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Common Destination

Chapter Text

March 1971

 

It seemed like only last month Patsy had joined her on the Heath, on a slow amble to the top the hill where the older woman would point with delight at the dome of St Pauls, as she did each and every time they recreated this scene. She would fumble in her deep carpet bag, and produce a sturdy and positively ancient thermos flask. Cream of Tomato (though once it had been Oxtail, and Patsy had nearly died from the shock). A few slices of buttered bread. A great many more, oh, you girls are so good to me’s. And a gentle shuffle to the bus stop that would deliver her back to East Finchley, parting ways, as Patsy, or Delia, or both together, returned to Poplar.

Delia’s auntie Blod had delighted in the whipping wind, greenery, and pale straw grass of London’s greatest expanse of internal countryside. It reminded her of Pembrokeshire. With less sheep. And now she would see neither again.

Patsy had thought Nonnatus would be the closest she would ever feel to having a family, but the last few years of visits to Blod had been something she’d found herself longing for before the monthly Sunday walks even came about. She still remembered the first time Delia had asked her to go in her place, with those pleading eyes. It was one thing to accompany Delia as her friend (the word bristled her), but it was quite another to collect her widowed aunt from the Welsh church service and traipse across Hampstead with the old dear alone. Before she had been able to protest, those blue irises darkened, and that smile turned coy. A peppering of kisses against Patsy’s neck had her mumbling an agreement before she could fully consider what the smaller woman was getting her into.

It was unprecedented that Patsy would begin to look forward to the regular interludes of quiet wisdom, wry and often raucous humour, and the twinkle in those hereditary azure eyes when she mentioned the friendship that she and Delia shared. But somehow, when Blod said it in that knowing tone, Patsy didn’t feel the usual bitterness rise into her throat.

Delia was unfairly punishing herself for staying in that last Sunday – the last Sunday that either of them would spend with Blod. “It wasn’t that bad a cold, I could have come on that walk.” Patsy had stroked her hair, saying what she could to ease her love’s pain, but knowing that guilt only shifted with time.

And now The Busby’s were coming.

Well, not all of them. Delia’s mother, her sister Marylin, and one of her brood of five – the eldest, Sian.

It had been two years since Delia had seen any of them. And it had been at least a year since Delia had last spoken to her mother, knuckles white around the telephone receiver, as the redhead listened helplessly. Patsy had known nothing good could come of Mrs. Busby getting a line put in.

“She is coming with me, or I am not coming at all…No, I’ve never expected you to like it, but I am so tired of you trying to make me feel like there’s something wrong with meIt’s not ‘in your face’, we’re hardly-“ Delia rarely raised her voice in anger, and it had taken Patsy off guard, “You did not just say that. My own mam did not just say that!”

The limits of Mrs. Busby’s feigned ignorance were quickly reached in a little teashop in Tower Bridge in nineteen-sixty-two, but her quiet discomfort around the open secret had taken near a decade later to dissolve into defeated pleas, for she was a proud woman, and she had never planned on begging her daughter to stop this. The added cruelty had been out of frustration, and utterly unnecessary not least because of its obvious futility.

“She said I was sick. In my head.” Delia had later sobbed softly into her shoulder. Patsy’s jaw had clenched, knowing that the addition of her own indignation would do nothing but stoke Delia’s upset. And it was her current duty to ease the pain.

Formidable Delia, bright and honest, fierce and loyal. With the only arms that had brought her any comfort since she was ten years old. The only hands that had ever clasped her face and thumbed tears from her cheeks as she grieved for the years she’d lost. Patsy could only attempt to imitate the comforting force that was Delia Busby. She and others had thought her cold and brusque, but Delia had thawed her, and taught her to be kinder and better.

The only thing that tripped the Welshwoman was her mother. Her weakness. Patsy couldn’t understand. She had never really had a parent. Not for long enough – just for her first twelve years. And then her father’s last twelve weeks. Not a lifetime like Delia.

But last Wednesday her love had solemnly called her mother to deliver the news that one of the last of the thinning threads holding them together had snapped.

Blod was gone. Yes, they’d find a funeral parlour. No, there weren’t only Jewish funeral parlours in Finchley. But, yes, there were lots of Jewish people in Finchley. They would start on clearing Blod’s flat. Of course, Patsy had popped around to check on her cat yesterday. The neighbour had taken it in. Yes, Patsy was helping. Why wouldn’t she be helping?

“Well, Auntie Blod was very fond of her.” There was a long and pregnant pause. “Thank you for saying sorry, mam.” She breathed.

Patsy sighed, relieved.

A week later they had spent the morning in a back and forth, with Patsy quietly combing the flat for things that could trigger the sensibilities of the Welshwoman’s family, and Delia running around in circles, doing nothing but fretting. 

“Please come and pick them up with me.” Delia had insisted again.

“Oh, Deels, I’m sure the last thing your mother wants to see is my face.” Patsy replied, scooping up one of those periodicals that Delia had subscribed to after very little convincing from some young students at the Gates. “Or this.” She snorted, holding up the small magazine with a smirk.

LESBIAN RIGHTS NOW  

Delia barely looked up, humming in a vague acknowledgement. Patsy wished it had made her laugh as it should have, with her eyes crinkling and her head tossed back. “Please, Pats. She won’t start on me as badly if you’re there.” She simply picked at her fingernail.

Patsy mulled it over for a moment. Perhaps she was being selfish. She did not enjoy the company of Mrs. Busby. And Delia’s large family disorientated her. She did her best to avoid people that tried quite as hard as they did to make her and her lover feel shame. The close of the sixties had given way to sweeping changes. The men had been decriminalised. There were a great many new bars for them up West. The students at their haunts were brimming with anger and hope – a powerful cocktail. They wrote and the argued and they protested. But the loud voices of the young and visionary had dragged quiet elders and their carefully carved existence into the light – the downside was that people’s blindness to what they were was shifting ever further into a silent but judging understanding.

Patsy wondered if she had really preferred slipping around unnoticed, under the noses of not only nuns but almost everyone they encountered, bar a few Phyllis Crane’s in their time.  For these days, people did realise their relationship easier, but it still took no more effort to hate them just as much as they had before. 

“Sweetheart, I need you with me.” Her voice sounded small.

That was all it took, really. She agreed, and slipped the political periodicals between the pages of a well-thumbed midwifery textbook.

It suddenly occurred to Patsy that not having seen a parent in years was quite odd. With her father a month’s travel across the world when she had been growing up, she hadn’t considered it. No wonder Deels was so on edge.

A last glance in the mirror as Delia fussed with her fringe, smoothing out her collar, then they were trotting down the stairs. Patsy held open the passenger door of the Morris Oxford for Delia, silently indicating that she would drive them to Paddington station. Not ideal, given that Patsy had taken to driving about as well as she had taken to the smaller woman’s early physical affections towards her – awkwardly but enthusiastically. A combination that didn’t work so well behind the wheel as it had under Delia’s hands.

“Come on, old girl.” She muttered as the clutch protested with a crunching sound. “Deels, I do believe the car is playing favourites with us again. She never does this with you.” The small laugh she received in response was insincere, and Delia’s eyes were fixed firmly on the dashboard. “Why don’t I let you choose the station then, hm?”

The thing to know about Delia was that one shouldn’t push her when she was quiet. She was so forthcoming with her feelings, and they spilled eloquently from her lips, but only when they’d been mulled over, and firmed up. Patsy used to think that Delia had some sort of magical power when her offerings of love, affection, upset and pain, were so measured and meaningful. Patsy had hurt the brunette so many times with her impulsive anger, quick to flare when she was overwhelmed and to say things she didn’t mean. She wished she could just let herself feel it as the woman on her left did. The redhead reached over and placed her hand on Delia’s knee as they waited for a light to turn green, rubbing with her thumb.

A while later, Patsy handled the car through London, with Mrs. Busby now in the passenger seat where Delia had sat before and the boot brimming with luggage. A wide-eyed Sian, sandwiched between Delia and her mother Marilyn, was gazing out of the windows with wonder at the afternoon London scenes that played out before her.

They were quiet, save a few pleasantries. Mrs. Busby had even thanked her quietly as Patsy had taken her suitcase for her, and directed her towards the passenger seat. She looked older and, whilst possessing none of the Mackeson induced ruddiness of Blod, a little more infirm since Patsy had seen her last. It was to be expected that the woman who usually had an opinion on everything, and no qualms about sharing it, remained subdued in the wake of her sister’s sudden death.

The silence was most likely induced by her presence, Patsy thought. It was better than Delia getting an earful without the armour of the flame-hared, cosmopolitan invert that her love’s family thought her. It used to bristle her, but now she couldn’t help being a little amused that she was thought of as such an alien species that to engage her in conversation was too dangerous an enterprise. She decided it would have to be herself that would break the tension.

“Sian, Delia tells me you’re a fiend for literature. Do you have any study plans after upper-sixth relating to the field?” She inquired brightly, glancing over her shoulder at the willowy brunette, who seemed to have drawn rather the short straw with the middle-seat, given that she was the tallest of the Busby clan by quite some. Patsy caught sight of the teenager in the mirror, breaking into an enthusiastic smile that so resembled Delia’s.

But apparently, this had been the wrong thing to say.

“Sian is finishing with school. Aren’t you?” Marilyn snapped.

Her daughter resumed gazing out of the window, humming in half-hearted agreement.

Patsy resigned herself to a conversational dearth for three days, supplemented by meagre discussion of Finchley flat clearing, funeral plans, and the extolling of Blod’s many virtues. The latter would at least be nearly as entertaining as the woman of whom they spoke.

The flat vibrated to the beat of Blod’s booming laugh. The old woman slapped her hand on her knee, doubled over in what would appear to be a painful ecstasy. She was sapphire-eyed and wide across. Other than the grey, she was the double of Mrs. Busby. Except for when her face cracked open into a wide smile, flashing smoke stained teeth in an infectious display.

“You girls.” She waved her finger at them. “I swear to god. You girls will be the death of me.”

Patsy tried in vain to reign in the gaze she directed at Delia, who was wiping tears from her cheeks, attempting to take deep breaths. She couldn’t help but admire the light in her eyes as she laughed. “Us?! You’re the one telling stories about you and my mam sneaking out."  

“Exactly. I’m a dead woman walking now you know what we got up to. She’ll kill me if she knew I’d told you.”  

The redhead smirked. Stories of the Great War came quite quickly to Blod after a few drinks. She talked of the time fondly. She had of course known that the elder woman had met her husband, a ‘nice North London boy’ training at a nearby facility, during that time. What they hadn’t known was quite how often Delia’s mother had been dragged along on Blod’s evening jaunts. She poured just a little less gin in Blod’s glass before adding the Indian tonic water. And immediately regretted her underestimation. Ever astute, the silver haired woman pointed at the meagre offering, “Don’t short-change me, girl.” Admitting defeat, Patsy topped her up.

“Do you know?” Patsy considered as their new record turned in the background. “If the doctrine had been presented this joyfully, I may have taken to it quite swimmingly.” One of Delia’s patients had gifted her the LP after a long-stay in The London. It was a recording of American gospel music, and Patsy thought it quite jolly.

Delia took a gulp of her drink, “Patsy went to a convent school see, Blod. She was on a diet of catholic nuns, kilts, and hellfire eternal.”

Blod snorted, “Lot of good it did you, I see.” She gestured with her glass between the two younger women.

  Patsy choked on her gin.

The corner of Delia’s lips twitched. She reached over and rubbed Patsy’s thigh, fingers dancing over her skin, soothing her out of the shock. And revelling in the open secret. Alluded to but unsaid.

Unsaid but accepted.

As they bundled out of the car, stacking luggage at the side of the road by the Chrisp Street hotel, a slip of a boy ambled towards them.

“Nurse Mount, Nurse Busby!” He grinned, a smaller blonde chap trailing behind him.

Delia’s smile returned briefly but genuinely, “Ahoy there, Nigel. How’s that boat coming along?” She asked after the milk crate structure the boys had been working on for some time over at the bombsite.

“We found some pram wheels, so we’re making a jigger now. We’re gonna race it with the boys from Limehouse way.” He shook his head, dark blonde mop moving almost comically, seeming to remember something. “Uhm, Nurse Mount, mum’s having another baby. She said if I saw you, I was to say that she wants you to go ‘round our house. She don’t like the lady at the new doctor’s.” He seemed proud at having delivered his message.

Patsy sighed. “Do tell your mother ‘congratulations’ from Nurse Busby and myself. But I’m sorry, Nigel. I’m not your mother’s midwife anymore.” District practice had been phased out – the last time she’d delivered a baby at home in Poplar had been two years ago. “You go and let her know that next Saturday, she’s to knock on us, and we’ll have a chat about what’s worrying her over a nice cup of tea.”

Delia chimed in, “And you can tell her that when she goes to The London to have her baby, I’ll probably be on shift.”

Reassured enough, he scampered off, and Patsy turned to the trio of Busby’s, “One of mine.” She pointed after Nigel, “And the little one, Glen, well, you had to come and help with him didn’t you, Delia?”

She nodded, “I tried to swap you out of that awful ten-hour shift. When I arrived you were practically falling asleep on Mrs. Jenkin’s bed with her. The first thing poor Glen saw was us rowing about whether you should go home.” The light returned to her eyes, and she chuckled. The humour, perhaps due to its relation to the ‘horrible, nasty’ business of female reproduction, or the easy intimacy they slipped into, seemed to be lost on Mrs. Busby and Marilyn. But as they ascended the steps to the hotel, Sian piqued.

“Do you know a lot of the children around here?”

Patsy nodded. “Yes, and it’s lovely seeing them grow.”

“There was a lady like that in our village, wasn’t there, mam?”

Marilyn didn’t answer, her eyes fixed on Patsy, occasionally flitting to Delia, like she was anticipating something horrifying transpiring between them. Like if she stared hard enough, she might see what was so hateful about their existence. Like she was searching for it.

Delia nodded, “Yes, but she wasn’t a midwife. Just very old, and knew a lot.” She informed Sian. “She only spoke Welsh. Oh, I can’t remember her name.”

“Gwyneth Owens.” It was the first thing Mrs. Busby had said for quite some time. “She brought you and your sister into this world, Delia. You should know her name, god rest her soul.”

The hotel was not such that a handsome concierge was about to swoop by and relieve the Welsh travellers of their bags. Instead, a rather distracted young woman behind the counter fumbled through some sheets of paper, and after some searching, located the keys, and sent them on their way. Patsy was happy to be relegated to the muscle in this situation, though in general Delia did far better with heavy things. After some effort and very many stairs, they had located the rooms and were saying their goodbyes. She saw Sian’s despair as she spotted a double bed, with no doubt that she’d be sharing with her mother.

“Oh, mam. Please can I stay with-“

“No.”

“But I want to see their fl-“

“Don’t answer me back. You know we’re going over this evening.” Marilyn’s response came through gritted teeth. She sighed heavily, turning to Delia. “I’ll see you.”

Delia nodded, and leaned into give her sister a hug, who returned it stiffly. Pointedly the spare part, Patsy turned to Mrs. Busby, who was still struggling with her case through the threshold of her own separate room. “Oh, Mrs. Busby. Let me. I’ll pop it on your bed for you.” Patsy thought to herself that this woman must have brought the kitchen sink as she hauled it onto the pink bedding.

“Thank you, Patsy.” There was a sincerity to her tone that the redhead was not accustomed to. She had never heard it there before.

Chapter Text

Delia made a beeline for the kettle the moment they passed through the doorframe of their flat, but Patsy caught her hand and pulled her in towards her. “Come here, you silly thing.” She stroked her hair, a surge of protectiveness washing over, one that she had been biting down in favour of a faked joviality. She could always be relied on to pretend that absolutely nothing was wrong, though it was hard not to jump in defence of Delia the moment she saw her face fall. But Patsy’s icy ripostes of past had only turned the atmosphere colder. So, she had settled into charming smiles and bright quips, the silent referee. It pained her to do it, but it was honest work. And the right thing to do. For Delia.

Small fists closed around the fabric of her blouse, and Delia’s head pressed into her chest. “We have to get the flat in shape before they come over.” She tried to pull away, with the intention of engaging in the illusion of tidying.

“It’s done, Deels. I was on my knees scrubbing all morning whilst you were dithering around like a lost lamb.”

The Welshwoman took Patsy’s hands and raised them to her face, breathing in the smell of bleach. “So you were.” She always griped that Patsy’s skin was going to come off if she wasn’t careful enough with the cleaning products.

“Quite. So come and sit down and have a cuddle with me before we have to paint our ‘aren’t we lovely and normal’ faces on again.”

“Ah, and our ‘we definitely don’t sleep in same the bed’ faces.” She smirked, coming back to into herself.

“Now, Nurse Busby, that is a challenging pretence when you look so sweet.” Patsy flopped down onto the sofa, with her arms open.

It was but a blissful few hours of lounging and last minute fussing over the flat. Delia got into a panic about whether two full milk bottles would be enough to keep her family’s tea white enough. Patsy countered that there was little possibility of it being depleted in their brief recess before departing for the restaurant. The more Patsy thought about it, the more she couldn’t see why they had not just met at the Italian place they’d chosen. Indian and Chinese had been ruled out, though it had been a while since they’d indulged Patsy’s penchant for steamed buns – not in the anglicised takeaways, but in the alleyways of Gerrard Street. They had, however, decided that it was too much to inflict upon Mrs. Busby, lest she grow to hate this city even more. French was settled on as too ostentatious, so they’d been left with Ristorante Lombardi. Cooking at home, which had been Delia’s original intention, had been most deftly and gently discouraged by Patsy. She couldn’t bear to watch her love in such a stress.

Returning the question of why they weren’t meeting there, Patsy found herself wondering if Sian’s insistence that she wanted to see the flat was all there was to it, or if was really Delia’s mother who found herself truly curious to see the home they kept so many years on from her last visit.

The Busby’s appeared once again, refreshed from their travels, though looking no more jubilant. Bar Sian, who seemed exceedingly eager to get a good look at her trendy London aunt’s pad, taking the stairs two at a time.

Mrs. Busby sat subdued, and Marilyn stiffly. They sipped their tea at the dining table, with Delia’s mother throwing out a compliment on their China pattern. Delia appeared so shocked by this that it took her several seconds to reply, eventually recounting the thrilling tale of intense deliberation over yellow or orange in the Selfridges crockery department. Not to be misconstrued – it was a conflict that Delia had entered into with herself. Patsy had simply been content to watch her hold the plates up to the light. 

“Bit modern for me. But nice for the young, I suppose.” Mrs. Busby concluded.

Meanwhile, Sian subtly ignored her mother’s insistence that she sit down and drink her tea, knowing that she wasn’t about to cause a scene by really laying into her. Instead she peered at the photos on their walls of their travels. “You have a good camera.” She remarked.

“Too good. All wrinkles permanently recorded.” Patsy replied. “Oh yes, that was in Florence. They have the most wonderful bridge there.” She joined Sian in her stare at the photo of herself and Delia that the bubbly Welshwoman had hounded some American tourist into taking for them. Delia had quite perfected turning at the last moment as the shutter clicked to give Patsy her gaze so adoring that it quite gave them away. But only for a second. So that whatever unsuspecting photographer had been recruited handed back the camera and departed none the wiser.

“And you’ve got so many books.” The gangly teenager gazed at their bookshelf.

Patsy nodded in reply. “We like to keep a good library. Why don’t we give you something on London?” She placed a hand on the young woman’s shoulder, steering her away from the cheap pulp fiction novels that Delia liked to read, their racy covers concealed by the density of the shelf. There was no need for the girl to meet Beebo Brinker, lest Patsy be blamed for the moral outrage it may induce in Marilyn. They were Delia’s bloody books, after all. 

“Honestly, Deels. They’re not worth the paper they’re printed on.” Patsy tossed over her shoulder as the younger woman bemoaned the ending of her latest purchase. Death – usually suicide – or worse, marriage. Delia’s plucky protagonists never had much luck in love. And the brunette sighed, trying on dust jackets for size around the flimsy paperback. The paper so thin it looked as if the slightest drop of water would melt it. That’s what their kind of love was worth, she supposed.

Delia gave up her mission to obscure the art and title, and tossed it on the bed. The aloof and pouting pair on the cover facing up. The sight made Patsy nervous. If she could see through the battered outer layers of that book to what must be inside, then could anyone? She scooped it up, wishing she could trust Delia to tuck it somewhere secret, but not quite able to bring herself to put that much faith in the other nurse’s responsibility. As she did, she quoted the tagline, scoffing, “A frank novel of people who live in the shadow world of twisted emotions.”

The Welshwoman’s patience had worn thin. “You truly don’t remember what it was like to feel you were the only person in the world to be this way?” She was imploring, nay begging, Patsy to understand.

“What ‘way’?” Patsy squeezed the delicate pages with her fingers, stressing the latter word brusquely. “I love you. I just want to be with you.” She’d by lying if she said she wasn’t trying to endear the trainee nurse, softening her tone and reaching for the other woman, who seemed to have found a spot of peeling paint around the ceiling of her nurse’s home bedroom to acquaint herself with.

It wasn’t that simple. Not really. But she willed it to be. And she willed Delia not to reach straight into the heart of her as she so easily did, and pull out the dark words she could never bring to say herself.

“I find it very hard to believe that if you hadn’t met me, you’d soon be hitched to a junior doctor with a brood of two.” Delia’s frustration brimmed over, “And I rather think, that if that is the case, then you’d be better off with me out of your life.”  

Patsy felt as if her stomach was being pulled through her navel. She knew that whilst being brought together certainly was a blissful coincidence, that it couldn’t be all there was to it. She had always known that. Ever since school. Where she would find herself enchanted by certain schoolmates. Celine’s willowy elegance and singing laugh. Daphne’s delinquent grin and nimble lighter tricks. And where, after scotch or whatever else they could get their hands on, they would talk into the night. So quiet and so close to each other’s faces in the illicit darkness that she could smell the whisky. And she would have to pull her bottom lip into her mouth and clamp it underneath her teeth to stop herself from tasting it.  

“That’s utter nonsense, Delia, and you know it.” She retorted, “I just don’t see why it matters so much.” She had seen them. The other women. The ones who did what they did. The ones who wore it on every inch of their bodies and their lives. And she was inexplicably upset by them. They were a rare sight, albeit. But just last week she had been accosted by a trio in the emergency room. Two friends either side of a third, a dishevelled East Londoner, gripping under her arms, head lolling side to side. She had tried in vain to lift cuff-linked arms in protest, to deny Patsy’s treatment. She said she was fine. The claret stains down her T.M Lewin number said otherwise. She fell over, her companions said in unison. Had a fight with the cobblestones, they joked. Too much to drink, it’s typical of her. But with a nose that would never sit straight again, and a split lip that would leave her with a permanent grimace, Patsy didn’t need to doubt their account. For she knew exactly what had occurred.

Never had a simple bloodied snout and mild concussion made her feel quite so sick.

She wished she had never told Delia about it. The brunette had asked what they were like, brimming with curiosity. She wanted to know what they said. She said she wished she’d been in the emergency room, just so she could have spoken to them herself.

“Because I can’t feel alone in it forever.”

She ushered Sian into the kitchen, away from the dangers of their bookshelf. Patsy should have taken more of a fine-toothed comb through the flat. But this space was theirs, it was hard to see it from an outside view. Those who were carefully invited over their threshold either couldn’t see, or saw and simply did not care. But now they were occupying an uncomfortable middle-ground. Perception with judgement. There was no way though, that they could clear this space of what it really meant.

“Pats, can you put the milk bottles out before we head off?” Delia gave her a pointed stare, one that said they should have popped out and fetched more milk whilst the shops were still open. She glanced at the empty containers on the table, and chuckled. Patsy was ready to accept blame for this one, though there was no anger in Delia’s eyes.

“Milky tea is a hereditary trait, I see.” She chirped.

It was on the climb up the stairs that the deep pain in her spine flared. It was not the first time since the broken skin there had stubbornly knitted itself back together in a silver tincture all those years ago. When the lines had been welted into her it should have been worse, as it had been for others. But she wondered now if the blurry young man who wielded the stick over her had been too shocked by her cries to continue. Or perhaps it was her mother’s. It was a howl that Patsy came to know well as a midwife in the East End of London. When pneumonia set it, or the measles. Or when the poor child didn’t come out breathing at all. She knew something of pain, but she would never know a mother’s helplessness to save her child. She had only heard it.

The sound split her ears. At the time the jarring wails had seemed to cease the cawing and the whistles of the trees. Or cleared them in an exodus of flight. And now it seemed to stop time completely.

She grasped at the skin behind her waist, gripping the bannister, a low hiss escaping her. Patsy closed her eyes and willed her mind to stay here, with Delia. Even with Mrs. Busby. For it was better than the alternative.

Patsy didn’t know how long she was hunched there, clutching at herself, wheezing through the agony. It shot through her, up into her shoulders and down into her heels. One by one her muscles pricked like dominoes. Her bottom lip clenched beneath her teeth. She was fine. It didn’t hurt as badly as it had then. Nothing hurt like that place.

Come on, Patience. Rise above it.

But that was the thing. There was no room left above the greatest height of cruelty she would ever see in which to rise.

“Pats…Pats, where have you been?”

She exhaled. It tasted like relief tinged with grudging vulnerability.

“Oh, your back has gone again.”

Suddenly there was an arm around her. “One step at a time, cariad.” She leaned into the figure holding her. “Easy does it…Careful now…Last one.” The soothing tone brought her out of her swimming head. She found herself lowered into the old armchair she wished Delia would let her throw away so much, though not without an involuntary yelp. She chastised herself, which at least meant she’d salvaged her sanity for this evening. And she retained her dignity, holding back any additional verbal protestations. She would not stand a fuss, nor would she cry out in pain. Maybe with Delia. But not in front of company.

There was a god-awful crunching feeling that only she could hear. It shot up into spine and her ears. She grimaced. Nothing was clicking into place, however. Patsy thought she’d draw blood from her lip as Delia set a cushion behind her back, pressing gently on her shoulders to straighten her out. “There." 

The next she felt was the cool of a glass pressed into one hand and two hard pills into the other. Patsy tried to protest, saying that these bonafide sedatives made her feel sick. That she’d rather just some paracetamol and not something that could put a horse to bed. Delia was not going to stand for her nonsense, and an intimate bicker borne of loving concern was not appropriate. Not as Patsy’s senses returned to her through the mist of her discomfort and she felt an additional three sets of blue eyes on her. Playing the unperturbed, she waved her hand, “I’m quite alright.” 

Before her eyes even came into focus on the brunette before her, Patsy knew that she was unconvincing. 

“You’re far too young to have that much grief from your back.” Came Mrs. Busby’s slant.

Patsy bit back a retort.

She was, after all, rather sensitive to the passing of her thirty-seventh birthday this past January. And all the more sensitive to the fact that she’d never asked for this. She supposed it was by the grace of…well, certainly not God, for him nor his scripture had saved them, that it had she had got through so much of her life without her formative years haunting her body as well as her mind. It seemed just as she had begun to bring the latter under control, or at least it’s tendency to metamorphose her into an irritable wretch, that the former had returned. It was sod’s law.

Delia swooped in, “Poor Patsy’s had a dicky back ever since she slipped on that ice in January.” She thanked Delia silently for her bold-faced lie. There was a time and a place that kind of raw honesty, and it was not now in their flat whilst the reality of their living situation was so blatant. That was plenty enough candour for their guests. “Which is why she shouldn’t have been so gung-ho with the suitcases.” Delivered with a more pointed look from the Welshwoman, Patsy knew that every word of that was the truth. 

She braced herself in advance of the telling off she was in for. Delia wanted her to see a consultant. But Patsy was content with the smaller woman’s hands running over the sculpted muscles that framed her spine when needed. Warm and soft, kneading out the blight. Patsy never liked to take more than she felt herself worthy of, more than what she was owed. She was too terrified of what she could lose.

Her immobilisation, and furthermore, her inability to attend dinner with Delia and her family, had the Englishwoman overcome with remorse. She could already see the other woman begin to steel herself in preparation for Patsy’s absence this evening. Oh, why hadn’t they just collected a fish supper to eat around the table? Of course, Mrs. Busby would have clucked that more effort ought to be made for one’s mother, Sian probably would have been terribly disappointed, and Marilyn looked like she didn’t want to spend another minute in this flat. But it all would have been less agonising than Patsy leaving her to handle the three of them alone.  

They shot each other guilt-ridden looks as Delia disappeared into the hallway after the Busby trio, bundling on coats, mouthing I love you. I’m sorry. Patsy shrugged. Me too, she returned, hoping that the exhale of cigarette smoke obscured their silent exchange as Marilyn glanced back one last time at their flat. At Patsy.

This wasn’t before she had been suitably laden with supplies on the side table. Her book, some magazines, and pot of tea with a whole pack of gypsy creams. She smiled softly, knowing that she could take the opportunity to finish all the biscuits without earning a telling off. Perhaps it wasn’t for the best to start eating too many sweet things until she was sure she’d be able to ride her bike when the cache of days off she’d taken off for this ended. She’d hate to not fit into her new slacks for Rudy’s birthday at the Gates. 

She didn’t make it but halfway through the episode of Nationwide that her love had left on the telly before she drifted off, the ‘equine tranquillisers’ she’d been prescribed quite living up to their nickname.

Chapter Text

One couldn’t help but wonder that even in families that had that easy aura around them, and not the stiffness of her own, if it was quite this hard now that everyone was grown up. She cast her mind back to The Parker’s, and the dinners she’d spent at their house, gazing across the table at the light catching Elinor’s hair whilst Mrs. Parker lamented about how nice it would be if Delia and Steffan would step out together some time. Mr. Parker would make some crack about how the only thing Steffan had eyes for was a rugby ball and the pub, and that Delia could do much better than that. Chairs would scrape as the young man set light-heartedly on his father, shoving and laughing, until something from the table clattered to the flagstone kitchen floor. No retribution, just louder guffaws. Elinor and Delia were usually tasked with dragging the dog outside in these raucous times, before he made himself sick with all the shepherd’s pie on the floor. It would give them an excuse to walk under the Pembrokeshire night sky arm in arm.

A smile attempted to tug at the corners of her lips, but it did not come. Perhaps the Parker family weren’t quite as close anymore. But with both married, and Steffan only as far afield as Swansea, she knew that they had not the complexity of the problems Delia had brought upon her family.

Well, there was only one problem.

After the customary wiggle of her key in the lock, with a foot pressed at the base of the wooden frame, the door swung open. The smell of cigarettes and Dettol overcame her senses and the smile that had tried in vain to appear before finally came. The noise of the television had been replaced in her absence by that of Edith Piaf’s vibrato, and she was glad that Patsy must have been able to get up to at least put on a record. She was further pleased that her love had finally been turned onto what she dubbed the Welshwoman’s more ‘pretentious’ tastes. However, it was a shame that Patsy still hadn’t come around to her love of cinema that possessed any more depth than the odd Hepburn flick. But she could live in hope, and the redhead would always accompany her.

“My tad brought back records from France after the war. I remember when I heard her sing for the first time. She sounded so sad. I just wanted to make her feel better.” Delia explained, en route to re-joining Patsy on her single bed after pressing the needle to the aged record. It cracked every few lines of music, spinning unevenly on the turntable. She was worried it would break Harriet’s borrowed record player, but she found herself desperate to share the experience with Patsy for some reason.

Patsy patted the space beside her, beckoning Delia away from her task of tidying away a day’s worth of notes. She clamped the nursing textbook shut, sinking into the wrought iron frame with the redhead. “Goodness, Deels. How chivalrous.” The taller woman smirked, and Delia’s heart fluttered at the compliment from the woman whom she would do anything to make smile. “Is that what endears you then? An opiate addiction with a side of Gallic jazz.”

“Not quite my type.” She didn’t mean to sound so cryptic, and she didn’t mean for her eyes to flutter towards Patsy’s smile. She chastised herself internally.

The blonde busied her hands in lieu of a Dunhill, searching for out of place strands of hair, but finding none. “Well, what is your type?” Her usual clipped and confident voice seemed smaller than usual. Patsy’s throat constricted as she swallowed.

She sighed, ‘You, you fool,’ was what she wished more than anything she could say.

Delia so wanted to be brave. “Kind.” She started slowly, “Um…”, and then she faltered. “Well, perhaps, quite determined.”

  “That’s not very specific,” came Patsy’s attempt to find light in the dark cloud that seemed to have swarmed around the room.

  “I don’t think I can be specific.” The double entendre was the most honesty she could put forth. But her impulsivity got the better of her as she looked dead on into pale blue eyes before her. It was not inherently impulsive to simply look someone in the eye whilst talking to them. In fact, her mam would say it was rude not to. But it was a fool’s errand when she knew what she was communicating. And Patsy wasn’t stupid – far from it. The Englishwoman must understand every silent word of it. Surely she had to.

Their gaze was broken by the sudden need for nicotine. The click of a lighter. The long drawn out exhale. Patsy’s perfect stalling technique. “I don’t think I can be either.” She drew the white and brown tube to her mouth again but stopped just short of inhaling, and it hovered in front of her lips, burning for a while until the ash threatened to fall into her lap. Eventually, after what seemed like minutes, she concluded, “In fact, I don’t think I should be.” She looked out of the window into the dark at the nothingness.

She felt her heart swell, as it always did in that familiar way when there was something in Patsy’s intonation, in her implication, that something was happening to them both. Between the both of them. “It would seem we’re similar then. In that respect.” There was a hum in response. It was in definite agreement. Delia did not try to resist the urge to catch the other woman’s gaze this time, needing to see the consensus as well as hear it.

“Deels, I…” The Welshwoman’s breath caught in her throat. In the corner of her vision she could see Patsy’s fingers twitching, millimetres from her own. “I should go. It’s nearly curfew.” A low hiss emanated from the teacup which Patsy used as a makeshift ashtray in Delia’s bedroom as the cigarette made contact with the last dregs of Johnnie Walker. Clearly not enough had been consumed. “Thank you for playing me the Piaf.” She sounded breathless, near frantic.

The latch clunked, and the Englishwoman took flight.

Delia decided that she would be braver next time. For them both.

The brunette busied herself, clearing away the empty teapot and the biscuit crumbs. She emptied a considerably fuller ashtray into the bin, wrinkling her nose as the grey particles flumed up towards her face. She then reached carefully for Patsy’s silver cigarette case, running her thumb over its ostentatious engravings and the C.B.M set into the centre of it – her father’s very own. The other woman stirred, her eyes slowly adjusting to the soft light of their living room lamp.

The Welshwoman reached out to stroke her tousled red hair from her face, “Hello, angel.” Patsy rose a clumsy hand, searching for Delia’s fingers and teasing them out of the strands, bringing them to her lips to press a sleepy kiss there. “Get much sleep?”

“In and out.” Patsy mumbled hoarsely, “Mostly in.” How that woman hated those pills she’d been prescribed. Delia could understand that for someone with such a pep in their step, how it must be frustrating. “I didn’t get to tell you how darling you look.”

The comment was accompanied with a sleepy glance that started at her neck, and ended with pale blue eyes settling on her waistline, which Patsy reached for. “Oh, don’t be silly.” She tutted, as she felt herself being pulled into the other woman’s lap. “I’ll hurt you.” Instead, she extended her hands, Patsy gripping around her forearms. She heaved, and Patsy groaned as she rose to her feet.

Still grumbling, she placed her long pale fingers into the small of her back, stretching. “Ghastly,” was all she could hiss.

“Isn’t it.” Delia responded, “I hate seeing you like this.”

“Honestly, Deels. I really am-“

Delia knew that look, with the corners of her mouth turned down and the bridge of her nose pinched between her brows. “Don’t you dare apologise.”

It wasn’t Patsy’s fault. God knows it wasn’t her fault.

The other woman acquiesced with her usual half-smile, and shuffled to bed to begin her night time routine, albeit a lot slower than usual. They spoke through the open doorway as Delia finished tidying, knowing that it would gnaw on Patsy’s mind if the mess from their brief tea in the flat was left to rest on the dining room table. As if empty china cups and a few biscuit crumbs could rot and fester overnight. She didn’t question her lover’s logic, just intervened before it could overtake Patsy’s reason. Before she could even think to start worrying. 

“So, pray tell, was your mother typically beastly towards you?” Patsy eventually addressed that which Delia had been avoiding. She sighed, wondering if this was the best time to talk about it.

“No, not really.” Delia called back over her shoulder, carefully drying the china that should have been a gift on a wedding register, perhaps from one of the women she sat across from at the little Italian restaurant this very evening. Instead they had bought the set themselves, in the hazy excitement of purchasing their first flat together.

There was a long pause, “I can see you’re upset, you know. Even through the wall, Deels.” Delia could feel Patsy’s frustration at her immobility, punctuated by a sharp, “Gosh, ouch!” The Welshwoman shook her head at whatever attempt Patsy had made to get up too quickly, and wanted to chastise her as she appeared in line with her sight, holding quite steadfastly to the doorframe of their bedroom. The scolding that danced behind her lips was softened into nothing as she saw the earnest look in Patsy’s eyes. “Your sister, then?”

Delia nodded, affirming.

She had seen her sister a handful of times since Patsy and she had returned from their jaunt around the world in the early-sixties. And when they had settled back in the East End the proximity of good train links to Wales had excited Delia. She was ready to build them into her life on positive terms, but without comprising the presence of the woman with whom she could not live without. Of course, they would temper themselves in front of the more sensitive company, and allow everyone to engage in the illusion that they were very close friends. What Delia wasn’t banking on was the implication growing into accusation. And for that very accusation to become explicitly that she was wicked.

Of course, these exact words had not been said in Ristorante Lombardi. But sadly, Delia believed this was only because of Sian’s presence. For which she had been grateful. Because although not oblivious to the tensions, she was clearly the only person around the table naïve to the nature of Delia and Patsy’s relationship. Lest her innocence be tarnished by the frightful lifestyle of her aunt Delia, they had stayed in a territory that could not be described as safe (for Delia could feel her heart hammering in her ears, and her hands losing all skill with the Spaghetti that she had gained in Florence), but was certainly obscured.

 “What did she say, darling?” Patsy pressed.

 “Nothing specifically.” Delia shrugged, “She was just…so short with me. We were so close when we were children, Pats.” Delia hadn’t been ready for this. As her mother’s protestations seemed to be finally melting into a grudging acceptance, Marilyn had picked up her slack. “Before, she hadn’t seen us together like this. In our life. I don’t think she knows what to make of it.”

The younger woman almost shuddered when she recalled pulling out her chequebook to pay the waiter, insisting to her mother and sister that the dinner was her treat. It was a silly little thing that she was so proud of, something so hard won. The grizzled lawyer Patsy had inherited from her father, with his responses of it can’t be done, had passed and made way for his son. A bespectacled and doe-eyed young man, with a gentle manner and a suspiciously clean sense of style. He gazed at Patsy and Delia, sat across the expanse of the mahogany desk, after the redhead’s firm insistence that Delia was being tied to her estate and that was the end of it. But before she could threaten to take her business elsewhere, and with a deeper look of understanding than she expected, the young Mr. Hawkes replied softly that he could make it happen, and that he would.

 It might have been considered a showy gesture, perhaps even a crude one. That is what Delia believed at first when Marilyn had balked at the sight of the rectangular booklet. But it was when Delia saw her sister’s eyes flit down to the letters squeezed onto the sheets of paper – Miss Delia Busby and Miss Patience E. Mount – that she realised the true source and depth of her horror.

 Patsy nodded, “She probably didn’t expect us to be so achingly normal. I’m sure she would prefer to find us a pair of demented bohemians – we would be far easier to despise then.” The copper haired woman’s knees appeared to falter.

 “Pats! Get out of the door and into bed.” Delia strode across the room purposefully, ushering her gently onto the emerald green comforter atop their bed. “Goodness, here I am harping on, not even realising that you were clinging on for dear life.”

 “Right away, Nurse Busby.” Patsy harrumphed. “If you could administer your patient with some Dunhills and a nightcap, she would be most grateful.” Oh, the cheek of her. Delia sighed at Patsy flouting their no-smoking-in-bed rule. She usually only relaxed her position on this one steadfast decree when she was suitably endeared. After tangled limbs had uncoiled, and she could watch flushed and besotted, as Patsy regained her breath through the medium of smoke. Pink in the cheek, and on the chest, the redhead would watch her through heavily lidded eyes. “What?”

 Delia was broken from her reverie. “Nothing.” It wouldn’t do to tease a woman who could barely sit up without wincing.

The smokes and the tot of whisky were delivered dutifully, allowing Delia to set to work getting herself ready for bed, though not without a few glances at the pinstripe clad English nurse, who was propped up with plenty of pillows, swilling the amber liquid. Duw, she worried about her. Especially when she topped up her resolve with nicotine and alcohol like this, in anxious preparation for sleep that might not come. Or worse, might be marred. They had a busy day in Finchley tomorrow. But she decidedly didn’t bring up the alluring prospect of sending Patsy off to the land of nod with a couple more of those heavy-duty pills in her. She knew the other woman harboured no desire to grow reliant on those morphine tablets. If I wanted to be somebody’s miserable and inebriate wife, I could have forced myself to tolerate a man. Goodness knows, I would have needed them then.  

She cast her mind back to the night with the Edith Piaf, ‘the night of near confession’, as they’d humorously dubbed it – though it hadn’t seemed funny then. And here Patsy was, so many years on. With no opioid dependency. No propensity for jazz. Well, not that which involved the accordion at any rate. But a very attractive level of French, as much as Patsy insisted that her grasp of the language was clunky at best. Teach me something in French, she asked in the awkward silence that their next visit had been shrouded in, feeling more illicit that ever, though they had not yet committed a single act that could be considered crossing the threshold of propriety, of acceptability. Ne me quitte pas, Patsy had translated quietly – and how could Delia not protest that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard the then blonde say. And now it was just Pats and her. Working their way through their life together in a rhythm that seemed to be slowing from double time into a more legato number. And she loved it, for they were settled. It was easy, most of the time.

Caution was the overriding feeling as she settled behind the redhead, slotting her shorter form against her. Patsy couldn’t sleep on her back with the pain, so Delia endeavoured to prop her on her side. Like a buffer. But mostly she was worried that Patsy wouldn’t sleep at all, even with three fingers of Lagavulin down her neck. So she held her close.

They had argued, that night in early July nineteen-sixty-nine. Patsy insisted that the riots outside that club in New York had got everyone’s backs up at the Gates, and the other haunts around Soho. That it would be foolish to step out until everyone had calmed down. She had been unbearably irritable, more than she’d seen her in years. Delia had cried. The tears had come when she didn’t know what else she could possibly do or say. And she was exhausted by her row with her mother, which seemed so final, like they were banging the last nail in the coffin of their relationship over the bloody telephone. But it felt like here, away from Pembrokeshire, they were on the cusp of something – not just Delia and Patsy, but all of them. She could taste the defiance in the air, and she wanted to go and breath it in.

But the encroach of Patsy’s foul mood had come to a head as they slept with their backs to each other, not because of the summer heat but because they were truly that angry. It seemed foolish, in retrospect, because of how hard fought it had been just to reach out safely into the darkness and feel the other there.

And then other woman had sat bolt upright, screaming into the night. Delia hadn’t been asleep. Not really. The uneasiness that had haunted them that day and kept her awake morphed into horror. And she would never forget the grating sounds of a throat empty of anymore cries. That was night Patsy had run dry.

Patsy pushed weakly against the smaller Welshwoman in a disoriented display of distress. “Pats.” She tried gently. “Pats, wake up!” The second attempt was firmer. Nothing but glassy eyes met her after an urgent vault towards the bedside lamp. Oh duw, she wasn’t here. It had been years. Delia felt rusty, almost awkward, until the same force that stilled her churning stomach implored her to grab the redhead by the shoulders and shake.

The fog seemed to clear from the blue, irises constricting in the light. “You’re here. You’re with me.” Her voice cracked, betraying the lack of strength she wished she could muster. She never could stand this.

She tried to close her fingers around the hands clawing in the small of a pale and scarred back. “It hurts.” Patsy choked on the words. “Delia, it hurts.”

“I know, annwyl.” Delia gasped, forcing rigid arms around her neck and taking Patsy as firmly against her body as she could manage, palms splayed against her, trying to soothe clenched muscles. “I know it does.”

“No. My back.” The hisses as she’d sat and the hand that had been glued there for the past few days seemed to make sense. “I felt it.” Formidable Patsy, reduced to hysteria, near retching on every word that left her. The sheen on her chest caught the light, and tears fell. Delia couldn’t tell which were hers and which were her lovers. “I realised why.”

There could be no reason why. No reason that would stand up in the eyes of any god that she had heard of. And she’d met every creed and faith in her years as a nurse. But the heat of war was something she did not know. Not as she’d waved to planes from the top of a hill with Marilyn, convinced that this one must be Uncle Daffyd’s. And begged her mother for more dripping on her bread, never once bending the iron rod in her mam’s back that kept her upright whilst her father fought on in France and Blod was bombarded in London. He’d returned early, his Welsh colouring the darkest it had ever been. With stories of midnight raids and the gift of the bullet removed from the smooth pale circle that interrupted the bronzed hue of his forearm. How could it be that all they had lost was a chunk of tad’s skin from his sewing arm?

For a woman at first so frantic and nonsensical, she said more than she ever had that night. Granted, it started in pieces. But it wasn’t the usual practicalities. The dates and the vague references to the horrors of that place. The smell and the endless heat, lightning and hot thick rain. No, tonight it wasn’t ‘hell’. It was worse. For all her begging Patsy to tell her, for all those years, she never thought that she could be so weak when the woman opened her mouth to answer her questions with more than one word or two. Delia had been heartbroken by it before, but now she wanted the burden. She wanted to take all of it that she could, whatever little of it she could even begin to understand. Who knew when she would get another chance?

Fingers shaking as they dipped into the latter half of a pack that had been full not so long ago, she spoke on, as if it was as addictive as the fag she held to her pale lips. She was cross legged, across from Delia, not a heap contained within tanned arms in their usual routine, but was sat up, almost defiant. “The song. Dot wrote that bloody song.” Her voice lost its waver, firming up.

“What do you mean, Pats?”

“A rude little ditty about the Japs. My mother played the piano. Probably pilfered from some colonial’s house.” Her breathing slowed, and she squeezed Delia’s hand. “Dot made up the words to a tune mama knew.” Delia felt afraid to breath, lest she stop. “Everyone sang it. Even the nips thought it was catchy. They didn’t know what we were saying.” She shuddered, “Until a general visited. We didn’t know, but he could understand.”

“And then?” She couldn’t help but stare at her in wonder, the woman that she thought knew so well, the woman who she thought would never say more than bitter implications and muffled pleas in her sleep. The leftover rouge on her cheeks was tracked through with pale lines, but her tone was strong.

She flicked some ash. “Mama was identified as a ringleader.” Then she took a shuddering breath, “And the general said that before they burned the piano she was to give private lessons.” Delia could feel her heart beating unevenly in her chest, like a poorly played tabor. The cracks in Patsy’s resolve reappeared, and Delia reached for both of her hands too quickly, startling her like she were a frightened deer – doe-eyed, and likely to take flight. But only to the back of her mind. She rubbed her thumbs gently over the other woman’s whitened knuckles, trying to unwind the tightly balled fists around the comforter. “She said no. I could never understand why she said no. But tonight I-I…Because before, I didn’t realise.”

“You were a child. How could you know?”

“I was so angry with her. I was so rotten to her. I didn’t speak to her for a week.” Eyes glazed, she began to spiral again, and Delia set upon her. She bundled all of that tension into her arms as if she could squeeze the pain out of her. “Because he said fine, he said that he knew what would hurt more. And he pointed at me. And my mother screamed, and-“

Delia’s skin prickled with the sudden cold of a sweat that drenched her. She must be as alabaster as the woman she held. Her head swam and she thought for a second her turning stomach would betray her. Patsy saw her stricken face and shook her head quickly, “No. I was just beaten.”

Just beaten.

Her Pats.

And how could it be that Patsy was reassuring her, comforting her? With warming hands on clammy cheeks, thumbing her tears. She released a shuddering breath, tinged with a darkly bitter relief that could only exist when considering two such unimaginable cruelties. And Delia realised now why Patsy had never been forthcoming with detail – not just for her own sake, but for the sake of them both. “I’m sorry, old thing.”

“Don’t. I can’t bear to hear you apologise.” Who was Delia to speak of what she could bear before the redhead? “God, I love you so much.”

“I’m the same.”

“I never thought you’d tell me a thing like that.” She wiped her nose with her pyjama sleeve, finding that her gaze met brighter, more assiduous blue eyes. Delia thought that Patsy would take the weight of it forever. It had nearly crushed her once, after her return from Hong Kong. Nearly dragged Delia under too, confused in a darkness that only cleared behind Patsy’s pained eyes. Watching her love in an agony that she had no window to.

“Me neither. I never wanted to.” Patsy shivered in the night chill. The early summer sun broke through their curtains, casting a subdued light across her face. Delia carefully placed the quilt over her shoulders. “It was the guilt. I went to bed with it. I was so ghastly to you. I-“

“If you’re going to apologise again, I won’t have it.”

“But it’s not alright. I get so angry…and cruel. I never tell you why, not truly why.” She breathed, “Delia, please forgive me.”

“You did tonight. You told me. You’re so brave.” She breathed. “And I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven you faster.”

Patsy offered a small laugh. “Nice to know what it takes. To think, I was going to buy you flowers.”

Delia did not like waiting for her to wrap it up in brown paper and string and stuff it down again. Patsy wrongly thought she was subtle. Perhaps she would sand down the dining table and re-varnish it meticulously. Or assault the grouting in the bathroom with a toothbrush on her hands and knees. And as her resolve hardened again, so did her hands. Delia would slip her fingers between Patsy’s and feel callouses, and a palm stripped dry by bleach. She would squeeze gently, pry gently, begging for her love to come back to her. Then one day her eyes would gleam like the kitchen, and she would suggest they do something jolly. It was as if it had not happened. Until it did again.

But she felt something change this time.

“Then I’ll try next time. I’ll try harder. To tell you.” She sighed, “Just…don’t leave me.”

Tonight Patsy slept soundly, with Delia perhaps a little too over attentive to every twitch and sigh. It had taken thirteen years for the dam to burst open. But two years on from that, they were here. They were still standing. But Delia couldn’t help but still hover, looking for the slightest of signs. She was steadfast, like a tide breaker on Harbour Beach. She couldn’t stop the ocean any more than she could have stopped the Imperial Japanese army from invading Singapore, but she could try to diminish its power in her own small way.

She pressed a kiss to the dozing woman’s temple, her fingers tracing the long-healed lesions. Patsy didn’t need a vigil for her bad back this evening, she needed Delia rested for their trip to Blod’s flat tomorrow. They both had better be at their best, for the Welshwoman considered grimly that her sister would certainly be at her worst. Her aunt had an awful lot of stuff, and it was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

When she armoured her girls with Anglicised names, concealing a nod to their language and their history in-between the forename and the moniker of marriage they all shared, she had only wanted them to get on well in life. She never imaged it would be printed across the top of a handful of NHS application forms, the ancient consonants omitted, with the purpose of taking her so far away. Mrs. Busby wished she had called her something that could only be butchered by an English mouth, so that the Celtic defiance made them too uncomfortable to take her on. But in her heart she knew that whatever Delia’s name had been, she would have run. With a cache of witty retorts tucked under her arm to be deployed at every mention of mines, sheep and mocking accents.

When Delia wrote, in those first few months, she could see the unsaid homesickness in her words. Too proud and too sure of her decision to spell it out, but there all the same. Just as when she snuck off for that jaunt to Poplar the Christmas they had visited Blod, she could see her floating on air. And she knew where she’d been and exactly who she had seen.

Delia was an honest girl, but only in time. She had confided years later how much she had missed them all, the beaches and the fields, the church and the pub. She had told her how one posh student nurse had called her a taffy. Thought her a farm girl, or a grubby miner’s daughter. And she had even joked once, though with a glimmer of hurt in her eyes, that she and her very best friend had been branded the toff and the taff. But the spark in her and that smile returned when she recounted quite how artfully Patsy had dressed the offender down. I never saw her so angry.

Other women had seen even then how unnatural their pairing. And though it had taken her daughter years, her concealment of the explicit truth had given way to an openness that unnerved Gwen, for it was not in retrospect. It was not a past act that she could reconcile was over now. It was never going to be over.

That girl couldn’t hide for love nor money. Not when her father stalked through the cottage, flinging back curtains and stooping under beds. She would always jump out, yelling with her arms splayed wide before she was even found, whilst Alun would bowl over in pretend shock. And she couldn’t hide now. Mrs. Busby wondered if it were because she’d never even wanted to try. The thrill of discovery had always followed her youngest daughter. Not like Marilyn, dutifully holed up in the broom cupboard – playing the game properly. And Delia couldn’t hide now. In fact, it was like she didn’t even want to.

But she was always sharp. Pulled the wool over her tad’s eyes with a hint of a smile and a gentle shove of his shoulder. The man melted, and he could see no wrong in her. It’s not that she was a bad child, just naïve – or at least Gwen had thought she was.

That run up to Easter, when she’d sent the girls off for their choir practices, in her heart she’d known that Delia had not been going. Each Saturday her daughter would return with more freckles and more of her father’s dark colouring than the last. And when she tried to catch her daughter out, she would recite the hymns perfectly in tune, word for word. Too clever, a girl could be. It was only when Mrs. Evans was delighted to tell her that she saw Delia rolling around in the sand with Steffan Parker that it was confirmed where she’d been parting with her sister each week on the way to the church and what she’d been doing.  She dismissed the hag’s gossip with not my Delia. But of course, her girl was such good friends with those boys. 

It almost made her laugh to think how riled she would get over Delia’s association with the group of lads that would chuck about the rugby ball on the beach each weekend, in its now stark irony. That girl could shoot up a tree like a squirrel with a terrier on its tail. And she always wanted to be there when Alun’s brother’s lambs came, not shrinking away from the purplish veil that covered them, going so far as to tenderly pull it from the animal’s mouth herself when it struggled to take its first breath. And she’d stomped around with those boys as long as she could until those heavy tomboy feet had ascended the stairs, the door slammed behind her, in a row that shook the whole house.

Gwen wondered if she’d have been better off letting that girl carry on the way she had – perhaps she’d have taken to Steffan or Tom or Brian. Goodness knows, they were sweet on her. She hadn’t seemed to notice, as those lads had grown. Boyish bodies firming into harder men. Rolling up their sleeves, showing what they had gained from shearing the livestock, fishing on the boats. Look what I can do, Delia. I can lift this whole thing.  

She had only ever turned and said, I can do it too.

Girls can’t tackle, mam. That’s what he said. I was only putting Steffan in his place.

Oh, she could kill that Steffan Parker – that was one way to get Delia shaming herself in the sand. Anyone who knew her daughter was aware that telling her she wasn’t able to do something was the most sure way to get it done. Gwen had applied the technique liberally in Delia’s youth. I don’t reckon you can dry that many plates before your mamgu comes around. And if you can run this change to tad at the shop before he goes for his lunch, I’ll be damned. And off she would pelt down the lane with soap covered hands barely dry.

Of course girls could tackle. But it didn’t meant they should. And when she tried to explain in vain that people would get the wrong idea, Delia had been heartbroken that anyone could see that as her intention. Gwen thought perhaps she was just a little bit behind the other girls, her head still in the clouds instead of in magazines about Hollywood heartthrobs. Not thinking of which boy she could make a decent go of it with before all the good ones were gone. But no, her head had stayed firmly up there until lofty ideas about nursing entered it and wouldn’t budge.

There was only so far a boy could be trusted around any young girl once they all turned thirteen and started big school. She knew Delia was innocent, but that didn’t make a blind bit of difference in the eyes of Mrs. Evans, and eventually it wouldn’t in those boys’ ever expanding irises. She’d stopped her from playing with them – no matter how much they argued Gwen’s word was always final. And it was one of those rare times where Alun hadn’t joined Delia’s futile corner in contradiction. She wondered briefly if she would have preferred what she saw then as an inevitability of her continued friendship with the local lads.

Swelling hips, and a sprint down the aisle in a forgiving white dress. Whilst Mrs. Evans would smirk sometime later, my what a remarkably healthy babe for one that’s three months early. Praise be to God. The shame of it, clinging to everything the family did, couldn’t be better than this. It would have killed her father.

So, after all that, she was no longer the scab-kneed pied piper of Harbour Beach. Instead, when it was time to go into town to do some shopping, Gwen dropped her in the company of another awkward aged straggler in the form of Elinor Parker, who was under instruction to keep an eye on her brother, but like Delia, was too old to join in with their games. She was a good girl, a couple of years older than Delia – sensible sort. Looked out for her at the grammar school.

Without the throng of boys at her skirts, she and Elinor would walk hand in hand down that beach. She watched from above as her daughter dug for cockles, sand-covered, offering handfuls of them to her new companion. And she always managed to charm the fishmonger out of a tot of vinegar to eat them with, because Elinor don’t like them without. She preferred the new sight of her subdued, with legs dangling over the sea wall, shucking the little shellfish with the army knife her tad gave her, cleaning them in a little pool of saltwater before offering them to her older companion. It was proper, and it was a sweet memory – one of her favourites. Gwen had felt a little more at peace about her headstrong child then.

Delia loves that girl, her father commented once. And judging by the sight of her stricken face when Elinor stepped out with the fishmonger’s son, Alun had been right on the money. Oh, dwt, don’t fret. You’ll still be best pals. The weak smile she offered her tad may have fooled him, but Gwen saw the lies it told. She just didn’t know what the lie was until that flame-haired nurse had come into her life.

It reminded her of when Blod met that Charlie. So taken with him, there’d be no getting her back. And she didn’t pretend to be naïve as to why they had run off to London and so quickly tied the knot, something else stirring in her belly other than the nerves when she’d stood across the dining table from them all and said that she’d be getting the train the next morning. And though it had come to nothing, with quite nothing filling her sister’s stomach ever again other than eel pie and ale, or whatever they ate down there, she supposed that she and that funny little man had made quite a good go of it. Even without the children.

Not like herself. Who caught the eye of her father’s apprentice in the shop – a farm boy, with a fading tan and ambitions of doing well for himself. That Mr. Busby’s got five sons and not enough land to keep all of them busy, her father said of the family, I’d give him another field or two, but this one came knocking asking for work. It’s good to keep the tenants in the family in some way or another, Gwenllian. She had done more than keep him working for the family. She’d brought him into it, and made her father so happy that he could give the shop to someone – a son. It had been what he had needed after Blodwyn had left.

She was glad that she had replied to her sister’s letter, though at first she had crushed it in her hand, the weight of the family on her – just her – whilst Blod had run. The world was going mad then. One war seemed barely at a close and now another was looming in front of them. Alun leaving in khaki with a kit bag under his arm, though she had begged him to close the shop and get back on the farm so he wouldn’t be conscripted – it had seemed like the only time his notion of the family honour had superseded her own. Marilyn seven and Delia just two. Life had seemed too short, so she had brushed off her pride and picked up her pen, and she would always be glad that she made that decision.

As she watched her girls barely meet each other’s eye now, she was sad for them. And she knew they would be sad in themselves if anything happened to the other, and they had carried on like this forever.

The tall redhead that formed the wedge between her daughters was relegated to sorting through trinkets – no heavy lifting permitted. Much like Mrs. Busby herself, who quite accepted she was too old now to be in with all that. So, they sat silently, on the cream leather sofa, Patsy wrapping that which Gwen wanted to keep in newspaper and stacking the odd assortment of plates and china figures efficiently in a box to her side. Quite how Blod had managed to acquire so much tatt she would never know. But it did always seem that way when someone died.

Delia had shuttled the clothes and blankets to the charity shop, bar that which they’d chosen for Blodwyn to be buried in, which her daughter had dropped at the funeral home on the Finchley Road. They’d made a good day of it really, with the life a woman reduced to ever less as the hours ticked on. A friend of Blod’s from the pub had come around, and asked if they’d like him to send for the rag and bone man to make a stop by at the end of the day. Gwen had been grateful for that, given that the Red Cross shop couldn’t take everything.

She watched the Englishwoman to her right push against the back of the sofa to rise, managing to keep her graces about her even with the strain in her back. Tall, even in the flat loafers she’d been no doubt bullied into wearing by her daughter. She’d never seen the redhead in anything other than heels, come to think of it. She cut though tension with charm and cut-glass vowels, with a voice that drew your ears in to listen, even if you wanted to resist. And there was barely an inch of change to her figure since she’d sat across from her in that teashop in Tower Hill and all but told the influential young woman that she knew what she was, and what she had got her daughter into. Though she supposed that when you hadn’t given birth to any children, it was easier to keep everything in place.

Gwen knew what a pretty woman looked like. But she didn’t know what it was to give up everything for one.

“If you pick up that box my daughter will have my guts for garters as well as yours.” Gwen surprised herself. It wasn’t that she was surprised that she blurted out an epitaph of care for the younger woman’s back, for she wouldn’t like to see anyone hurt. It was rather that she had so automatically known quite how much it would hurt Delia so to see the redhead hunched over in pain again. 

Patsy faltered, bringing extended arms back to her sides, seemingly surprised herself, “You’re right.” She conceded, “And whilst I’m always happy to put my own neck on the chopping block, I’m loathe to drag you down with me.” She overused her vocabulary and overplayed her education when she was unnerved. Gwen could tell. And she could also tell that the two young Londoners were bloody exhausted, making far less effort than usual to stop the furtive but reassuring glances they were shooting at each other.

Mrs. Busby nodded, and Patsy simply shifted the box to one side with her foot as much as possible to make room for another empty one, ready to be filled.

Sian pelted in the room, dust from the attic clinging to her hair. She'd been up and down that ladder in turn with Delia all morning. “Mam sent me to help you.” She placed a large pile of photo albums on the arm of the sofa. “And said you might wanna look at these.”

“Thank you, annwyl.” It would do to pick a good photograph of Blod for the funeral. “Go and be a dear and carry on up in the attic. We’re getting on alright down here.”

Her granddaughter fiddled awkwardly with her sleeve for a second. “Mam told me not to go back upstairs.” She faltered for a moment, glancing nervously at Patsy, “I reckon she’s gonna have it out with Auntie Delia.” She blurted. The redhead’s head shot up from the newspaper-wrapped teacup in her lap, a twitch in her jaw.

“Sometimes sisters need to talk.” Mrs. Busby offered. “You never know when you might not be able to talk again.”

It seemed to subdue both younger women in the sitting room, and she was for once thankful for her advancing age, and the wisdom it brought. She knew if she was careful, unlike Blod with her insatiable appetite for the vices of fags and drink, then her heart should not go the same way as her sister’s for quite some time. Besides, Marilyn’s five had kept her on her toes for the past eighteen years.

“Mamgu, when Blod visited us last year, you know what she told me?” Sian flipped the subject. She was a good girl like that. Typical eldest, knew how to distract the tears out of a younger sibling’s eyes, and how to end the impending tantrum. Except this time she cut artfully across the tension in a room containing women more than twice and thrice her age. “She said ‘when I die, I want Sosban Fach at my funeral’.”

Gwen struggled to splutter a reply at the preposterous suggestion, “She can’t have Sosban Fach. Jane Powell’s cousin is in that choir. It’ll be all around the village. Sosban Fach at a decent church funeral…” She shook her head.

Sian crossed her arms, “But Blod said-“

“That’s the end of it, girl.” Gwen snapped, but she melted slightly when she saw her granddaughter’s downcast eyes. That was the beauty of having grandchildren – you could be so soft on them. “But I daresay you could play it at the wake, cariad. You’ll be bringing your fiddle down next week?”

They had decided on the twenty-seventh for the funeral. It couldn’t be put off any longer. They were popping briefly back to Wales and then coming back up with more of the family. Alun had not been best pleased when she’d called him from the hotel telephone, informing him that it was going to clash with the Five Nation’s final. She’d promised that they’d have buried her by the time the match started, and they both took a little comfort in knowing that Blod would have least been rather amused that fifteen of her finest countrymen had the opportunity to trounce the French on the very day of her burial. They had best win, was all that Gwen could think. 

“What is Sosban Fach?”, came Patsy’s tentative question. But the real question she was asking was why couldn’t it be sung by the Welsh church choir.

“It’s a song.” Sian replied, “About a little saucepan.”

“I would say it’s actually about a poor housewife.” Gwen corrected. “But it’s no hymn.”

Patsy smiled then, “Oh, I do know the one. Delia sings it.” Gwen did wish she’d try to control the affection in her tone, at least in front of Sian. Delia had always been a good singer though. Never had the patience for the instruments her tad had tried to teach her, and Gwen had drawn the line when he’d brought home a tabor from his mate at the pub – the over-enthusiastic drumming had done her head in, though it was the only one she’d had a talent for. No, Marilyn was better at all that. And now she’d taught Sian well, who had quite the merry little band with her cousins from the farm. “I suppose I shall have to be brought up to speed on Calon Lân in that case.”

“Yes, we will be having that one.” Gwen found herself giving Sian a harsh look for her smirk at the sound of the Celtic words in such a cut-glass accent. The woman was only trying.

The brief and strange spell of ease that had overcome the room was broken by the unmistakable sound of shouting coming from up the stairs. “You have got to be kidding me, Delia? What do you mean she’d coming to the funeral? No, not with everybody else there.” Marilyn sounded exasperated. She wondered how long they’d be arguing, and what had been said. She was sure it was nothing that she herself had not said before. Perhaps more flagrant. For Marilyn was younger and worldlier, and maybe she could bring herself to say the things that Gwen could not. She had told her daughter on the train that it was a losing battle, and one they were never going to win. It was time to let it lie. At least in doing that, she could think about it less.

“Of course she’s coming. Blod would have want-“

“Don’t give me that, chwaer bach. She’s gone, but mam and tad and everyone else are here. You can’t embarrass them like this.” Gwen sighed, thankful the girls were arguing in their home language. But she could see that despite her ignorance to the words being exchanged, the bitterness from Marilyn and the distress coming from Delia had Patsy gripping the little china cup so hard she feared it would crack in her hand.

Sian looked awkwardly around the room, chewing her lip.

Mrs. Busby sighed.

“And I don’t want you near my children. Not with her. I wish I hadn’t even brought Sian. She’s been asking all sorts of questions.” 

Her granddaughter’s eyes met hers quickly, as if to say, no, I haven’t been asking questions, mamgu. But it would be rude to start their own conversation in their native tongue across the yelling from the other room. God knows, that for all her sins, the redhead had seen enough rudeness from Gwen already.

Delia’s retorts were getting quieter, meeker, and she couldn’t make them out. She just wished that Marilyn hadn’t replied in plain as day English with Patsy’s ear pricking at the familiarity, “You wouldn’t understand. You don’t have any children – you can’t. And I for one am thankful to God that so long as you carry on like this, you won’t ever.”

The small walnut coffee table scraped as Patsy got to her feet. The teacup clattering as she placed it down too hard. Gwen had seen that look in her eyes before, in the teashop when she’d tried in vain to keep her daughter at least on the same island as her, if not in the same country, with her birth certificate stuffed doubtfully in her handbag. She had always felt a distinct air of vulnerability around the nurse who seemed so self-assured, so tall and often imposing to most everyone else. But not when she brought herself up to her full height like this, with indignation coming off her like steam.

Steadfast defensiveness like this was disconcerting because it was reassuring. Gwen wasn’t sure what to do with the lump of repressed guilt that rose in her throat as she recalled thumbing open that first letter Delia penned to the Englishwoman and knowing that there was no way she could sleep at night, no way she could walk into that church with her head held high, if she put that paper signed off with all my love always in the letterbox. And the second, with its, I need you’s and I love you’s. And the third – don’t leave me, you said you’d never leave me.

Stupid girl, she had thought. You stupid, stupid, girl. What did you get yourself into in that damned city? And when Delia had asked Gwen for the possessions she’d had when the car had slammed into her and knocked the lights out of her head and the life out of her eyes, the brightness had returned a bit. So, Gwen returned the miraculously salvaged stockings, the coin purse and even the nursing badge. But what Delia had so wanted back most was sat wrapped in a sock at the bottom of a drawer in Gwen and Alun’s room. And the girl wasn’t as stupid as Gwen had thought her, because she knew it. So, she asked and she asked, until Mrs. Busby considered slipping it into an envelope and sending it back to Poplar. That ought to do the trick. That ought to put an end to this.

But in the end, she hadn’t been able to. Not when Delia had said, mam, it was her mother’s. They were both stupid girls then, giving away such precious things to each other like family heirlooms as well as their dignity. And her mother died. So, that was that. She slammed the damned chain with the ring on it down on the kitchen table one morning wordlessly, and Delia swept it tenderly into a cupped hand, without a reply. The very next day it was the noose around her neck again. The hill she was determined to die on.

Her reverie was broken as Patsy returned from her mission, Delia and Marilyn in tow, both with the same looks on their faces they had during their youth when they’d been caught in some sort of mischief together. She had barely even realised that the redhead had stalked off up the stairs. But now the balled fists at her sides were untightening, and she painted on her best smile, “Delia and Sian are going to Muswell Hill to grab us a spot of food, perhaps some fish and chips. I daresay the window shopping will be fun for you, Sian.” Her granddaughter leapt up delighted, rushing to her aunt’s side, who was attempting to quell the tears in her eyes. “And Mrs. Busby, Marilyn, and I are going to carry on here. We should be done by four, with enough time to have a well-earned drink in Blod’s old local, where we can discuss the catering for the wake with the landlady.” 

Gwenllian Busby felt an unfamiliar feeling rise in her chest. If she wasn’t mistaken, she was feeling thankful for the existence Miss Patience Mount.

Chapter Text

The trip to Muswell Hill Broadway felt more like a prison break than an expedition in search of lunch. Except it had been masterfully constructed by her measured and reluctantly courteous lover. Patsy had broken the bile coated rage between her and Marilyn with the swinging of a door pushed too hard and a look of such potent indignation that it had stopped her sister’s tirade without a single word spoken between the two of them. The redhead then painted on one of her stiffest smiles, one that forced unwilling dimples to etch into her cheeks.

“I think that’s quite enough. Don’t you?”

It had been said of Patsy that she was intimidating. Delia had never found her so. But sometimes she could see why the more superficial members of their cohort of nurses had found her to be that way. It would not do to upset Patsy – many had learned that. And it was even worse to bring tears to the eyes of the woman she loved. Perhaps that was why Patsy spiralled so wildly when she was the one to draw that very reaction from the brunette. The apologies Delia welcomed, and the sentimental gestures she could more than live with – the excessive repentance, she could not. There was no need for the other nurse to self-flagellate at the altar of her past trauma, for the skin that straddled her spine had seen enough harm.

And when she lamented that there was nothing she could ever do, no comparable embrace she could offer to equal all the times Delia had gathered the other woman’s very sanity in her hands and held it in one piece, and replaced desolation with warm skin and endless tenderness, the Welshwoman wanted to grab her by the shoulders and force her to look in the dusty mirror mounted to the wall of her late aunt’s bedroom. Look at yourself now, look what you do for me.

Despite the carefully carved look of cheer Patsy was managing to maintain, her gaze sliced through the space in between Delia and Marilyn, repelling them from even daring to resume their fight. 

Lunch. Take Sian. We’ll finish, won’t we, Marilyn? Shaky breaths, the back of her sleeve rough across her face, and a tight hug that she could not have. Not here. Her chest hurt with the ache of wanting that, with emptiness that should be filled by the tall and soft woman she had loved since she was nineteen years old. The kind of hug where the hard inside of Patsy’s forearm pressed into the nape of her neck, and she could taste the perfume on her sternum. Instead, the scent of Chanel barely infiltrated her nose as she passed her in the doorway, following her sister’s resentful stride. The best she could have was feeling digits brushing the side of her hand, a brief squeeze from calloused fingers that could say so much more in less tumultuous times. It was a pittance to be paid in, for the kind of love that made her feel worth the whole of Hatton Garden.

Outside, she gulped in the mild March air. Sian was hot on her heels, but all she wished to hear was the hard leather soles of sensible penny loafers and fingers twining around her wrist to pull her back. She had always wanted to feel a little chased by Patsy. Like she was worth fighting for. Except more than ever Patsy was fighting her corner in such an exemplary and sacrificing manner that her heart should be bursting with the gallantry of it. And largely, it was. But it was also weighed down by the essential chasm between them in their current company. When there was no hand in the small of her back, no patting arms and pecks on cheeks, it twisted into something that was more than yearning. And it was worse when she needed it to keep her whole.

The bottle green front door closed, the knocker juddering against it. And she spared a thought for Patsy, locked inside.

Sian nattered away. She wasn’t an especially chatty girl under usual circumstances, but she filled the space that was left by Delia’s recovering resolve, until she was quite built up again to meet the youngster’s gentle pace. Her niece was clever and cultured in the way that girls like them had to be. With an air of desperation. The dearth of intellectualism back home meant no morsel of interest was to be left unconsumed, nor unconsidered. Delia remembered turning over the big questions in her mind, and pouring over any titbit of art, film or music she could get her hands on. Each was precious, and to be savoured. And when she met Patsy, she couldn’t quite believe how nonchalantly she remarked on her conversance in the things which Delia relished in London. It was only with time she came to realise on each jaunt to the museums, the theatre and the pictures, that Patsy had largely been utterly bored by the subject matter – already inundated with it throughout her education. Rather, whilst Delia agonised over the how’s and why’s of the world and the art that filled it, Patsy regarded her the masterpiece. But just on the other side of a red velvet rope. 

It was enlightening to say the least, to hear Sian say, “I know why mam’s being such an arse to you.” Delia wasn’t necessarily surprised, given that what Marilyn had so wanted to keep from her daughter and the world, was essentially shouted through the walls of Blod’s home. “And I only asked her last night why she was being so rude.” She added, wanting to clarify that she was neither nosy nor naïve. What was perhaps more revealing was the weight from her niece’s shoulders being relieved as she tried to explain Marilyn’s mood, whilst also chewing off a relatively anonymous ear attached to someone who could not really judge.

Her tad had gone. First off to Cardiff after they closed the quarry and he lost his job. He came back on weekends at first, with envelopes of earnings. Talked of moving them out there, so they could be with him whilst he worked the docks. Tadcu had offered him a job in the draper’s shop, but he had been too proud, and they had fallen out. Delia wondered quite what her sister’s husband had managed to say to earn the ire of her father, so laid back he was practically horizontal. And now they hadn’t heard from him in months. Oh, she could kill that Johnathan Griffiths. She’d never liked him. Not when he’d sidled up to their dining table to ask her tad if he could marry Marilyn, and not when he’d knocked her up with a third child she didn’t want. Then a fourth, and finally a fifth. Thank god he wasn’t around to land her with another one. But damn him for not being around at all now. And she wished she was surprised that neither her sister nor her mam had told her a word of this. She only wondered if it served to solidify her ostracism, or rather reflected the all-encompassing power of shame in their family.

“But maybe I can go to university after the little ones grow up a bit.” She reasoned. “Mam needs me to look after them at the moment.”

A stack of sheet music for Sian to learn some klezmer on her violin, and a pair of brown corduroy bell bottoms, had the teenager grinning some after her confession. “An early birthday present, much more exciting than the cheque I would’ve sent.” Delia only wished she could be pulled out of her own despair so easily. “Patsy’s got some just like that. Except hers are green.” 

“She’s really cool.” Sian stated matter-of-factly.

Delia smiled then, “I’ll be sure to let her know you said that.” It would be certain to cheer up Nurse ‘I’m-so-bally-old’ Mount.

Patsy was turning on the spot in front of their bedroom mirror, smoothing out the fly of her slacks with her nose wrinkled and her lips twisted into a skeptical line. The other woman rarely fussed like this, but Delia was content to watch her from the various angles she was trying out from underneath the duvet, even if it meant holding back on reassurances.

“I’m going to take them back.” She stated, though without sounding fully convinced of her decision.

Delia couldn’t help but blurt out, “No, don’t!”

The taller woman spun around on the spot at the urgency in her partner’s tone, discomfort replaced with a wry smirk. “Why not?” She challenged, trying to hold back her grin.

“If I say, it’ll go to your head.” They were very tight around the middle, Delia noted internally. “But honestly, if your waistline gets any higher this decade, you won’t be needing a brassiere.” She reached for the cup of tea on her bedside table, taking a sip to obscure the look of undeniable cheek on her face.

Patsy played the incensed, putting her hands in the dip above her hips, simply serving to underline that they were really living in a time where trousers were nearly reaching the underside of breasts. When Delia could only snort, Patsy threw the very catalogue that had gotten her into this situation at the Welshwoman, the pages ruffling as Delia placed it to one side. “Oi!”  

“I suppose I could go like those students at The Gates. Perhaps I’ll stop shaving my legs as well.” Patsy folded her arms across her chest.

If it was a threat, it wasn’t a very good one. Delia just shrugged, “I wouldn’t mind.” She herself hadn’t bought a razor until she’d moved to London, and realised it was quite the norm in these parts. It was something of a hastily observed habit now, but Patsy was so fastidious about the ritual it seemed she could spend forever in the bath.

She had got the better of the redhead then, who replied incredulously, “I would!”

“Oh, you’re so fair it barely matters if you do or you don’t.” Delia rolled her eyes, referencing Patsy’s natural blonde colouring. Winding her up was too tempting though, and she resumed her previous attempts. “I’d love to see you get into it with those girls from the club. They’d get the better of you with a couple of lines of Germaine Greer and have you marching on parliament in no time.”

“Not bloody likely.” She responded, confirming her distaste for the braless young activists. Delia thought her a little ungrateful, given how hard they fought for women. “It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. We don’t actually have equal pay, it’s such a bureaucratic nightmare to terminate a pregnancy that too many women continue to take to the backstreets, and those men up West are still thrown into the back of a paddy wagon to be beaten every Saturday night by the very police officers that haven’t well been able to prosecute them since nineteen-sixty-seven.”  

Delia had touched a nerve, she thought. “But that’s not all they go on about. They say that people have to change their attitudes. To women, to us.” She countered. For she had actually read the well-thumbed copies of Arena Three that were passed around the basement club. Patsy had not. It made her think, sometimes, that things could be so different. And it made her wonder if what she really wanted was a life with Patsy that emulated the throngs of normal couples that encircled them every time they left their home. The marriage, the home surrounded by green, even the children – the latter being that which they seldom discussed. Or perhaps the women’s liberation crew were right, perhaps it was all quite ridiculous and should be pulled down brick by suburban brick. She doubted she’d live to see either.

“Have to?” She scoffed. “And how will they make them? People will always hate, and for no good reason.” Patsy was imposing an air of finality around the conversation. “Cruelty is catching. And addictive…in the right circumstances.” She added darkly, taking a drag from her cigarette, her gaze going to places Delia would never really know. “And people don’t give that up without a fight.”  

The Welshwoman relented, not eager to allow Patsy to bask in the blistering heat of her torment, and knowing that if she pressed they wouldn’t really be continuing a friendly debate on the merits of the women’s liberation movement. “You best be keeping those flares, cariad.” She flipped her tone and the conversation, saving Patsy the effort.  

The other woman shook her head slightly, recently feathered hair moving with her. She snapped out of her trance, “Only if you do tell me exactly why it is you like them so much.”

Returning to the trenches had not filled her with joy. But she didn’t find another battle awaiting her there. Just stony silence from the woman who had lead her around their village by the hand for so many years, taught her about the trees and recounted mamgu’s best stories. The woman whom she had left beaming and waving on the platform of the train station, Sian on her hip and another in her womb, who told her to write every week, to have fun, but not to dare get a boyfriend – or he’ll have me to deal with. 

And she could still hear Marilyn’s condemnations in her ears, and her own pitiful attempts to counter them, whilst being fully aware that there was nothing that she could really say to change her mind. I already know what you think of me, she had choked. Because it was nothing she hadn’t heard from mam, or the newspapers, or the telly. And I’m sure you don’t want to to hear why and how I love her.

Delia knew it was the ‘how’ that was crawling under her sister’s skin. The why was easy, even chaste. The why was what her mother tried to see when she set eyes on Patsy after the accident. Tall, beautiful, confident, clever. Weren’t there a great many women who admired their friends so deeply? Where it was a desperate yearning, bordering on obsession. Where she felt her ears prick at any mention of her, and any glimmer of her plummy voice echoing down the hallways of the hospital. Where Delia would dip her hand under the guiltily gathered mass of her nightdress, and etch out a relief that she was eventually thrilled to discover paled next to the nervous but reverent touch of Patience Mount. See, it was then she realised how she could love that woman. And quite how much. 

It had only taken one glance from Patsy for her saviour to suggest that she pop down later in the week to discuss the catering with the landlady of The White Lion, and that they had done plenty enough sorting today. “I think we all deserve a scrub-up after all that dust, hm? Yes, of course you can eat your chips in the back of the car, Sian, as long as you’ve quite finished your cod.” They bundled in, Patsy’s previous distaste for eating in their Morris Oxford seemingly abandoned. “It’s been very nice to see you, Mrs. Busby. You must let me know how the folk festival goes. Delia’s always spoken of it so fondly. I’m sure you’ll have plenty to recount when we collect you for the funeral next week.” 

“It’s been as good as it could have been in the sad circumstances.” Her mother replied over the sound of greasy newspaper crinkling, “And it’s kind of you to have ferried us about.”

If Delia wasn’t mistaken, her mother and her partner were engaging in a kind of camaraderie amid the head pounding awkwardness. What had quite transpired between leaving Blod’s with Sian and returning with fish and chips she didn’t know, but they were giving a good performance together. She hadn’t thought they would be able to share anything between them other than a fierce, though conflicting, belief in what was right for Delia. 

The shuddering exhale that left her at the sound of the car door closing outside of the Chrisp Street hotel had her hoping that no member of her family looked back, for she bent over her knees and placed her head in-between them. She was sure that all of them, even Sian, were just as glad as she was to part for now. Perhaps had been easier these past two years, when they were all barely talking. Delia felt a familiar hand widely splayed on her back, rubbing in circles, as she struggled to overpower the pounding in her head with sheer will.

“Sweetheart?” It was gentle, enquiring even.

“Just give me a second.” Was all she could piece together in response. And obligingly, quiet followed, the car jerked forward, and it hurtled a little quicker than Patsy’s usual driving pace in the direction of home. The only sound was a gentle hum, the clunk of the gear stick, and a thick silence that spoke of the burden of family.

She was sat stiff in her seat, unable to move lest she break the strength she had mustered not to burst into tears right here. Patsy parked, and whipped around the bonnet to open the passenger door. The redhead twisted her long neck over thin shoulders for anyone they knew who may be striding down their street, and once satisfied that no one would see, she closed her hands around Delia’s wrists and guided her from her position. She felt that she sleepwalked through the threshold of their flat, almost in a daze. Delia was somewhere between being desperate to cry and not wanting to, in a purgatory. Just like they were in front of her family. And on the street outside their house. And every other street in this city and the world. But not in here.

Stronger and more forcefully than she was accustomed to, Patsy pulled Delia to her chest as soon as the lock clunked into place. “Oh, my darling.”

Delia was constantly staggered by her own capacity to love this woman who held her through thick and thin – for better or for worse. But she was rarely more convicted in it than when it was morally challenged. It was a funny thing she supposed, for women like them, to have to justify their love. But Patsy made doing so effortless, without even realising it. And she always had. “How are you not angry?” Strange words to break the silence she’d held save the minor and reluctantly given pleasantries she’d exchanged with her family. But it was also her instinct to think of the woman before her, who had a hell of a job biting down such a brutally honest tongue.

“I’m livid.” Patsy breathed, her soft tone spelling out a contradiction. “But more than that, I’m just worried about you.”

“I’ll be alright.” She parried. “I have you.”

Horlicks, with a dash of whisky for the both of them. Delia took a seat at the dining room table, too tense to yet sink into the sofa, or the comfort of their mattress. Her hands curled around the brightly patterned mug, hand-painted in Italy, and she stared into the swirling beige liquid it contained. 

“How are we going to do next week?” She sighed. What she felt was garbled in a place inside her she could not yet reach, swimming in the parts of her head she sometimes worried had never fully recovered from the knock it had taken those years ago. So, all that left her mouth was talk of practicalities. And it felt cold. More than what she had said, Delia hated that Marilyn had taken away her ability to tell Patsy what she was feeling.

“You know, Deels…” Patsy placed the saucepan she had been scrubbing into the drying rack with a clunk. “I don’t have to come. If it will be easier, for you.”

“No!” Delia flushed at the petulance in her tone. But it was suggestion that she was refusing to consider. They did things together, they went places together. Especially when it was hard. “No. You’re coming with me.” She softened, realising that just as it was no mean feat for Delia to face the prospecting of being alone at that funeral, it was equally like wading through custard for Patsy to attend.

“Alright.” Washing up gloves peeled off, she turned to face Delia, leaning against the counter. “I think I can play umpire one more time.” The tightness in her cheeks and the increasingly manic edge her friendly tone had taken with her family said otherwise. The redhead took a gulp of Horlicks and strode across the room, settling herself on her knees between Delia’s legs, and humming as mug-warmed hands wrapped around her neck. 

“Thank you.” Delia wanted to say that Patsy shouldn’t have to. But the last thing the Englishwoman would ever hear from her was that. She would tell her it didn’t matter because she was going to be there anyway, if it was what she needed. Delia could hear the whole conversation taking place in her head and she could only laugh into the space between them, which was filled by that which they needn’t even say. Patsy reached out to catch an errant tear, the pad of her thumb tracing her cheekbone. And she kissed her for good measure.

Kissing was rather supposed to say all the things that one didn’t have the words for. Except for them, it had been the other way around for a very long time. It was marred by such danger and ruin, that they had talked into the night for so long rather than press their lips to the other’s. To try and verbalise things that simply couldn’t be spoken – every great artist had tried, and who were they, two nurses? Delia had thought she knew what it would mean to her, when she would stare at those pouting lips and dream, with so few words left to leave them that would mean anything more than closing the gap between the two women. But the reality had been that it was desperate and clawing, with one eye always open and not with the other. It was two top buttons and no more. It was quick and rushed and clumsy, never able to take the time to learn each other, or take any time at all. Delia thought most couples would be sad to lose that kind of intensity. She’d heard her colleagues complaining of how their fellas never surprised them any more. It wasn’t as fun when the surprise was complete ruin, and the undercurrent abject fear.

To go slow, she thought, and to unravel each other at leisure, had to be one of greatest silent victories they had achieved. Though perhaps she wouldn’t call it silent. Still, nobody had caught them yet, and now nobody would. They could still be urgent though, like she was now, her mouth against her lover’s pulse point, palms under a hastily bunched up blouse, tugged from trousers, running over skin she couldn’t wait to be fully revealed to feel. Because they could do whatever they wanted, and to hell with everyone else.

Patsy had proved to be incredibly passionate when she wasn’t the one drawing the necessary precautions around them. For all her frustrations at the time, Delia knew she had a lot to thank her for. Patsy’s sensitivity to footsteps and door-handle noises had saved them more than once. But ever since there was none of that to contend with, Delia had discovered that being subject to the full consciousness of the redhead was as close as she’d felt to having any sort of spiritual experience.

It was when she found the back of her legs hitting the mattress, and all thoughts of finishing their hot drinks abandoned, that she realised what they were doing – or perhaps, what Patsy was doing for her. After her sister’s performance, it didn’t seem enough to know that what they had together was right – Delia needed to feel that it was.

And she did. For a woman forever cautious, in the privacy of their own four walls Patsy was an attentive lover. Not that Delia had a rolodex full of comparisons to make, but perhaps it was testament to redhead that she’d never wished for that. Like rolling fog over the hills, she clouded her senses and incapacitated her usual eloquence until she couldn’t see, think or hear. Only could she feel skin and warmth and dyed copper hair sticking to her thighs, her hand twisted in the thick mass of it.

“That was one way to stick two fingers up to my bloody sister.” She said after, penetrating the breathlessness that they both found themselves overcome by.

Patsy leaned towards the bedside table, sticky skin peeling away, reaching for her lighter. The heavy click of the cold metal sounded, and the crinkle of burning paper followed. “You disgust me.” She smirked, half impressed. “I’m hurt you were thinking of your sister.”

Delia reached for the cigarette – a rare indulgence, but an occasional one at times such as these. “I wasn’t. I was just sitting on the pun.” She admitted. “But thank you, really.”

The Englishwoman rolled her eyes, “Never thank me. It’s my privilege.” Delia knew that Patsy meant that. This was how she loved her. And it was from the bottom of her heart.