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Tales from a Crisis Line

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She’s been walking for hours, hands pressed into fists that mirror her rage, then jammed into her pockets.  She can feel her nails digging into her palms, and she welcomes the pain.  It is the only thing she understands.  Pain is the one constant she’s had since she was five years old, an old friend, a soulmate.  

It’s late.  Or early, depending on your point of view.  The streets are deserted, the city quiet.  And yet she walks, careless and caring less.  Whatever happens, happens, and maybe, just maybe, someone or something will appear from the shadows, and put her out of her misery permanently.

Claire is no stranger to her darker thoughts.  They reside just below the surface of her skin, rearing their ugly heads in the middle of the night, or during moments of insecurity.  Sometimes she can fight them, emerging victorious.  Sometimes they defeat her.    

Just when she thinks she has no more tears to cry, they spring up again as if to remind her that sorrow is where she will stay, where her soul is meant to live.  

The lights of Tradeston Bridge beckon her.  She stops in the middle of the structure, leans over the railing, and stares down at the dark, swirling waters of the River Clyde. 

The black water promises peace.  

She leans farther out, feels the tug of gravity.  How easy. Oh God, how easy, she thinks, imagining herself just letting go, taking to the air.  She would keep her eyes squeezed shut so she wouldn’t see it coming, just feel the rush of wind past her ears as her falling body picked up speed, and then the impact that would take her breath away.  Forever.  

With a surge of willpower she pulls herself up, then sinks to the sidewalk.  Bracing her back against the bridge’s side she pulls out her phone, calls the number she’s used to help her off and on over the years. 

Thank ye for calling Breathing Space, this is Jamie.  How can I help ye?

The voice is kind, relaxed.  There’s a homely quality to it that makes her feel better instantly. She sniffles, trying not to cry, and focuses on the traffic off in the distance, the rushing of the water under the bridge.  It’s a long minute as she composes herself.  She’s surprised at his patience.  Most men she knows would try to fill this silence with questions, or prompts.  His quietude demands her honesty.  

Why is it that everyone I love leaves me, Jamie?  The words stumble out of her mouth, broken and fragile.  

Och, lass. I’m so sorry.  The voice is sincere, caring.  But tell me, who’s left ye?

Oh, God, she says, a sob escaping her throat, Who hasn’t left me?  

How about we start at the beginning, he says softly.  

Well, let’s see.  My parents died when I was five.  This she can talk about.  It’s been a long time, and she’s processed this loss.  

Do ye remember them at all? he asks.  He sounds genuinely interested.  

Bits and pieces, she says, hearing the longing in her own voice.  I can remember my mum singing.  I remember trips to the seaside, my father and I swimming.  I know what they look like because I have pictures of them.  Vague memories of my mum braiding my hair.  

Sounds lovely, Jamie says.  How long have they been gone?

She calculates quickly.  Twenty-three years, she reveals.  God, how has it been that long?  She shakes her head at the amount of time that’s passed.

My Mam’s been gone 17 years, he admits.  My father has been dead for 5 years.  

So you know, she says.  She hears him make a noise of agreement deep in his throat.  Do you miss them?

Aye, he breathes.  Every day.  You?

I miss the idea of them.  The idea of having a parent.  If that makes sense.  She’s silent again for a beat.  I miss my Uncle Lamb more.

Now, there’s a unique name, Jamie says with a smile in his voice.  Favourite uncle?

The man who raised me after my parents died.  She chuckles a bit, and hears him exhale, as if he’s been holding his breath.  My father’s brother.  Quentin Lambert Beauchamp. She says his name like it’s a royal title.

Christ, Jamie laughs.  Now that’s a name to rival my own.  

Oh? she says.  How’s that then?

I’ve four names. Four long, pretentious, family names before ye even get tae my surname.  I won’t bore ye with the details.  Suffice to say ‘Jamie’ is good enough.  

Of course, she realizes.  He can’t tell me his whole name.  He’s working.  But it’s okay because he already feels like a trusted friend. 

Well, Jamie, she says, I’m just Claire.  Just plain Claire Beauchamp.  Her voice breaks again, as she forces out her next sentence.  And nothing more.

She crosses her legs where she’s sitting on the cold concrete.  The chill feels good.  She starts to shiver a little bit, and she welcomes it because it chases the pain.  

I doubt that, he says gently, that ye’re nothing more.  Have ye a job, Claire?

She tells him she’s a doctor, and his reaction brings a smile to her face.  Well, Christ, plain isna a word I’d use to describe ye, then!  Ye help people every day, no?

She swipes at the tears clinging to her eyelashes.  I try to, yes, she admits, and then sometimes I don’t. 

Tell me more about yer family.   He returns to the original subject, and she latches on, grateful to not have to face the most recent hurt. 

Lamb’s been gone for a while now, too.  She sighs, that desperate, lonely feeling coming back as she talks about her uncle.  He always had my back, told me the truth, no matter what.  He was brave and bold, and badass.  I wouldn’t be me without Lamb. 

He sounds like a wonder, Jamie says, with a smile in his voice.  No surprise ye miss him, still.

I just…I miss having someone in my corner.  The tears are back, threatening to fall, to choke her.  I try so hard, Jamie.

Clearly, ye do.  Ye’ve survived all this time, practically on yer own.  There is a strength in ye.  

Claire doesn’t speak.  She can’t.  His support feels real, not the type of thing he’s saying because he’s following a script, but because he’s really listening to her.  It’s all too much for someone who hasn’t felt heard in a long time. 

Reminds me of my Mam, he offers.  She was somethin’ else.  Kept our family runnin’ like a well-oiled machine.  When she died, the wheels came off.  Hasna been the same since.  My sister tried but she couldna match my mother’s strength.  

She sounds like a wonder, Claire says softly.

Jamie chuckles.  There’s an energy in him that she likes, that she admires.  

Weel, Jamie says conversationally, we’ve covered parents, and uncles.  Who’s left?

Someone who I thought loved me.  Said he loved me.  Her voice cracks on the last sentence, and she hates herself for it.  She inhales sharply to compose herself, then continues so she can finally say the ugly truth out loud.  Turns out, he loves a lot of women. 

Husband? Jamie asks, and she wishes he hadn’t.  The death of her marriage was just another funeral she didn’t want to attend.   

Yes, but we’re separated.  Getting a divorce.  She isn’t sure why she feels compelled to tell him that, but at this moment it’s important to her that he knows she’s not attached.  Maybe because she wants him to think she’s not desperate, or a clinging fool, or maybe because she wants to live up to his impression that she’s strong, a survivor.    

She feels something behind her, and reacts without thinking.  Her blood-curdling scream is loud, even to her own ears. 

Claire? She can hear him yelling into the phone.  CLAIRE!  

She reaches for her mobile where it’s skittered across the pavement.  It’s okay, she shouts until she can put it to her ear.  It’s okay.  Her breathing is ragged, and only subsides when her heart begins to settle, to slow down into a normal rhythm.  

Christ, Claire, he says.  What just happened?

Fucking stray cat came out of nowhere, she says, laughing at her own paranoia.  It rubbed up against my back, and scared me so badly I practically threw my phone off the bridge.

The sudden silence is strained.  

Ye’re on a bridge, Claire? he asks, his voice measured.  What are ye doing on a bridge at 2:23 in the mornin’? 

Claire doesn’t speak.  She should answer, but can’t.  

After a long pause, he asks again, Why are ye on a bridge?

She is transfixed by his voice.  His raw, honest, compelling voice. 

Because I was thinking about jumping, she answers, truthfully.

 

Chapter Text

Jamie unpacks his bag, puts his food in the communal fridge, checks the clock.  He’s got about 15 minutes before he starts another late shift at Breathing Space.  

This place is as familiar to him as his own flat.  He’s been here for a couple of years now, answering phones, talking to all kinds of people from all walks of life.  After a long shift, he’s often thought of going back to school, becoming a therapist, or a school counselor.  It plays in his mind, still.

He knows she will call tonight.  She always does because she’s figured out his schedule, the days he works overnight, the shifts where he gets off around 11:00 pm. The call comes at the exact same time, on the right days, like clockwork.  As long as he’s at his phone five minutes before his shift starts, he can pick up.  Most of the volunteers don’t want to take that last call minutes before leaving, and others don’t want to start until they’re supposed to.

He may have let that detail slip a time or two.

Mrs. Fitz calls his name as he’s heading to his desk, motions for him to come into her office.  

Glancing at the clock on the wall, a panic rises in him. If this takes too long he’ll miss her.  

Sit, Glenna says, brooking no argument.

He does as he’s told.  While Mrs. Fitz is the matronly sort, she also has a spine of steel, and a stubbornness to match.  He knows what’s coming.  In fact, he’s surprised he hasn’t been caught out earlier.

Jamie, she starts.  He realizes she’s just trying to soften the blow.  Who is this caller, and how is it ye’re the only one to speak to them over the past two weeks?

She pushes the call log across the desk at him.  The same number is highlighted in yellow, over and over.  

Jamie offers a small smile, hoping to charm the old lady.  He can tell she’s not having it.  

Her name is Claire, he says, deciding on honesty.  The first time we talked she was on a bridge, thinking about jumping.  He sees that Glenna is about to interrupt, so he holds up a finger to stop her.  

She’s been calling almost every night since, and before ye ask, the answer is yes.  She’s like clockwork.  I ken it’s her, so I’m quick to pick up.  At Glenna’s groan, and roll of her eyes he rushes to finish.  She trusts me.  I’m making a difference.  And not all the calls are her in crisis. He’s quick to explain the reason there are so many conversations.  Sometimes she just needs someone to listen. She’s lost her parents, other family that were close, and her marriage is falling apart. She just wanders, late at night.  I reckon she’s got insomnia, really.  So when she walks, we talk.  

Glenna Fitzgibbons stares at him for a long minute. 

Ye’re a good volunteer, but this has got to stop. It’s inappropriate, she admonishes.  

He doesn’t stop to analyze why he feels so panicked.  

How is it, though? he fires back.  It’s no’ like I’m talking to her off duty.  I’m here, I’m at my desk, the call is monitored.  Check the recordings!  There’s nothing inappropriate being said, or done!

Glenna sits back in her chair, interlaces her fingers, and makes a steeple to rest her chin on.  Do ye really want me to do that?

She takes his measure for a moment longer, and Jamie sees her face soften.  Ye’re getting a little too close.  Look, I don’t want to sound like I don’t care, because we all care.  Just remember, these people who call us are suffering.  They’re struggling, even if it doesn’t come across like that. 

He sits up a bit straighter in the hard-backed chair.  I promise ye.  It’s all very professional.  

He tries to hold Mrs. Fitz’s gaze, tries not to flinch.  But the pull is too strong.  He checks the time.  His heartbeat speeds up when he realizes he’s probably missed her.  

The flick of his eyes toward the clock isn’t lost on Mrs. Fitz.  If Jamie wasn’t one of her most dependable volunteers she’d tell him to get lost for a couple of weeks.  But good samaritans are hard to come by, and reliable ones are even rarer.  Jamie Fraser is a Unicorn; steadfast, knowledgeable and dedicated, never missed a shift, never skipped a meeting, or a training.  

I’ll need to give this a think, she tells him.  Go on.  Get tae work. 

Released, Jamie jumps up and heads to his station quickly.  It’s a few minutes past his start time.  If she’s called, she’ll think he’s not working tonight.  He feels a sharp pang of longing.  He’ll miss talking with her, will miss her voice. 

They have talked about everything, and nothing at all.  With each conversation he learns a little more about her.  Born in Oxfordshire.  No siblings.  Studied nursing until she decided she could, and should be a doctor instead.  Stories of Lamb.  Doesn’t like brussel sprouts, but loves cauliflower.    

He still asks her about her losses, about who’s left her.  She’s named a few, mostly friends that she’s lost touch with, and the odd patient for whom she wished she could have done more.  

He’s yet to discover more about her husband, and his affairs which was most likely the reason she called in the wee hours that fateful morning.  She deftly dances around that one.  It doesn’t really matter because he gets it.  It’s rejection on top of loss, on top of a pile of people who once loved her and won’t ever again.  

When the button on his phone lights up he answers the way he always has.  Thank ye for calling Breathing Space, this is Jamie.  How can I help ye?  He holds his breath waiting, hoping it’s her. 

Hi, she says, softly.  

Hey.  He can’t help the relief in his voice, the obvious happiness.  I was afraid I’d missed yer call.  

The words are out, and he wants to take them back immediately.  If Mrs. Fitz takes him up on his offer to listen to the recordings he’s going to have a tough time explaining why he sounds like a love-sick teenager. 

He focuses on the background noises, trying to discern where she is.  More often than not she’s wandering the city.  It bothers him, how she seems drawn to the River Clyde, and in the last few phone calls he’s tried to get her to open up about it.  

Where are ye wanderin’ tonight?

Polmadic, heading towards the Green.  He can tell she feels pretty good tonight.  It’s been a decent day, she says.  

Again, Claire?  He hides his concern as mock exasperation.  Always water.  Those memories of the seaside must be good ones. 

I spend a lot of time around water, you know, she says.  I’m a surgeon. I scrub my hands and it washes me clean, disinfects me.  I irrigate with it, and it helps me see what I’m doing. It’s powerful. 

Water is a good thing, then?  Something positive?  He desperately wants to understand her.

It can wash me clean, or wash me away.  There’s something in her tone that raises the hairs on his arms.  

Wash ye away? he asks, disturbed by her metaphors.  How does a doctor get washed away?

The city’s sounds come down the line.  A faraway siren.  Tires on wet pavement.  Street music from a busker. 

He knows she’s stalling.  But he’s come to learn that if he waits long enough she’ll tell him the truth. 

I can’t swim.  The admission reverberates down the phone line, her tone deceptively flippant.  It catches him by surprise.  Fear bubbles in his wame, and knocks him momentarily breathless.  

He’s too late in finding his voice, and she’s changed the subject.

I’ve been meaning to ask, she says.  How did you end up at Breathing Space?

I needed it once myself, he admits, so now I give back.  

Hard to imagine you needing this.  She sounds surprised. 

We all have ghosts, Claire.  

Breathing Space saved him once just after his Da died, at a time when his sister wasn’t speaking to him.  When his best friend and brother-in-law just shrugged and sided with his wife.  When Jenny blamed him for running off to war against their father’s wishes.  When the news of him being wounded seemed to kill Brian Fraser.  

He had called, and Mrs. Fitz answered.  She talked him off the ledge, so to speak, way back then, and directed him to a counseling centre for wounded vets.  He’d never been more grateful.  So when he called to thank her a long time later, she did what Glenna does best, she recruited him for her cause.  

He’d never looked back. 

Speaking of ghosts, he says.  Can we talk more about yer husband?

Frank.  Her tone is angry now.  Clearly, she’s moving through the stages of grief.  He’s been seeing someone else behind my back.  Well, several someone else’s.  

Ah, Jamie says.  And ye just found out?

Yep, she says, a sarcastic lilt to her voice that gives him hope.  He wants her to dig deep, find that anger, and use it to raise that self-esteem he knows is inside her.  

Stupid me, she continues, completely oblivious to it all.  Going off to work for my 12 hour shifts, coming home, thinking everything is fine, until a few weeks ago.  He thought I had a shift, and I didn’t.  So he tried to send me out to do errands, saying he needed me to go pick up this or that, and when I said we could go together, he got angry.  Next thing I know the doorbell rings, and there she is.  

Jamie feels indignation churning in his gut like a live thing.  He bites his tongue, remembers not to react.  It is his job to stay calm, to listen, to sympathize, to offer to get help.  It is not his job to get invested, involved, to have opinions on how some obvious arsehole has treated Claire.  

Have ye talked to anyone yet?  Like I suggested?  Jamie grabs for the list tacked to the wall of his cubicle, ready to give her the numbers again.

I do talk to someone, she says.  You.  This makes his heart beat faster, and his lips twitch towards a smile.  

I’m no’ a counselor, Claire.  No’ yet, anyway.  He’s immediately aware he’s crossed the line again.  Sharing a personal dream is taboo.  He squeezes his eyes shut, praying she doesn’t pick up on his slip of the tongue. 

I work at a hospital, Jamie.  Her voice is firm, resolute.  I’ll work it out. 

He nods in understanding, even though she can’t see him.

Oh, hey! she says brightly, Did I tell you that I took in that stray cat from the Tradeston Bridge? The one that scared me half to death? 

Ye did?  Jamie is shocked.  

I was crossing the bridge a couple of nights ago, and it came up to me again, no collar.  I remembered you said that sometimes taking care of things makes you feel better, feel needed.  So I scooped it up, and took it home.  She sounds so pleased with herself he doesn’t have the heart to tell her he meant something simpler, like a goldfish.  

You should meet him, she says.  She tries for a simple tone, like this is just a normal thing to say in casual conversation, but he hears the tremor in her voice.  He curses himself and the rules to which he is bound.

Claire - he starts.

Never mind, forget it.  She’s talking fast, and he can hear her breath coming short.  I know better.  I shouldn’t have suggested anything.  

Dinna fash, Claire.  Please.  Jamie rushes to ease the awkwardness.  Tell me more about him.

She doesn’t speak for a long while, and he’s afraid she’s lost to him.  That he’s caused her to withdraw, and that she’ll see his reticence as yet another person who leaves her instead of what it is.  An impropriety that he simply cannot risk.  

And then finally, she says, He’s grey.  The vet says he’s a British Shorthair Blue.  All cleaned up he’s just this cute ball of fluff.

Ye must be a cat whisperer if a stray has taken to ye that fast. He laughs a little.  

Oh but he hasn’t!  He’s extremely feral.  She giggles and Jamie falls in love with the sound of it.  But I’ll win him over.  I control the food, after all.

Way to my heart, too, Jamie says.  Set a curry in front of me and I’m all yours. 

I would have taken you for a haggis type of guy, Claire teases.

Aye, on Burns Night.  Wi’ a fine whisky.  But sometimes after work when I’m starvin’ I like to grab a curry on my way home.  He pauses.  The fact that the call is recorded is not lost on him no matter how far into the conversation he is.  He sits on this threshold, uncertain, nervous, wanting. 

With full understanding he crosses the line.

In fact, he says as conversationally as possible, My favourite place is right around the corner.  Best Chana Masala in Glasgow. 

Chapter Text

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.