she realised the light had turned green and someone was honking behind her. ‘Lots of sex but there was other stuff too. I mean there was texting, waking up and finding a morning text sort of stuff... and we talked for hours. We went even to the theatre.”

Patsy willed herself to focus on someone else’s problems. Anything was a good distraction right now. “Sounds promising. How long had it been going on?”

“About two months...’ Kim gave a shy sort of smile. ‘It just kind of happened; neither of us were expecting it.”

Patsy thought of Delia and her chest pulsed longingly. Kim cleared her throat, waiting for a response and Patsy hastened to make one. She whistled through her teeth, trying to look impressed. “Kimothy, you dog, whose the lucky lady?”

“I didn’t say it was me!’ Kim said quickly, her ears turning red, ‘this is simply a hypothetical situation. And don’t call me Kimothy, you know I hate it.” Kim added as an afterthought.

“A hypothetical situation?” Patsy repeated dubiously, grinning.

“I’m... I’m reading a book about peer interactions in the work place and I read that car chat can increase team feeling and thus outcomes for work.”

Patsy was impressed with that lie; she filed it away for use on another day. She’d always appreciated the fine art of stretching the truth to breaking point. Kim was a mere apprentice to the bullshit Patsy could produce in a tight corner though.

“Right,’ Patsy drawled. ‘So, you’re telling me that this hypothetical situation isn’t based on anything that might, let’s just pick something at random here, you and a potential lady doing the nasty?”

“No.”

“Fine.’ Patsy drummed her thumbs on the steering wheel as she let a car join the street in front of them. ‘So in this hypothetical situation I’m the one that’s been dumped. Correct?”

“Dumped is a very harsh term.’ Kim rubbed her wrist fretfully. ‘You only get dumped if it’s a relationship don’t you? So do you think it was a relationship or not?”

Patsy sighed but made her voice gentle. “I dunno. It sounds a lot like a relationship to me sweetheart although granted I’m probably not the right one to ask. Don’t you have some girlfriends you could talk to about it?” Someone even vaguely well adjusted?

“No.’ Kim said in a voice no taller than knee high. ‘That’s why I asked you... I sort of thought that you were my friend Mount.”

“Oh.” Patsy stared hard at the road ahead, suddenly awkward as the silence wound out like a pointed thread between them.

“I’ve never been very good at making friends, dating, that sort thing.’ Kim admitted sheepishly to the blushing quiet. ‘Dating in particular has always been a bit of a struggle. I never know what to say and then when I do try I just end up mucking it all up anyway.’ She gave a nervous chuckle, ‘Well, I suppose you already know that don’t you.”

“Kim... We didn’t exactly date.” Patsy said awkwardly, rightfully feeling like a shit.

“I know,’ Kim reassured pleasantly, ‘but I did like you. I think I just didn’t say it right and I know I freaked you out when we slept together.”

An understatement really. Kim had stared at Patsy. The whole time, her eyes wide open and staring as Patsy recalled. Patsy recalled too the unanswered calls from Kim afterwards.

“I’m sorry.’ Patsy muttered stallingly, ‘I was a bitch. I should have called you back.”

“I understand, don’t worry, you were never going to want to date someone like me.”

Patsys insides seemed to be knotting themselves together with uncomfortable guilt and she rushed to correct it. “No- That’s not-Kim, I like you, as a friend, it was me. I’m not one for second dates. That’s all.”

“Yeah I get it.’ Kim didn’t quite pull off nonchalant but she still made a good attempt. ‘It’s not like I wasn’t warned.”

Patsy felt a familiar sinking feeling. She hated this conversation only slightly more than the fact she’d had this conversation more than once before. “God, who by?”

“Rachel, she told me you weren’t one for sticking around.”

“Rachel?’ Patsy tried hard to wrack her brain for the face that matched the name but came up blank. ‘I don’t remember any Rachel.”

“She worked traffic for a bit.” Kim supplied without heat.

“She’s... blonde?” Patsy pondered vacantly.

“She’s brunette.” Kim corrected.

Patsy cleared her throat, feeling cornered somehow. “Nice girl.” She offered hopefully.

“She’s alright.’ Kim sniffed dismissively, already moving on to her own point. ‘So what do you think then? Would you try and fight for it? Maybe see if it’s a thing.”

“I don’t know,’ Patsy really didn’t. She didn’t do this sort of thing; she certainly wouldn’t put herself in a category for advise on the heart, that had always been Helens territory. Still, she tried. ‘Depends on the woman I suppose. If they really matter, if you think there’s something special... Shouldn’t you try again? If you can get over yourself... That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day does it?” Patsy realised as she said it that she’d fallen into her own mental slip stream.

Delias face, Delia had told her to call... So that meant there was a chance didn’t it?

Patsy looked at Kim out of the corner of her eye. Kim was contemplating her coffee as though she could fathom the mind of her erstwhile companion in its murky depths.

“But what if she doesn’t feel the same way?” Kim asked her thumb distantly, ‘what if I just built it all up inside my head and I’m totally on the wrong page? I mean she was so cold. It felt so final.”

“Talk to her.’ Patsy advised them both decisively. ‘If it hurts then it’s got to mean something hasn’t it?”

“That’s the problem though. I can’t talk to her, I’ve tried calling, texting. I even sent an email and,’ Kim clicked her fingers in frustration, ‘nothing. Not a word. She just came at me with it totally out of the blue, told me it was over. Bam. No warning.”

“Maybe she thought it was something and freaked out. Women can be like that.’ Patsy advised sagely, all too aware of where she fell on that particular demographic. ‘Maybe you should do what she said, try going out but sort of make sure she knows you’re going out.”

“Jealousy? You really think that will work?” Kim didn’t sound convinced.

Patsy shrugged as she finally pulled up at the morgue. “Well I’m no expert but sometimes people need a kick up the arse. If she doesn’t come and get you then you’ve lost nothing and at least it’ll take your mind off of it.”

Delia had told her to call her. Was that supposed to be Patsys kick up the arse?

“I don’t know. That all sounds rather childish.” Kim pointed out evenly, frowning over at Patsy.

Patsy felt her face flush, annoyed at her own shortcomings. Painfully aware of them already. “Look, you asked me what I think and that’s what I’d do. She pushed you away so make her know that you’re not waiting on her every word. Seriously, the world is your mollusc Kim. Go crazy. Cut your hair, polish your scalp. Shave your knuckles, douse yourself in your finest unguents, go to the pub, buy a pretty girl a drink, plough her into next week.’ Patsy yawned lazily. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I do not have hairy knu-“ Kim began, her face red with indignation.

“I just mean,’ Patsy cut across her firmly, ‘that you’ve already done the donkey work. Now it’s her turn to put in the effort. You’re worth fighting for Kim-No,’ Patsy added because Kim had made a derisive noise, ‘no. You are. You’re great and if this woman can’t see that then more fool her. Get yourself out there, paint the town red. Don’t hold out hope for someone whose not on the bus with you.”

They stared at one another across the car, Kim’s eyes suddenly tracing Patsys face with something like surprise. Then they fell on Patsys neck.

Patsy had tried to pick something to hide the marks Delia had left but there was a lot of them.

Kim leaned forward, too big and too real.

“Are you offering to help me Mo- Pats?”

Patsy licked her lips, they were dry and it stung just a bit. For half a second she almost considered it.

Hadn’t this just been her advise? Hadn’t she always been a believer in the old saying that the only way to get over a woman was to get underneath another one? It hadn’t been that terrible with Kim and, despite everything, Patsy felt raw.

It was what Delia had done.

Tit for tat and maybe she could chalk it up to a genuine mistake for both of them... Besides, Patsy wanted someone to hold her just for a little while and Kim wasn’t proposing the romance of the century. Just a quick tryst. Patsys signature move for well over a decade.

Kim took hold of Patsys hand and it would have been so easy to let her stay like that. Kim had large hands, broad and warm.

But it felt wrong, the weight and the shape weren’t the right ones. Not Delia. Not who she wanted.

Patsy didn’t want to remember but she did. Delia trying to hold her hand, the sweet shape of her. The confusing cold sweat of guilt at the mere suggestion of anyone else in the place Delia had somehow carved into Patsys heart.

Delia had told her to call her.

Patsy pulled her hand away falteringly, trying to make light of her own confusion.

“You don’t mean that, not really.’ Patsy forced herself to laugh, thinking about Nero playing his fiddle as she did it. ‘I just told you; you’re too much of a catch for the likes of me.” Everyone and no one. No one deserved the shit storm that Patsy was. Kim deserved better. Delia did too and maybe Patsy would have tried to tell her that if only Delia hadn’t already realised that fact for herself.

“What if I don’t care?” Kim’s words sliced through Patsys confusion and bounced between them.

Patsys fingers twitched in the safety of her lap. Unused to declining any invitation. Unused to sticking around long enough for consequences.

“I’m, I’m sort of not available.” Patsy mumbled shyly to her hands as though saying it that way would make it sound less ridiculous.

Didn’t work.

But Delia had told Patsy to call her.

“Oh,’ Kim paused thoughtfully, comprehension dawning. ‘You’re seeing someone?”

Patsy definitely couldn’t look at Kim now. She felt like a fool.

“Not... Not exactly.” She muttered, wishing the ground could swallow her up so she didn’t have to answer any more questions.

She didn’t have answers to give.

“I thought you said that you weren’t the second date sort of person.” Kim said with naked accusation in her tone now.

Patsy pursed her lips and took a deep breath. The concept of commitment made her feel sick. It had killed her mother. It had killed Val. It killed everyone. That’s what love had always been before Delia.

Before Delia.

“I’m not... I’m not dating anyone, it’s just,’ Patsy coughed uncomfortably, ‘it’s... Its a mess really but I... There’s this person... she’s sort of... She’s all I think about.’ Patsy bit her cheek, shocked that she’d said something so pathetic out loud. ‘I don’t really know where it’s going to go but, I don’t know, I feel like I owe it to myself to try and see what happens.”

There. Bad decisions were just too easy to make.

Patsy stared down at her hands, expecting Kim’s ire or laughter or, wildly, a freak bolt of lightning to shoot her down where she sat but nothing happened. The jeep just rocked slightly as Kim sat back in her chair and blew out a stream of air.

“So she’s the one who bit you up?” Kim asked eventually.

Patsy coloured and reached to rub at her neck self-consciously but didn’t answer. She didn’t talk about things like this. Talking had always been dangerous and Patsy had learned the lessons too well.

“So you think I should go to a bar and try my luck there.” Kim said when the silence had fanned out again, obviously deciding to take the hint.

Patsy looked at her and nodded gratefully. “Yeah, just get yourself out there. Talk to some people, it’s character building.”

“I’m not really good at that, I told you, I’m rubbish at chatting women up. Never know what to say.”

“So sit at a bar looking mysterious and wait for them to ask you.” Patsy decided it was time to get out of the car. She might not be able to run away from her troubles but she could damn well get a good head start.

“And that really works?” Kim called still sitting as Patsy pulled open the door.

“It’s always worked for me.” Patsy said over her shoulder with a slightly cocky smirk.

“Yes,’ Kim said with a trace of frost in her tone now, ‘but we can’t all be you Mount. Besides; the things people ask me are ridiculous.”

“Like what?” Patsy asked curiously as she slammed her car door shut and waited for Kim to follow before locking up.

“Just things that make no sense.’ Kim explained when she’d rounded the jeep. ‘Half the time I think everyone’s insane.”

“Seriously? Why, what are they asking you?”

“Oh, I don’t know; I was in a bar one time and this woman asked me to dance and I thought, what the hell. We had a few beers and I thought it was going really well and then,’ Kim took a deep indignant breath, ‘she asked me if I wanted to be her father. I mean I ask you, who says that?”

Patsy looked at the sky as she tried to see the world through Kim’s eyes. A possibility presented itself.

“Daddy.’ Patsy said neutrally, controlling her expression carefully, ‘she asked you to be her daddy?”

Kim sniffed, outraged at the lesbian world in general. “Yeah, imbecile. It’s biologically impossible to be anyone’s father let alone the time difference.”

“I see.’ Patsy paused delicately, ‘did you tell her that?”

“I did indeed.’ Kim said with satisfaction, ‘I told her that she should consult with a doctor to explain basic principles of anatomy and genetics at her earliest convenience and then I tried to find a YouTube video to explain the point to her. She was clearly a fool.”

“And she didn’t like that?” Patsy suggested carefully.

Kim sighed. “No, when I looked up from my phone she’d gone. She didn’t even finish her drink. I went home after that.”

Patsy watched Kim falter towards her and found a slight growth of endearment towards her.

Shaking her head Patsy offered a smile.

“Come on,’ She said quietly, ‘let’s go and see dead people.”

Chapter Text

Patsy had never found morgues particularly pleasant places to hang about in; she’d never understood the gothic appeal. The yellow zipped bags full of bodies and the sterile packs of instruments reminded her too much of her last day in the commune. The warmth of the police womans arms that had carried her away that day hadn’t protected her from the rows of dead laid out in the midday sun. Like rotten trees that would never grow.

The morgue was cool, set on the lowest floor. There weren’t any windows down here but Chummy had tried to cheer the space up with personally purchased art. A series of highland cows in multicolours.

It didn’t really work. It never had.

Patsy would probably always be slightly on edge here. The idea of someone ripping open and poking around the only people Patsy had ever known as a child was something that had haunted her when she’d first joined the force. She’d imagined someone cutting at the familiar faces, weighing out their parts like pieces of meat at a butchers show. She’d wondered about her mother; how much had been left of her body after the fire to pick over. The idea of it had featured in her nightmares for some years.

She’d got better though, she’d worked hard every day to move on from it all, ignoring every base instinct until they weren’t there anymore. She’d done it all through will alone, she’d become Constable Mount, Helens daughter, someone who hadn’t been dragged from a water butt while it rained ash. She’d put everything behind her. She’d built walls inside her head, squashed the memories she couldn’t block out entirely into that rosewood box. She’d thought that she was cured of her aversion to everyday death but that had been before June.

June. When all of those carefully constructed walls had been blown apart by Abraham once again and new ghosts had been added to the throng.

Walking into the morgue this morning had been an exercise in restraint. Patsy had picked out the spot where Val had been laid out instantly and even though she knew it was stupid to do, self destructive, she found her eyes straying back there. Seeing things that weren’t, something hard blocking her throat as she felt the same regret she’d felt the first time she’d seen Val. The shame of her failings.

Her fault. All of it.

Val had worn one shoe when they’d had her here. Patsy had been sick that day, she felt sick now. Val would have hated the shoe thing; she’d always liked to look put together, her appearance had mattered. She’d worried at what people thought of her.

Chummy was the predictable ray of sunshine as usual; she’d made a loud shout of happiness when Patsy had walked in and nearly knocked her over with the force of her hug, barely avoiding the two of them tripping on a trolley in the process. Patsy had been overwhelmed with the scent of Clarins body wash, bemused, while Kim smirked at her over Chummys shoulder. Taken aback perhaps by Patsys obvious surprise to the unexpected warm greeting.

They’d quickly skimmed through life’s twists and turns while Kim lurked awkwardly in the background. Sullen at being the unexpected third wheel.

It hadn’t taken long. They’d kept in contact since June after all. Chummy had been round for tea at Patsys a few weeks ago, Fern liked her and Seppie was fascinated by the large woman and the feeling appeared mutual. Chummy had been keen to pencil in another date soon.

Patsy paled when Chummy mentioned trying to learn to cycle and noticed the sensible shoes had been swapped for trainers with trepidation. Chummys lack of balance was legendary.

“It’s Peters doing,’ Chummy explained. Her face alive with a happy glow that suited her. ‘He’s all in for the keep fit movement and like a bally skag he’s managed to talk me into it. We tried running in the gym but I had one or two misfortunes there so we’re using the park to air our efforts so to speak.”

“Misfortunes?” Patsy queried, her cheeks twitching in amusement.

Chummy blushed. “I fell off a treadmill.’ She admitted shyly. ‘Terrible business, flipped right over in a three sixty degree fall and then managed to crash into a full yoga group. I think I dislocated the teachers knee and was asked not to come back.”

Patsy laughed and clapped her hand on Chummys shoulder. “How the hell did you manage to flip off a treadmill?”

“I was following up on a theory.’ Chummy said, her eyes sparkling. ‘I wanted to slide off, swanlike, as my mother always told me to do, but, well, I hadn’t accounted for the roller at the end underneath the belt. I had been going at some speed and it rather did me in.”

Patsy shook her head. “It’s going well with Peter then?” Peter was a Constable Chummy had met through the online dating app Patsy had bullied her into getting. So far he sounded just the right kind of man, already devoted to Chummy. Chummy laughed as she showed Patsy a picture of the two of them in flip flops on the beach in the middle of a rain storm, smiling at the camera like a pair of fools. Patsy couldn’t be happier for them both, glad that Chummy had found someone deserving of her.

They’d moved to the bag containing Danny after that. Chummy explaining that she had rushed the job through when she’d seen Patsys name on the docket.

“I knew you’d be straining at the bit to push on and I wanted your return to be a smooth one. I’ve missed you sergeant.” Chummy had thoroughly approved of the short term promotion when Patsy mentioned it. Patsy had the unnerving impression that she’d thought the rank not high enough; Chummy’s belief in her abilities uncomfortably obvious but Chummys impeccable manners prevented a negative word uttered about DI Ursula.

The three of them stood like crows over a corpse and the conversation had ended naturally as a respectful hush fell over them all.

Danny looked worse somehow cleaned up.

Chummy, or probably one of Chummys people, had washed the body down before the operation. There was a neat line of fresh sutures stringing their way along his bare torso like ants after a picnic. His face looked slightly different than it had done before, flat at the temples but that was to be expected, the bodies always did after an autopsy. Patsy recalled with a shudder the day Chummy had cheerfully taken it upon herself to explain how she took out the brain to weigh it during the autopsy process and packed the empty skull with cloths instead of trying to fit the brain back in. Saved time apparently.

Patsy had never been able to consider tripe without gagging after that.

Patsy thought the boy looked smaller in death. Reduced somehow to more than just a body; when it was buried he’d be only a name on the monsters list now. A school photograph no one looked at. His mother didn’t seem all that bothered by the death that was certain and it all felt wrong to Patsy on a human level that there would be no one to mourn a man so young.

Everyone deserved at least one tear didn’t they, even Patsy had cried for her mother in the hospital after she’d been taken; she’d done it alone so that no one saw but she’d felt it necessary at the time. Something that had to be done.

As she gazed at his lifeless face Patsy decided that she’d have to enquire about the funeral when his body was released. It wouldn’t be a big gathering from what she’d seen and she’d swell the numbers that way. It was the least she could do.

Chummy had moved effortlessly into work-mode, her cheerful nature fading away, the clumsiness not so evident while she was focused on her task. Kim and Patsy watched on as Chummy lifted Daniels right arm to show Patsy his hands still clenched in a loose fist. “The heat of the fire makes the fingers curl autonomically, makes taking fingerprints almost perfect.’ She explained brightly. ‘I took the liberty of running them through the system for you, it positively identified Daniel Coolage as our man but we can still run a formal ID from next of Kin if you want to.”

Patsy smiled appreciatively at Chummys thoughtfulness. “We’ve spoken to his mother already but thanks, we can ask her if she still wants to see him anyway. What about the body? Any signs of a struggle?”

“None.’ Chummy replaced the arm and fished out a pack of polos from her pocket, proferring the tube politely to her guests. Patsy declined on principle, her stomach protesting at the idea of food in this dead space but Kim accepted. The two women either side of Patsy crunched happily over the corpse. The peppermint smell gave Patsy a headache. ‘No perimortem bruising that would have suggested defence wounds. He does have some antemortem damage to his right wrist but the bone had already started to heal. Maybe two weeks ago.”

“What does that mean? Someone hurt him?” Kim was all eyes, impressed by Chummys status and obvious knowledge base, clearly regretting not bringing in a notepad. Patsy wanted to roll her eyes. Nerd.

“It’s possible,’ Chummy speculated calmly, ‘without more information it would be hard to be that specific though. The pressure was flat, radiating outwards.’ She drew on the wrist in the air to show them. ‘A door slamming onto the joint perhaps or a flat object with pressure.”

“So not something he could have done himself?” Patsy finished for her, only slightly intrigued, she hadn’t thought it was a close range attack that felled the boy but she hadn’t factored in previous assaults. Another lead to follow up on that probably would amount to nothing.

“He might have but I doubt it from the angle. There was this as well,’ Chummy stepped up, pointed at the boys head this time. ‘He’d tried to cut his hair from the look of the thing but it was a pretty poor job. A razor from the length of the cuts. He cut himself deeply. He’d have been bleeding quite a bit. The angle suggests it was his own work although for the life of me I can’t fathom how the poor chap managed it. He must have been in some considerable pain.”

Kim hissed as she caught sight of the criss crossed gashes around the boys head, from this birds eye angle it looked like a bizarre tribal tattoo design but Patsy was less impressed, she had seen far worse over her lifetime. At least Danny still had all his limbs. “He actually did that to himself?” Kim asked Chummy in shocked awe.

Chummy nodded. “His brain was quite damaged. It was undersized too, the frontal lobe severely compromised.’ She raised an eyebrow enquiringly to Patsy. ‘Was he schizophrenic by any chance?”

Patsy blinked, forever impressed with Chummys attention to detail; the treadmills could go hang. “Yeah. You’re telling me that you could tell that kind of thing just from the brain?”

Chummy demurred, a woman taught at boarding school to never flaunt ones strengths. “Not entirely, the damage is a marker but the scale was too advanced for his age. The premature shrinkage cause was due to renal and hepatic failure. His bloods held traces of procyclidine and his leukocyte count was through the floor though. I made an educated leap.”

“And that means?” Patsy suppressed a sigh, as much as she loved Chummy she sometimes found it hard when the woman assumed that Patsys knowledge was encyclopaedic on medicine. Vals empty space was needling at her nerves too, despite her best efforts she was sweating. Stressed and trying to ignore her own discomfort.

“Procyclidine? It’s a anticholinergic drug mainly used for Parkinson but it’s regularly used to treat secondary symptoms of harsher antipsychotics, hyper salivation and shaking. It can have a profound effect,’ Chummy looked over to her office, interest peeking out through the seriousness, ‘I believe that I actually have some journal articles if you wanted to-“

“Was he taking antipsychotics?” Patsy cut in guiltily before she could be sweet talked into any academic research papers. Chummys keenness could have led troops into battle, Patsy wasn’t very good at saying no.

“No, there wasn’t any traces of them, I’ll have to wait for the hair samples to come back to know for sure. I’d say if he was prescribed anything then he hadn’t been on it for at least a month. Longer probably.”

“And were there other drugs? He’s got track marks on his forearms. Heroine?”

Chummy sighed sadly and looked down at the bruised chicken scratches. “Alas, the screening found just about everything a person could take. Between us, the fire seemed overkill. This young man was doing a fine job on his own of ending his life. I can’t test for the legal highs of course but I assume they were involved too, the marks on his liver look like extensive black mamba usage to me. The poor boy was close to falling apart. Portal shunting was evident in his cardiac system, hepatic and renal failure would account for that as would the brain shrinkage. Hepatic encephalopathy was strongly evidenced.’ Chummy caught sight of Patsy and Kim’s non plussed faces and raced to simplify herself. ‘Ammonia builds up in the blood without the liver filtering it out, it makes the brain swell up, leads to comas. Daniel was extremely poorly the poor thing. Probably actively hallucinating. There are scratches in his groin and buttocks too, he hadn’t cut his nails in well over three months. There was a heavy load of faecal matter there. I think he was hand wiping, loss of executive functioning is a symptom.”

“Was that cause of death then? He fell into a coma and the fire happened around him?” Patsy wanted to groan. Technically that would take the charge to criminal damage if Danny had already been dead. Manslaughter at the very most and only if she could prove motive.

“Ahh, nil desperandum,’ Chummy raised a triumphant finger, ‘the official cause is most definitely direct smoke inhalation Pats, he was alive when the fire started. Drowsy and weak though. Probably wouldn’t have realised what was happening which I’m sure will be a jolly relief to his family.” Chummy had that hopeful smile that reminded Patsy jarringly how some people had no idea how wrong families could go.

It was a testament to Chummys wonderful personality that Patsy hardly even resented her for her ignorance.

Patsy pressed her tongue against the back of her teeth. She looked up and down the wasted body one more time and then she turned away. She had enough ghosts on her consciences and she needed air. As she caught sight of the spot where Val had been laid out again she thought she saw a swish of purple fabric but it was only her imagination.

Sweat was pooling through her shirt.

She’d had enough.

With a final thank you to Chummy who had been animatedly talking to Kim about a potential school education project to take body bags into secondary schools to stop drink driving she walked away.

It was an hour later when Patsy arrived in the village of Daisy Coolage and Cynthia Miller.

The home of Cynthia Miller and her daughter was situated on the other side of the village to Daisy Coolages Home farm, just a few minutes walk from the tiny village primary school and bus stop that allowed hourly exits into the wider world. The house stood a little away from the rest at the top of a slight incline, the slope mainly camouflaged by a bright green postage stamp lawn.

The hot summer sun had singed the grass in patches and the the September rain was slowly reviving it in steady increments. Near the center there was still the ghostly imprints of four circles laid out in a square shape. A swing probably, sturdy in design from the circumference of the circles and the six peg holes. A slide seemed improbable with the information Patsy had already learned.

Patsy had picked up the original case file from Daniel Coolages crime last night and emailed it to her phone before she’d left work yesterday. She’d perused it in the jeep in a McDonald’s car park while Kim had gone inside to “use the facilities”.

Those had been her actual words and Patsy had been surprised only a little bit by their usage. It was old fashioned and formal, the kind of thing a grandmother or stiff Aunt might teach a girl they felt needed more of a female influence. Kim’s mum had died when she was just a kid, she’d told Patsy that on a job years ago. It had been the first time Patsy had felt any kinship with her; two motherless girls together. Her dad had been some high up in the navy. Working close as they were now Patsy thought that she could picture Kim all too easily as a teenager.

Big and broad, awkward in her own skin, feet and hands disproportionately puppy like in comparison to the rest of her, sweating with new revelations and too aware of how unfeminine she was, how square, how flat, how deep her voice was evening into. Hurt by the stares that she couldn’t control. She’d probably compensated for all of the casual cruelties by becoming the closest she could be to the son her father would never now have. Falling into being manly the same way some men who are balding shave their head; telling themselves they wanted it that way in the first place. Learning they were suited to it.

She was handsome. Not pretty exactly but definitely handsome. Patsy thought she cut a strong silhouette, no hint of shyness in her stance now. Years of erosion finally finding hard rock to land upon harmlessly.

In the present Kim had no idea of Patsys ruminations as she stepped out of the car, running her hand along her scalp to smooth her hair down in the slight breeze. Patsy cut off her thoughts with the slam of the door and turned them forcefully back to the case. But her eyes kept following Kim any way. Reading her face. She looked pensive, a little excited at the meeting with Miller.

Patsy had learned always to watch people, to read how they were feeling, predict what they might do; the commune had scratched those instincts down to the bone, living in the children homes after that had just widened the grooves. It was a hard pit to climb out of but she tried. The police and Helen had helped with that. The girls helped. Delia-

The case.

Daniel Coolage had walked past here twice a day for years. Most of his childhood. First going to the primary and then to wait at the pole up the road for the local bus to get to secondary. Daisy had told Patsy that the boy didn’t have any friends and that seemed to ring true according to the witness statements from that time. Danny was a loner, the local odd ball. The kid who smelled funny and picked his nose before eating it.

Erin Miller had often played out in the front garden with her mum. As Patsy got up out the car and locked it she tried to picture Daniel seeing the girl for the first time. She’d been five when he’d taken her, twelve now, so how long had he been watching her? A year? Two? Had he looked for her through those clean big windows that looked into the front room when the weather turned cold? In the summer had he seen her sat on the grass with her mother, healthy and happy? Had he envied her clean home and doting mother? Is that why she’d been chosen however unconsciously?

She wasn’t healthy anymore, Daniel had seem to that, messed her up pretty badly according to the file. The picture Cynthia Miller had given to the police search at the time was still in the file. On a beach, the little girls hair short, dark, her lips very pink opening into a small toothed smile. She’d been wearing a frilly swimsuit, red and black mini mouse sunglasses on a string round her neck and a cap with a flap that covered her neck. A pudgy fist clamped around the handle of a plastic spade.

Patsy was irresistibly reminded of Seppie; they were the same age and she found it hard to look at the girl after that. Her heart hurt just trying to imagine what it must have taken to hurt someone so small.

Going from the extreme whiteness of Erin’s skin against the sand in the background she’d had that fine skin that easily burned. Cynthia beside her in the photograph could have been her double. The girl favoured her mother strongly. File said the stepfather had been working away, initially it was thought by the team that he might have taken Erin after the couple argued the night before.

Then they’d found her with Daniel in a field close to the next village. The two kids propped up beside a high wire fence. One slumped, one sat.

Dyer had been a Constable back then and she’d recognised his scrawl in the file with a flash of anger; hating that he’d been close to Erin. Wondering if he’d ever talked to Val about the case. She’d had to skim the rest to stop the anger blinding her. The girl had been life alteringly damaged. Head wound, spinal injuries, eyes gouged out, tongue held in the boys hand when the police caught up to them.

Daniel hadn’t said anything, not at the scene, not at the station, not for almost six months in the hospital. He’d been holding Erins bloody hand in the field too, staring out at nothing.

Patsy walked beside Kim up the sloping drive. Kim was holding her phone in her hand again. The screen remained stubbornly empty and Patsy could practically feel the disappointment rolling off of her peer in miserable waves.

Patsy felt a rush of affection for Kim at that. She wanted to do something to cheer her up, make her forget the girl who’d dropped her. Opportunity came as they stopped in front of the front door. It was a scratched cheap wood. There were handles either side of it. The ramp wide enough to take a wheelchair. The doorbell just lower than usual.

Patsy stepped back, rested her hip on the bar and looked around allowing Kim to have her leading moment. There was a lot of concrete near the door, the raised ramp had obviously been added for Erin and it stuck out amidst the other houses but someone, probably Cynthia, had done their best to make it cheerful. Cheap terracotta pots littered the sides, cluttering up the unused space along the wall. Summer flowers wilted in the damp drizzle but the paint on the pots that looked home done were primary coloured reds, blues and yellows and they brightened the space.

There was a hand print in paint on the wall, clumsily done, chubby fingers that hadn’t printed very well but looked sweet.

Kim knocked on the door, shuffling because Patsy had let her take the lead.

“Good knock that.” Patsy complimented easily as she returned to stand next to Kim. It was the best thing she could pick out on the fly.

Kim looked at Patsy from the corner of her eye. “Are you making fun of me?” She asked suspiciously.

Patsy raised her hands in surrender and bumped her hip lightly against Kims higher one. “Course not,’ she protested with as much sincerity as she could manage, ‘just pointing it out. Very... Authoritative. You’re a natural knocker.”

“Been doing it all my life Mount.” Kim barked stiffly but Patsy caught the slight flex of the woman’s fingers, the tiny rise in her shoulders as the compliment settled and smiled to herself until the jangle of bolts carried through the door and it opened.

Cynthia Miller had changed from the woman with her five year old on the beach. She was thinner now, too thin, the white pallor of her face was past unhealthy as though she didn’t get enough sunshine, there were dark circles beneath her eyes and her eye lids were too red. She looked undersized, a dwarf before giants and Patsy was painfully aware of how intimidating they must look to the woman. Between them they blocked out the street. Bringers of misery.

To combat this unsettling power dynamic Patsy ducked lower to shake the womans hand as names were exchanged. The hand in Patsys felt alarmingly fragile, like handling a porcelain doll instead of a grown woman.

Then Patsy caught sight of the hard thousand mile stare Cynthia Miller aimed at her and Kim and instantly revised her opinion. Angry. This woman was furious.

Patsy stepped in the house first. Wary of Kim’s ability to read people, knowing how delicate dealing with victims family could be. Kids made it worse. Rapport could be lost in seconds with an ill timed wrong word and Patsy wasn’t prepared to lose it before she’d gained it.

The house was small, the hallway wide with linoleum floors. As they passed a living room she saw a single love seat pushed towards the wall. A television set that looked ancient, wide at the back. A wicker chair commode that looked privately purchased. A pressure cushion lay on the floor next to a spot where a wheelchair clearly sat normally. There was an open bag full of colourful squishy looking objects on the coffee table and a small scent diffuser shaped like a tear drop. There was a Viking hoist complete with its two slings in the other corner. The frayed tags sharp against the personalised pink material.

The kitchen seemed more of the same. The fridge was covered with sheets of papers. Hospital appointments, results in that thin Manila duplicate colour, more hand prints ranging in size as Erin had grown bigger. Pictures of a pale girl staring at the camera wearing thick sunglasses to hide the holes where her eyes should be, a thick plastic NG tube pointing out of a nostril and taped cleanly to her cheek.

Cynthia had clearly interrupted drinking a cup of coffee at the small IKEA table, the top was plastic, the four chairs cut strangely so each one fitted exactly into a quarter of the table. Patsy had the impression that Cynthia didn’t sit down very often, didn’t need a large table for guests. In the sink there were cartoonish bowls and plates. Wide spoons with thick handles, cups built to not tip in a shaky hand. Plastic mainly.

Cynthia gave the unclean crockery a despondent glance as she passed them and Patsy could tell she despised being caught out in a house that wasn’t pristine. There was a flowery lap tray half hidden behind the microwave with pads on the bottom. Cynthia nudged it out of sight and flicked on the kettle as she motioned for Patsy and Kim to sit down.

They did so, pushed so close that their knees bumped, ankles tangling on one anothers boots.

Patsy thought of dwarves and giants again.

When the obligatory cups of tea that hadn’t been requested were placed in front of them with a plate of non brand digestives Cynthia moved away. Her hands gripping the chipped kitchen sides.

“This is about Danny isn’t it?’ Cynthia enquired in a tight voice, her expression flat and dead. ‘If it is then I already know. One of the girls in the village heard from her mother, she called me yesterday. You didn’t need to come all this way on our account.”

Danny. Patsy noted the use of the victims first name. Danny, not Coolage or That boy, just Danny. Villages could be like that, everyone too close together, familiarity making separation impossible. She wondered as she had with Daisy why the woman hadn’t moved away. How could she bare to remain in the home that her child had been taken from?

“I’m so sorry that you had to hear that information through third parties Cynthia. It’s not ideal and I can only apologise on our part, do you want us to call someone to sit with you while we speak? Your husband? A neighbour?” Patsy kept her tone friendly. An early apology sometimes helped providing it wasn’t for something that could get them sued.

Cynthia didn’t soften but she let go of the side just a fraction. “No, it’s fine.’ She said coldly, ‘It doesn’t matter to us. I haven’t seen him since the court date when they took him away. Erin hasn’t seen him since they took him into custody.”

“Did you know that Danny had been released? Here, in Norfolk?”

“I knew.’ Cynthia raised a hand and pointed to the fluttering single sheet library on the fridge door. ‘We got a letter. He wasn’t allowed to come near us, they put a panic cord in for us if he ever did but I haven’t had to use it. He wouldn’t have got into the village, everyone knew him. They’d have stopped him the second he turned up. Erin doesn’t know, I didn’t want to upset her.”

“Is she here now? Sleeping?” Kim butted in, her tone heavy with the effort of restraint, trying to make her voice soft in the quietness of the sad house.

Cynthia raised an eyebrow and seemed to take a moment to compose herself before speaking, Patsy sensed her discomfort at sharing information about her child. Protective.

“No. She’s at the day center. She’s... I care for her full time here. They wanted her to go into a care home when it first happened, said she’d never recover but I couldn’t-‘ her eyes creased with the pain of it, ‘I insisted she come home but it’s a lot sometimes, she goes to respite care one night a fortnight. They send me pictures and things so that I know she’s okay.”

“So this is your chill out time. Must be lovely for you.” Kim hadn’t meant to sound callous, she’d probably be distraught if Patsy told her what she sounded like but that didn’t stop it from being the truth.

Cynthia’s lips thinned until they nearly disappeared, bristling at the idea that she wanted time away from her child even if it was partially true. Her face unchanging Patsy stepped meaningfully on Kim’s foot. Hard.

“It must have been very hard for you all after the event Cynthia.’ Patsy lent forward, capturing Cynthia’s gaze and moving it away from Kim who had frozen. ‘May I ask what Erin’s father thinks of it all? Dannys release? Would we be able to speak to him too? It would help if we could eliminate you from our investigation early on.”

“Investigation?’ That had caught Cynthia’s attention, her eyes hardened, her hand gripped the side again. ‘You seriously think that I could be involved in something like that?”

“It’s just a formality.’ Patsy soothed even as she eyed Cynthia’s figure speculatively. She was so small she would make an awful hand to hand murderer but you didn’t need height to throw a burning bottle. You just needed to be accurate. ‘We do believe that Danny’s death was suspicious and I’m sure you can see why we need to check your details. It’s not an accusation but we do need to dot our Is and cross our Ts. Do you know what you were doing Wednesday night to early Thursday morning?”

“And if I don’t want to talk to you?” Cynthia threatened darkly.

Patsy met her stare head on, unwilling to compromise but still keeping her expression sympathetic. She could too well understand the woman’s frustration, the indignity of enquiries after all these years of struggle.

“Right now? I wouldn’t do anything at all Cynthia. This is an ongoing investigation and we have other avenues that need to be explored however you still could be a suspect.’ Patsy fanned out her fingers on the table top. ‘Look, I live in a village too, I know what it can be like. I don’t want to take you down to the station so the neighbours can talk about it later over their tea. I don’t want to inconvenience you, or make you late for Erin or anything else. I know this subject is a terrible one but I still have a job to do as awful as it might be. A murders been committed and I will need alibis from you, your husband and anyone else who might be the culprit.’ Patsy paused, letting the words land heavy as raindrops before continuing in a softer voice. ‘He hurt your child, I can’t imagine the pain that caused and I won’t patronise you by trying to. I’d like to help you to help me, I’m not out to be the cop stirring up your life all over again and I have to point out that if you’re innocent then there’s no reason not to tell us. We won’t share any confessions without explicit reasons, I can promise that.”

Cynthia Miller glared at Patsy across the small kitchen, her chin a sharp point that cast shadows across her slim throat but Patsy could see the resignation and humiliation growing inside the woman’s eyes. She’d already decided, Patsys speech had worked, only pride was making her keep them waiting for her answer.

“I was here last Wednesday, at home with Erin all night.” The words sounded as though they were being forced out.

“Can anyone corroborate that for you?’ Patsy spoke as though she hadn’t heard the anger. ‘Your husba-“

“No.’ Cynthia’s interruption was firm. Aggressive for the first time. ‘Clive’s gone, he left seven years ago, about a month after Erin came home. The district nurse came by to deliver her medications around eight Wednesday night. I ordered a pizza around ten, Pinnochios, after Erin had gone to bed. I didn’t go out and no one was here but you can ask my neighbours. I don’t leave Erin when she’s home, just in case she needs help with something. They’d be able to tell you if I went out or not. Erin woke up at two and I gave her her meds. I have to chart her obs, they were a little bit abnormal, she catches colds easily so I sent a text to the on call night nurse around three. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“I see. No, we’ll follow those up but I think that’s everything, thank you for telling us. Does Clive ever visit, have contact with Erin?”

Cynthia licked her lips agitatedly, dabbing the top lip with the point of her pink tongue. “No. He doesn’t. He has a new wife now, moved down the coast to Cornwall. They’ve got a toddler, I’m afraid that I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“Was he angry at what happened to Erin?” Patsy pressed. Arsonists tended to be exclusively male, the ex husband posed a more likely link to a burning building.

Cynthia shrugged with forced casualness that must have cost her a great deal. “He was good enough when it first happened, tried to do the dutiful husband thing but Erin wasn’t ever his child. I always knew that, he made sure that I knew it. When she came home and we really understood that she’d never get back to how she was before, he left me.’ Cynthia pursed her lips and clenched her jaw. ‘She’s got the mental age of a two year old. She’s wheelchair bound, no feeling below her waist. She’s blind, obviously, but she’s mute too. We’re trying to use prosthetics for her tongue but no one can say if that portion of her brain is still functional. She touches my face though, she’s not stupid. She’s more knowing than anyone could have predicted. She might get a little better.” Cynthia’s face was stubborn, Patsy had the sense that she’d had the conversation a hundred times in many different settings. She pitied the doctors who tried to lecture Cynthia on the subject of her daughter and felt relieved that the girl had someone who would keep her interests safe. Not every mother did that; Elizabeth never had.

“Do you still have his details?’ Patsy wouldn’t allow the melancholy to bite at her on the job. ‘A phone number we could call him on?”

“No.’ Cynthia took a deep, calming breath, and picked up her cold coffee cup bracingly. ‘I threw out anything he left after the divorce was finalised. He’s not been in contact since. You could probably find him on Facebook.”

Kim had been listening attentively but her silence wouldn’t last forever. She frowned at Cynthia politely. “And what about Erin’s real dad? Does he have contact?”

The cup in Cynthia’s hand slipped and crashed on the tiles in an explosion of shards. Flinching, Cynthia bent to follow its arc and met a flash of pottery coming the other way, blood spurted from her palm in a long gash. The blood droplets mingled with the milky coffee along the crease of the uneven floor.

At once Kim’s chair creaked as she shoved it back. “Paper towels.” She boomed importantly and followed Cynthia’s bemused direction to the side where a roll stood on a wooden spindle.

Patsy got up too and lifted Cynthia’s arm above her head to stop the blood pumping out so ferociously. Kim nudged them as she crouched to drop paper onto the spill and then dragged it noisily through pottery with her boot. Patsy could feel Cynthia shaking.

“Are you alright?’ Patsy asked in some concern, ‘it wasn’t a family heirloom was it?”

Cynthia jumped again and turned a watery smile on Patsy. “Stupid of me. Clumsy.’ She whispered apologetically, ‘I’m so sorry, making a fool of myself aren’t I?”

“Of course you’re not.’ Patsy disagreed as she guided the woman to sit down in Kim’s vacated seat. ‘It’s totally understandable, these things are never easy.”

“I didn’t kill Danny.’ Cynthia’s voice was weak but threaded with truth, ‘I don’t have any stone hard corroboration except my word but it wasn’t me sergeant. I don’t even hate him. I pitied him, he was sick in the head. I’m not even surprised how he turned out; he was always troubled.”

“I didn’t realise that you knew him well before the attack.” Patsy tried to recall the case but was certain Dyer had dismissed any connection. Lazy, sloppy work.

“Not well, not to talk to or as friends but he used to stop at the gate sometimes. He was always alone, I thought he looked sad.’ She looked at Patsy sharply. ‘Then again is it any wonder what happened, I assume that you’ve met Daisy Coolage?”

“Yes, we have.” Patsy kept her voice professional. She wouldn’t join in passing judgement but she could sense the hatred, the judgement.

“Well then, I’m sure you’ve drawn your own conclusions. A mother like that; Danny never had a chance.”

“Did you know Daisy well before?”

“Only by reputation. She drank even then, I saw her once dancing on a man’s lap in the pub. His wife slapped her outside afterwards and she cried but I knew more from my friends.’ Cynthia gave Patsy a shy shrug. ‘I used to be a social worker at the hospital. St Matthews. I left after I had Erin but I still had friends in the profession. One of them was involved in the case formally when Danny was a baby and she told me some of the details after what happened. She said the farm was a sty, should have been condemned, rubbish everywhere. Everyone says she’s slept with half the village, even the married men sometimes. Danny deserved better, perhaps if Daisy had spent some of that time she was drinking on her son she’d have noticed how sick he was. She could have stopped it.”

Patsy decided to draw a line under the subject. She wasn’t here to judge Daisy and she could well imagine a friendly social worker adding spicy lies on top of truths to comfort Cynthia. To find her a target to hate so she could heal.

“I’m sorry to bring this up again Cynthia, but, Erin’s father?”

Cynthia’s smile dwindled and she lowered her hand to rest on the table gingerly. “I don’t- He’s not involved with Erin. Doesn’t even know she exists. It was... It was a one night stand. A party. I’m not... I wouldn’t want Erin to find out.”

“What about grandparents?’ Patsy pushed on as neutrally as she could, ‘uncles or aunts?”

Cynthia shook her head. “No, I’m an only child. My parents died when I was at uni, cancer, both in the same year. I came to Poplar for a fresh start, the hospital was my first job, they had a great package for new starters. Erin’s all the family I have left now.”

The conversation teetered off after that. Cynthia seemed even more diminished with her explanations and closed off when Patsy tried to ask anything else. When the woman’s eyes kept straying to the clock meaningfully Patsy took the hint and cut the interview short. She didn’t believe that Cynthia would ever really use the card she handed to her and walked with Kim towards the door.

Just as she was about to leave a thought struck her and Patsy turned back to look at Cynthia framed in the hallway lights, stained even more pale than ever.

“Oh, just one more question before we go. Did you ever come into contact with this woman?’ Patsy groped for her phone and showed Cynthia the picture of Laura Stoker. Cynthia gazed at it for a few moments and then shook her head frowning.

“Sorry, I don’t. Is she involved in this somehow?”

“Just another lead to follow up.’ Patsy replied non commitally.

They didn’t say anything until they reached the sanctuary of the jeep. The door closed behind them, the living room curtains hung open but the room remained empty. Patsy imagined Cynthia sitting back at her table designed for four but big enough for one and felt a pang of pity.

“So? What do you think?” Kim pulled Patsy back to the now, her expression eager.

Patsy half smiled. “She didn’t want to talk about the father did she?”

“No. Don’t see what she could be hiding about it though. Maybe she shagged some married bloke and doesn’t want anyone finding out.” Kim suggested idly.

Patsy nodded her agreement. “Probably, village gossip can be a killer. She was judgemental enough about Daisy though, I can’t see her as the affair type somehow.”

“She said she worked at the hospital,’ Kim pointed out fairly, ‘big workplace. There’s got to be a lot of bed hopping going on there.”

“Well done,’ Patsy was pleased that Kim had noticed that fact, there was hope yet. ‘It’s a possibility but probably not that relevant. The hospital keeps coming up though doesn’t it? There might be a link there somehow. The psychologist, Danny, Cynthia. They’ve all been there at some stage. It’s a common strand.”

“I doubt it.’ Kim frowned, ‘they weren’t there at the same time, she’s been out of it twelve years and looks likes she’s got her hands full with her daughter.”

“Hmm,’ Patsy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel thoughtfully. ‘It’s still a link though.”

“You really think this is to do with the hospital?” Kim sounded respectfully unconvinced.

Patsy clicked her tongue. “I think someone there has to know something more than we do. You said you had a contact there.”

Kim’s face was cautious. “Yeah, I did.”

“Good. Call them, I want to speak to someone who knew him recently. Our Danny’s being painted as a victim and maybe he was but if there’s something else going on then I want to know about it from someone who knew him and then there’s this psychologist thing, it’s bugging me. Why did he have so many copies of her obituary? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Maybe he hoarded?” Kim suggested with the air of someone clutching at straws.

Patsy leaned her neck into the head rest. “You saw that flat. He didn’t even have a proper bed.”

“The woman died almost a year ago. If it’s related why wait so long?”

“I don’t know, but we’ll find out. She worked at the hospital, maybe they knew each other. I want to speak to;’ Patsy consulted her notes hurriedly, ‘Mandy Hester; see if she can shed some light on the matter. You get onto your contact, set up something Monday morning, a social worker or a manager we can speak to. Face to face mind, better to know if we’re being lied to that way. I’ll check in on the dealers, find out who was supplying our boy.”

“A drugs related kill?”

“Doubt it,’ Patsy thought out loud. ‘If they wanted him dead there’s easier ways and besides he was a no one, why kill him when he could keep coming back as a customer. A fire draws too much attention and it’s dangerous. It could kill other people, they wouldn’t risk that for a small fry like Danny.”

Patsys contemplation was cut short when her phone rang. Still not totally paying attention Patsy fished out her mobile but at the sight of Phyllis’s name something cold pushed everything out of her mind. Seppie? Helen?

“Mount. Phyllis? Is everything okay? Is Sep-“ Patsys fear was dizzying. Phyllis wouldn’t just call for nothing.

“Calm down lass, everything fine.’ Phyllis had read her mind, her solid wall of a voice rushed over Patsy like the sea and stilled the panic at once. ‘No ones seriously harmed.”

Patsy winced, ears straining for sirens in the background. “Seriously harmed? Is Seppie alright?” Abraham. All she could see was Abraham. The burning building trying to eat them alive.

“It’s not Seppie kid, take a deep breath. It’s something else... Do you think that you could come by the school. Now?”

Patsy glanced over at Kim who’d taken the opportunity to retrieve her phone again only to be met by a still empty message box.

“I could. What’s up?”

Phyllis hesitated only for a moment and then she spoke softy, so others couldn’t hear. “It’s Trixie lass, she’s not very well. It would be better for her if she was taken home by a friend. I wouldn’t want to have to call the police in their official capacity.”

Patsy stared at the window in front of her, surprised. “Trixie?” She repeated slowly.

“She’s had a bit too much to drink if you ask me.’ Phyllis elaborated calmly, ‘crying and whatnot. I have tried to ascertain further details but given her state none have been forthcoming. Something to do with Reverend Hereward I don’t doubt.”

“Shit.’ Patsy rubbed her eyes tiredly, ‘they were supposed to be meeting one another today. She thought that he was going to ask her back.”

“It would seem not to be the case lass. Now, how long will it be until we can expect you?”

Patsy sighed and cricked her neck. “Forty five minutes or so, I need to take my colleague back first. Will that be okay?”

“We can accommodate that.’ Phyllis confirmed in that snappy management mode that seemed to only to occur naturally in people born north of Manchester. ‘If you park in the staff car park we can take her out the back way. I’ll leave Delia to take you to the sick room.”

Patsys brain seemed to instantly melt, she sat up in an elegant scrabble of legs against the dash. “Hang on, no. Wait! Phyllis there’s really no need to-“

But only the dial tone was listening, Phyllis had already gone.

Patsy sat immobile for a moment and tried to count to ten in her head but only managed to swear loudly. Fuck, fuck, balls and piss.

“Everything alright?” Kim sounded concerned and the voice matched the face when Patsy looked over at her.

“That was the school,’ Patsy explained miserably, ‘I’ve got to go in, can I drop you at the station? You can report back to Ursula while you sort out the hospital for Monday.”

“Oh, no,’ Kim’s face flushed, ‘drop me off at the fire station. It’s closer and I can work better from there. You can send your DI an update for both of us can’t you?” Kim’s lips puckered beseechingly and Patsy relented as she tugged down the hand break.

“Fine, fine, but we need to go now.”

“Is everything okay?’ Kim asked again, picking up on Patsys stress. ‘Your kid?”

Patsy bit her lip, aware that she’d already agreed to go and nauseous at the prospect of seeing Delia so soon. She hadn’t decided anything yet. “No, something else but I still need to go.”

Forty five minutes. Not long enough.

Chapter Text

Patsy pulled in to the teachers car park just over the forty five minute time limit. She’d run late mainly because Kim had faffed as she’d gotten out; wanting exact times to contact Patsy over the weekend.

Patsy had felt a slight rush of expectation from the woman as she’d finally disembarked. She’d had the uncomfortable impression that Kim didn’t have a lot planned for the weekend and probably could have done with some sort of company. While charity had its place in life Patsy had filed this under ‘not her problem right now’. She wondered if she should mention the fact to Chummy though, the two of them would probably enjoy reading up on pernicious factoids from the latest journals together.

The staff car park at Poplar Primary was the same as every other of its kind on the planet. An old bangers graveyard. Battered fiats that should have been condemned when the Berlin Wall fell. Rusty rimmed Ford KA’s and one ill considered smart car, it’s personalised psychedelic pattern rather faded against the heavy rain. Patsy had spotted Phyllis’s car straight away; an old restored Morris Minor, faded pastel blue, the wing mirrors on their spindly chrome stalks.

Delia was stationed by the schools side entrance that led into the corridor bridging the little kids from the slightly older ones. Patsy could see her, hovering like a threat in her periphery and clenched her hands around the steering wheel.

She’d been riding waves of jitters since she’d managed to lose Kim. Her brain drifting into unsatisfactory circles; trying to figure out what to say, what to do.

She still hadn’t got a clue about what she wanted but Delias presence told her that she was finally out of time. She was terribly afraid that she was going to have to wing it.

Right.

Patsy took a deep calming breath, focusing on the pull of her lungs, exactly like the mindfulness pamphlet she’d been given at the shrinks office advised in times of stress, trying to clear her mind. This was it. Showtime. It was going to require all of her tact, resolution and ...

Shit. What was she going to do?

Patsy let go of the wheel at the same time as she released her breath. Her hands gripped her face in panic.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

She couldn’t do this.

Bloody Phyllis! Damn the interfering old busybody. Damn Delia for making everything so hard. Damn herself for caring so much.

This wasn’t what she did. She shouldn’t feel this unsettled when she hadn’t done anything wrong. Feelings were like STDs, interesting to read about on the back of books but not at all pleasant to experience.

Patsy was lost without a map. She didn’t get attached to people. She didn’t have expectations. She didn’t fall in love. One night stands, move on, don’t look back, that was Patsy. That had always been Patsy right from the start. It had been safer that way.

The first woman Patsy had ever slept with had been a stranger who bought her drinks on her second night at a gay bar in Norwich. A nice smile who hadn’t offered a name but who had owned a posh terraced house up near Hevingham way that to fourteen year old Patsys uncomplicated mind had averaged out to be about the same thing.

The house had been the fancy kind with a front garden full of lawn, border plants that were neat and a second car bought in the last decade parked on the off road space. Patsy had been drunk and in awe as she’d sweated in the leather passenger seat trying not act like she was clueless when the woman pulled in a lay by and dragged her into the backseat.

Patsy didn’t think that she’d really enjoyed herself reflecting back on it. She certainly hadn’t been very good at what she was trying to do; too fumbling and apologetic. Not really aware of what it would entail.

They hadn’t bothered all that much with sex education at Matties back then, certainly nothing on homosexual stuff, more preoccupied with the tricky conundrum of trying to encourage citizenship and the vague notion that stealing, taking drugs and fighting should be generally avoided if at all possible amongst the collective psyche of its pupils.

The closest thing Patsy thought she might have experienced in that vain had included sitting staring out of a window while the ancient school nurse tremulously explained how to put a condom on correctly using a banana as a prop at the front of the class while the teenagers giggled at the improbability that anyone over the age of 25 could possibly have had sex ever.

The woman hadn’t been all bad Patsy had to admit even now. She’d taken Patsy back to her house when she was done with her in the car even though she could have dumped her there on that country road. Patsy had blushed when she took her shoes off in the hallway, too ashamed that her school shoes weren’t clean and hyper aware of the glaring whiteness of the thick carpet.

She’d had a walnut coloured dresser, peach shades on her bedside lamps. Her bedroom door had had a porcelain handle, the polished sort that Patsys hand had slipped on because her palms had been slick with nerves when the woman pushed impatiently at her back for her to move. There’d been watercolours on the walls that were tastefully neutral. A picture of the woman she’d slept with and some other woman had hung on the wall; Patsy had thought they looked sweet together, postcard happy the way couples were in the movies.

At the time it hadn’t occurred to Patsy to ask questions. They hadn’t had what you could call a conversation at all. When they’d finished the second time the woman had let Patsy have a glass of water in her spotless kitchen; watching with detached interest to make sure that Patsy didn’t steal anything while Patsy forced back the water, her teeth clattering loudly in the swelling silence. Terribly worried that she might vomit. The beer hadn’t suited her and the woman had bought her far too many before pushing her to get into the car.

Patsy hadn’t had a clue how to get back to the childrens home, her knowledge of the local roads had only been sketchily made then through the homes quarterly “trips out” and she’d been close to panicking when the woman told her she couldn’t stay. The woman had given her a ten pound note out of pity eventually and called a taxi on the corded phone in the hall, her back to Patsy, winding the curly strand around her finger, toe tapping irritably as she waited to be connected. She’d been so drunk that she’d gone back to her bed after that, just told Patsy to lock up when she went and switched off the hallway lights leaving Patsy to stand alone in the dark.

Patsy had sat on the front step, her shoes only half on, the ten pound note sticky in her palm as she’d waited for the taxi. She wasn’t fool enough not to get the cabby to drop her off at the next bus stop and pocket the change though. As she’d sat on the night bus an hour later, the vibrations of the ancient motor making her want to puke, avoiding the conductors blatant stare, she hadn’t felt short changed or mistreated.

Sex had been about what she’d always thought it would be, the treatment had been what she’d felt she was worth. No one wanted to keep Patsy around and this aspect of her life couldn’t be viewed in any different way to the others. She wasn’t fool enough to harbour expectations of affection, would probably have fallen apart completely if the woman had tried to hold her.

Patsy thought of Fern, trapped in that situation now and her fists clenched, nails biting deep.

She hadn’t known then that she was setting a precedent for herself, hemming herself in by her own lack of requirements. Over the years she’d seen too many porcelain door handles and she’d never been the smiling girl in the photograph on the wall. She hadn’t ever wanted to be her.

Love had been a terrifying notion, a death sentence. A set of rules she’d never been taught. She’d thought she would always be content in her role, even if it had felt like she’d spent her evenings pressing her face against the glass of other people’s life, basking in reflected warmth but not feeling it for herself, she’d never mourned that up to now. It hadn’t bothered her for years. Eventually though even she’d noticed the emptiness.

She noticed it now.

Val had been her first attempt at trying for more. She’d wanted something then, been ready for it and perhaps if she’d been able to verbalise what it was she wanted at the start and perhaps if Val had been less fucked up to the core then they might have just about managed it.

And then Delia. It had been so strange with Delia. Delia had wanted Patsy, or at least Patsy had thought so at the time and not because she was simple or easy but because she’d liked Patsy for who she was. How wonderful it was to be wanted for longer than a day for more than just sex. An unspoken drug.

And then Delia had ruined everything. Or maybe Patsy just hadn’t been enough after all.

Patsy didn’t know what was supposed to happen now.

Annoyingly Patsy found that despite everything she still wanted her. Stupid as it was Patsy wanted Delia to be there when she woke up. She wanted Delia to tell her about her day, to talk about something innocuous because Patsy represented that singular ear that was formed to hear it. Patsy wanted everything. She’d been ready.

Patsy had finally taken a step, she’d pushed and she’d been ready to fall and Delia hadn’t been there to catch her. It was maddening.

She didn’t know what to do...

Someone knocked tentatively on the car window. Patsy flinched, swivelling around, her hair at ends where she’d run her fingers through it to stare into the offending tappers face.

Delia was of course outside, her vanished finger had left a drooping trail marks in the rain splatters. Patsy gawped at her, aware that she’d been caught yet again spaced out. Nervously, Delia raised her hand to offer the smallest of fairy waves, her teeth chewing her bottom lip.

Patsys brain went blank, her automatic response was to smile back, to reassure Delia. She only just managed to catch herself in time, altering the muscle twitch into a half hearted glower. Delia stopped waving at once, wilting while the rain dripped off the end of her nose and bounced against the smart waterproof coat she was wearing.

Stiffly Patsy got out of the car. Delia had to move back to avoid the door as Patsy gingerly slid into the empty outside space, Delia tried to close the door. Patsy held it, realised what Delia was trying to do and let go again. Delia let go too. The door hung between them, big and shiny and solid.

There was an embarrassed pause and then, biting her cheek, Patsy closed the door with a clunk that was too loud for what it was.

The two of them carefully avoided one another’s eye, too self conscious to speak. The atmosphere reminded Patsy of a western, both of them waiting for the other to say something. To shoot.

Patsy was the first one to move in the end, always better when she was doing something. Trying to appear casual she made a meal of tucking up the collar of her coat and twirling the key fob on the end of her finger. She found that she didn’t want to look directly at Delia. It hurt.

She couldn’t help but remember last night. She wondered if Delia would ask about the marks on her neck or if she’d dare mention anything that happened at all. She wondered if Delia had talked to someone about it.

Caroline?

“Afternoon Pats... How are you?” Delia opened rather bravely considering the fact that Patsy had yet to look at her yet.

Patsy wavered, a million responses flickering across her thoughts, each one more childish than the next. She felt like a sulky teenager. Eventually, with only a brief battle of will, maturity managed to stop them being said and she settled grudgingly for a disgruntled hmpph noise which somehow didn’t quite have the cutting effect she’d been hoping for.

She couldn’t be completely certain but she was sure that she faintly heard Delia chuckle. In the time that it took for Patsy to turn and glare, Delia had managed to transform the noise into a weak cough but something like amusement still lingered around her mouth.

Dimples.

And honestly a fair portion of Patsy couldn’t blame her for laughing.

If Patsy wasn’t so angry she might have laughed too. She felt ridiculous. She felt furious.

In a bid to gain control of the situation Patsy decided to get on with the reason she’d come her in the first place and wordlessly began striding towards the school, suppressing a satisfied smirk when Delia was forced to half jog to keep up with her.

“I take it that you’re still angry at me then?” Delia said a little breathlessly amongst the splashes of their feet in puddles.

Patsy rolled her eyes. “I can’t be rainbows and kittens every day.”

“I doubt you’ve ever been rainbows and kittens.’ Delia sniffed resignedly, she was doing an odd half jump movement to try and get in front. ‘Have to say it’s going better than I thought it would though, I thought you’d ignore me completely if I’m honest.”

“I haven’t ruled it out entirely yet.” Patsy grunted, but slowed down just enough that Delia wouldn’t trip over on the slippery ground. Concrete would hurt her hip.

Not that she cared.

“I’m trying not to crowd you.” Delia admitted wryly, bumping into Patsys side as she took advantage of Patsys slower pace and scrambled to walk a little ahead of her.

Patsys lips twitched against her will as she saw the flash of victory in the Welsh woman’s face. “Well... You’re failing. Spectacularly.”

“I know, look,’ Delias fringe was plastered to her forehead from the rain, she wiped it back with a sigh, ‘I want you to know that I didn’t put Phyllis up to this.”

“If you say so.” Patsy replied stonily.

“It’s the truth Pats.” Delias face was open, imploring.

Patsy let it sink in for a moment. Her instincts screamed at her to get away from Delia but her heart was louder. It didn’t have any more answers than the rest of her but it didn’t want to go anywhere else. She’d always walked away. It hadn’t solved anything so far.

Patsy stopped abruptly and squinted at Delia, it was like looking at the sun, blinding. “Well,’ She bit sarcastically, ‘we all know how much you love telling me the truth don’t we.”

Delia had stopped too, her head cocked to the side, resolute. Ready to accept whatever Patsy had to say; her acceptance didn’t stop Patsys anger, if anything it made it worse. “Would you have rathered that I lie to you?” She asked gently.

“No!’ Patsy huffed, frustrated at the impossible choices open to her now and aimed a hard kick at the wall, the kick achieved nothing but an aching big toe but she ignored it. ‘I’d rather that you didn’t fuck someone else in the first place if we’re picking and choosing things we want.”

Delias smile vanished, the nervy mask dropping to be replaced with sincere contrition. “Pats-“ she tried quietly.

Patsy didn’t want to listen anymore but she couldn’t move away. She couldn’t stop herself. “I like your coat. Caroline’s is it?”

Blinking rapidly, Delia glanced down at her waterproofs and shook her head with a resigned tut. “Cariad, I’m welsh. We’re born in our kagools.”

This show of humour was obviously another peace offering but Patsy wasn’t in the mood. She wanted to be like Fern and run away through the back door.

“I need to go and see Trixie.” Patsy started walking again, needing movement to keep her centered.

Taking a deep breath Delia followed, an edge to her voice now. “Pats, I need to talk to you about something.”

Patsy was almost at the door, Delia skipping just a foot in front of her. “Not interested.” She lied flatly reaching for the handle.

“Wait!’ Delia raised a hand hastily, stepping in front of the door with a stubborn expression on her face that Patsy shouldn’t in any way think of as endearing. ‘We need to talk.”

Talk. Patsy wanted to roll her eyes. Why did women do that? Like you could just talk everything out and it would go away. Like talking could change the fact that Delia hadn’t trusted her. That wasn’t real life, it wasn’t how things worked. You couldn’t talk away betrayal. Pointless. Patsy wasn’t much of a talker on her best day in any case. She certainly wasn’t feeling up to a change in form right now.

Steeling herself Patsy tried to compose her features into a disdainful mask, wanting this over with quickly and painlessly for both their sakes. “I’m in a bit of a hurry here Delia.’ She jerked her hand towards the door pointedly, refusing to meet Delias eyes, her gaze landing about a foot above her head. ‘I don’t really think that this is the time to-“

“This isn’t about us.’ Delias obvious offence was like a pin to Patsys balloon. Scowling, Delia pulled something free from her pocket with the magnanimous air of a magician pulling out not one but two pocket handkerchiefs knotted in the shape of a whimsical symbol much to the crowds dwindling delight. A blue plastic bag was wrapped around a slim glass bottle neck. ‘This is about Trixie, what she was holding when she got here. I wanted to show you before you see her.”

“What is it?” Patsy asked the question warily enough but she thought that she could guess. Her heart sank lower in her chest, the hot air from her bluster cooling somewhat.

As though to drive her point home Delia lifted the thing higher so that Patsy could make the out the shape of a bottle smashed to a point clearly silhouetted in plastic. In the ringing silence Patsy finally met Delias eyes. Horrified.

“She was carrying it with her when Phyllis saw her standing by the gates.’ Delia accused sharply. ‘She was buzzing to call for Barbara.”

“She-‘ Patsy couldn’t quite finish the sentence, her throat was suddenly dry, the terrible conclusions were obvious enough. What might have happened if... Shit.

For fucks sake Trixie!

Patsy rubbed at her temples distractedly, she could sense a headache coming on and forgot to be angry for a second. Weakly she lent back until she could lean against the wall for support.

At her daughters school. At any school. If Phyllis didn’t know Trixie then the police would almost certainly have been called. Barbara still had the right to call them now. Trixie would lose her pin. Patsy could lose her job for trying to hide it, her credibility lost, Ursula would probably help the investigation along.

God, she was tired. Exhausted. Patsy wanted to curl up in a ball, she wanted to slap Trixie. What the hell had she been thinking? Still, Delias foot tapped on the concrete and Patsy knew she couldn’t say nothing, she had to say something in Trixies defence.

Trying to appear casual she returned to her gaze to the spot above Delias head. “She gave it to Phyllis in the end though?” She asked croakily.

“She dropped it when she collapsed outside.’ Delia hissed, her brows furrowed, staring at Patsys face in a kind of terrible wonder. ‘Patsy, she could have hurt someone.”

“No.’ Patsy shook her head, resolute. ‘She’s upset, she’s not thinking straight that’s all. Trixie wouldn’t hurt anyone, she might have a big mouth but she’s not built like that. She’s a nurse.”

“That might be but I think we all know why she’s not thinking straight don’t we.’ Delia huffed angrily. ‘I could smell it on her Pats.”

“Oh.” Patsy closed her eyes, controlling her anger. Not willing to talk behind Trixies back even though she couldn’t help but agree with Delia. She wanted to sink forward, she suddenly felt too heavy. The world was a weight on her shoulders and she wished with all her might that someone would share the burden. It would have been easier if Abraham had just finished her off, someone better than her would have known what to say right now.

She didn’t know how to fix this. What else could she say to Trixie? She didn’t know how to help her, failing people again.

Something warm encircled her wrist, jarring her out of her thoughts. Patsy opened her eyes and found to her surprise that Delia had moved closer, holding on to her with a look of concern in her eyes that made Patsy want to cry.

Sometimes life had a way of getting on top of you.

She wanted to keep Delia there, she wanted to be able to reach out like it was that easy. She wanted to hold Delia and never let her go.

“Pats?’ Delias voice was soft, the softest thing. Pillows in a mine field. ‘How long has this been going on? The drinking?”

Reluctantly Patsy pulled her arm loose, she couldn’t allow herself to get used to the sensation. “She’s just going through a bad patch.” She muttered brusquely.

Delia made a tsk sound at the back of her throat, rubbing her hip distractedly. “That’s not an excuse. She’s a hard drinker from what I can see. It’s not even two hours since she had her last one and she’s already got the shakes for more. She’s barely making sense when she speaks.”

“What has she said?” A pit of dread opened up in front of Patsy as several possibilities presented themselves. Delias face confirmed something of the subject.

Delia tsk’d again, her cheeks warming as she folded her arms tightly across her chest, protective. “Nothing about what’s happened to her. She won’t say anything to me about that actually, that’s why I left her with Phyllis. I think it’s about Tom; a divorce request. She wouldn’t let me check out her hands, she’s cut her palms, probably the glass. I was worried she’d been beaten up or something given the state of her but I think she’s just fallen over a lot. She did enjoy telling me what she thought about my behaviour though. You should know that according to her if I ever come near you again she’ll break my legs.” Delia laughed a hard, forced laugh but her eyes burned with humiliation.

Patsy swallowed, appalled. “I didn’t tell her to say that to you.’ She explained hurriedly. ‘I wouldn’t ever-“

“It’s fine.’ Delia interrupted coldly, ‘she’s drunk, I messed everything up, she’s your best friend, people talk rubbish when they’re pissed. I just hadn’t thought that you’d tell the world about our business quite so soon.”

“I didn’t.’ Patsy said quickly, embarrassed for them both but not quite ready to roll over. She hadn’t done anything wrong. ‘She’s my friend, she’s just trying to defend me. She came home when you left and I was... upset, hurt,’ she stumbled on the words awkwardly, feeling stupid admitting it out loud, the smallness of the descriptors somehow didn’t quite encapsulating how bad this was killing her. Delia wasn’t blinking, she was watching Patsy with too much attention, ‘that’s all. I needed to talk to someone about it. That’s normal I thought but I didn’t tell her to give you the third degree and I didn’t slag you off. No matter whats happened I wouldn’t want anyone to think badly of you. It’s our business, it’s between us. I wouldn’t stand there and let people talk to you like that and I’m sorry that she did. I’ll talk to her about it, tell her to pack it in, I promise...” Patsy caught Delias eye and the urge to say something else, something stupid and reckless gripped her hard. To beg.

Delia bit her lip. “I never set out to hurt you Pats. I hate that I-“

“Did you tell Caroline?’ Patsy couldn’t repress the question, even if it drove her mad she wanted to know. She had to know. The jealousy was buzzing around her head like a blue bottle on a sugar high. ‘When you got home did you tell her that we were over?”

The last word weighed too heavy on the way out. Patsys mouth twisted against the sourness of it. It didn’t feel true standing here right now.

“No.’ Delias lip wobbled dangerously. ‘I came home, I didn’t want to talk to anyone but you. I still don’t.”

Patsy hadn’t been expecting that. A trickle of shame made its way down her spine, cold and sticky. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, trying to formulate some sort of come back but couldn’t think of anything.

Nothing sane anyway.

“Pats...’ Delias eyes crinkled in the corners, screwing up as though the light was too bright. ‘You’re all I think about, you have to know that.”

Patsy stared at her, lost.

Delias defeat tugged at her, the irresistible urge to protect what was hers was stifling and confusing. Delias pain should have helped Patsy, knowing that Delia was hurting too should have smoothed the fractures that needled at Patsy but they didn’t. She gained no satisfaction from Delias suffering, it only left her worse off and it was awful to realise it. Even that though couldn’t quite numb her own grievances. Not yet.

Patsy thought of last night. Tried again to imagine Caroline’s face, Delia and Caroline together. What was the song? Sitting in a tree? K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Resentment seemed to pour through her, toxic and all she could feel. Filling her up.

“Except when you slept with Caroline.’ Patsy pointed out caustically, sarcasm her familiar shield. ‘You must have just been having an off day when that happened I suppose.”

Delia flinched as though Patsy had slapped her and looked up at the sky, controlling herself, counting to ten inside her head.

Patsy watched her regretfully, hating how much she wanted to take the words back. She didn’t mean it. Not really. If she’d been less of a fuck us then she might have tried to say something to fix this but it would need her to fix herself in the process and there was too many broken things about Patsy to fix it all. She didn’t know how to start. Delia wouldn’t wait forever.

She hadn’t even waited ten weeks.

Then there was silence except for the rain pattering on the concrete, splashing in the puddles and sinking. Delia looked down again, herself once more, something unsaid locked away.

“What are you going to do about Trixie?” She enquired calmly, the politeness so forced that it made Patsy want to cry again.

Patsy wished she had a cigarette, she needed something to do with her hands right now. Her fingers were twitching mutinously, wanting to reach out. To touch Delias face. To smooth away the politeness. She could say something comforting, refuse to let the subject lie- “I’ll deal with it.” She promised equally polite, stamping out her wants stubbornly.

Delia gave an exasperated snort and stamped her foot in frustration. “But why do you have to deal with it? I know that you always feel like you have to take responsibility for things but you don’t Pats. This isn’t your fault. You don’t have to always be the one saving everyone. She’s taking advantage of you. After everything that’s happened I really don’t think it’s fair to use you like she is. You deserve a bit of calm for once.”

“Since when do you care about my life!’ Patsy demanded furiously and then, when Delia made an outraged noise she added, ‘Trixies my friend. That sort of thing matters to me.”

“Friendship has limits.’ Delia said firmly. ‘Turning up here pissed, threatening people.’ Delia gestured to the building with the bottle neck still in her hand. ‘This is beyond crazy stuff. She’s fallen off a ledge and she was wearing her uniform when she got here Pats. Do you think she’s been drinking on the job too? She could end up killing someone.”

“I don’t- no.’ Patsy felt hemmed in, embarrassed by Trixies behaviour. Annoyed that Delia could be right and unsure of what she could do to stop it from happening again. ‘She wouldn’t do that. She’s not a complete idiot.”

“And what about the girls?” Delia pushed on, shoving hair out of her eyes again impatiently.

Patsy stiffened, instantly defensive at the unsaid insinuation. “What about the girls?”

“She’s got to be drinking when she’s at yours. It’s irresponsible. I can’t believe that you of all people would let it happen.”

“The girls are fine.’ Patsys jaw set stubbornly, aggravated. ‘I wouldn’t put them in danger, Trixies more than aware of what’ll happen if she starts to affect them. I‘m a good mother. You really believe that I’m that shit?” Patsy wasn’t Elizabeth. She wasn’t Allie or Mick. She wasn’t Him. She clung to that thought, she wasn’t. She wasn’t like them.

“Patsy I’m not questioning your abilities.’ Delia sounded exasperated, voice shaking with repressed emotion. ‘I know how much you love them, I’m only worried about you. And the girls. Can’t you see that? I don’t want you to lose them if this happens again and I can almost guarantee that it will. Addicts don’t just stop on their own. Trixies a mess Pats, she needs help. Social services could take the girls away if they find out they’re living with a drunk and where does that leave all of you? The girls adore you and you are brilliant with them. How could you put that in danger?”

“I wouldn’t let that happen.’ The idea of it was torture. Patsys brain couldn’t picture it. It wasn’t going to happen. ‘The girls are my priority. I can deal with Trixie.”

“But you shouldn’t have to!’ The words burst out of Delia explosively, her hand slapping her hip as though the force of them had caused her limbs to ricochet with the after shocks. ‘You shouldn’t be forced to do this on your own! You don’t need to do this on your own! There are professionals, trained people she can see who know what to do.”

“So now you don’t think I can handle a drunk?” Patsy had had enough, she couldn’t stand here. She couldn’t be near Delias pretence at concern.

Delia didn’t care about her. Patsy needed to remember that.

“I didn’t say that! Patsy I made a mistake, I fucked up but that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about you. You’re angry and you’re not listening to what I’m saying but I’m right Patsy. After everything you’ve been through it’s not fair. For Christ sake Patsy you’re not invincible and it’s high time everyone else realised that too!’ Delia stepped forward again and put a hand on Patsys shoulder, pushing it just a little to emphasise her point. ‘You’re barely healed up, you aren’t sleeping properly, anyone with eyes can see that and you’re already back at work. It’s madness as it is. If you keep burning the candle at both ends you’re going to keel over and it doesn’t need to be like this. You deserve to be treated better.’ Her thumb brushed Patsys collar insistently. ‘You’re worth more than you know.”

Without willing it Patsys hand crept up and held Delias wrist. “Just not worth waiting for?” She enquired, their faces too close.

“I care about you.’ Delia said bleakly. ‘I don’t want you to get sick... Pats, could we just-“

No.

Patsy didn’t know if she said the words out loud or not. She tried to take a step back but the wall pressed into her shoulder blades. Panicking she pushed Delia away roughly, dropping all pretence at subtlety. She couldn’t do this.

“I need to see Trixie. Where is she?” She barked flatly.

Delias face seemed to crumble, she looked like Patsy felt but she still managed to pull herself together enough to answer tightly. “She’s in the sick room, opposite Phyllis’s office.”

“You don’t need to show me, I know the way.” Patsy told her quickly because Delia had turned as if to lead them.

Delia stopped, her head hanging in defeat, her breathing heavy like she’d been running. “She needs to drink a lot of water, try to flush out the alcohol from her body. You should probably just take her home, let her sleep it off.”

Patsy wanted to point out that she’d dealt with a drunk before, that she’d survived 31 years on her own managing all manner of issues but she didn’t have the energy to fight Delia anymore. She didn’t want to fight her. She wanted to fix this.

Just didn’t know how.

Surrendering for now Patsy tried to walk past Delia but was stopped again, Delias hand hovering just in front of Patsys chest cautiously.

“Just a minute. I sent you two voicemails...’ Delias thumbs curled and uncurled like question marks in the air. ‘Did you even listen to them?”

“No.’ Patsy lied brutally, an automatic mechanism. ‘I deleted them.”

Delias hand dropped like a stone, her lips pressed hard together. “Fine... Right... Well, that’s... Fine.” Delias face was ashen and Patsy felt a sharp instant regret prick at her conscience. Unkind. She’d never been perfect but she’d always tried not to be unkind. She had the immediate urge to tell the truth. To take it back.

Delia was looking at the floor, defeated and it was all wrong. Patsy couldn’t just leave her like that.

Although she knew that she shouldn’t, knew she was being stupid, Patsy stopped where she was and gently put her hand on Delias chin, lifted her face back up.

“I’m sorry... I could have said that differently.” Patsy murmured hopelessly. Delias fingers had already claimed Patsys wrist as their eyes met.

“I hate this.” Delia said weakly, sounding too close to tears for comfort.

Patsy opened her mouth; “I-‘ and then she closed it again. She wanted to tell Delia that she loved her, that she didn’t care, that it didn’t matter enough to her that Delia had slept with Caroline to throw this away but common sense stopped her. Or perhaps it was just garden variety cowardice. ‘I should go and ch- check on Trixie.’ She said instead, feebly.

Delias fingers tightened. “I’m sorry Pats. I don’t know what else I can say. I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t do it.”

So why did you? The question burned at Patsy but she couldn’t say it. The answer wouldn’t change the facts and it wouldn’t make her feel any better.

She still couldn’t walk away though.

Groaning, Patsy closed her eyes and stepped forward until she could bury her face in Delias hair. It smelled like rain, hot against Patsys skin.

“I’m so angry at you right now.” Patsy admitted in a muffled voice, finding it easier to say when she didn’t have to see Delias reaction.

Delia breathed slowly against Patsys neck, her thumb tracing Patsys wrist cautiously. “Do you think you’ll forgive me?”

Patsys eyes burned behind her lids, unable to answer and angry at the confusion she didn’t know how to deal with. Anyone else wouldn’t have been this hard to push away.

As though Delia understood this she let go of Patsys hand and stood on tip toes to run her fingers through the hair at the back of Patsys neck.

“Pats?”

The sensation made Patsy lean into her. It wasn’t normal but it was addictively strange.

“I don’t know.’ Patsy murmured regretfully, reaching to stop Delias ministrations as gently as she could. ‘I just... I need a bit of time to work it all out... I want to but I- I don’t know if I can.”

God she sounded so pathetic.

They stood there, the rain drizzling down the back of their coats like a pair of fools before Delia broke away swiping clumsily at her eyes, nodding seriously.

“Okay...’ She said decisively, with the air of a long jumper sizing up a pole set in clouds ‘then I’ll just have to wait won’t I?”

Patsy blinked, taken aback. “I’m not expecting you to-“ she spluttered but Delia just shook her head.

“As long as it takes. I’ll wait. I’ll wait until you’re not angry anymore.”

Patsy stared at her. She felt like she’d missed a portion of the conversation. Stepped into someone else’s romance.

“I’m not expecting-“ she tried again stumblingly.

“You should go. Trixies waiting.” Delia encouraged, crossing her arms to hide how shaky she was.

Patsy couldn’t think of what else to say to that. Delia was looking at her levelly, refusing to back down.

Feeling as though she’d been struck over the head when she wasn’t looking Patsy fled and stumbled head first into the dry heat of the school corridor.

Delia didn’t follow and Patsy was grateful for that fact. Patsy would have probably fucking proposed if they’d managed another five minutes.

Idiot.

When she was sure she was out of sight of the windows Patsy stopped against the wall littered with school year photographs from decades past and slapped her forehead. Rain exploded through her fingers.

Well... That hadn’t gone entirely to plan had it?

So much for keeping it cool Pats.

Delia... couldn’t have meant what she said... Probably just felt bad... She didn’t really feel that way. She couldn’t.

Could she?

Along the corridor a door closed. Someone cleared their throat. Phyllis.

With a start Patsy remembered that she was here for a reason.

Patsy turned in time to see Phyllis watching her from afar, silhouetted in a the dark doorway of the medical room and then walk over to Patsy with a steady, measured march. The northerner looked much as she always did despite events; calm and solid. She was precisely what Patsy needed right now. Absurdly, Patsy wondered what would happen if she asked for a hug from the woman and then scolded herself. She really must be tired.

“Ahh Patience,’ Phyllis’s face changed when she smiled, the lines around her lips warping ever so slightly. Made her seem younger; a flash of the Phyllis Helen had first fallen in love with. ‘Thank you for making tracks so expediently but I believe we can stand down for the moment. Our friend is back there, she’s asleep now.’ she thumbed over her shoulder with a tick tockish movement that suggested to Patsy mental lists were being checked off. ‘Before you go in however I wondered if it would be possible for the two of us to converse?”

Patsy fidgeted, aware of the fact that Phyllis was most probably present when Trixie had been ranting at Delia and recalling the stern way Helen had always questioned her when she’d done wrong as a teen. She wondered then between her mother and Phyllis who had mastered the expression Phyllis was currently aiming at her first or whether they had simply mastered it between themselves, improving it as they matured. A joint effort.

“Is this about the bottle?’ Patsy asked guiltily. ‘If it is then Delias already told me about it. Phyllis, I’m so sorry. I had no idea-“

Phyllis waved a hand halting Patsys babbling sternly, ‘I think we can abstain from that sort of thing lass. Not your fault at all and you mustn’t start blaming yourself. It sets an unhelpful example in these situations I’ve always found. Our mutual friend in there however does have to answer for herself and soon. I take it that we’re still on for tomorrow?”

“Yeah,’ Patsy felt wrong footed, still half expecting to be scolded somehow, ‘yes, of course. Eleven o clock wasn’t it?”

“Excellent.’ Phyllis linked her fingers neatly together and tucked them at her waist. ‘May I suggest that you bring Beatrix along with you all once she’s sobered up tomorrow then. That way we can discuss her issues when she’s less addled. At the moment I believe that any attempt at heartfelt discussions would be both naive and rather fruitless.”

“It’s the break up.’ Patsy explained weakly. ‘She’s not coping very well.”

“A good excuse for the moment but the issue is that there will always an excuse. There always is.’ Phyllis sighed to herself heavily. ‘I would wager that this problem has been there for some time. A fundamental root cause. In any case she certainly needs to speak to someone and soon. On that subject I can recommend an excellent AA group locally and would be more than happy to escort her there until she begins to improve.”

“I... Don’t think that she’d like that.” Patsy said as tactfully as she could manage.

“Nor do I.’ Phyllis’s smile took on a slightly more menacing edge, ‘however, change is required in these situations. Kiddies in the house. It’s simply not acceptable.”

“No.’ Patsy looked glumly at her shoes, Delia had been right about quite a lot of things. For one thing Patsy knew that she couldn’t do this on her own for all of her bluster outside. Patsy momentarily wrestled with her need to keep her thoughts to herself and then gave in; something about Phyllis told her that she could speak her mind without judgement. It reminded Patsy of Helen. ‘I’m not sure what to do about it to be honest. I don’t want to throw her out but if she keeps on the way she is... I can’t let her mess up the girls.”

Phyllis chewed the inside of her cheek thoughtfully and then clapped Patsy on the back. “We’ll think of something lass, don’t look so grim. Beatrix is a grown woman, we can offer aid but she will have to help herself too. I’m sure she will, she’s a bright girl under all the fluff.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“Even if we aren’t, the blame isn’t yours lass. You can’t save every soul, best not to try.”

Patsys nails scratched against her palms, Phyllis was still patting her shoulder and she didn’t know what she was supposed to feel about it.

“Right,’ Patsy cleared her throat, ‘so she’s asleep in there. I better see if I can lift her.”

“We can do that in a moment.’ Once again Phyllis sounded certain. A brick wall of a voice that Patsy didn’t know how to smash through. ‘I have another question to ask.”

Patsys face burned. This was it. Phyllis had heard about what had happened through Trixie. She was going to lecture Patsy about Delia.

“I don’t know what Trixies been saying.’ Patsy began ominously, gearing up for an argument, ‘but whatever it is then I don’t want to talk about it right now. She had no right to speak to Delia like that.”

The small smile playing around Phyllis’s eyes deepened as she waited for Patsy to finish. When Patsys did she squeezed Patsys shoulder again reassuringly. “I’m afraid that I fell temporarily deaf while Trixie was shouting. It all rather went over my head lass, I shan’t be enquiring over yours or Delias business, don’t fret.”

Patsy deflated. It was like stumbling over a step you knew was there, only to find that it wasn’t anymore. “Oh,’ Patsy swallowed hard, ‘well, that’s... That’s okay then.”

“She’s a lovely girl.” Phyllis said meaningfully.

Patsy couldn’t seem to grasp the conversation properly, “who? Trixie?”

“No lass. Delia. You’re both lovely girls.”

“Oh...’ Patsy wanted to rip off her face. The blush was getting on her nerves. To try and mask it she smoothed down her shirt. ‘Yes. She is.”

There was a pregnant pause where Patsy couldn’t pretend to fiddle with her clothing forever but thankfully Phyllis seemed to have her own agenda.

The northerner cleared her throat expectantly and with something else that Patsy couldn’t decipher in her current preoccupation. “I was wondering if you’d spoken to your inspector recently?”

Patsy looked up, surprised. “Ursula? What about her?”

“Nothing to worry yourself about lass.’ Phyllis mollified smoothly, ‘it’s only that we have a regular appointment once a month, that’s all. She’s missed the last three. I know that you will have come into contact with her and currently I have been unable to reach her through telephone communications.”

“I saw her yesterday.’ Patsy answered honestly and then a thought struck her, ‘hang on. You meet up with your ex every month? Does my mother know about this?”

Phyllis cocked her head, the air between the two of them suddenly cool. “You’ve been under a lot of stress.’ Phyllis said eventually in a friendly tone of voice that didn’t quite match her eyes. ‘So suffice let us simply say that I shan’t dignify that question with an answer.”

“Well,’ Patsy shook out her shoulders restlessly, ‘you have to know how it could look. Helens my mother. You can’t honestly think that I wouldn’t ask.”

“No and I understand why.’ Phyllis reached forward and tucked a hair behind Patsys ear fondly, ‘you really do remind me of Helen you know, stubborn. I appreciate your loyalty Pats but I can assure you that there’s nothing between Del and I anymore. Any water we tred in has long since passed under the bridge. Helen knows why we meet and she understands.”

“Right. Fair enough.” Patsy let it go. She would have paid quite a lot to end this conversation right now.

“Pats?”

“Yeah?”

“Delphine?’ Phyllis prompted, ‘how did she seem when you saw her?”

“She...’ Patsy tried to think back to yesterday and shrugged. ‘She seemed fine. Pissed off as usual. She told me to tell you that she wouldn’t be coming to the wedding.”

Phyllis cocked her head, an eyebrow raised thoughtfully. “Did she now? Hmm, and did she say anything else on that matter by any chance?”

Patsy thought about it and shook her head. “No, that was about the sum of it.”

“Did she seem odd to you?”

“Odd?”

Phyllis waved a hand in a vague gesture. “Dishevelled? Tired?”

Patsy frowned, trying to picture her boss. “No... Why? Is she sick?”

Phyllis clicked her tongue but gave no answer. Standing a little straighter she took a bracing breath and smoothed out her expression. “Thank you Pats, I appreciate that information. Now, shall we take Trixie to the car?”

Patsy looked at the door to the sick room and felt the exhaustion suck at her limbs. She didn’t really fancy hefting Trixies bulk but she’d need to get home before the school day ended.

With a sigh of resignation she shucked off her coat and rolled her sleeves up.

“Alright. Let’s do this.”

It wasn’t an easy task.

Trixie was indeed sleeping the heavy sleep of the severely drunk when they walked into the room. Someone had closed the blinds on the windows and the room was stained a depressing blue and stuffy. Trixie was laid out on the plastic bed designed mainly for children. Her long legs were hanging over the end edge in what could have been quite a funny pose if the whole thing hadn’t been so sad.

By common consent Patsy and Phyllis pulled Trixies comatose body to standing and each took a hold underneath the armpits. Trixies shoes dragged on the carpet as they walked back outside and left darker grooves in the weave.

Patsy thought of mafia movies and almost laughed out loud.

She stopped laughing when they got to the car. Delia had disappeared and Patsy felt the absence in her gut as they staggered past the spot where they’d stood together. Getting Trixie into the front seat was impossible, her legs too rigid to bend into a sitting position they eventually settled on laying her flat on the back seat and clicking three seatbelts around her to make sure she didn’t fall or slide.

Having deposited their load Patsy stood with Phyllis, both of them sweating slightly in the drizzle. At the gates Patsy could see the start of the yummy mummy club forming and almost groaned, the last thing she needed was for the clan to see her with Trixie like this.

“I’m going to kill her when she wakes up.” Patsy promised to the air in general.

Phyllis leaned a hip against the car bonnet and brushed stray hair from her bun back into place.

“If you get her home now then you can be back before anyone notices you’re late.”

Patsy sniffed darkly. “I can’t see anything getting past Lorna. She’s probably got CCTV on the roof of her car to spy out for any potential gossip.”

Phyllis laughed. “Don’t you start. I was hard pressed to separate her and Claire yesterday. I think the excitement was all too much, she had to leave early today. An upset stomach.”

Patsy only hmmd in answer. She couldn’t quite make herself care about Seppies classroom aid. She’d found the empty place Delia had been again and couldn’t make herself look away.

She should have said something else. Better.

Asking for time felt too close to another promise.

“Oh, that reminds me.’ Phyllis was all vim and vigour. ‘When you see her could you let Fern know that I have recently purchased a games console and would greatly appreciate her assistance in setting it up tomorrow.”

Against her current mood Patsy felt her lips stretching into a smile. Fern would be exultant. “You bought a games console?”

“I thought the girls would enjoy it,’ Phyllis beamed keenly, ‘but there are also a fantastic range of educational games too. I had quite the evening looking through the selection and came across a how to learn Spanish game.”

“The evenings must just fly by around yours.”

Phyllis didn’t seem to hear the sarcasm. She patted Patsy on the shoulder affectionately. “We must move with the times lass, progress is always welcomed.”

Patsy laughed, watching in bemusement as the older woman strode away.

From inside the car Trixie let out a rasping snore.

Patsy sighed, fingered her car keys idly and then got in, her mind rushing.

Chapter Text

It was Saturday.

Across the length of Patsys rather varied and chaotic life she’d had a couple of different routines for saturdays.

When she’d been a child there hadn’t been much call to note the days in the commune. Days had been things that happened around you or, she thought darkly, things that had been stolen from you. Most days there had followed the same path; chores, sermon, food, chores, bed until they all bled into one unending cycle.

The meal times were not fun events. The food had never been what you’d call good food and there hadn’t ever seemed to be enough of it to go around. Patsy remembered being hungry all the time, the constant pains that turned mundane in her stomach. Mostly meals had been silent affairs, all of them hemmed together in the big hall without saying anything, occasionally someone would cry or faint in lew of entertainment.

Those had been the most dangerous times of all, even now Patsy could still remember the open pit of dred in her stomach when it had happened, the shocking disturbance and then Abraham walking over to the culprit. Smiling, always smiling. The silence had been thickest then, built up by sixty half terrified and half stupidly awed people taking care not to speak as one of them was walked just outside the room, all of them secretly relieved that it hadn’t been them this time.

Then there’d be the awful screams of course. She’d learned to ignore them. If she listened too long her hands had shaken.

Patsy had been dragged out a few times when she was very small; when she hadn’t been able to stop herself from losing control or when Abraham had wanted to make a point. Chastity had been dragged out a lot more though. Abraham had always hated Chas and her mother had been made to go and watch it. After Chas died Elizabeth had been called outside more often than not. She’d cried too much after Chas died, drawn too much attention to herself.

After the commune had been over though Patsy had been flung out into new territory. She’d spent her Saturdays first in a winding succession of foster homes with sticky tables and clamouring women who demanded too much and then, when none of them stuck, the inevitable children’s homes. Those had been loud times; too many children, too much alien noise, too much new food, too many hands and shoulders and arms crowding into her until she thought she’d go mad. The world had been too big and every bang or shout had made her flinch. Her nerves stretched to breaking point.

And then there’d been Helen and Helens home which somewhere along the way had become Patsys home too. Her first real home with doors that locked and someone who loved her. The two of them had worked hard together to make it so.

Helen was a good mother; she’d fussed shyly at the start and Patsy had let her do it more out of non plussed pleasure than actual understanding. They’d had Saturdays together; it had become their day. Helen had always been a good cook and she still was so Helen would cook and Patsy would clean up afterwards because their standards of clean were not always the same and it had been the nicest thing Patsy had.

Still was really.

Even after Patsy had moved out she still tried to come round on a Saturday when she could. It was a ritual. A happy place.

And now it had all changed again. For one thing there was a hell of a lot more people; at this rate Helen would need a bigger house.

Phyllis half seemed to live at Helens now and her presence was becoming more obvious each time Patsy visited. There were subtle changes to the familiar landscape of Patsys childhood home. There were new photographs, a picture on the wall that hadn’t been there before, a new rug in the living too, more coats on the rack in the hallway and shoes by the door. Even the radio was fixed to a new station.

Fern and Seppie had left their mark on Helens home too. Patsys old bedroom had been gifted to them almost as soon as they’d got to grips with their bedrooms at Patsys. There was a box of toys in the living room that was rapidly spiralling over into the rest of the house. There was a pin striped, child sized apron hanging up in the kitchen with Helens and drawings tacked to the fridge. Pride of place amongst them was a messy card from Seppies first day at school. A sort of heart shaped potato print on the front and inside Seppie had written with shaky unsure writing made all the blobbier for the thick easy grip paint brushes “to my nannniys lob Seppee.”

Helen had nearly exploded with pride when she’d been given it.

Oddly, at least to Patsy, she found that she quite liked the changes. It didn’t feel dangerous. Saturdays now we’re certainly much busier though and today was no different. Patsy had felt instinctively that the girls needed anchors and routine when she’d got to grips with being a parent. It was heartening to see her efforts working; Seppie seemed to take it as written that Helen was her nan and Fern trailed after Phyllis like Neil. Today they’d brought Trixie with them too for all the company she was.

Trixie had been knock out for the whole evening yesterday. She’d eventually roused herself long enough to vomit in the toilet and then woken Patsy up around four, crawling onto the sofa and crying. Patsy hadn’t been able to gather much from the gabbled words.

Tom. Tom had officially asked for a divorce? She was sorry.

Trixie had smelt thickly of vomit and the remnants of whatever she’d managed to eat before pulling a Carrie outside the school had still been stuck to her hair in thick drying globs. Patsy had been too exhausted to say anything to that, only just managing to push away the blondes hair out of face range when she’d realised where the smell was coming from she’d considered pushing Trixie away but Trixie had seemed so pathetic that Patsy hadn’t had the heart to do it. Half asleep and sweating from the weight Patsy had wordlessly wrapped her blanket around Trixie and let her stay. She didn’t know what else she could have done.

Trixie had been in the shower by the time Seppie had gotten up and though she’d been pretty much non verbal since last night Patsy hoped she appreciated the half hearted support. It seemed to be enough to galvanise Trixie into agreeing to come for lunch at least although she’d refused to eat; preferring to curl up on the sofa in the back room with her face in a pillow.

The girls hadn’t seemed to notice, or at least hadn’t commented on the blondes behaviour. Patsy had expected Fern to at least make a passing jibe but Phyllis had provided a welcome distraction. The Xbox had been a strong lure and Patsy had watched in bemusement as Fern expertly helped Phyllis to hook up endless reams of wires without hesitation almost as soon as they arrived. Patsy hadn’t thought to stop them. Phyllis had seemed just as excited as Fern; the pair of them gabbling away about RAM as they huddled in front of the television and fiddled with batteries and remotes.

Seppie had watched them for a bit, perched on Patsys lap sucking her thumb but she’d quickly grown bored with everyone talking with “stupid fish faces” instead of with their hands.

Ferns preoccupation had meant Seppies preferred translator wasn’t willing and although Patsy kept her updated the little girl didn’t seem that interested in games she couldn’t hear. She’d gone to sit with Helen in the end, finding an interested set of eyes while Helen finished cooking the dinner; telling Helen animatedly about her class and Neil.

Patsy had sat and watched it all happen around her; still slightly bemused by how quickly the old had become the old and how the new barely felt new at all now.

There was only one thing missing. One person. The worrying thing was that Helen seemed to be aware of this fact. Patsy had purposefully chosen not to discuss this matter with Helen simply because Helen tended to think in straight lines and she could be more sarcastic than Patsy when she was adamant on a subject.

Plus it was still sore.

Delia hadn’t phoned last night.

Or text.

Patsy hadn’t precisely been surprised by that; she was the idiot who’d asked for time after all. She had a nasty feeling that she’d inadvertently entered into ball-being-in-her-court territory. Never a fun place to find oneself when she a) had never liked sports and b) had found she was playing for the Wimbledon grand slam title with a stick rather than a racket.

When they’d first arrived, Seppie racing ahead to launch herself at Helens legs, Fern not far behind grinning at Phyllis standing just a little taller than Helen in the doorway, Patsy had gone straight to the kitchen.

There had been seven plates on the table.

Patsy hadn’t said anything about it but she’d had to leave the room when Helen, after asking pointedly if anyone else would be coming, removed the excess seat.

Patsy had remained in the living room until Helen called them. Avoiding her mother’s shrewd eyes.

The dinner was decidedly vegetarian; quorn loaf with roast potatoes, veg and Yorkshire puddings. This was yet another Phyllis alteration and, to Patsys mind, not quite as welcome as the rest. Patsy had picked suspiciously at the quorn meat and had expected the girls to complain too but to her surprise they hadn’t. The girls had been raised to eat what was put in front of them after all and to eat it quickly too just in case someone attempted to take it away again.

Phyllis was quite keen on the plant based lifestyle and made a point of talking about it loudly when they came round to Patsys. She had a few friends running organic produce from back north and lamented the shoddy southern fare. Patsy had thus far managed not to make any acerbic comments in return but she’d drawn the line at the girls being vegetarian too. They’d eat meat until they were old enough to buy their own damn shopping. Fern alone could devour a cupboards contents in a day if she was on a roll.

They’d managed to inhale their dinner pretty fast and everyone was now onto pudding. Rhubarb crumble with custard.

Seppie had made a fuss about Neil not having a pudding either and although Patsy had told her not to she was pretty certain that Seppie was feeding him under the table; endlessly enabled by Helen who had supplied her with a second spoon.

The kitchen was warm. The rain beat against the back door like a tattoo, all of them together.

It was like being a family.

It was being a family.

“Helen?” Fern interrupted the quiet.

“Yes sweetheart?” Helen had been singing to Seppie who was on her second bowl but broke off to look over at Fern.

“Can I bring a friend with me to your engagement party next Friday?”

“As long as Patsy doesn’t have any objections about it then we-,’ Helen caught Phyllis’s eye and waited for Phyllis to nod, ‘don’t mind at all. The more the merrier, who’s the lucky lad?”

Fern fiddled with her spoon, pushing it around the edge of her bowl. “It’s a girl actually.”

As one, three spoons froze in midair; Patsy, Helen and Phyllis all looked towards Fern in mild disbelief. Phyllis coughed politely.

Seppie took the opportunity while the adults were looking away to offer a spoon full of custard to Neil.

Not three generations, Patsy thought despairingly, they’ll put us on the television if we manage that.

“She’s just a friend.’ Fern qualified hastily, blushing all the way to the roots of her dirty blonde hair, ‘I didn’t mean like...’ she made an embarrassed, jerky hand movement down the table at the assembled adults. ‘You guys... She goes to my school, she’s really cool.”

“Do I know her?” Patsy asked with interest, already knowing that the answer was no.

Fern hadn’t had many friends at school before the summer. Given her parents reputation and the rag bag assortment of clothing that had smelt and never fitted right that she’d been forced to wear for most of her years in academia she’d always walked under something of a cloud. Kids might not understand complex things such as class systems but nits and fleas tended to make anyone wary.

Fern had only ever had one extremely shaky friendship before june, a plump little thing with a red face and hair like weed who’d been called Chlamydia or something else equally uninviting by a confused but well meaning mother who had chosen the name from the back of a prescription pot because she’d thought it sounded nice. Patsy knew for a fact that that girl hadn’t talked to Fern since she’d gone back to school. Dead families tended to cast a wide shadow even to those so far down the pecking order shadows could be considered a leg up in the world.

Fern shrugged nonchalantly, “no, she’s new, joined at the start of term when her mum moved here. She’s called Amelie.’ Fern gave Seppie, who was sitting opposite her, a self satisfied look and added with a lofty spring to her hands, ‘she’s from France. That’s another country.”

Seppie was unmoved by this revelation and still sucking on her spoon, sticky custard residue on the chubby curves of her cheeks, she gazed up at her sister and, with the unerring ability of all younger siblings across the universe she found the weak spot in her Ferns armoury, thrust a metaphorical pick into it and wiggled experimentally. “Bet she isn’t. Bet you’re lying.”

Fern bristled, predictably taking the bait. “She is.’ She insisted, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about. Bet you don’t even know where France is.”

Seppie pursed her lips and reached a pudgy hand up to excavate the mysterious recesses of her inner ear with a little finger contemplatively. “I do. How French is she?” She demanded suspiciously.

Fern rolled her eyes and gave her sister a pitying look. “She’s got French Vogue in her school bag, I saw them.” Fern parried smugly as though this was concrete proof which, to a sixteen year old who’d never been further than Castor it probably was.

Seppie pulled the errant finger from her ear and inspected the contents on the end without much interest giving this statement due consideration. “That’s not French.” She signed eventually.

“Yes it is!’ Ferns cheeks were turning red with frustration. ‘You is five, what do you know about anything.”

“I seen French people on the television.’ Seppie supplied instantly. ‘They wear stripy jumpers and have plants around their neck and they ride little bicycles with dogs in the basket at the front and they go under that building that looks like a capital A and...’ Seppie paused, dredging through a slim volume of references to name and then perked up as she looked at Helen, ‘and they have moustaches, even the girls do and they hear the voice of God and start wars in their own country over it.”

This got the tables attention. Patsy frowned and looked over at Helen with a raised eyebrow. Helens face had frozen.

“Err?” Patsy interjected queryingly but Seppie wasn’t to be stopped when she in mid-flow winning an argument with Fern.

“-and they get burned at the stake because of it and they have short hair and they eat prawn cocktail crisps and they like cheese.’ Seppie scooped more crumble onto her spoon and shoved it into her mouth insolently before going on. ‘And I like cheese too so I’m probably more French than your friend is, so there. You just lying because you want to be cool.”

Patsy took a moment out of the sorirital bickering to look meaningfully at Helen for an explanation.

“What?’ Helen said defensively catching sight of Patsys gaze, ‘Joan of arc is classical history and it was only in pop up book form. Don’t look at me like that.”

Patsy sighed, Helen hadn’t ever had small children, Patsy had been fourteen when they’d started their relationship. She would bet any money Helen had been stockpiling pop up books ever since Patsy had been old enough to breed and she couldn’t blame her mother for being excited... However( “She’s five mum, perhaps zealots and burnings can wait until she’s six at least.”

Helen crossed her arms. “Well she loved it.”

“Clearly.” Phyllis said distantly, the northerner was still trying to follow the silent argument further down the table. Patsy copied her, aware that the tension had increased slightly while she hadn’t been watching. The argument seemed to have disintegrated into playground taunts in her absence.

“You don’t know anything.’ Fern was signing with an air of a cardsman about to lay down a four set of aces. ‘You’re just a baby, you even still suck your thumb like a baby. You still have a toy bear like a baby. You don’t know anything about anything. Ever.”

Seppie looked down at her thumb for a second and then reached beside her bowl to rub Bernard the bears ear. From the stiffness of her shoulders she was clearly wounded at the low blow. Scowling up at Fern, her bottom lip poking out in concentration Seppies eyes glittered with the thrill of a counter attack. “I do suck my thumb,’ She signed with feeling, ‘but at least I don’t wet the bed like a baby does.”

Fern gasped.

There was a much more deep, far more ringing silence as the two girls glared at one another across the now flimsy looking strip of table. Ferns face had turned from the pink of righteousness to the cherry red of humiliation. The colour didn’t really change unless you could read her well. She was the colour volcanos went prior to an eruption.

Patsy, however, was something of an expert on poor emotional control.

“I’m going to punch your face in!” Fern hissed rather than signed as she leaned across the table, fists raised. Seppie squealed and tried to duck.

Patsy decided to cut the scene short and launched forward, bowls rattling around her to grab hold of Ferns shoulders and push her firmly back on her seat.

“Alright Cassius Clay, that’s quite enough!’ Patsy shouted loudly. ‘She’s five, you’re not, sit down and behave yourself.”

“But she said-“ Fern gasped in strangled fury.

Patsy stopped her calmly. “She’s five and she’s trying to annoy you. That doesn’t mean you can hit her.”

“Yeah,’ Seppie signed sneakily under Patsys outstretched arms, ‘You can’t hit me so there.”

Patsy looked down and gave Seppie the sort of maternal look that is bred into anyone with a child in their house longer than a week. Seppie seemed to understand it because her hands dropped to her sides and she hastily returned to her crumble. Fern slumped back in her chair and then snuck a glance at Helen, still crimson with shame.

“I don’t...’ she whispered, her eyes skimming to Phyllis who hadn’t been quick enough to understand what Seppie had said, ‘do that... She’s making it up.”

“Don’t worry sweetheart,’ Helen soothed, ‘I know that and you,’ Helen signed at Seppie sternly, ‘stop being unkind to your sister.”

Seppie pouted and chewed her pudding sullenly although with no less enthusiasm.

Patsy frowned at Fern who was breathing hard, her fists clenched on her lap, and decided to move the conversation onto safer topics lest the afternoon turn into hours of sullen sighing. “I thought you might have asked to bring Ollie with you?”

Fern chewed her lip, still stuck in impotent shame. She flicked her thumb against her spoon with ting’ed against the ceramic. “No.’ She mumbled. ‘Ollies boring, he’d just make the party rubbish. He actually asked me yesterday if I wanted to go to his house and see his rock collection.” Fern rolled her eyes, relaxing slightly as no one seemed about to ask about her night time ablutions.

Patsy suppressed a smirk. “Well, I’m sure rocks have a bit of quiet interest about them.”

“Amelie says he probably irons his pants.” Fern muttered to her lap.

Phyllis raised her eyebrows, “nothing wrong with a man who knows his way around a household appliance lass and besides,’ her eyes gleamed reminiscently at Helen, ‘there was a time I thought you were boring, do you remember that?”

Helens cheeks puckered as she smiled back, “and I thought you were a total swot, no fun at all.”

Phyllis raised her spoon in a wry toast. “Here’s to proving you wrong.”

Helen laughed as she clinked their spoons together. Patsy watched them, a hollow pang spreading out cancerously in her stomach. She looked away.

Delias face scurried through her thoughts, Patsy wondered what she’d be doing today, whether she’d have liked to be here. Maybe she’d be calling her family. Unpacking probably. Or maybe she’d just be with Caroline...

Urgh. Enough.

Pushing away the lump in her throat Patsy turned back to Fern who was watching her expectantly, her bowl empty.

“Pats, can I go and play on the Xbox with Phyllis now?” Ferns puppy dog expression might have been more convincing if she hadn’t plumped for green eyeshadow today. The colour simply didn’t work no matter how much blending she tried. Patsy was also pretty sure that Fern had stolen it from Trixie although she wasn’t about to mention that to the blonde any time soon.

“If you wash up your bowl then you can.” Patsy relented.

Fern beamed, jumping up from the table towards the sink and showing far more enthusiasm for a chore than she’d ever shown when they were at home. The bowl barely touched the water before being clumsily shoved into the drying rack and Fern was flying past them all towards the living room, stopping only for a moment to bump Patsy affectionately and shoot daggers at Seppie.

Phyllis followed at a much more sedate pace, getting to her feet and taking hers and Helens bowl with her. Helen watched her go. Helen always watched Phyllis; it was like she thought the woman might vanish if she lost sight of her.

For Helens sake, Patsy hoped that she wouldn’t although the thorny issue of Ursula still but at her. She wondered if Helen really knew what was going on.

Patsy made a move to follow the duo into the living room but Helen called her back determinably.

Wedding plans.

There seemed to be a lot of planning when it came to weddings. Phyllis and Helen had set a date for the following June which Patsy privately thought was a but faster than necessarily necessary but Helen had been adamant.

“I’ve waited sixty years to marry the person I love and I’m not waiting any more.”

After that Patsy had let the subject drop. They would be getting married at one of the trendy barn spots that functioned as ceremony and venue but there seemed to be no end to the lists. Helen was above all a practical woman.

She had a folder that was becoming larger every time Patsy saw it. There was even a schedule.

Weddings could catch people like that. Take two completely sensible human beings and tell them to throw a party and it always went the wrong side of ridiculous. This is so universal that there should probably be a law. Particularly guest lists. What starts as thirty close friends and family will almost certainly stretch out to encompass the post man, his dog and a woman who smiled nicely on the bus.

Wedding lists expanded. They pupped.

There was the engagement party next Friday to organise now but Helen today, for whatever reason, was keen to start sending out invitations.

“Why do all these people need a whole years notice?” Patsy grumbled, slipping handwritten invitations into the stack of envelopes Helen had dropped in front of her after pushing bowls out of the way.

Seppie had been supplied with a large selection of crayons and a buff sketch pad bristling with thin pastel shaded paper. Patsy was trying not to feel jealous that her daughter was getting out of general wedding fever.

“Because it’s rude to spring things on people at the last minute.’ Helen answered swiftly. She was busy leafing through magazines. A bare lined paper in front of her and a pen in her hand.

“I don’t see why Phyllis can’t do this, she’s the other bride.”

“Yes but you said you’d help me.” Helen reminded Patsy, pen pausing over a magazine page and then scribbling something on her paper.

Patsy sighed and thrust an invite into an envelope.

“I’ll need you to give me your list of people.” Helen hummed, still focused on her magazines.

Patsy frowned, her stump was making it difficult to grip both the paper and the envelope. Her own clumsiness was irritating her. “My list?”

“Yes, people you want to come.”

“Why do the girls, Trixie and me need to be on a separate list?”

“Well you might want to ask someone else? Someone special.” Helen suggested airily.

Patsy rolled her eyes. “Focus on your paperwork woman, the only one catching bouquets in this place is the dog. You know I never pegged you for a nightmare bride.”

“I’m not a nightmare, I’m organised.”

“You’re a bloody terror with a Filofax I’ll say that-ow!” Patsy sucked her thumb, the slim paper cut from the envelope twinging along her digit as her fingers slipped.

“Did you bleed on that envelope?” Helen asked distractedly, already preparing to write out a fresh one without looking up.

“No, don’t worry. I’ll just bleed quietly in the corner shall I? Save the envelopes.” Patsy deadpanned sourly.

The corners of Helens mouth quirked, her eyes softening as they broke free from their focus. “Sorry, are you alright? Is your hand hurting?” She glanced down with some concern at Patsys stump.

Patsy shook her head instantly gentling at the show of worry and showed her mother her finger reassuringly. “No, I’m just being dramatic don’t worry.”

“I’m sorry.’ Helen apologised, ‘this probably wasn’t what you had in mind for your Saturday.”

Helen looked over at her mother in some surprise. Reaching over she brushed her thumb over Helens hand. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else Hel.”

Helen had to know that.

Helen couldn’t miss the sincerity in Patsys voice, she smiled, spinning the pen on a finger idly. “That’s means a lot Patsy... I was wondering something... Just a thought... Only if you would be willing to...” Helen trailed off, a slight embarrassed huff.

Patsy watched her flounder, intrigued. “Whatever it is I’ll do it. You know I will.”

Helen toyed with her pen for a moment before smiling uncertainly at Patsy. “We we’re talking about it the other day... Phyllis and I and we thought, well, I thought... I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind walking me down the aisle? On the day?”

“Helen.’ Patsy raised her eyebrow bemusedly at her mother. ‘You’re sixty years old. Do you really need someone to walk you down the aisle?”

“Well no, of course I don’t need to be walked anywhere...’ Helen smoothed a hand over her magazines, a slightly hurt expression on her face that made Patsy regret the question instantly. ‘But I don’t have any other family, never had a dad and my mams gone now and...well, I’d like you to... It would mean a lot to me, to have you there beside me.”

Patsy scrabbled to fix her statement, leaning forward and nudging her foot against Helen leg apologetically. “Sorry, that came out wrong. I’d be honoured to walk you down the aisle, of course I’ll do it, do you want me to do a speech?”

“If you wouldn’t mind,’ Helen relented shyly, nudging her own foot back reassuringly. ‘Thank you Pats... I was going to wear a suit for the ceremony, what do you think?”

A magazine was dutifully pried from the stack and a page was opened for Patsys perusal. Patsy scanned a few models wearing suit jackets in varying shades of beige quickly. None of them particularly screamed Helen but she nodded approvingly anyway because it was the reaction Helen so obvious wanted from her.

“Looks nice.”

“Do you think it says bride though?’ Helen pondered distractedly as she tapped her biro against her teeth. ‘I mean, do you think I should wear a dress?”

“Do you want to wear a dress?”

“Well...’ Helen shrugged bashfully, a smile pinching her cheeks making her look younger than she was, ‘I always had this.... image in my head when I was twenty. I had a bit of a kick for Anne of Green gables type sleeves back then, the long ones with flowers...,’ she chuckled disparagingly. ‘It was a day dream then... I suppose I never thought that I’d ever be allowed to actually get married. It’s still strange that I’m doing it really.”

“Well you are.”

“Yeah.” Helen smiled down at her stack of magazines, her lips quirking in a quiet pleasure.

Patsy felt another wave of affection and reached to trail her fingers on the back of Helens hand decisively. “Wear the dress then, the biggest, floweriest sleeves you can find. You’ve got the legs for a dress anyway, it’s a crime to hide them.”

“Hmm,’ Helen tapped her pen against her teeth again. ‘I don’t want to look like mutton dressed as lamb though.’ She frowned, ‘we have to do this right, I don’t want it to become a spectacle.”

“It’s your wedding day, it’s supposed to be a spectacle. And you couldn’t look like mutton if you tried. Besides; if you’re worried about people staring at you I can always wear Seppies batman outfit. Trust me, you’ll look amazing compared to that.”

Helen laughed. “I thought she was batman and you were robin?”

“Don’t tell her that, she already thinks she’s the boss as it is.”

“Yes. Well, children always do.”

“I never did- Why are you laughing?”

“No reason,’ Helen said airily, ‘oh, and while we’re together I wanted to talk to you about the hen night.”

Patsy beamed, suddenly animated and stretched out more comfortably on the dining room chair because she knew it would wind her mother up. “Hel, say no more, I already have several possibilities planned out.”

“Yes.’ Helen said darkly, ‘that’s what I was afraid of. I want ground rules.”

Patsy sagged, giving in gracefully. “Fine. What are they?”

Helen crossed her arms, her face set firmly. “No strippers.” She said resolutely.

Patsy smirked, waggling her eyebrows just enjoying the way Helen could never ignore being teased. “No male strippers you mean.”

“No.’ Helen said stonily. ‘No strippers at all and I don’t want to get drunk. And I want the girls to come too.”

“Helen that doesn’t sound like a hen night.” Patsy sighed in despair.

“It sounds like my sort of hen night.” Helen disagreed.

“Fine,’ Patsy tipped back her head and whistled through her teeth, ‘I suppose it’ll have to be a musical then.”

As if it would ever be anything else. Patsy had already scoped out a few options. London seemed likely. Helen could have Seppie in her room and Patsy would share with Fern and she’d enjoy showing Seppie the landmarks. Seppie would nearly explode at the London Eye. Patsy made a mental note to send the dates to Ursula when she could.

Helen beamed, her feet tapping on the floor. “Can we?”

Patsy tried to groan again but couldn’t really build up the energy for annoyance. Helens happiness far outweighed her dislike of all things twee.

“Seppie might not get it.” Patsy pointed out fairly.

“Oh but we can go to Manchester or something, make a day of it. All of us girls together.”

“You’re going to make a photo album aren’t you?” Patsy asked with dreadful certainty.

Helen grinned but made no answer, instead she fumbled to move her magazines away. “That’s the other thing. About the actual ceremony?”

“Yes?” Patsy asked suspiciously.

Helen grimaced, “It’s about Trixie.’ As one both Patsy and Helen looked towards the door to the living room. The lump on the sofa that was Trixie could just be made out; she looked as though she’d fallen asleep again. Even so, Helen lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘Or more to the point, Barbara.”

“What about Barbara?”

Helen took a deep breath and shut her magazines, leaning on her folded hands her brow creased anxiously as one might do when they’re preparing themselves to rip off a particularly sticky plaster. “She’s going to be a bridesmaid. Phyllis is having her as her bridesmaid.”

There was silence for a moment as Patsy let this horrible thought sink in. “But... why?”

“They made a deal apparently. I know this isn’t going to go down well but... It’s her wedding too and they really are such good friends. I know the situation with Trixie isn’t ideal and everything.” Helens eyes were very large, her teeth bit her lip, the bright flash quick was like salmon in muddy water.

Patsy sighed and fidgeted in her seat restlessly as she thought it through. She brought to mind a mental image of Barbara. Short and skinny and radiating far too much intense innocence. In another universe Patsy might have liked her; she quite liked people who saw the silver linings in things, it counteracted her own black cloud mentality rather well. Compared to Trixies current presentation the girl was practically sunny. Patsy could, although she would never say it to Trixie, see why Tom had chosen her. She was certainly different.

And this was going to kill Trixie.

“I thought that it might all be alright by the time we actually get married next year.’ Helen went on, taking Patsys thoughtful silence as opportunity for filler. ‘Things may have settled down for Trixie and it would give her a chance to get over it. But the thing is Barbara will be coming on Friday with Tom to the party. I know you were going to bring Trixie however,’ Helen trailed off doubtfully, ‘under the circumstances maybe she should stay away.”

Patsy nodded imperceptibly. Barbara and Trixie in the same room with drink. God. That really would see the phrase like a house on fire take a whole new meaning.

Patsy pinched the bridge of her nose.

“The thing is,’ Patsy said slowly, ‘I’ve already invited Trix, she knows about it.’ Patsy raised her finger to her mouth and chewed her knuckle thoughtfully. The problem wasn’t so much telling Trixie although that would be difficult, the problem would be keeping her away when she knew and if Patsy didn’t say and Trixie found out afterwards that would be even worse.

“I don’t want there to be any fighting.’ Helen said quietly, ‘Phyllis and Barbara are very close and Trixies practically part of the furniture. We can’t keep them apart forever.”

“Barbara did steal Trixies husband Helen.” Patsy pointed out loyally.

Helen chewed her lip again. “I don’t know if you could call it stealing. From what I’ve seen Tom was just as willing to be taken. I’ll never understand why the other woman takes the brunt in infidelity. Barbara hardly made promises to Trixie did she?”

“You’re defending cheating?” Patsy raised her eyebrow. This was new and unsettling, Helen had always been black and white about ethics.

Helen gave Patsy a searching look. “I believe that one mistake shouldn’t marr someone’s life forever. If they are truly sorry and want to make amends and the possibility of moving forward in life offers so much more for everyone then shouldn’t we all try to forgive. Don’t you think so?” Helen was still watching Patsy.

Patsy fidgeted uncomfortably, Helen didn’t seem to be talking about just Trixie anymore. She looked down at her empty bowl. “I suppose.” She mumbled non commitally.

“I mean forgiving someone who could add so much to your life.” Helen went on leadingly.

Patsy cut her off, a forced smile on her face. “Hel I’ll talk to Trixie okay. If she agrees to behave I’ll bring her on Friday and if she doesn’t then I won’t. Don’t worry, I won’t let anything screw up your party.”

Helen narrowed her eyes, a mental script suddenly run off the road but managed to find her equilibrium again magnificently. She tilted her head questioningly.

“Well, that’s me sorted isn’t it.’ Helen beamed, a smile too bright to be believed shone towards Patsy as something in Helens voice changed. ‘And now... How are you Patience?”

At once Patsy was on guard, noting both her mothers forced airy tone and the use of her proper name. Warily she rubbed her fingertips on her jeans, her hands had become inexplicably sweaty.

Phyllis said something from the living room that made Fern laugh. Helen was still watching her, waiting for an answer.

“No... I’m fine thank you Helen.” She answered cautiously.

Helens jaw moved as she chewed her tongue, her smile still forcibly present while her eyes studied Patsys face with all the scientific enquiry of an microbiologist staring at a new strain of ameba.

“Well, that’s good then.” Helen said airily.

Patsy picked at the seam of her jeans. “Yep.” She ended the p with a popping sound that was too loud.

“I was actually surprised today, when you came here alone.” Helen went on, determination etched into the vowels.

Patsy tensed. Ahh. So this was about Delia then.

Patsy realised that Helen had probably been working her way along to this topic since they’d arrived. She gave her mother a wan smile. “Alone? What are Trixie and the girls? Carpoolers?”

“I just thought that you might have brought along someone else with you that’s all.” Helen gave Patsy a meaningful look that Patsy pretended not to see as she busied herself straightening the envelope pile in front of her.

“Well I don’t know what to tell you.’ Patsy hummed with forced calm, feigning interest in an envelope with a bent corner. ‘Keira knightly won’t answer my fanmail and the Queen was busy. Next Sunday I’ll pick up a hitchhiker if it makes you feel any better.”

Helen gave up on all attempts at subterfuge. “I was referring to Delia actually.”

“Were you?’ Patsy asked flatly. ‘That’s nice.” Neil poked his head onto her lap and mindlessly Patsy reached to stroke the silky dome of his head. Neil’s brown eyes gazed at her, a little bit of crumble still stuck to one of his ears.

“She’s more than welcome here you know.’ Helen went on more loudly now. ‘I was rather looking forward to meeting her again under more happy circumstances actually.”

Patsy pursed her lips, her heart thumping unevenly in her chest. She half started to imagine just that; Delia sitting beside her in Helens kitchen. Like a couple. The idea made her heart hurt.

Still; she couldn’t fix on the notion with Helen watching her. “I didn’t realise you’d bonded so much.” Patsy managed through tight lips.

“She’s a very nice woman.” Helen hummed approvingly.

Patsy looked up at Helen with a challenge in her eyes. “So why don’t you invite her round for dinner then?” She asked sweetly.

Helen tutted ominously, a reproach in her voice. “I’m not the one who should be inviting her anywhere, am I Patience?”

Patsy could feel herself blushing and hated it. She hated herself for how much this hurt. Without consciously being aware of doing it her hands traced the grain of the table, trying to distract themselves.

“She’s probably got better plans.” Patsy said distantly, glaring down at her empty bowl.

“Oh Pats,’ Helen sounded exasperated, ‘I would have thought that you’d have at least tried to make plans to meet up with her by now. She is back in town isn’t she?”

“How would I know?” Patsy could feel her hackles rising. The sugary after taste of the crumble was suddenly too sweet in her mouth. She felt sick.

“Phyllis and I would be more than happy to babysit if you wanted to take her out somewhere you know. It would do you some good to get out of the house.”

“Why? What do you think I am? Lady Havisham?” Patsy asked sourly.

“I just worry about you sometimes that’s all.” Helen deferred with a disapproving tut that grated on Patsy more than it should.

Patsy tried to relax. Deep down she thought she understood her mother’s need to meddle, Fern had certainly brought it out enough in her to have some empathy for the situation but... What could she say?

Patsy didn’t want to say what had happened. She didn’t think she could take the judgement.

“Only sometimes?’ Patsy scoffed lightly. ‘You’re slacking.”

“You are going to talk to Delia aren’t you Pats?” Helen sounded worried and that made Patsy feel worse somehow.

She always seemed to be letting someone down.

Patsy toyed with her spoon, the spot lights on the ceiling reflected bizarrely in the well scrubbed cutlery; rainbows and steel mingling.

“No.’ Patsy muttered quietly to her hand because saying it directly to Helen was impossible. Her head felt too full, pressure was building against her temples, ‘I don’t think so.”

For a moment there was silence. Patsy could feel Helens eyes boring into the side of her face trying to read her mind.

“I thought you were keen on this one?” Helen said eventually, in an accusing voice that made Patsy want to bury her face in her hands.

Well? So what? She had been keen. Delia was... Delia. It was like eating pins, all these prickles in her gut when she thought about her. The confusion wasn’t something she could detangle and all the time she wished she could.

Helen would probably call that love.

Patsy thought it was too but...

Patsy shrugged, feeling fourteen years old caught holding someone’s hand in a club that she shouldn’t be in again. “I got over it.”

Helen drummed her fingers on the table, she’d taken to cutting her nails shorter these days Patsy noticed. “That’s not what I’ve been hearing.” Helen said in a stubborn marching way that promised she would go on and on until she had an answer that she wanted to hear.

Ahh. There it was. An easy target.

Patsy narrowed her eyes. “If Phyllis has already told you what’s happened then why are you busting me over it?” She asked bitterly.

“Phyllis may have told me that Delia had a good long cry in her office about you yesterday.’ Helen conceded without a trace of guilt but a fair amount of irritation. ‘For someone you haven’t spoken to yet it seems that she’s terribly upset, now,’ Helen leaned closer expectantly, ‘I want your version of things please. Explain yourself.”

Desperately Patsy glanced over at Seppie hoping for an escape, worried her daughter might be watching. She wasn’t. Seppies focus was entirely on the large booklet on the table, the crayon in her hand blurred as she toiled in the fields of creativity.

“Why bother asking me at all?’ Patsy asked bitterly, ‘you already think it’s my fault. Go and ask radio Phyllis to give you the dirt if you’re so interested.”

“Oh come on Pats,’ Helen smiled over at her now, changing tack as though she could read Patsys moods like a satellite reading warning shocks, ‘you can’t have done anything that bad.”

She’d misread though.

Patsy head shot up, anger crackling through her as she glared at Helen. “Who said that I’m the one who did anything wrong?” She demanded hotly.

Helen looked taken aback. “No one, Pats that’s not what I-“

“Yes it is. It has to be my fault right?” Because it was. It was always her fault.

What were the wages of sin? What were the wages of- No.

Patsy shook her head, too angry even to listen to ghosts. The living were more of an immediate source of calamity at this moment anyway. She glared at her mother, daring her to keep going.

Helens face was still placid though, she’d known Patsy too long to take snarks at face value, she titled her head as though trying to take all of Patsy in and then in a thoughtful voice she said slowly.

“You’re upset.”

Patsy bristled, unseated and unsure. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes you are,’ Helen sounded almost bored, ‘you always get this caustic when you’re upset.”

Patsy couldn’t look at Helen anymore, her eyes threatened tears, she felt the tension evolving into a headache as it made a break for more room along her temples. Absentmindedly she rubbed at her forehead trying to rub it away. “Look, I don’t want to talk about it Hel. It’s done okay, it’s over.”

And saying it out loud was worse somehow. More painful.

There was half a beat of silence. From the front room Patsy heard an audible shriek of delight as a character on the screen was successfully killed after the fiftieth attempt. Seppie snorted, tongue almost touching the page as she focused on making her current labours of a sun as yellow as humanly possible. Then Helens hand was enclosing itself around Patsys.

Warm and inviting. Home.

Patsy looked up sharply and found Helen gazing at her almost wistfully. The hand around Patsys squeezed.

“Oh baby,’ Helen said comfortingly, ‘don’t tell me that someone’s finally gone and broken your heart?”

It was too much, to Patsys horror she felt the unavoidable surge of tears behind her eyes. She opened her mouth to deny it, to make a joke that would take away the stinging truth of what Helen had said but her throat wasn’t playing along. She was acutely aware of Seppie only feet away, Fern just in the next room. She couldn’t let them see her like this.

She didn’t want to be seen like this

Trapped, Patsy had no other option except to look down at the floor to hide her face. She’d been too close though for Helens keen eye. Helen had spotted it, had spotted her freeze and sure enough, almost instantly, there came the faint dragging sound of chair legs on the floor as Helen got to her feet with a creak.

The promise of a consolation hug loomed and threatened in equal measure in Patsys future.

Patsy couldn’t do this. Couldn’t talk about any of it. It was too raw.

Patsy stood up, so quickly that Neil’s paws scrabbled on the floor where his head had been disturbed and half ran towards the back door.

“Patsy.” Helen called after her on a disappointed sigh.

“Just need some air.” Patsy lied blankly as she stepped into the buffeting cold September wind, closed the door firmly behind her and leaned against the wood.

Through the door she thought she heard Seppie humming, asking where she’d gone and Patsy forced herself to breathe. Pressing her palms into her face until she could push back the tears. They didn’t help. They never helped.

She’d never been much of a crier. Even in the commune she’d never been able to really cry like some of the others. Abraham had always enjoyed it too much when she did and by the time she was old enough to understand that particular fact she’d sworn never to give him the satisfaction if she could help it.

She hadn’t learned to cry properly when she’d gotten out. She’d always prided herself on it. She didn’t cry.

Just lately though she couldn’t seem to keep a good handle on her feelings. Tears and anger and everything else kept springing up and surprising her with their force. It was like july had broken some invisible dam inside her brain. She’d thought that it was hormones for the first few weeks, then she’d told herself it must be sleep deprivation and the change in life and that might still be the case but it felt more than that. Before july she could have counted on one hand how many times she’d really cried and now? Now she was crying because of a girl for God’s sake.

No. Corrected an insidious voice. Not a girl. Not any girl. Delia.

Patsy shook her head to try and rattle away the voice. It was ridiculous. She’d get over it. She had to. She just didn’t want to talk it through with Helen that was all. She didn’t want to admit it to Helen. Admitting to something made it real and then she wouldn’t be able to take it back.

Patsy stood in the faintly pattering rain, the backs of her hands growing hot where they pressed against her nose. Her neck gradually reddening with the sting of raindrops.

After a few minutes she felt the tension drain just enough that she was certain she wasn’t about to break down. Patsy released the grip of her face and took a rattling breath, staring furiously at the garden in front of her.

Stupid.

It had stopped the dreary drizzle today and the rain was more solid. Moisture hung around in the air making it all the damper. It made Patsys hand hurt, the stump still throbbed alien like, the bone and nerves shivering as the healing skin swelled around them. So far she’d avoided the painkillers they’d given her when she left the hospital from sheer stubbornness but it still hurt. Electric currents ran down her wrist, pinging their complaints up towards her arm spitefully.

From inside the kitchen the window blind twitched.

Swallowing hard Patsy realised she needed to move away. Unsteadily she walked along the uneven path around to the side of the house where she wouldn’t be easily spotted by small eyes looking through windows. Needing something to distract herself she groped in her pocket for her cigarettes and lit one. The smoke made her cough, the moist air seeming to cling to the grey exhalations so that she gave the bizarre impression of wearing a cloud above her head.

When she was finished she almost reached for another but stopped herself. Her lungs ached, the punctured hole in her right lung was still only half healing and she knew she was being reckless still smoking at all.

Common sense made her stop but the need to not think told her to find another thing to focus on.

Helens garden was hilly, the ground treacherously uneven in the winter from where it had been built too quickly some time in the eighties. Helen, for her many talents, was a half hearted gardener at best and the surroundings showed it. There were patches of grass, usually cut short but thanks to the recent spouts of rain were now sprouting up to ankle length. In the far corner against the untreated and slowly rotting pine fence there was a swing seat for two that had seen better days. The rest of the garden was infested with weeds that bloomed too numerously amongst the solicitous soil. Patsy glared at them too, grateful that she could pretend to be offended by the mess.

She knew where she was with mess.

Striding to the closest patch she knelt down in the dewy grass, ignoring the cold feeling against her knees and the water seeping through her jeans. She didn’t care. Angrily, she grabbed at handfuls of the thick plants in each hand, tearing them away to reveal rich dark earth beneath and the scurrying rice shapes of panicking ants.

The weeds fought back. A thorn scratched her palm and then something sharp dug into her missing finger. A jolt of pain shot through her hand and she dropped the wad of sad weeds with a hiss. Looking down she found the cause, a tiny brown spine only just showed from the ridge of the stump. The skin was red and sore.

Ugly. Deformed.

Is that what people saw when they thought about her?

Was she deformed? Not like her hand but inside? Was that why no one wanted her?

Patsy felt her lip wobble, her head felt like it was trapped in a vice.

She ignored the pain, falling back to the work with a desperate need to keep moving. Tearing at the greenery with too much energy until she didn’t know if she was sweating from exertion or the dampness anymore. Her hands were cold, her right hand clumsier than it had a right to be. She refused to accept its weakness.

From far away the kitchen door opened and closed. Patsy ignored it until she couldn’t.

Someone coughed and then, when Patsy didn’t react, Helen coughed again and nudged Patsys backside with the toe of her shoes.

Patsy crumpled, her elbows digging into the soft earth as her arms and hands zinged.

Patsy look up at her mother who had folded her arms to watch Patsy work. She’d put on one of her cardigans in deference to the rain and a hat to cover her hair. If it got damp Patsy knew Helen would be pissed.

The rain hissed around them.

“Well?” Patsy demanded, annoyed at the lack of comment.

Helen merely pulled her cardigan a little more comfortably around herself. “Well what?” She asked lightly.

“Enjoying the show?”

“Not particularly,’ Helen said mildly, ‘although I did need some weeding doing so thank you for that. If you’d told me in advance I could have given you some gloves though.”

“Don’t mention it.” Patsy said through clenched teeth.

Helen snorted and pulled something square and glassy from her pocket, she waved the bottle at Patsy. “I brought you some TCP. There’s spikes on those plants and you can’t afford an infection on that hand again.”

Patsys hand throbbed as though in agreement. She eyed the bottle for a second and then got to her feet. “It’s fine.” She said stiffly.

“If you say so.’ Helen peered over Patsys shoulder theatrically to take in the bare patch free from green and nodded. ‘It’s also a job finished. That means you can get up and come with me.”

“Where are we going?” Patsy asked dully.

Helen pointed to the swing seat and walked over. It squeaked as she sat down, her hands flat on her lap calmly waiting for Patsy to follow.

Patsy didn’t. She stood awkwardly in the rain. Embarrassed and aware that she’d backed herself into a corner somewhat where the only way forward was an argument or defeat. She tried to find a middle ground.

“I don’t want to sit down.” She said hesitantly.

“I know. You never do.’ Helens smile was all teeth, ‘but nonetheless I’m asking you to sit down.”

“She didn’t break my heart.” Patsy lied pathetically. The wind rushed in Patsys ears, cold from the rain and painful on the soft outer flesh.

“Good. Then you won’t mind talking things through with me then.” Helen answered in the same measured tone as before.

Patsy didn’t know what to do, she’d never known how to react to calm. Anger and violence she could absorb, calm was just there, unfathomable. She began to pace up and down, her feet splodging in the soil.

“I told you, I don’t need to talk about it.” She ventured after a few useless lengths.

Helens hand smoothed along the tight fabric of the chair and patted the empty space beside her. “Consider me you’re second opinion on this matter. Sit down Patience.”

Patsy tried her ace card. “Phyllis will be looking for us.”

“No she won’t.’ Helen disagreed calmly. ‘She’s currently enthralled with her game, as are the girls. Trixies gone back to sleep. We can have as much time out here as we need for this little discussion. Sit down please.”

“Helen,’ Patsy wondered if begging would work. Probably not. “I don’t want to.”

“Ahh want.’ Helen inclined her head thoughtfully. ‘Want is a shaky thing. Let’s focus on need at the moment shall we? And what you need to do Patience is to sit down with me. Now.”

“This is ridiculous I’m going inside.” Patsy said desperately.

Patsy half turned to do just that but flinched as Helen got to her feet. A flash of the woman she’d been when they first met was in the movement. Too direct.

“Patience Elizabeth Mount!’ Helens voice was shockingly loud, a teacher in a rowdy class, ‘I have been polite, I have asked nicely, now I’m not asking I’m telling you. Sit. Down. I will not ask again!”

Almost in self defence Patsy felt her knees bending obediently. That voice was not one to be disobeyed twice.

The chair swung again as two bodies weight was spread along the framework.

Helen was breathing hard, her face still firm. Patsy raised her eyebrows and tried to smile.

“Admit it,’ she muttered sullenly, ‘you half wish the chair was electric sometimes.”

Helen sighed and shook her head sadly. “Of course I don’t.”

The swing seat creaked on rusting springs. Helen crossed her legs neatly and hummed something tuneless under her breath.

Patsy pursed her lips and tried to scowl as she seethed uneasily in the silence.

It was an old trick that Patsy had never been able to resist, Helen didn’t force her to speak as such, she just let the air empty all by itself and left Patsy to compel herself to fill it.

Patsy lasted just under five minutes before she broke. “Why do you always make me do this?”

Helen, who’d been looking up at the canopy above them blinked and smoothed her hands over her lap again. “Because sharing is a healthy thing to do as I’ve told you a million times and I’m the only one who you’ll be honest with that’s why.”

“You really want to hear all my brooding dark secrets?” Patsy snarked tauntingly.

“I doubt they’re any more brooding than usual.’ Helen said dryly.

“Fine.’ Patsy puffed out a breath that danced in the air before slowly disappearing into nothing as she felt a weak smile tug at her lips, ‘but don’t blame me if I tell you my deepest yearnings and you finally realise how incredibly attractive and multi dimensional I am. The complications will be huge and quite frankly I’m not taking responsibility for having to sword fight Phyllis in an airport because you’ve used all your savings from your hitherto unspoken career as a jockey to stop me getting onto a flight that will take me to a new country for the foreseeable future.”

Helen tried to snort but her eyes glittered with humour. “Consider me forewarned but I’ll take my chances. Now tell me what’s happened.”

“You sure I can’t tempt you to a fantastical lie?’ Patsy offered hopefully. ‘The truths dreadfully dull.”

“No, just the truth if you don’t mind Pats.”

“Are you absolutely certain?’ Patsy pushed on brightly, anything to put off the inevitable. ‘I’d make up a grade A lie since it’s for you, there was going to be dragons and everything.”

Helen made a rasping heave of exasperation in the back of her throat, finally losing patience and pinched the shell of Patsys ear pointedly but not enough to hurt. “Patience. Enough. Come on, I can’t help you figure it all out if I don’t know the nitty gritty of it all.”

All at once Patsy felt the smile fade from her lips, the fatigue broke free as she rested her head on the solid shape of Helens shoulder, it was too heavy to hold up on her own sometimes.

Bravado gone she didn’t have much left as a shield but the truth. Helen probably couldn’t haul her back like she’d threatened to but Patsy didn’t want to risk it.

“Fine. You we’re right... She might have broken my heart a little bit.’ Patsy told Helen woodenly staring at the bare patch of lawn she’d ripped up. ‘There. Happy?”

“That someone’s hurt you? Of course I’m not.”

“But you’re smiling.” Patsy observed.

“Oh well,’ Helen shrugged, lifting Patsys head just a little higher into the crook of her shoulder, ‘I suppose I would have preferred to have this conversation with you when you were twenty but you’ve always been stubborn when it comes to forming attachments.”

“I wish it hadn’t happened at all.”

“It was inevitable though Pats, even you have to know that at some point someone was going to get past your guard.”

Patsy said nothing for a while, she let the words fall around her like the rain.

Had she been like that? Was that what Helen thought? It wasn’t as though she’d ever sworn off having a girlfriend per se she’d just never liked anyone enough to stick around... Or the other person had never wanted her.

She’d always been alone. Being along was safe.

But she hadn’t wanted to be safe with Delia. There was something about her, something that made Patsy feel safe even when she was flying out on a limb.

Just so happened that Delia hadn’t wanted her back the same way. Or hadn’t been willing to try the same way.

Patsy felt the tears coming again and wiped them on the seam of Helens cardigan. “I think there’s something wrong with me Helen.” Patsy sniffed.

“Ahh,’ Helens hand stroked Patsys neck affectionately. ‘I see you’re still capable of melodrama. Anything in particular?”

“Not really, just everything I think.” Patsy said, her jaw rigid. She’d been expecting Helen to deny what she said.

It came to something when your own mother didn’t defend you.

Maybe she believes it, whispered the voice in her head. Maybe Helen thought there was something wrong with her too.

Helen interrupted Patsys downward spiralling mental monotone as though she was reading her mind.

“Patsy this is ridiculous, you’ve got flaws like everyone else on the planet. That doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Patsys eyes burned. “Nobody wants me though Helen... I’m just not enough. Even when everything seems like it’s falling into place it doesn’t. I’m cursed.” There. She’d said it.

“What do you mean?’ Helen surprised Patsy, her tone suddenly sharp, all humour gone as she gripped Patsys wrist almost painfully. ‘Has someone said something to you?”

Patsy blinked, taken aback. “Delia did but other than that no. Why? Should someone have said something to me?”

Helen stared at Patsy, her brows furrowed and then she relaxed again. A sudden shifting of mental gears into reverse could almost tangibly be sensed. “No. No of course not, I just wasn’t sure if anyone else had been sticking their oar in. With you and Delia I mean.’ Helen shuffled in her seat, not meeting Patsys eye. ‘I don’t want you being messed around with gossip. You know I can’t abide the stuff.”

Patsy frowned at her mother, perplexed but warmed slightly by the show of concern. Sighing she rested her head on Helens shoulder and was instantly engulfed in the smell of Helens perfume. It was a new one Patsy noted. Probably a gift from Phyllis.

Calmer now Helen kissed Patsys head consolingly. “Well?’ She prompted, ‘I’m not getting any younger Pats. Out with it, my feet are getting cold.”

Taking a deep breath Patsy did.

Helen didn’t interrupt much, she really was a good listener, only asking the occasional question to make the story unfold. As Patsy went on though Helens frown grew deeper and when she reached the part from yesterday Helen finally seemed to have had enough.

“You did what?” Helen asked, disapproval etching into every word.

“I told her I didn’t get her message.” Patsy repeated doggedly.

“You did what!’ Helen said again smacking Patsys shoulder lightly and shaking her head, ‘Patience Elizabeth Mount.”

“I was angry.” Patsy defended stubbornly.

“I’m sure you were but that’s no excuse. I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. You lied to that poor girl. There was no need to be cruel.”

“Helen,’ Patsy puffed out air, ‘I feel bad enough as it is.”

“Well you should.’ Helen chided primly. ‘Honestly Patience I know for a fact that I didn’t raise you to behave that way. That poor girl must be in bits.”

“And what about me?’ Patsy demanded indignantly. ‘She still slept with someone else.”

“And she’s apologised for it hasn’t she?’ Helen snapped. ‘What does she need to do? Hire a blimp? Lord knows you should understand what it feels like to make a mistake Patsy.”

“Okay so I’m a fuck up.’ Patsy said feeling nettled. ‘It’s not exactly news, I’m every mother’s nightmare, I get it. I’m a huge disappointment to everyone. You. Delia. You could at least pretend to be on my side.”

“Oh don’t give me that tripe.’ Helen tutted as she took hold of Patsys hand and shook it firmly. ‘I’m always on your side baby, I have always been on your side and I always will be. I’m on your side right now actually, as you’d see if you weren’t busy feeing sorry for yourself, but being on your side doesn’t always mean that I’m going to waste my breath telling you what you want to hear.”

Patsy groaned, this was why she didn’t want to talk to Helen; it was like arguing with herself. “I don’t know what you think I can do. I’ve already ruined everything.”

“Well for a start you can stop feeling all misunderstood,’ Helen said matter of factly. ‘All of this I am unworthy business. It’s simply not true and frankly it smacks of the ridiculous to me. You aren’t a fuck up. You’re a complete catch when you’re not acting like you are now and Delia obviously seems to think so. Seems to me that things have just got a little... muddied, that’s all.”

“Is this your idea of being on my side because it doesn’t sound like it.” Patsy rubbed her knee irritably, wiping away some of the damp mud that had settled when she knelt down before it dried and stuck.

“You can start sorting all of this out by ringing her when you get home and apologising for your appalling behaviour yesterday.’ Helen continued as if Patsy hadn’t spoken. ‘If she’s as keen as she seems to be then she’ll give you another chance.”

“She still slept with someone else!” Patsy couldn’t help but feel this fact needed to be repeated although it was beginning to sound rather weak under the weight of Helens glare.

“Because you’ve never turned to sex when you were upset?” Helen inserted acerbically.

“It’s not the same thing.’ Patsy blustered, ‘I’ve never actually cheated on anyone.”

“Only because you’ve never had an official relationship to cheat on in the first place and don’t you look at me in that tone of voice my girl,’ Helen added sharply because Patsy had narrowed her eyes darkly, ‘I’m not judging you for it, I’m merely pointing out some home truths that you may have ignored while you were busy wallowing in you dolor.”

“I don’t wallow.” Patsy protested grumpily pulling free of Helens arms.

Helen snorted but tugged at Patsy to put her head back on her shoulder. Patsy went stiffly but couldn’t stop talking.

“That woman’s still sleeping at Delias. What am I supposed to do about that? Just pretend it’s not happening? That nothings happened?”

“No, of course not,’ Helen began slowly, ‘but I was under the impression that you thought highly of Delia before all of this?”

“And?” Patsy asked miserably.

“So that won’t have changed all that much surely? Personally I found her to be a sensible woman when we spoke. Call her, ask her about it. You’ll never know why things happened the way they did sitting out here with me sulking about it kid.”

Patsy shook her head, she wanted another cigarette but knew that Helen would tell her off and wasn’t interested in a cancer lecture on top of everything else. “What if I can’t get over it though?’ She asked tentatively. ‘It hardly bodes well to start off on this sort of mess. She cheated on me.”

“I don’t think we can really classify it as cheating Pats.”

“She slept with someone else.” Patsy felt tired, bored of her own protests which were becoming thinner and less relevant each time she said it, the cyclical nature of the conversation was wearing on her and she couldn’t stop the tinge of petulance seeping into her voice.

Helen raised an eyebrow. “And is that the real issue here Patience?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean is this not simply- well, more about you?’ Helen gestured expansively as Patsy. ‘You’re not really going to convince me that you’re heartbroken over a drunken sexual misdemeanour, it’s hurtful but not heartbreaking. Especially given the fact she wasn’t in a relationship with you at the time. No.’ Helen rapped her knee with her free hand thoughtfully. ‘This is something else I think.”

Patsy rolled her eyes. “Helen, I’ve just told you why I’m upset.”

“Yes’ Helen sighed, her fingers stroking Patsys neck comfortingly to take away the sting from her next statement, ‘but you lie to yourself far more than you lie to anyone else baby. Now, is it at all possible that this isn’t about the sex? You and I both know that people don’t always do things that make logical sense. I mean, perhaps she was hurting, perhaps there were other issues. Who knows? My point is that your reaction doesn’t strike me as the kind of hurt that stems from a simple betrayal. This is deeper than that.”

Patsy shut her eyes, forever exasperated by Helens belief in her. “Helen, I’m sorry to tell you this but one day you’re going to have to accept that I’m just not that deep.”

Helens lips twitched. “We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point Pats. You never see yourself clearly and I understand why that is,‘ she added quickly before Patsy could protest, ‘but other people do see you. I do and for what it’s worth I think that what’s really hurt you is the fact that she believed her friends lie.”

For a moment Patsy was speechless, she opened her eyes and stared up at Helen. Not for the first time she wondered if Helen really could read her like a book as she’d often claimed. Then Patsy got a hold of herself again and tried to look unimpressed.

“I hate it when you do this.”

“What?’ Helen asked sweetly, ‘know you?”

“Fine.’ Patsy snapped, crossing her arms as instinct willed her to stop this conversation dead. It wouldn’t work though. Helen had never let Patsy ignore issues for longer than necessary. She’d just smile and nod, give Patsy a few minutes and then pick up the threads of the conversation again and continue it. Such was the arduous process of wearing away mountains. ‘She didn’t believe me when I said that I’d wait for her and I’m pissed about it. Happy?” Patsy couldn’t meet her mother’s eyes.

Something as frivolous as trust sound trite to be used as a reason for her hurt feelings. She’d always known trust was cheap.

Helen brushed the hair from Patsys forehead and kissed the top of her head, rocking Patsy with the lull of the chair.

“No. I’m not happy that you’re hurt but I’m proud of you for admitting why you’re hurt. That’s growth, congratulations.”

“Is this a breakthrough do you think?” Patsy snarked in a passable imitation of her mother’s accent.

Helen chuckled. “I wouldn’t go that far. Maybe the beginning of a breakthrough.” She suggested easily.

“Why wasn’t I enough mum?’ The question slipped out before Patsy could stop it. Any other time Patsy would have been angry with herself at asking something so... Weak? She wouldn’t have asked anyone else. Helen didn’t count though. She never had. Patsy jutted her jaw against the solid wall of Helens arm, her eyes burning. ‘I try so hard, I try to be a decent person. I do everything I can not to be...’ Patsy cut off. Inside her head the rosewood box rattled and she sped up to silence it. “I would’ve done anything she needed, any amount of time she asked for. I told her as much before she left.... But one word.’ Patsy raised a solitary finger despondently. ‘One word was all it took for her to believe the worst of me. What does that say about my character?”

“You’re being unfair again Patience.’ Helen warned patiently. ‘The world isn’t made up of good and bad people or even wholly bad or good actions. Everyone has baggage baby, Delia will have it too. Her reactions don’t necessarily have anything to do with your character Pats, she will have her reasons and-“

“But they do!’ The frustration burst out of Patsy before she could stop it, her heels grinding into the soft earth beneath them as she mentally groped for what she wanted to say but never quite knew how to phrase. All of the treacherous thoughts she’d been trying not to think came tumbling out of her mouth in a rush. ‘I’m just this stupid...fucking... mess. That’s what she thinks of me. I’m ridiculous. I screw everything with a pulse. I’m this dirty, awful thing that nobody with a brain would touch. They might sleep with me but no one wants me.’ Patsys throat seemed to be closing around her, she had to swallow to clear it, wanting to cry and fighting the urge. ‘Nobody ever wants me mum... Delia didn’t. She doesn’t... She had one test and she ran a mile. She doesn’t trust me and the worst thing is that I understand why. Who would choose me? No one ever chooses me.”

Val hadn’t. Her own mother hadn’t chosen her. That woman who’d taken Patsy back to her house the very first time hadn’t wanted to keep her. No one did. No one ever did.

Patsy finally stopped her rant with difficulty, biting her lip to stem the tide of words that swam inside her head. The springs above the two of them creaked dolefully in the quiet, Helen breathed slowly in her ears. Patsy closed her eyes and tried to match it, trying to calm down. Her chest was hurting, her missing finger throbbed in the damp. The spines from the weeds tingled along her palms.

“Pats.’ Helen broke the silence, quiet and sad, stroking Patsys hair. ‘That isn’t who you are. That has never been who you are. You’re not unlovable. I chose you. The girls chose you. I think you’ll find that you’re opinions about yourself are clouding the issue somewhat- Now-‘ Helen cut across Patsy before she could say something back. ‘I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to answer me honestly; is any of what you’ve said to me based on facts or feelings? Did Delia actually say any of this to you? Has anyone ever said that to you?”

Patsys face burned with anger, confused by how raw she felt. “She didn’t need to-“ she began harshly but stopped when Helen pinched her ear hard enough to make her wince.

“Facts or feelings baby?” Helen repeated again more firmly this time.

Patsy blew out the breath she was holding. “Feelings.” She muttered sulkily.

Even without seeing her face Patsy knew that Helen was smiling.

“Well then,’ Helen said bracingly, ‘I think that given that little revelation we can give Delia the benefit of the doubt can’t we?”

Patsy kicked at the dirt disconsolately. “Why did she have to go to Wales in the first place?”

“Oh well,’ Helen took a deep breath that made Patsys head rise a few inches with the movement of her chest, ‘that’s easy. People are like animals Pats, we might walk around on two legs with thumbs and think we’re different or better somehow but we’re not really. We just make things more complicated for ourselves. When people are hurt or in pain they retreat to a place they feel safest. They go to where they feel at home. The girls went to you because you were their home. You come to me because I’m yours. Poplar is your home; good or bad. Delia though, she’s not from Poplar, her homes somewhere else. The poor girl was in just as much pain as you. She was probably frightened. Now why wouldn’t you extend Delia the same curtesy as everybody else? Just because she left then doesn’t mean you couldn’t be her home one day. Not everything can be rushed baby, life keeps its own schedule.”

Patsy eyed Helen suspiciously. “How long have you been practicing that speech?”

Helens eyes twinkled. “It was rather good wasn’t it? And since you asked, Phyllis came home and told me there was a problem yesterday. I knew I was the only one you’d let knock some sense into you.”

Patsy shook her head marvelling at Helens faith. “Who says that you have?”

“Me.” Helen said simply.

Patsy, against her will, nearly smiled. “You’re a nightmare. You finally start getting it on a regular basis and suddenly you’re a glass half full kind of gal.”

“I’ve always been a glass half full kind of gal Patience, you should know that already.”

“Yes, but now it’s pathological.’ Patsy bent her knee and rocked the seat. ‘You’re so utterly convinced that things are going to work out in the end.”

“That’s because they will.”

“And how do you know that exactly?”

Helen gave the smallest of shrugs. “I’ve seen the script.”

Patsy laughed. Somehow she felt lighter than she had in weeks.

“Yeah well, I’m not agreeing to everything you say.”

“As long as you consider the important bits then I don’t mind.”

Patsy said nothing as the rain continued to pour. She didn’t say anything when they went back in but privately she thought she might just do that.