It’s raining when he leaves his shift at 11:00 pm. He hunches his shoulders against the fat, slashing drops, and walks as fast as he can, wiping the rain from his face with one large hand.
The call ended fairly abruptly after his last comment. A brief, Thank you, Jamie. I feel better, and she is gone, but not before he gets another promise from her to check around at work for a counselor.
The cold and damp is seeping through his jacket and into his bones. He’s shaking so hard it’s making his teeth rattle. He dodges cars as he crosses the street without waiting for a walk sign. He jumps over puddles, even though his trainers are already soaked.
The restaurant sign is like a lighthouse lamp, a beacon in the storm promising safety and warmth, but also warning him of impending danger. Going into Little Curry House is like throwing himself against the rocks near the shore, purposefully putting himself in harm’s way.
What he is about to do could cost him his job with Breathing Space. He could lose his friendships, the respect of his colleagues, and ruin his relationship with Mrs. Fitz. He could destroy his reputation.
Even with all that playing in his mind, the call of the Siren is too strong. He pulls the door to the restaurant open.
The interior is dark, the smells of cumin and cardamom hang heavy in the air. It’s also empty at this time of night. Empty, except for a small table toward the back.
At the sound of the bell jangling above the door, the lone patron turns ever so slowly to look over her left shoulder.
He holds his breath. Waiting. Cataloguing the long, dark, curling hair that’s been weighed down by the rain. The slender build. The porcelain skin. The tawny eyes. A small hand grips the back of her chair, dark eyebrows arch upward in question.
He cannot move. He hears the owner talking to him, but it sounds hollow and far away, as if he’s got water in his ears.
Take away, Mr. Fraser? Your usual? The small elderly woman who owns the place is standing in front of him now, looking up at him.
He exhales, his eyes never leaving the only other customer. He watches as she stiffens at the sound of his name. Fraser. He wants to grin, to laugh, to shout with joy, but he also wants to turn back, leave, run.
Erm, he stutters, eyes flicking down to meet the small woman’s gaze. Give me a minute, can ye, please?
The owner nods politely, her eyes shift pointedly to the clock over the cashier’s counter. Her message is clear - it’s late, so don’t take too long.
Jamie can’t move. He drags his eyes over to the table and notices she’s standing now, wringing her hands, nervous energy radiating from her in waves.
Jamie? she whispers.
Claire. He can’t help himself. The grin breaks free. Have ye ordered?
Her shoulders drop in relief and tears come unbidden into her eyes. It’s like a punch to the gut. Och, lass, dinnae cry. Instinct has him two steps closer with a hand outstretched, but then he stops himself.
She wipes the back of her hand across her eyes. I wasn’t sure if I was at the right place. I was waiting outside, but then it started to rain, so I stepped inside to wait but you took so long I thought it best to sit and order so that they didn’t ask me to leave. The words tumble out in a rush. She rambles in her nervousness.
What did ye get? he asks, gesturing toward the table, silently asking if he can sit.
She mumbles an oh, of course, and sits back down.
He shrugs out of his damp jacket and runs his fingers through the dark auburn curls, pushing them back off his forehead where they’ve fallen in ropey strands, dripping on to his long nose. Cautiously, he pulls out the chair and sits. His eyes roam the table, and his smile breaks free again. Chana masala, he says.
Garlic naan. She allows herself to smile back. Samosas. Except - she says when she notices him looking for them, they were so good I ate them both.
His chuckles in response, shakes his head. Her English accent is so much richer in person than it is deadened down a phone line. She giggles at his reaction and at the sound of it he falls in love all over again.
May I? he asks, and she pushes the basmati rice toward him. He takes a good couple of spoonfuls, and places it back in front of her. With a shy smile she serves herself, and in a moment they are eating, and talking as if they’ve had dinner together a thousand nights before.
There is no talk of Breathing Space, or the hospital. No discussions about her failing marriage or his days in the military. No mention of their losses. Tonight, as they break bread, they talk like lovers do. Of hopes and dreams. Of favourite things. Funny anecdotes and fond memories.
And when it is over, Jamie takes the pen he uses to sign the bill, and with bold strokes writes down his long, pretentious name, his phone number and slides it across the table at her.
SIX MONTHS LATER
She’s nervous as she walks into the building. She’s come a long way, she knows, but her foundation is still somewhat shaky.
She wouldn’t have attempted anything like this without Jamie’s constant support. He gave her back her confidence, one phone call at a time.
In fact, she could honestly say he changed her life. When she thinks back to him sliding that paper across the table at her with his name and phone number, she can’t help but smile.
As she studied his name, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, she didn’t notice him stand and grab his jacket until she heard him say, It’s been a pleasure to meet ye, Claire.
Oh! I - she stammered, taken by surprise. But he was already on the move.
It wasn’t until she watched him walk out the door that she realized what he’d done. He’d put the ball squarely in her court. The power, the decision, was hers. She could continue to call Breathing Space, or she could call him directly. He could become a friend, maybe even something more, or he could remain a sympathetic voice on the other end of a crisis line.
She walked that night, in the pouring rain, for more than 3 hours before she arrived at her own door. Every step that splashed along the way, every bridge she crossed, she thought of him. His eyes were the colour of the ocean. His hair, darkened by the rain, lightened into strands of copper and gold as it dried. His wide mouth constantly held the hint of a smile. He listened so intently when she spoke, never dominating the conversation, or making one of her experiences about him.
But it wasn’t until she stood on her doorstep searching for her key that she realized she hadn’t stopped once to look over a railing. She hadn’t felt the call of rushing water at all. No thoughts of self-loathing, inferiority, or sadness rose in her mind. Not once in the hours she spent walking did she replay a single moment of her evening and see it in the negative.
So she dialed his number.
Not the number she’d all but memorized, the one she called every night, but a new one. An unfamiliar combination of numbers that would connect her to the Jamie she longed to know, the Jamie not bound by protocol and propriety.
They would talk for hours, and over time, the more they talked, the less she wandered.
Until she found herself in the most unlikeliest of places.
Ye must be Claire, the older woman says.
Yes, she says, her voice shaking. She clears her throat. Sorry, I’m just … I’m rather nervous. I’ve never done anything like this before.
The woman is sympathetic. Aye, weel, we all have a story as to what brings us here. And why. Turning, she heads down a brief hallway. Claire follows, clutching her bag to her chest.
Once seated behind a desk, the older woman gestures for Claire to sit. Peering at her computer through tiny glasses, she says, So, Jamie Fraser sent ye to me. There is empathy with a drop of censure in her tone.
Yes, well…he helped me through a very difficult time. Claire looks around nervously wondering where she should put her things.
Ye’ve done some group therapy, then, Claire?
Yes, she answers honestly. I’m down to once a week now.
How is Jamie doing? the woman asks, a note of affection in her voice.
He’s doing well, Claire says, smiling gently. The course work is heavy, but he’s managing.
Aye, weel, she says confidently, If ever a man could go back to school to become a counselor it would be James Fraser. She stands and moves around the desk, motioning for Claire to follow, moving quickly for a woman of her age and girth. Abruptly, she stops, points to a desk inside a cubicle. I’ll leave ye to it, then. Just give a shout if ye need help.
I will, Claire says. And thank you, Mrs. Fitzgibbons! But Glenna has already walked away.
Claire sits carefully, smiling. She runs her fingers over the desk, down the arms of the chair. She swivels left and right, pictures Jamie’s big frame sitting in this very cubicle. The phone rings and she jumps a mile. It rings again, and she takes a big breath, lifts the receiver.
Thank you for calling Breathing Space. This is Claire. How can I help you? She waits for the caller to identify themself.
Ye forgot the food I packed ye.
She exhales in relief, laughing softly. No, I believe it’s right here in my bag. She digs around inside her satchel, then sighs. I did forget. I guess my nerves got the better of me.
Nae bother, Jamie says with laughter in his voice. I’ll swing round The Curry Shop, grab some take away and meet ye there when it’s time for yer break.
I don’t know when that will be, Claire says, reaching for her volunteer’s packet.
I do, Jamie promises.
Neither speaks for a moment.
Is this what it was like for you? Nervous, and excited, and ready to vomit at any moment? Claire hesitates, I’m not sure I can do this.
I’m verra sure ye can, Jamie reassures her. He hears her scoff, can picture her face as she retreats into the shadows of her former self, eyes downcast and posture slumped. Claire, all ye need is a pair of ears to listen. Here, he says, practice on me. He clears his throat, Hello, Claire. My name is Jamie, and I have this girlfriend who I’ve signed up for swimming lessons three times but she’s bunked off every time. What do you recommend?
Claire presses a hand to her mouth to keep from laughing out loud. I recommend you leave her the hell alone, and perhaps, one day this summer you take her to the seaside and let her figure it out.
Also, Jamie continues, she’s got this cat that bites me when I try to pet it. What do ye say to that?
Leave the cat alone, too. Claire can’t help smiling, but she feels a little sobered by the conversation. She has something she’s wanted to say for ages. Sitting in the cubicle she feels like an anonymous penitent behind the screen in a confessional, so she says what’s been on her mind.
You know, she begins, it sounds like both your girlfriend and the cat have come into the relationship with trust issues. I think lots of long walks definitely help, as do those conversations in the middle of the night when it’s really dark and you can’t even see the other person, but you can feel them there, listening, while they hold your hand. She hears Jamie’s breath catch on the other end of the line. When you don’t dismiss their fears and worries, but encourage them, believe in them, love them, unconditionally. Because then they find the strength to work through a problem alone, because alone is maybe all they know for the moment, but they also know you’re there, just in case. You know when it’s okay to give them -
Space to breathe? Jamie asks softly.
Yes, Claire says. Exactly that. Breathing space.