Chapter 1: Professional Couple Only
The first time It happened – well it just happened. It didn't feel like anything at the time, it just was. One minute life was this way and the next it was that way. That there would be a sensation of before and after, that would come later, much later. Right then and there it was Tuesday, it was afternoon and it was an increasingly warm spring day.
Dani wasn't running, not per say. She liked to think of it more as power walking in the opposite direction of an unsolvable equation. That sounded much better and a lot healthier than to say that she was running from expectations, problems, family and herself. However, no matter which way it was worded the reality of keeping the Atlantic ocean between herself and- that other thing, well turns out it cost money. A lot of money. A resource that was growing increasingly thin, she thought to herself as she took another sip of the lukewarm beer she'd been nursing for – she looked down at her watch and winced – close to three hours now. The realisation made her look over at the barkeep in embarrassment. As if the old man could sense her eyes on him he met her gaze head on. She wasn't sure if the judgemental look she saw in his eyes was her own guilty conscious, or if his rheumy eyes really were as full of contempt as she imagined. One part of her wanted to mouth sorry, but instead she looked down into her flat beer and sighed. With yet another current of shame to add to the delta within she reluctantly went back to the classifieds splayed out in front of her.
Money, work and accommodation - all felt like a trifecta of unattainable goals right now, but she kept reading and re-reading hoping she'd missed something. At this point any opportunity sounded like a good opportunity. She had done the math, she'd checked it over, three times, four times. And no she hadn't hit the wall yet, she still had a few more weeks, months maybe, but she was getting closer to it. If she wanted to stay she desperately needed to find a job.
Also the hostel she'd been staying at it had started to lose all of it's initial charm. Sure the Norwegian couple who had spent a couple of weeks living next to her had been nice, but to every nice Norwegian couple there was a group of loud Italian boys partying every day and hour of the week, or a hen party that always ended in tears, screaming and someone blowing chunks in the corridor. Dani was closing in on thirty and she wouldn't say that she was getting old, but she would gladly admit that she was too old for that.
She knew she had options, theoretically at least. She could go back. She had an empty house waiting for her, she could easily get her old job back or something like it, she had a mother who kept insisting she'd stop running and come home “to sort things out”. But Dani back there were also broken promises, an ex-fiancé and expectations so heavy on her shoulders they felt like a straight jacket. Just the idea of it could turn her stomach queasy. No, to go back, to go back to being Danielle didn't feel like an option, at least not a viable one, not even in theory. So she licked her thumb and turned the page, hoping the next spread would hold her ticket, but before she had a chance to begin reading a voice tore at her attention.
“Look, do you mind?” a stranger asked with a nod towards one of the empty chairs across from her. “I'm sure you want to be alone or are waiting for your boyfriend, but I can't deal with Lecherous Larry over at the bar right now and the place is full. I'm going to be quiet, down this and disappear,” the woman promised.
Her accent was pronounced, but not thick. Dani knew it wasn't from London, but that was pretty much all she knew. Languages, especially dialectal accents had never been her strength. This tiny country where you couldn't even swing your bag around without hitting a new one didn't help matters. No, she'd stick to things she knew, like math and how to compartmentalize, and leave dialects to someone else. It was a nice one though, made her relax and subconsciously drop her shoulder. The stranger took her contemplative silence as doubt and added, “All I want is the chair, and silence”.
“No,” Dani profusely shook her head. “No, it's fine.” She wrangled the newspaper back onto her side of the table to make room for the woman. There was a moment of silence between them as the woman looked down at Dani and gave her half a smile before sinking down onto the chair. “Cheers.”
Dani quickly picked up her drink which was probably 75% saliva at this point, but she still gave her a timid “Cheers” in return.
True to her words the woman remained silent and the bustle from the rest of the crowded pub gradually took over and Dani's eyes returned to the newspaper, mostly. She had every intention returning them to the paper at least, but they kept straying, silently cataloguing the brown hair, the slight waves in it, the way it fell down but didn't quite catch the woman's shoulders, giving her both a tailored and a tussled look. She wore a brown jacket, she wore it well, but it did look a little too big on her small frame, but there was something in the way the woman held herself. There was something in the set of her shoulders that reminded Dani of a small dog with a big bite. Growing up they had lived next to a family with a Jack Russell, it was a tiny scrap of a dog, but it put dogs three times it's size in their place. This woman gave off the same sort of impression.
Dani willed her mind back to the newspaper and re-read the ad in front of her for the third time and it still sounded like it was a wanted ad for a drug mule. She tried not to feel defeated. The scraping of a chair tore her from the melancholy and forced her to look over as the woman stood up. The stranger wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and ducked her shoulders to get the jacket to fall into place again. “Thanks for the chair, love.” And with those words she was gone again, leaving Dani with the dregs of her own drink and a slightly befuddled expression on her face.
Something had just happened, Dani was sure of that, but she wasn't sure of what.
Some moments in life felt like background static, others like a chorus. She couldn't quite decide which category this moment fell into. It seemed brighter than static, but if it was a chorus it didn't belong to any song she recognised. Or maybe it was only the lager that had hit her empty stomach harder than she'd anticipated, making her head swim in mild intoxication. Either way Dani did what came natural to her, she closed the door and banished the entire thing to the back of her mind, deciding firmly to herself that it would stay there. All while knowing perfectly well that it wouldn't. But that was a problem for future Dani, current Dani had enough as it was on her plate.
With a sigh she licked her thumb again and went back to looking for a job.
The second time it happened it had felt-- surprising.
It had been a long day, an even longer week. She was done with sneers and dismissive glances and “don't think so, darling”. She was done forcing that smile onto her lips, the one that was so plastic it could be mistaken for a member of the Tupperware family. She was done and she was tired. She wasn't ready to cry, but only because the beer she had been drinking had mellowed her enough to feel slightly detached from-- well from everything.
“I promise I'm not some crazy stalker, but-” the woman from before, the one who was neither chorus nor static, eyed the empty seat across from Dani before throwing another backwards glance at a greasy old man by the bar. Dani followed her eyes before returning her gaze and was unable to contain a small chuckle at the expression of distaste on the woman's face.
“Go ahead,” Dani said and gathered up her things again. “No one wants to spend time with a Larry.”
Without a second's hesitation the woman sunk down onto the chair, not gracefully by any means, but still smoothly somehow. She looked over at Dani with a small smile on her lips as a strand of her hair fell into her eyes. Not that Dani would ever have a reason to describe it, but if she were to be forced by some unseen power, she would have called the display charming.
“Flat, or a job. Or did that boyfriend of yours stand you up so you're looking for a new one?” the brunette playfully asked as her thumb swiped at the condensation on her glass. Mesmerized by the way her finger painted invisible eights on the glass Dani almost didn't catch the question.
“I'm sorry?” she sputtered.
The woman nodded towards the newspapers between them. “You're obviously looking for something, intently looking for something going by that black smudge on your forehead,” she said with a gentle smile, the kind of smile that might have briefly toyed with the idea of being a smirk.
“What?” Dani stammered and had absolutely no idea where her mind had gone or why it had cut off the link to her tongue on the way out the door.
“You've got a bit of-” she said and pointed towards Dani's forehead, looking a little sheepish and a little less sure of herself. “It's nothing. I'm sorry. I should...be quiet.”
“No!” Dani quickly interjected. “Silence is overrated.” She scrubbed her palm against her forehead hoping her cheeks weren't as red with embarrassment as they felt. “I could use not silence.” Her tongue had clearly lost all sense of...anything.
The woman twisted the glass in her hands as she leaned forward. “Rough day?”
Dani nodded. “Week.” With a sigh she added, “Month. Year too.” The charming stranger smiled at her, the kind of smile that made her feel a little lighter, maybe even a little less tired. Not really knowing why, but knowing she needed more of the same feeling Dani continued. “All of the above.”
“All of the above?” now it was the other woman's turn to look a little confused, something she tried to hide behind taking a drink.
“You asked me if I was looking for a place to stay or a job. I'm looking for both.”
“Finding anything good?”
“Depends on where you stand on drugs and how you rate rats.”
“I'm actually embellishing.”
“Sounds harsh, blondie.” She chuckled.
Dani gave her a smile, a real one, not one from the Tupperware clan. “Dani,” she said and reached out her hand. For a second the other woman looked at the hand with something akin to confusion and for a split second Dani didn't think she would return the gesture. But as a slow smile uncurled on the brunette's lips she finally did. “Jamie.”
“Nice to meet you, Jamie,” Dani said and she meant it. Not only that, but she realised that this was the first time in a very long time she was completely and utterly sincere while she had a smile on her lips.
So it wasn't a perfect day, but as Dani released the other woman's hand she felt like maybe parts of it were salvageable at least.
The third time it happened it was Dani's doing.
All day long Dani had been out of sync, constantly one step in the wrong direction, one second too late, one wrong word out of her mouth. And she knew that had shone through in the job interview she had just finished up. She had tried her best to come across as calm, collected and on top of anything thrown in her direction. But unfortunately she had uncharacteristically stammered her way through basic questions and gotten remarkably tongue-tied whenever the woman who was in charge of the interview had looked her in the eye. It wasn't a particularly appealing job, secretary at a company that sold office supplies, but it would have been a job. But no, the woman did not seem to have been impressed by Dani's resume, she mostly seemed baffled by why an American teacher would want to work for them. Worst of all was that Dani couldn't even come up with a decent lie about it either. So no, she didn't have much hope in hearing from Drummer & Sons again.
But it was Tuesday so she was going to stick with her routine and drink her beer, maybe cry a little into it and hope that this was not the Tuesday the old man behind the bar had enough of her and threw her out. As she stepped into the pub she instantly realised her table was occupied. Well, of course it wasn't her table, but she had somewhere along the way started thinking of it as such. Which was presumptuous as she'd probably only frequented the place four times in total, but that didn't stop her. At first a sense of annoyance spiked through her, this was the final “fuck you” in a day riddled with them, but as she took a closer look she realised she recognised the person at her table.
She hurried to the bar and quickly got her drink in hand. For a brief moment she stood stock still with her beer in her hand watching the woman at the table, Jamie with the undefined accent. She was hunched over a newspaper, the tip of her tongue worrying the corner of her mouth as it looked like she was concentrating hard on what she was reading. In her hand she fiddled with a pencil, letting it flick across her knuckles, occasionally banging it against the table. The same jacket from before was this time slung across the back of her chair but judging by how much was left of the beer in front of her she had only just gotten here herself. Dani let her gaze sweep across the room, spotting several other empty tables, but landing on a decision despite that.
Dani swallowed hard and made her way over. “Can I sit?”
With an almost startled expression Jamie looked up, her face quite hard at first, but her features softening as she recognise who the voice belonged to.
“It's your table, blondie.” She smiled at her.
“Dani,” she couldn't help correcting her. “And it's not my-” Jamie nodded towards the seat across from her. “Thank you,” Dani said as she sat down.
“I remember,” Jamie said.
“Remember what?” Dani asked with her beer halfway to her lips.
“Your name.” Jamie smiled, a playful kind of smile that hit Dani somewhere between her spleen and the place which had suddenly started producing butterflies inside of her. Dani tried to return the smile, but her brain was a little too preoccupied with the influx of butterflies to fully cooperate, so instead it turned into a weird little sigh. She took a deep drink from her beer trying to drown whatever was dancing around in the pit of her stomach.
A couple of minutes of silence stretched out between them and Dani managed to down half her beer in sheer nervous energy before she found enough courage to continue the conversation. “Your turn to look for a job?” she asked with a nod towards the paper in front of Jamie.
Jamie grimaced and shook her head. “Flat actually.”
“Find anything good? Anything without rats?”
“Strangely enough none of them seem to lead with rat infestation.”
“That's weird-” Dani leaned over and turned the paper so they both could read the black print. “Ah, then you're not reading the subtext. Like this one-” she said and pointed towards an ad in the corner. “Quaint – rats.” She furrowed her brow and scanned the rest of the ads. “Oh, and this one – modest – definitely rats.”
Jamie chuckled and the butterflies inside of Dani took that as a good reason to start doing ecstasy.
The fourth time it happened it came with a realisation.
It felt like a wave, dark and polluted water that rose high above her, cresting and crashing down around her. The sensation absolutely terrifying and totally overwhelming. And with it there was no stopping the tears, silent and heavy the rolled down her cheeks. Everything felt like a fight, every breathe had begun to feel like a battle. This wasn't how she wanted to spend her birthday.
“You alright?” the voice broke through the surface of the watery cage.
Dani frantically wiped at her tears, in vain trying to hide the traces of her pain and insecurities. But there was no hiding. Dani made a noise, it sounded weak even in her own ears.
“You want me to-?” Jamie threw a thumb in the direction of the door. Dani looked up at her through her tears and slowly shook her head. “Because it's okay if you want to be alone. Sometimes we all need to be alone.”
“I don't want to be alone,” Dani admitted and meant it from her core.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Jamie offered, but Dani quickly shook her head again. Slowly the brunette sat down, almost exaggerationly in slow, as if she wanted to give Dani another chance to change her mind and ask her to leave. She turned her head slightly and peered over at her, fiddling with the beer in her hands. “Do you want to hear about my pile of shit of a day?” she wondered tentatively.
Dani wiped away the straggling tears from her cheek and replied, “I would really like that”.
Jamie was silent for a few moments before giving Dani a small smile as she began. “So-” she let the word drag out. “I got fired today. How's that for a starter?”
“What?” Dani's own anxieties seemed to lessen as she was given a reason to feel indignation on behalf of someone else, even if that someone else in theory was only a stranger.
“Apparently I'm not customer friendly enough. Which is shite. I am friendly as fuck.”
Unbidden the corners of Dani's mouth twitched into a small smile, which was in turn mirrored on Jamie's lips.
“So between us I think we can objectively say that today should eat glass and die.” Jamie raised her glass to Dani and took a long drink.
Dani raised her own glass in a salute before taking her own sip. “We should get drunk,” she decided.
“Not sure if that will solve anything.” Jamie wiped away some foam from her lips.
“It won't,” Dani admitted. “We will still be unemployed and we will still be house hunting. But we will also be drunk.”
A short little burst of a laugh escaped from Jamie's lips. “Is this American logic?”
“Do we have anything to lose?”
“A couple of brain-cells, but I think at this point that would mostly be a mercy killing anyhow.” Jamie gave her a lop-sided smile and raised her glass again. “Sure, blondie, why not get pissed.”
The wave still threatened in the background, it would return, it always did for Dani. For now though, well for now she was going to get absolutely shit-faced with her new friend, her new friend who probably didn't realise that she'd just earned herself that title whether she wanted it or not.
The fifth time it happened however, everything actually changed.
Dani was in a panic. No matter how she twisted and turned the numbers, she was out of money. The only thing left was enough for a return ticket back to all of the things she desperately wanted to avoid. As long as she was on this side of the Atlantic she could dream, she could entertain those thoughts that still felt foreign on her tongue even if her body was getting very comfortable in them. If she went back she knew she would not be strong enough to fight, she would drown in all of the things what they wanted for her. If she went back it would be to the Danielle who would nod and try to plaster the cracks with a smile that hurt and so much selflessness she sometimes would forget her own name.
“Anything good?” Jamie asked as she took a seat.
“Not unless you're a gardener or a sex worker,” Dani replied with a tired smile.
“Give me that!” Jamie unceremoniously snatched the paper out of Dani's hands leaving the blonde with a shocked expression on her face, Dani's eyes continued to grow larger as she saw Jamie skim through the ads.
As if sensing the eyes on her Jamie looked up and over at Dani. “What's that look for?”
Jamie tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Really?!” she exclaimed shaking her head. “I'm a gardener.”
“I didn't say anything.”
“Not sure how insulted I should be that you think it's more likely I'd be a prostitute than that I can keep plants alive.”
Dani leaned forward across the table to invade Jamie's personal sphere and pull the paper back towards her. “I said no such thing. I can see you garden.”
“As long as you can't see me selling sex to dirty old bastards-”
“No,” Dani replied unable to repress a shudder. “This one.” She pointed towards the ad in question.
Jamie leaned over and her face took on a serious expression, first with a hint of hope before it turned into something more like distaste. “Well this is crap.”
“What is?” Dani who hadn't bothered to read beyond the first two sentences asked.
“It's an impossible ad.” Jamie pushed the paper back at Dani as if it had offended her personally. She leaned back in her chair with a scoff.
“Positions to fill at Bly Manor. Groundskeeper to be in charge of Gothic revival gardens.” Dani looked at Jamie with a frown. “That sounds like a gardener, right? That could be you, couldn't it?”
“Read the rest,” Jamie grumbled around her sip of beer.
Excited blue eyes went back to reading. “Au pair with teaching experience needed for full-time care of two children.” With an expression of elation Dani looked at Jamie. “That's me! How did I miss this.” She pulled the paper closer so she could get a better look while reading.
“You're a nanny?” Jamie asked in surprise.
“I'm a teacher. Or I was back- home.” The last word felt stale and left a very bitter aftertaste in her mouth.
“Really?” She nodded in a way that could either have been surprise or disbelief, or a bit of both.
“Should I be offended by that look?” Dani asked with a wide smile, enjoying the opportunity to tease back.
Jamie just shook her head, but was smiling. “I guess it doesn't matter.” Her voice sobered. “Keep reading.”
Frowning Dani did as she had been told. “On grounds accommodation included. Jamie, this is amazing!”
“-the last part.”
“Previous experience meriting – what's impossible about that? That's standard.” She shook her head as if she couldn't see the problem.
“You forgot the fine print.”
“Professional couple only,” Dani finished off, her brows knitting together as she let it wash over her.
“And that's definitely not us, blondie.”
Dani pressed her lips together and reread the ad, twice. “What does that even mean?”
“These fools are looking for bloody needle in a haystack.”
“Why couldn't they have put in two separate ads?” Dani asked without expecting an answer from Jamie.
“Exactly. Nobody is going to be able to fill that prerequisite.”
“How many groundskeeper and teacher couples can there even be?” Dani continued, still not expecting an answer.
Jamie shook her head and downed her pint. “You want another?” she asked as she got up.
Dani's mind was lost in thought, but she nodded as Jamie scooped up their glasses and headed over to the bar.
It seemed like a metaphor for Dani's life, this whole thing. So close, so painstakingly close, but not all the way there. The details off in just the tiniest of ways and that throws everything off. It was so easy to give in to that spiral, to lose yourself further.
When she returned Jamie's entire being almost shook with excitement. “I might have an idea, sort of.”
“Uh, huh?” Dani hummed non-committally as she pulled her beer towards her.
"It's an impossible ad. No one is going to be able to fill it."
"Mhm." Another non-committal hum.
“You're an actual teacher!” Jamie continued.
“I am...” She was now turning a little suspicious, there was something in Jamie's tone that was a little too excited to not end in the type of idea you didn't regret the next day.
“And I'm a gardener. I'm fucking good at what I do too, despite what that cock womble says.”
“The cock womble being the person who fired you?” Dani tried to keep up.
“Yeah.” Jamie waved her hand a little in the air as if to say that wasn't important now. “So-” she drew out the word into something that felt a lot more suspenseful than a “so” should be able to evoke. “What's to say we are not a couple?”
“Who are? You and the- wobble?”
“No, of course not.” She gave Dani a look that might have questioned her sanity. “I meant you and I.”
Dani might as well have been hit square in her stomach and it would have been less of a surprise. They were words, uncomplicated words easily out of Jamie's mouth, but the effect they had...She felt the blood drain from her face as that nerve inside of her had been struck so firmly her head felt like a gong.
“But we are not a couple.” The words miraculously did not tremble as they left Dani's mouth.
“Obviously not, but what's to say we weren't?!” Jamie emphasised gesturing wildly with both hands.
“I don't think that's what they meant.” Dani swallowed hard.
“All it says is professional, nothing about heterosexual.”
“It usually is implied...”
“So? Did they specify 'homosexuals need not apply'?”
Dani feelt something drop inside her chest, like an elevator in a free fall. She swallowed a couple of times before she replied, “I don't think it's legal to write it out, but that doesn't mean-” Dani flared her nostrils. “I don't think I could do that.”
Something in Jamie's face darkened. “I didn't mean to offend you.” Her jaw clenched and her words were suddenly ice cold.
“You didn't- that's not-I didn't mean that-”
Jamie leaned back in her chair, arms across her chest. “Your eyes are really loud even when your mouth is shut.” Dani looked at her, her face radiating the doubt she was feeling and as if the feeling was contagious she watched as Jamie's face fell as well. “No, you're absolutely right, it's a dumb idea,” Jamie added self-consciously rubbing the back of her neck before Dani even had a chance to reply.
The insistent and wheedling words “marry me, please” echoed through her mind, again and again, an infinite loop of dread as she looked over at Jamie. She studied her face, the way her lips made that very specific shape as the corners of her mouth pulled downwards, the way her eyes dimmed and became darker, the way the muscles in her jaw clenched, almost shivered - and somehow the echo and the memory of that question, the echo of that plea – it faded. Until she barely heard it anymore, until it was replaced by a single “homosexuals need not apply” in an accent that made her feel good inside.
“It is a dumb idea,” she agreed, she could see Jamie's shoulders sink further and silently willed her to look over at her. When Jamie finally did she smiled at her, doing her best to let everything show in just the quirk of her lips. As if maybe that alone was enough to keep Jamie on her side, to keep her from shutting down further. “It is a really dumb idea,” Dani said nodding her head vigorously. “And- I think I like it.”
Chapter 2: First Impressions
“Your mother's name is Louise. Your dad's Dennis,” Dani rambled off with a far away look on her face.
“Dani, relax. They're not going to be asking you what I got for my fifth birthday.”
“What did you get for your fifth birthday?” a scared looking Dani asked.
“Breathe- we got it.”
“Only because they're convinced Jamie Taylor is a man.”
“And they get to carry around their own asses for making those assumptions.”
“What's going to happen when we get there? When they realise you are not a man and realise that we are the professional but not heterosexual couple. What if they withdraw the offer?”
“It's not like we'll be worse off than we already are. Dani, we've got absolutely nothing to lose here. There is nothing to hold us to London and they're paying for the trip to Bly. Worst case scenario we get out of the smog for a day or two.”
“Then we deal with whatever happens next. Now we wait for this Owen person and-” she took hold of Dani's arms. “-relax.”
A couple of deep breathes, a few more, and Dani seemed to at least reign in her worries and anxieties, but only for two minutes. “What's my mother's name?” Dani demanded.
Jamie shook her head and quirked her lips. “Your mother isn't what's going to make or break this. Either we'll step onto the grounds and it turns out these are good people true to their word, or we'll be turned down on the doorstep by homophobes. In either of those scenarios I doubt knowing that your mother's name is Karen, that she's a borderline alcoholic and that she has never in her life travelled outside of Iowa- is what's going to tip the scales.”
Dani looked at her with an unreadable expression on her face. “It might.”
“Do you want coffee? I need coffee.” Jamie said realising that the only way to stop the spiral was to completely change course.
“My stomach couldn't handle it right now.”
“I'll be right back.”
“What? Jamie, you can't leave, he said nine sharp.”
“Two minutes.” And with that she was off leaving Dani to fret in silence. She hadn't more than disappeared from her line of sight before a large and extremely expensive looking car came to a stop by the curb. It was the kind of car she had never in her life imagined she'd set foot in, but as the car stopped the driver's door was opened and a man got out.
“Dani Clayton, I presume,” he said as he leaned against the driver's door towering over Dani. Despite his build he had an open face, with an expression that was both inviting and friendly. His chin was adorned with a well trimmed goatee that was sprinkled in a few greys to contrast against his otherwise dark hair. His brown eyes were hidden behind large glasses that caught the morning sun and briefly shot an unpleasant memory through Dani's mind. Similar glasses, similar height, but the man in question had been younger, clean shaven and he'd been down on his knee asking her to marry him. Dani wished with everything in her soul that she could forget him, that by leaving she would have closed the door on that chapter, but it and him kept lingering. The memories would flash through her mind like strobe lights, bringing with them a dual sense of shame and a whole slay of anxieties. Shaking herself from the past she reached out her hand and tried her best to give the man actually in front of her a smile. “Yes, I am. And you must be Owen.”
“Guilty as they come.” His large hand was surprisingly soft in hers, it felt as gentle as his smile. “I was under the impression there'd be two of you.” He caught himself. “Obviously not two of you, but Mrs Lloyd said something about a husband or a boyfriend-” he twirled his hand in the air as if the exact details were lost somewhere in between them.
“Ah-” Dani's tongue stopped working again. She had an answer for this, she really did. But the only thing she could think about right now was that Jamie never actually did tell her what she got for her fifth birthday.
“You would not believe what a twat-” Jamie's voice interrupted making both of them look over. “Oh. Hello,” she said but somehow made it sound more like a suspicious question rather than a greeting.
“Jamie, this is Owen.” Dani gestured towards the tower of a man, before turning to Owen and gesturing towards Jamie. “And this is Jamie, not my husband or my boyfriend. She's my partner.”
“I assume not a business venture?” he asked a little tentatively, as if the words out of his mouth might spring fangs and turn on him if he wasn't careful.
“No, posh word for girlfriend.” Jamie handed her cup of coffee too Dani without breaking eye contact with Owen as she picked up their bags. “In the boot?”
“Right. Good. Yes yes.” He looked between them and nodded repeatedly. “In the boot.” He stood still for a moment, Dani studying his face intently, looking for the signs, those signs she'd become too skilled at reading. But what she feared never did appear, there wasn't that tight jaw, or those twitching nostrils, there wasn't that miniscule recoil of the head, no narrowing of eyes. Owen looked genuinely shocked and very surprised, but she couldn't find any of the tell-tale micro expressions of disgust, fear or anger that she'd become too good at spotting. She looked over at Jamie and realised she was in turn studying Owen as intently as she had been, with a small furrow between her eyes and a generally weary look on her face while doing so. Dani realised that Jamie might act cavalier about the whole thing, but judging by her expression she needed this job as much as she did.
“That's everything?” Owen asked as he finally appeared to have worked his way through the surprise.
“That's everything,” Jamie said as she slammed the boot shut. “Time for a new start, not much use in dragging too much baggage with you then.”
Dani opened the car door and held it open for Jamie, smiling as the other woman took her coffee back and more or less threw herself into the back of the car. Before entering herself Dani ducked her head and looked at Jamie inside of the car. “We're actually doing this.” It was a statement, but one that needed a little reassurance.
“Yeah we are.”
It had taken all of forty minutes out of London before the roads turned into the kind of roads you saw anywhere, asphalt and concrete, cars and trucks. Sure, things might look a little different than where she grew up, but the differences somehow only highlighted the similarities. Which meant everything left to focus on was the stress of the situation, the stress of the unknown meeting them once they got to Bly. Owen was polite enough to keep a steady stream of friendly dialogue going, but by now even he had quieted in favour of full focus on his driving. Dani peered over at Jamie who seemed intent on studying her own hands, her brow furrowed and her lips pressed together. She looked angry, or worried, it was hard to tell, Dani didn't know her well enough to be able to tell which. She did decide that she needed to store this expression away for future reference, it felt like one of those that would come in handy to understand if she were to spend any extended time with the other woman. Or at least if she wanted to make that time enjoyable for both of them.
She turned back and leaned her head against the headrest, closing her eyes and breathed out slowly as she tried to centre herself. The silence stretched on, the roads were good, but there was still the occasional jostling of the car, the car smelled of junipers and vanilla and there was a surprising softness to the moment. Despite the stress the slow breathes out of Dani became longer and deeper.
“Look, mate, just so we know what we're getting ourselves into-” Jamie's voice was soft as if she was reluctant to break the silence in the car. “Is this going to be a problem,” she gestured between herself and Dani.
Owen looked over at her in the rear-view mirror. “You mean having graduated with a 2:2 in LGBT instead of LLB?”
Jamie tilted her head and cracked a smile at him. “I'm offended you think so little of me. It's a 2:1 at least.” She acted on pure childish instinct and finished off her statement by poking her tongue out at him. He chuckled and the smile on his lips turned impossibly wide. “Some prats still think of it as a monkey wrench in the eye of decency,” Jamie continued.
“I genuinely don't think I have every heard anyone say that.”
“It's unnatural, think of the children, and merry-we fucking go-round. Same shite, different tune.”
Owen sobered a little in his expression. “I don't know. I doubt Mr Wingrave would care either way. Straight or gay, as long as you two keep his plants watered and the children cared for he's not going to have an opinion.”
“So why do I feel a but-”
“If you feel alright touching your sleeping girlfriend then that's on you.”
Jamie narrowed her eyes. “Funny. Again. You are a very funny man.”
“It's nice with such an observant audience.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled at her. “I don't know about Mrs Lloyd though, she's a...nut to crack.”
“Does she have a framed picture of Thatcher over her bed or does she eat crayons? What are we dealing with here? Which scale of nut are we going by?”
“Neither, I hope.” He scratched his chin while thinking, eyes moving with the scenery and the road ahead of them. “She can be extremely strict, conservative when it comes to the house and its rules, but-” He scratched his beard again. “I honestly don't know.”
“So, what you're telling me is to not unpack our bags before we've met her.” Jamie leaned back in her seat again, sparing a glance over at Dani's sleeping form. “Good to know,” she said with her lips pressed into a thin line.
Pretending to still be asleep Dani kept her eyes shut, but felt something cold grip her stomach at Jamie's tone and the previous softness of the moment was replaced by a small wave of nausea.
After what felt like a small eternity locked up in the car Owen finally took them from small twisty roads to even smaller twistier ones and eventually onto gravel that crunched loudly beneath the tires.
“This is it ladies, welcome to Bly Manor,” Owen said as the car found itself upon an impossibly long driveway, at least by Dani's standards.
To say that she was impressed was an understatement, she might not be one for opulence in general, but there was no denying that their new home was absolutely grand and equally gorgeous. “It's so beautiful,” she breathed out in a whisper.
Beside her Jamie was carefully scanning the area leading up to the house, her eyes finding the foliage and the gardens, making silent calculations and forming plans of attack. “It could be with some work,” she agreed.
The car eventually came to a stop in front of a large stone building, patches of ivy clinging to the facade and massive windows looking down from each side of the entrance. It was hard to shake the feeling that the house itself was a being that it was watching over everything playing out within and below.
“Bloody hell, this is some house.” Jamie opened her door and stepped out with an uncharacteristic timidness.
“It's amazing,” Dani followed suite, but with a genuine smile on her lips and excitement in her voice.
“It has it's charm,” Owen admitted. “Lets-” he looked over at Jamie for second and they shared a slightly apprehensive look. “-find Mrs Lloyd to begin with and then we can get you two settled.”
“Sounds like a reasonable plan,” Jamie agreed, closing the car door gently and taking a few steps towards Owen and the entrance.
Before they had a chance to even enter the house the big doors swung open and a dark haired woman stepped out into the afternoon sun. Most of us would walk, meander or saunter – this woman however strode, making the journey from the front doors down to the car seem almost incomplete without a crown and a sceptre. As she came to a stop before them there was an extended moment of silence as all of them seemed to study each other closely. It reminded Dani of a showdown in a spaghetti western and she had to swallow hard to suppress her own nervous laughter that wanted desperately to bubble to the surface.
Jamie was the one to finally break through the quiet, with determined steps she walked right up to the woman and stuck out her hand. “I take it you are Mrs Lloyd, the landlady I've heard so much about.” Then she had the gall to actually wink at the woman, which Dani couldn't decide if it was a deeply foolish or an incredibly brave thing to do. “I'm Jamie.”
Mrs Lloyd looked, frankly shocked, at the appendage hanging in the air between her and Jamie, and the wink did not appear to alleviate her state. She tilted her head and swallowed hard enough for Dani to be able to see the muscles in her neck stand out. “I think there has been a communicative failure between us.” Her voice was cold enough to leave frost in its wake.
“I'm sorry, Mrs Lloyd, I didn't know how to tell you over the phone,” Dani stepped over to them, swallowing down her own anxieties and misapprehensions about the situation as she decided to commit. “We have had so many rejections simply because of the nature of our relationship, for once I wanted our resumes to speak for themselves without faulty assumptions being allowed to factor in.”
“I have to tell you, miss Clayton, I do not care to be lied to.”
“And you never were. Everything I have told you, everything in the letters we sent you is perfectly true. You made assumptions about Jamie based on your own expectations-” Dani held the woman's gaze and forced her own spine to be the one straight thing about her. “It is true that I had the opportunity to correct you, but Mrs Lloyd-” Dani took a deep breath before continuing. “-there comes a point when you tire of fighting preconceived notions only for it to result in rejection based solely on bigotry.” Dani clenched her jaws to prevent from rambling on.
For one dangerously quiet moment she wasn't sure if she had just made things a lot worse for them, the other woman's face was a cold mask that was impossible for her to read. She could only hope that the woman took her own frustration and desperation and mistook it for brutal honesty.
“Quite.” Was finally the single word to fly past the woman's lips and she suddenly seemed to acknowledge Jamie's hand that was still awkwardly trust out between them. “Welcome, miss Taylor.” She took Jamie's hand in hers and returned the greeting. “Let us begin with your accommodation and once you have things settled we can have a discussion about what will be expected of you individually.”
As Mrs Lloyd turned around and headed back towards the house Jamie looked over at Dani and mimed forcing her jaw back into place. Truthfully, Dani knew exactly how she felt.
The room with adjourning bathroom that was to be their home was beyond amazing. Maybe having spent so many months in hostels Dani's standards were a little lower than usually, but it was still amazing. It had furniture that seemed sturdy enough to survive for centuries and they might have already. The walls were a relaxing shade of blue that seemed to invited a calm soul. Big bright windows overlooked the lawns surrounding the manor house. And in the middle of the room stood one massive bed.
She rounded the door and stepped into the room as her name was called. “Yeah?”
“I think we forgot about something,” Dani said breathing out hard through her nose.
“Give it a rest, Dani. I don't actually remember my fifth birthday.”
“No, not that. This-” she said and threw both her arms out gesturing at the bed that took up a large part of the room.
“What?” Jamie asked and dropped their bags next to an antique dresser.
Dani gave her a pointed stare before walking over to shut the door. With her hand still on the doorknob she said in the same voice she used with children who were testing her patience in class, “There is only one bed”.
“Of course there is only one bed.” Jamie looked over at her and shook her head with a frown. “Oh, that bothers you.”
“You are not a good liar.”
“I don't want to impose-”
“Then stay on your side of it and don't steal the duvet and we'll be fine.”
“What I meant is, I don't want you to feel uncomfortable.”
“I've slept in far worse places, it's an actual bed and we'll have roof over our heads. There's been nights with a lot less, this won't make me uncomfortable.” Jamie stated as she sat down on the bed in question, pushing down on it to test the spring in the mattress. “But if this is about you being uncomfortable, then that's a different conversation,” she stated pointedly.
Dani looked at her for a moment before walking over and sitting down next to her. “No, that's not it. I'm-” She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand before exhaling deeply into the crook of her arm. Looking over at Jamie she eventually let the truth spill out. “I'm uncomfortable, but not about the bed. I'm uncomfortable because I'm scared all the time, always making the wrong decision, doing the wrong thing. I am scared Mrs Lloyd will barge through that door at any moment and tell us she changed her mind, that she saw right through me. You said so yourself, I suck at lying." She sighed deeply. "I can't seem to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“This is going to be fine, Dani.”
Dani looked at Jamie and reached down between them hesitating only for a second before taking her hand in hers. “We'll make it work, I promise,” Jamie assured her and to highlight her sincerity she gave Dani's fingers a gentle squeeze. A sudden knock at the door however made them both instinctively jump apart. “Yeah?” Jamie barked.
“Can I come in?” A young voice from the other side of the door asked.
“Can I say no?” Jamie asked quietly enough that it wouldn't stray past Dani's ears.
“No,” Dani directed at Jamie before raising her own voice. “You may.”
The door slowly opened up to reveal a young boy standing awkwardly in the corridor looking somewhat unsure of himself.
Dani got to her feet and walked over to him. “Let me guess, you would be Miles.” She reached over to shake his hand.
The boy clipped his eyes at her a few times before he took her hand and kissed her knuckles in a gesture that was so precocious Jamie was unable to suppress a groan. Dani glared back at her with a disapproving look. “It's a pleasure to meet you. I assume you are miss Clayton.”
His precocious veneer cracked a little as he peered around her and curiously eyed Jamie who was still sitting on the bed. He seemed to catch himself and looked back at Dani. “I was sent to ask if you'd both care for some tea.”
“We'd love to. Give us a few minutes and I'm sure we'll find our own way down the kitchen.”
Looking a little disappointed in not getting to act as a guide he nodded and reluctantly seemed to take a step back. “Of course. I'll tell Owen.” He looked between them for another beat waiting for them to change their minds before he had to admit defeat and run off down the stairs.
“Maybe I was wrong, maybe there is a reason to worry," Jamie said as she got to her feet. "That kid is giving me some serious Village of the Damned vibes."
“He was being polite, it was cute.”
“Yeah, right,” she drawled making it clear how very much she did not agree with that sentiment. “We'll be sleeping with the door locked otherwise I am going to actually be very uncomfortable.”
Dani sat and slowly sipped her tea, still on the fence about the tradition. She'd been in England for almost six months now and she still hadn't made up her mind if the bitter liquid was actually good enough to warrant such frequent drinkage as most British people seemed to have agreed on. She liked the traditions around it though, the warmth in her hands and a moment of calm as you waited for it to cool enough to be drinkable. In this specific moment that part was especially pleasant. Because around her the highs and lows of new voices made a comforting backdrop as her mind tried to process where she was and how she had actually ended up in this place.
There was Jamie, this funny and charming stranger that actually never felt strange to her. Maybe it was because of the game they were playing, but it felt like more than that to Dani, there was something about Jamie which was comforting, familiar and held a strange sense of home. Being around her made it feel like the air reached further down in Dani's lungs and breathing was somehow a little easier. It felt freeing.
Then there was Owen and her initial take on him seemed to hold true, he seemed to be a genuinely friendly and gentle soul. The way his care for those around him was so visible on his face made Dani instantly trust him. And the glint he got in his eyes whenever he was about the launch a particularly questionable joke only made her like him more.
There was also the housekeeper Mrs Grose, a woman who seemed to breathe effortless elegance in a way that made Dani feel as graceful as a sack of burlap in comparison. But she had a way about her that was as inviting and reassuring as Owen. They both made you want to stop and relax, and being around them seemed to spark as sense of gratefulness.
And the children seemed to be as well-behaved as Mrs Lloyd had promised over the phone. The girl named Flora was cute as a button and practically exploded with happy energy at having two new adults in her life. The boy, Miles, was a little more subdued, but was without too much cajoling lured into sharing his little sister's excitement. Only a few times did his overly mature behaviour pop up back up. The first time it happened Dani was surprised as she suddenly felt the body heat of Jamie against her as she leaned close and whispered, “Beware of the children!” in her ear. She'd been a little too startled by the sensation to have a chance to respond. But the second time it happened and Jamie had just whispered, “there is no stopping them!” she replied by firmly pinching her thigh and telling her to, “behave”.
All put together though this had been the most pleasant afternoon she had spent in...she couldn't even remember how long. Somewhere between the good company and cup number two, a lot of her worries had begun to melt away, of course they were not miraculously gone, but there currently was no edge to them. This situation that she somehow had landed herself in- it felt right. This place and these people all felt right. That realisation almost felt euphoric after having spent so many months and years trapped in feelings of being in the wrong place surrounded by the wrong people. She also realised that when everything around you felt right it was hard to feel like you yourself was wrong.
Bly Manor wouldn't be a quick fix or a miracle cure, but this setting and the opportunities her and Jamie had just been given, it all felt like a very good starting point.
The rest of the afternoon and evening seemed to disappear in a huff as they were individually shown around the grounds. Jamie came back ranting about a greenhouse, so excited Dani momentarily had wondered if someone had slipped her something with the tea. Dani herself had been shown the children's classroom which was close to as big as some of the classrooms she was used to housing twenty children in. The rest of the house was equally impressive, large rooms, impeccable design and decorating. It was old, but it didn't feel worn. Something she had actually commented on and it probably scored her a few points with Mrs Lloyd. The elusive Mrs Lloyd, Dani still didn't have the slightest grasp of the aloof landlady, but she did feel the importance of keeping on her good side, because there was something in the way the woman held herself that made Dani decided to never incur her wrath.
As the evening descended into darkness the house grew quiet. The children had been put to bed with minimal fussing. And that was when the itch began. It felt like ants were busy running up and down her legs, being still felt increasingly difficult. Maybe it was the new surroundings, maybe it was the stress of the day subsiding, or maybe it was the visual of Jamie sprawled out on what she'd dubbed “her side of the bed” with a book in her hands and her legs very naked and on display. No matter which one of those three things were the cause of it, Dani needed to move, she needed to explore. Explore the house and nothing else, her mind added with a slightly angry tone. So she got out of the bed and threw a thin shirt over her nightgown.
“Where are you going?” Jamie asked suspiciously.
“To look around. Make some tea.”
“Are you mad?”
“You're going to walk off into this big dark house on your own?”
“I was planning to. Why? Do you want to come?”
“No, but I can't have you walking off alone like some horror movie heroine. There could be anything out there!”
“Like what exactly?”
“I don't bloody know, do I?! Anything. Trapdoors - serial killers - ghosts. Children of the corn?!”
“There are two sweet children asleep in their beds and there is the housekeeper and the landlady both tucked away in their own rooms.”
“And we don't know any of them. For all we know they're serial killer ghosts the lot.”
Dani shook her head. “Well, I am going.”
“Wait, I need socks.” Jamie scrambled out of the bed.
“You're not wearing pants either,” Dani commented. Jamie looked over at her in shock. “I meant trousers,” Dani corrected herself. “You knew what I meant.”
“So? How are those two linked?”
“Nevermind, get your socks and lets go.”
“I don't see why we can't turn on the lights,” Jamie complained after having stubbed her toe for the second time in as many minutes.
“We shouldn't disturb the rest of the house.”
“If we don't get killed tonight we're going to have to invest in bloody headlamps. Maybe a full spelunking kit.”
“Keep your voice down,” Dani chastised her, unable to stop the feeling that they were doing something forbidden by wandering off after bedtime.
In silence they eventually found their way into the kitchen.
As she put the kettle on Jamie went through the cupboards clearly looking for something specific, her fourth try seemed to been the charm. “I knew I'd seen him put this away!” Jamie exclaimed and returned to Dani and the kitchen counter. She had a metal tin in her hands and a big smile on her lips. Her smile was however replaced with a frown as she looked over at Dani. “What are you doing?”
“Tea.” She looked up and pulled her braid over her shoulder with one hand. “You want some?”
“Not the way you're doing it.”
“Take a cookie and stop judging.” Dani opened up the tin and practically showed one into her mouth.
“Did you hear that?” Jamie asked around the biscuit seemingly frozen in place.
“I don't scare that easily.” Arcing one eyebrow Dani stirred some more milk into her tea.
“But I do. Seriously did you not hear that?”
“It was the serial killer ghosts who fell down the trapdoor.”
“Why am I surrounded by comics?!”
A loud creaking noise made them both look at each other and hold their breathes. “I did hear that,” Dani admitted.
Jamie swallowed hard and nodded at her before she began tip-toing towards the sound. Fighting the urge to grab hold of the tail end of her shirt to stop her, Dani eventually decided to follow close by instead. Trying their best to make no sound at all they found themselves sneaking towards the foyer when suddenly the front door swung up. Dani had to bite her lip to stop from screaming, but was unable to fight the reflex to grab hold of Jamie's hand. Standing stock still in the shadows they saw a figure enter, a fog of cigarette smoke wafting in around them like in a bad noir movie. The lack of lighting made it hard to make out any features of the individual who glided up the stairs like an unstoppable golem. As a sliver of moonlight illuminated the top of the stairways the featureless secret smoker was revealed to be none other than Mrs Lloyd herself.
They remained standing still in the shadows, holding hands for long minutes after she had disappeared. When it became apparent that she wasn't going to return Dani bumped her head against Jamie's shoulder, breathing out hard against the flannel. “You need to stop with your ghost stories I almost peed my pants.”
“Sorry. The tea is probably getting cold.”
“Right, tea.” Dani reluctantly pulled away from Jamie and let go of her hand. And in that moment Dani decided that she had reached a verdict on the beverage in question, it was not in its favour. Tea was more trouble than it was worth.
Chapter 3: Summertime without too much Sadness
Dani did not like routines. Routines were the slippery slope on which you lost your sense of self on. Because a routine would start off simple enough. It was Friday so you would get the same take out from the same restaurant on the corner, same as you did every other Friday. You would ask for more of this and less of that. Then you would go home and you would eat the food opposite the same person you ate every other meal from and you'd think that this was the extent of the world. And little by little you would lose yourself, you would stop wanting and you would stop trying and then you were caught.
That had been her life with Eddie, a prison reinforced by routines and held in place by expectations.
And it didn't end there, because on Saturdays they'd go to a matinee and it would almost always be what Eddie deemed a “chick flick”. He would grumble, but buy the tickets before she would even have chance to voice an opinion. But she would dutifully try to pay attention, sometimes treating it as a how-to tutorial. Because maybe if she paid enough attention she would finally figure out that thing her body seemed to have forgotten to learn. She watched closely and with increasing frustration studied the couples that fell in love on the big screen, but by the end credits always unsuccessful in deciphering their code.
After that it was time for family dinner at the O'Mara household where Judy would spoil them rotten and it was pleasant, it always was. Dani never had that growing up and it had always been a dream of hers. As she got to live it she wasn't as sure, she had started to think that maybe somewhere along the way she might have gotten dream and nightmare confused. Or was that the disillusion of adulthood?
The car ride home was always filled with the same small talk. Back home Eddie's lips would always find her neck and each time they did it was harder not to recoil. Then there were the excuses, the outright lies. Which she wallowed in while wondering, how it was possible to love him as much as she did and still despise his touch on her skin?
Then came Sundays and on Sundays Eddie disappeared off to spend some time with the “boys”, doing whatever it was boys did when they gathered in groups. This would leave Dani alone for a few hours, trapped in a cage of her own making. Some weekends she would treasure the time alone, feeling a little lighter for a few hours at least. Other weekends she would find herself in the shower, head against the tiles and the ball of pent up frustration raging inside of her. And at that point the images were so easy to conjure. Gentle hands finding their way up the inside of her thighs, a dream of her own lips against a pulse point beating for her, her fingers playing across ribs teasing their way towards – and her release would wash over her shockingly fast. Then there was the shame, and no matter how hot the water was or how long she let it scaled her, it didn't wash away. The shame clung to her so fiercely she was always afraid Eddie would be able to tell once he returned. But he never did notice, no more than he noticed those times her eyes were rimmed with the pinkness of shed tears. No, thankfully Eddie never noticed things like that. Or if he did he never acknowledged it at least.
In Dani's eyes routines were like a silky noose around your neck, at first deceptively soft against your skin, but with each repetition of the routine the rope grew tauter until it seared into your flesh and made moving, breathing and living impossible.
So no, Dani did not care for routines, or at least she thought she didn't.
But after having spent a few weeks at Bly she was reevaluating that stance. Because maybe routines themselves were not inherently bad, maybe it was the circumstances surrounding them that were. For there were routines at Bly too and she had grown very fond of them. Like how she would almost always wake up to an empty bed, Jamie nowhere to be seen, but as she extended her hand beneath the covers it still held her warmth. So she would steal the other woman's pillow, breathe deeply into it and think for a second that yes maybe she too would get an early start. Then the next thing that would happen was the alarm going off much later, reminding her to get up and do her job.
The lesson plan she had made for the children a sort of easy routine as well, one that made the mornings fly by and before she knew it, lunch. Once the children had been taken care of she had gotten in the habit of making an extra plate and taking it with her to the greenhouse. It hadn't taken many days before Dani had realised that unless actively dogged into eating Jamie could just as easily forget about the whole thing. So Dani took it upon herself to do the dogging. It was a pleasant thing too, to sit there surrounded by the greenery, watching Jamie wolf down and share some random snippets of conversation before it was back to the land of teaching.
Then came Fridays and on Fridays Owen usually stayed a little longer, often long enough for the children to fall asleep and long enough for a second or a third bottle of wine to be opened and shared between them. Hannah offering her dry sense of humour, Owen his dumb jokes and poignant anecdotes, Jamie dropping cheeky comments that made Dani pinch her thigh more than once. What she got in return for the pinch was never any remorse, instead it was always met with a cocky grin.
On Saturdays she sometimes woke up with Jamie next to her, but even then never asleep, always fully dressed lounging with a book in her hands. Jamie was an avid reader, it wasn't something she only picked up out of boredom, she seemed to really enjoy the habit of it. Going by the titles Dani had spotted on her bedside it seemed to be mostly detective and crime stories, but she didn't know if that was a true reflection on Jamie's preferences or the selection of the Wingrave library. It was a nice way to wake up, what was even nicer was getting to linger in that position. Watching Jamie turn the pages as her own body and mind slowly came to life and decided it was turn to start the day for real.
Then there was the weekend brunch, the children bickered like only siblings can, too much food on the table, but no stress to hurry any of it along. Sometimes Mrs Lloyd would join them on the weekends, she would not speak often and her presence might have made the rest of them sit a little straighter, but it wasn't an unpleasant occurrence by any means.
These were some of her routines now and Dani didn't hate them, in fact they brought her comfort. And with those thoughts actively bouncing around her head she realised that for once she hadn't fallen back asleep after having stolen Jamie's pillow. This morning she would actually beat her alarm out of bed. Reluctantly she pushed the pillow back onto the other side before untangling herself from the bed sheets. The sun was already shining bright through the windows and she could tell they were in for another hot summer's day.
“Here, Flora. Can you put this on the table?” Dani handed her the bottomless tin of cookies that kept migrating between the cupboards in the kitchen and the girl gladly complied.
“What are you two weirdos up to?” Jamie drawled as she entered the kitchen from the side door. Dani deliberately tried not to notice the attractive smudge of dirt that ran along and accentuated her jawline.
“Making tea,” she replied as she looked back down and away from distracting dirt.
“A spoonful of sugar, Poppins. Not the whole god damn bag.” Jamie teased Dani as she stirred more sugar into her tea.
“Poppins?” Dani looked up at her. “What does that make you- Dick van Dyke?”
“I guess you got the dyke part right.” Jamie snuck a biscuit from the tin on the table.
“That's a very cheap joke, you'd make Owen proud.”
Leaning on the kitchen counter looking between the two adults, Flora asked, “What's a dyke, miss Clayton?”
Dani's eyes shot up at Jamie and suddenly held a warning. Trying to soften her expression and put a smile on her face she turned towards the girl. “It's a bad word and Jamie should not be using it.”
“It's not though, a bad word.” Jamie's voice and tone seemed to slash defensively at Dani and her words.
Dani opened her mouth and shut it, her jaws clenched. She crouched down to be on equal footing with Flora. “It's not a bad word, because Jamie is right, words themselves can't be bad. But it is a word that some people use when they try to be mean to women like me- and Jamie.” She looked up and over at Jamie and gave a pointed nod as if asking her to at least help do damage control.
Dani shook her head suddenly looking exhausted.
“Why would they be mean to you?” Flora asked with the innocence of childhood ignorance.
“That is a very good question,” Dani agreed mindlessly straightening the vest Flora was wearing. “Some people seem to be so angry inside that they need to make the anger exist outside of them too. So they're mean to other people who are not like them.”
“It kind of is, but sometimes when we are really angry we do stupid things without meaning to.”
“Like when Miles broke the vase and had to clean it up.”
“Like that, exactly.”
“Well, I promise not to use it then. Not even if I get angry at you or Jamie.”
“That's great, sweetie. Now go find your brother and tell him it's time for tea.”
When Flora was out of earshot Dani turned her gaze on Jamie. “You better watch your mouth around the kids, they're like telepathic little sponges. You say something once and the next time it's the only thing they seem to know how to say and they will always repeat it back to the one person who will have a heart attack from hearing it.”
“Fuck, Dani. I'm not—it's not a bad word--” She opened and closed her right hand rhythmically in what Dani had come to realise was a nervous tick when she felt uncomfortable or cornered. “I don't know how to...kids-” she finished off incoherently, pointing in the general direction Flora disappeared.
“It's fine. Just try to reign in some of your more colourful use of language.” Dani grabbed the twitching hand in hers to still both it and Jamie's nervousness. She held her hand for a moment before slowly letting go. “You do that and I promise I'll get you a newsie cap for Christmas--dick.”
It got her a short surprised laugh in response, which in turn put a blindly bright smile on Dani's lips.
“I don't know what it is about that lake, but it is eerie as fuck,” Jamie said as she wiped a few stray beads of sweat from her forehead.
It had been an exceptionally warm day and even though the sun had set the heat lingered. With the children sleeping soundly someone had mentioned something about gin, Hannah had objected that it was a sad drink, Owen had countered with tonic being good against malaria, Jamie hadn't cared about the emotional state of gin or malaria but she felt she deserved to get absolutely pissed. Dani had no strong opinions on any of it, but she had gladly accepted the cold drink and pressed it against her overheated neck as she listened to the conversation.
“It has an unfortunate history.”
“How much of a history can a pond have?”
“At least two people have tried killed themselves in it.” Owen said. “And one succeeded.”
“Jesus!” “What?” Jamie and Dani exclaimed in unison.
Owen nodded. “There is a story about a soldier who after the battle of Somme was sent here to recover. They thought the nice quiet country life would sort him out again. It never did and the groundskeeper found him floating in the lake one morning.”
“You laughed at me when I said there were ghosts!” Jamie aimed at Dani as she wrapped her arm around her knee and leaned forward with peaked curiosity. “There's more?”
“Then there was, Miss Jessel,” Owen continued.
“Wait, was that the au pair before Dani?” Jamie asked.
“What? Are you telling me we've been--” she sputtered. “-in a dead woman's bed?”
“No. Her story is tragic enough, but not that tragic.”
“Rebecca was only with us briefly, before she had to leave to...recover.” Hannah clarified with a distant and sad look in her eyes.
“What happened?” Dani couldn't help herself from asking.
Hannah and Owen shared a pained look before Hannah turned back towards Dani.
“She was such a bright and beautiful young woman when she first got here. Unfortunately Henry's go-to man wrapped her up in his own sorry business and spun the poor girl's head full of so many lies that she lost her light when he left after he tried to rob Mr Wingrave blind.”
“Peter knew how to turn minds,” Owen agreed with a deep nod.
“Peter Quint was a snake who whispered in an innocent woman's ear, turning her love into shackles while making every one of our lives miserable.”
“It was a relief when he finally ran.”
“For all of us, except for Rebecca. She took it hard, their love became a poison she didn't seem to be able to rid herself of.”
“It got so bad she waded out into that lake and hadn't it been for Mrs Lloyd...” Owen left the rest unsaid.
“That is so sad. Is she okay now?”
“Last we heard from her mother she was...better, but sometimes love can leave you with deep scars that never fully heal.” Hannah briefly looked as is she was speaking from personal experience.
“What happened to this snake bloke?” Jamie asked as she lit a cigarette.
“Gone. The police never caught him.”
After that the conversation continued onto things that were a little less serious and sat a little less heavy in all their hearts. Until Hannah yawned on time too many and finally decided to excuse herself and retire. Owen wasn't far behind. Which left Jamie, Dani and a very pleasant silence. Around them the night was slowly coming to life with the distant calls of nocturnal animals and the gentle breeze of undisturbed winds.
“It's strange,” Dani finally said, her voice soft between them.
“What is?” Jamie hunched over in the chair looking over at her with a lazy expression on her face, equal parts heat and intoxication being the cause of it.
“I have heard so many people talk about homosexuality as if it's unnatural,” Dani continued. Jamie almost seemed a little startled by the statement, her eyes sobered instantly and turned sharper, more aware. “But then you have so many stories like this, like Peter and Rebecca.” Dani looked over and held Jamie's gaze briefly before looking out into the night again. “Men and women who completely destroy each other from the inside out. And then it's a tragic love, or a toxic love, but it is always called love and I have never heard anyone say it's unnatural.” She took a deep breath and enjoyed the silent beat between them before she trailed back to her ponderings. “So what is it that makes it so hard for people to accept that what two women or two men feel for each other can be love and natural, but so easy for them to mistake a man's abuse for an expression of love? Why is that?” Her eyes returned to Jamie's.
“I- don't know.”
Dani leaned her head against the back of the wicker chair and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the warm summer air. Loving the way her nose was assaulted with so many different floral scents and the rich smell of the fresh dirt around them. She looked back over at Jamie who now had her head tilted back, her eyes studying the sky, a tiny furrow between her eyes. Dani followed her gaze and gasped when she saw the explosion of stars strewn out above.
“It's beautiful,” Dani whispered.
“Why are you twitching?” Dani asked Jamie who was standing next to the window in their bedroom, looking out into the yard, fiddling with a book in her hands.
“I'm not twitching.” Jamie tried to defend herself with an annoyed expression. “Fine. I need a smoke, but I don't want to run into Mrs Lloyd.”
“It's not like she'll bite.”
“Are you sure, though?" Jamie looked over at her with a pointed look. "Last time I went for a fag she snuck up on me and told me 'nice night for it' and stared at me silently until she'd smoke her own to the filter.”
“So? Maybe she's socially awkward.”
“No, that woman is anything but awkward. She's playing some kind of game, but I don't know which.” Jamie suddenly made a double take and stared openly at Dani. “Is that my shirt?”
“I have a total of three shirts, why are you borrowing one of them?”
“You're free to borrow anything from me if you want to.”
“All your things are so...excessively-- pink.”
“Dirt shows up really well on pink.” Jamie said in an attempt at diplomacy.
After a moment's consideration Dani acknowledged, “That was almost smooth”.
Jamie grinned at her.
“You'll get it back. It was the first thing I found in the laundry basket. Miles got a little too excited with the water colours so I had to change my shirt.”
“That kid is not alright.”
“He's a bit special.”
“Special? He's a pint-sized wanker.”
“No, I'm being serious.”
“They've been through a lot these past couple of years.”
“That's a bullshit excuse, Dani. Having a tragic childhood doesn't give you a pass to be an arsehole.”
“You're exaggerating. It was just a bit of colour.”
“I'm not even talking about that. I was clearing the roof on the cottage this afternoon when the little demon walked straight up to the ladder, kicked it twice and said, 'doesn't look very sturdy'.” She crinkled her forehead. “With me up there.”
“I'm telling you, Dani, if I had been faster down those rungs I would used him to clean the gutters with.”
“Threatening violence on children isn't going to make things better,” she warned.
“It's solid child rearing advice if you ask me.”
“Luckily for Mr Wingrave you take care of his plants and I take care of his children.” She smiled at Jamie who was still wearing a scowl on her face. “I'll talk to Miles.”
“Be careful though, this house is apparently full of ghosts and creepy potential psychopaths. That's including those damn kids.”
“Leave Flora out of this, she's a sweet kid.”
“Or so she would like you to think.” Jamie threw her book on the bed and walked over to the desk to pick up her cigarettes and lighter. “The only thing that's going to save either of us from this horror movie house is that neither of us are having sex.” She put the cigarettes into the breast pocket of her shirt. “Unless you've been sneaking off getting some from Owen.”
Dani snorted. “Please, that man only has eyes for Hannah.”
Jamie smiled brightly. “It's kind of disgusting how googly he gets around her.” Still shaking her head she disappeared out of the door. Then it took all of three seconds before she appeared again with a horrified look on her face.
“Is that what Mrs Lloyd is doing? Is she flirting with me?”
Dani stared at her with an open mouth, she closed it, but it quickly fell open again on it's own accord.
“Fuck, Dani, is the landlady a repressed lesbian?!”
Dani shook her head. “I-” Her mouth continued to hang open for a few more seconds before she wrestled control of her body. “Why would she flirt with you? You are supposedly in a relationship with me.”
“Does she look like the kind of woman who has scruples?!”
“She's not a repressed lesbian.” Dani shook her head again, or rather, she hadn't stopped shaking it. “Is she?”
“Either way, she's creepy as shit. Do you mind?”
“You want me to come hold your hand while you smoke?” Dani asked with a bemused smile on her lips.
“You don't have to hold my hand, but you can if you want to.” Jamie offered with a smirk.
“Fine, lets go.” Dani agreed reluctantly.
Dani reached over for the cigarette between Jamie's fingers and she got a raised eyebrow in response. “I'm not going to just stand here watching you smoke.” Dani made a hand gesture for her to hand it over. Jamie obliged and took a step around Dani, leaning back against the brick facade of the building. She splayed her feet out and crossed her arms over her chest looking up.
Dani took a drag and as she slowly exhaled the smoke the crunching of boots on gravel turned both their heads towards the approaching figure of Mrs Lloyd. Subconsciously Dani took a step in between Jamie's feet as she returned the cigarette.
“Evening, Mrs Lloyd,” Jamie greeted her in a way that gave nothing away about her misgivings about the woman. Mrs Lloyd blinked over at her and came to a stop a few feet away from them. As she was busy looking over at Jamie, Dani took the opportunity to truly study the older woman. The first thing she noticed was that it wasn't a completely fair descriptor, because yes she probably were a few years older than her and Jamie, but Mrs Lloyd was by no means as old as she had initially presumed by her demeanour. Her face was a cold mask for the most part, but beneath the stern expression was still a fairly young woman. Dani studied her eyes, her mouth, the stiffness of her shoulders and she tried to see those things in Viola which she had seen in herself as she looked in the mirror. She saw no similarities, but what did repressed lesbian even look like anyway?
“A filthy habit,” the woman said and sucked greedily at her own cigarette.
“It is that,” Jamie agreed casually. Dani simply nodded non-committally.
Looking over at Jamie, Dani tried to see her through Viola's eyes. Her legs were barely covered by the short denim cut-offs. She wore an old soft shirt that wasn't buttoned properly, the right sleeve rolled up and the left one hanging lose, the cuff unbuttoned. On her feet were dirty Converse that had made spaces in the gravel as she had partially slid down the wall. Dani glanced back over at Viola from the corner of her eye. Did Viola see the same thing she saw? She shivered as the line of thought began to freak her out a little.
“Dani?” Jamie's voice tore her attention away from her thoughts, she held out the cigarette again, silently asking if Dani wanted it back. Slowly, almost feeling like she was stuck in quicksand Dani took it and brought it to her lips.
Later on Dani found herself in bed, staring up at the ceiling with her hands firmly placed on the covers, she breathed out slowly. “That was weird.”
Jamie dropped her book on her stomach and looked over at Dani who kept staring at the ceiling. “I told you so.”
“Did you lock the door?”
“Mhm,” Jamie hummed and returned to her book. “Checked it twice.
Forgoing her usual morning structure Dani had sent Flora off to play after breakfast as she decided there was no time like the present to confront Miles. She sat the boy down in the classroom and tried to smile at him in a way she hoped was reassuring, but confident.
“Miles, we need to talk about what you did to Jamie yesterday.”
The boy squirmed and immediately seemed to know what she was talking about, good she thought, at least he's not hiding behind lies. “That wasn't okay.”
“I was trying to find her key,” he offered as an explanation.
“Her key?” Dani frowned at him.
“You know, the thing that unlocks her.”
She was so startled by his choice of words it took her a couple of seconds to find her reply. “If you want someone to open up to you the first thing you have to do is listen to them.”
“But Peter said-”
She studied him for a moment, a lot of small things suddenly coming to light. “I am sure Peter said a lot of things,” she interrupted him. “But one of the things you're going to learn as you get older is that not everyone's advice is worth your time. People who hurt other people, people like Peter, should not be trusted. Because we don't come with locks, Miles. People are difficult and they sometimes don't make sense, but there is no lock and there is no shortcut. If you want to understand how people work then you listen to them. You spend time with them and you care for them. But you can't unlock their favour with one quick action or a magic word.”
He looked at her silently.
“So if you want to understand Jamie then you talk to her, you ask her questions.”
“I don't think she likes me,” he finally admitted.
“She's-” Dani opened her mouth, but didn't quite know what or how to respond to the boy.
“She's weird,” Miles said. Dani's first response was a flash of anger, but as she tamped down on her own reflex she realised his words did not seem to come with judgment, his tone was much more..wondrous.
“She is special,” Dani agreed cautiously.
“What would I ask?” He looked up at her attentively.
“What would you want to know?”
“I don't know.” He played with the hem of his sweater, shyly looking up at her.
Oh boy, Dani thought to herself as it clicked.
Rewind six months and play this moment back to her then self and she would not have believed a word of it. Here she was in an opulent English manor house trying to give a ten year old boy advice on how to deal with a crush on a woman who was for all the world to know her girlfriend. A woman who in reality was only a stranger she met in a pub- she became aware Miles was still looking at her expectantly and she couldn't stop a nervous laughter.
“If you want to know more about Jamie then maybe spend some time with her. Ask her if she needs help in the greenhouse maybe, or if she needs a hand with the driveway.” She considered her next plan of attack and decided head on was the best approach. “Get your sister, we're doing something different today.”
“What's this then? The von Trapps' off for a sing-along in the mountains?” Jamie asked waving a garden trowel at Dani and the kids as they approached her.
“No, we're here to help you. But first, Miles-” she prompted the boy.
“To tell you I am sorry.” Jamie quirked an eyebrow. Miles looked over at Dani who silently nodded her head. “What I did yesterday wasn't nice and I apologise.”
Dani looked over at Jamie now silently prompting her to reply.
“Yeah, just...try not to be a little shit, okay?”
Dani pressed her lips together in a disapproving expression, “Jamie” she warned under her breath. The other woman simply shrugged.
“I promise. I won't," Miles said.
“Fine then.” Jamie rocked back on the on her feet before standing up.
“So?” Dani continued.
“What can we do to help?”
“As a heart attack,” Dani assured her.
“I- well you could give me a hand with these buggers-” she nodded towards a neat line of plants on the bench beside her. “I've cleared the beds so now all we have to do is tuck them all in.”
“We can do that. Show us how.”
Jamie eyed her and the children wearily. “Sure.” The word was drawn out sounding anything but.
Dani was so proud of the kids. They had spent several hours listening intently to and then imitating whatever Jamie did around the gardens. But unlike them she didn't feel like she had endless reserves of energy and she had quickly found an excuse to make some lemonade in order to get away from the sun and the hard work. Now she was content in sipping her drink and watching the children follow Jamie around like happy little puppies. It was absolutely adorable and she was honestly impressed at the extent of Jamie's patience with them.
She could tell that Jamie still wasn't ready to drop her guard around Miles, she eyed him suspiciously whenever he wasn't looking. Which only made it so much funnier how awkwardly the young boy tried to impress and win her favour. Not that she could entirely fault the boy, she knew that feeling so well. When all you wanted to do was to show off your best side, but the nervousness put up all kinds of roadblocks and made even the simplest of sentences stumble from your tongue. And then there was Jamie who was so incredibly sure of herself, so easy in her charm which made it so much harder.
“You're looking a little flushed, had too much of the sun?” Hannah asked, taking Dani by surprise. Hannah followed her line of sight and smiled. “Or maybe it's not the sun I should be blaming.”
Dani blushed furiously. “Lemonade?” she offered pressing the glass to her burning cheeks.
“Actually I was going to ask if I could convince me to help with dinner. Owen can't make it out tonight so we'll have to fend for ourselves.”
“Sure thing,” Dani agreed quickly getting to her feet.
“I didn't know you used to be married,” Dani said in surprise as she set out the last few plates on the table.
“I was. For a whole three years,” Hannah revealed as she stirred the simmering pot.
The phone interrupted their conversation by ringing shrilly and Jamie took that very moment to walk into the kitchen and pick it up on the go. “Bly,” she barked into the receiver, she then quieted and frowned. “Hello?” Apparently there was no answer on the other end and she hung it up with a shrug.
“So what are you two gossiping about?” she directed at them, phone already forgotten.
“That's more your thing, darling. We were having an adult conversation,” Hannah informed her.
“Christ, you couldn't think of anything more depressing?!”
“You don't want to get married?” Hannah asked.
Jamie shrugged. “What does it matter what I want, it's not legal.”
“Doesn't really matter if it's legal or not. Marriage is a promise not a signed piece of paper,” Dani argued.
“But until there is the signed piece of paper you would never get the honour of inheriting my wast collection of shirts when I die.”
“We both know you don't need to be dead for me to own your shirts.”
“You said you were borrowing it,” Jamie said looking worried with a carrot frozen in place half-way to her mouth.
Dani smiled and it was an evil one.
“However did the two of you meet?” Hannah wondered with a sparkling laugh.
They both looked at each other like they had just been caught red-handed. Jamie recovered first though and shot Hannah a shit-eating grin as she told her, “I asked her if she was looking for a boyfriend”.
Dani snorted in a most unladylike manner and looked over at Jamie shaking her head. “You actually did, didn't you?”
Jamie smirked at her with eyes twinkling. Dani's breath caught as that same insanely charming stranger from the pub looked back at her, but this time under the guise of being hers. The intensity with which that idea thrilled her was almost a bit scary.
“One thing lead to another. Then there were no pants and the rest is history.”
“You make me sound so cheap.” Dani instinctively blushed despite the complete fabrication of facts.
“What? I didn't specify whose pants they were, did I?!” She offered as an apology. “I'll go get the kids.” She popped the carrot into her mouth and headed out.
“You two do fit,” Hannah concluded.
“I feel like I should say thank you, but I can't really take credit for being lucky.”
“Gratitude is always a worthwhile emotion to express, even if it's only related to your luck.”
Dani took a sip from her glass of wine and as she allowed the moment to wash over her she couldn't stop the yearning feeling of wanting to open up. She wanted to share with Hannah, she wanted to allow herself to be vulnerable and honest with her. “I actually met her when I was in a pretty dark place. I-” Even if the urge to share was there, she struggled a little with finding the words and then finding the courage to then express them. “I used to be engaged-” Hannah tilted her head and looked both surprised and curious. “-to a man, actually.”
“I take it the endeavour did not pan out as planned.”
“Not exactly.” Dani took another sip as a way of stalling and trying for the right words. “I had known for a long time, too long, that I wasn't like most people around me. You know-- for the longest time I simply thought I was a slow learner – my parents...I don't come from a home where love was expressed often, or at all. So I kept thinking to myself that I was a late bloomer, that it would click eventually.” Hannah looked over at her intently, clearly listening and being interested in what Dani had to say. Dani's heart grew a size as she realised that this was what it was like to be surrounded by actual friends. “And it did, but it was more like a painfully slow revelation that ended up being summed up into one scary word-” it still took a significant amount of courage to get it to leave her lips. “-lesbian.”
“I can only imagine what something like that must feel like.”
“Freeing - and frightening. In equal measures.” She smiled.
Chapter 4: Why do the leaves change colour?
As summer gave way to the brisk air of autumn mornings things began to change. It wasn't very noticeable at first perhaps, but gradual changes that somehow grew until the entire household was effected. The evenings where Owen stayed late grew fewer and far between. With it Hannah seemed to withdraw within herself as well. And Mrs Lloyd had become a virtual ghost around the house, her presence not much more than the occasional whisper. So most nights dinner was a small affair between Dani, Jamie and the children. Which was not actually an unpleasant thing, Dani had decided. Over the summer months Jamie seemed to have warmed to the children and she was a lot more gentle around them, even Miles who finally seemed to have gotten on her good side, on most days at least. Of course Dani missed the other adults around the house, she especially missed her conversations with Hannah, but this bubble of the four of them was relaxing.
But there is that saying that follows us all, or least those of us prone to anxieties; all good things, must come to an end.
“Dani!” Jamie's voice rang through the house with an urgency that made Dani immediately drop the papers in her hand and take off in the direction of it.
As her quick steps brought her closer to the foyer she could hear the heartbreaking sound of a young child sobbing uncontrollably and her heart froze in her chest. She flew down the stairs with a reckless speed and barreled into the sitting room where Jamie was standing with Flora in her arms and Miles next to her looking shell-shocked.
“What's happened?” she demanded to know breathlessly.
“We were jumping the vine.” Miles stated in a voice so quiet she could barely make it out.
“You were doing what?” Dani asked trying to take in what was before her and not immediately break at the sound Flora was making as Jamie placed her on the couch. The girl's dress was torn and showed traces of dirt and she was cradling her right arm close to her.
“It's a game.” Miles continued with tears in his eyes. “You climb as far up the ivy you can and and then you jump.” His eyes were firmly kept on the carpet and he refused to look up at any of them. “It just – it tore and she fell.”
“You bloody idiot! Are you so fucking-” Jamie started in on Miles, but Dani caught her arm.
“Jamie, stop it, right now!” Still holding onto Jamie she turned her eyes towards the boy instead. “Miles-” She waited until he was forced to look up and meet her eyes until she added, “I am going to need you to go find Hannah and tell her to call a doctor, now!”
He nodded and took off running like his guilty conscious had both talons and fangs and belonged to several circles of hell.
She turned back to Jamie when he was gone. “What's wrong with you, he's a scared kid.”
“He's her brother, he shouldn't be putting shit ideas in her head. He should look out for her. That's his job!”
“No, it is my job to look out for both of them. So if you want to be angry at someone, then you should be angry at me. But if you want to actually be useful instead, then go find Owen.”
Dani closed the conversation by returning her focus to the girl on the couch, but she silently took note of receding footsteps. The tears streamed down Flora's face, but they were silent now, no longer did the loud sobs shake her tiny body. Dani crouched down next to her and placed a kiss on her temple. “It's going to be fine, I promise.”
Flora looked up at her with sincere eyes. “It wasn't Miles fault, I asked him if I could play too.”
“I know that. Jamie knows that too, but I think you scared her a little and sometimes when people get scared they would rather pretend that they're angry.”
“I didn't mean to scare her.”
“Of course you didn't. It's not your fault. It really isn't.” She stroked the girl's hair out of her face and placed another kiss on her forehead. “Now while we wait for the doctor I want you to tell me exactly where it hurts, okay?”
“There you are,” Dani said as she finally managed to track down Jamie in the greenhouse. After the doctor had appeared she had made herself sparse.
Jamie nodded, but didn't give a verbal response instead her hands kept digging through the dirt of the potted planted in front of her. Dani briefly took note of the small furrow between her eyes.
“The doctor thinks it's broken so...the taxi should be here in twenty minutes.” Dani said with some hesitation. She sighed, knowing what you wanted and asking for it really were two very different things. She swallowed and continued, “I wanted to ask if you could come with us.”
Jamie looked over at her with dark angry eyes. “You don't trust me around Miles.”
“Of course I do," she replied almost offended. "I'm not asking you to come to keep you out of the house, I'm asking you to come, because I could use the support." She counted to ten and tried to let the insecurities stay under control. "Miles will be more than okay with Hannah and Owen. But I'm probably going to be spending hours at the hospital with Flora, I could use someone there with me.” She reached out for her hand. “I want you with me because I do trust you.”
Startled Jamie looked down at their hands with all traces of anger gone from her features, her thumb caressed the soft skin of Dani's fingers. “Yeah..sure.” Despite the deceptively simple words her voice seemed to find a way to crack around them.
Jamie was crawled up on the examination table, her back against the wall, sitting in tailor position with Flora in her lap. The girl was leaning against her shoulder intently watching as Jamie played around with a Rubik's cube they had found in the box of toys in the examination room. There had been tears on the way to the hospital, a lot of them, each time the taxi ran over a pothole a little too fast, or there was an unexpected turn that made Flora bump her arm into something, but now most of the them seemed to have fallen already. The tear tracks had finally dried and as she was curled up in Jamie's arms she seemed calmer and happier with waiting than Dani currently was.
Dani pulled her thumb from her mouth and realised she'd bitten the nail down so far she was now bleeding. She rubbed it against the palm of her opposite hand and looked up to see Jamie watching her. “Come here,” Jamie told her. “I'm about to throw this bleeding thing at the wall, it's your turn to try to solve it.”
“Don't even pretend, I know you're a secret maths freak. This is probably just your thing.”
Reluctantly Dani walked over and sat down on the table next to them, her legs dangling over the edge of the tall table. She reached over and took the toy from Jamie's outstretched hand. “It's actually...there's a method to it.”
“Felt like madness to me.”
“No, it's- first you start with this one-” she held it up to Flora who watched her with interest. “Then you- you see this row? Like this-”
“So, who's Flora Wingrave and what can we do for her?” a nurse asked as she stepped into the room making all three of them look up.
“I am!” Flora said and raised her good arm into the air.
The nurse smiled at her as she put on a pair of nitrile gloves. She had the look of a woman who knew what she was doing and seeing the serious expression on her face as she approached was the closest Dani had gotten to relaxing in hours. The fact that her name-tag read Eunice only made her come across as more reliable and steadfast. With her short hair in a perm and her neatly pressed uniform the woman, who couldn't have been much short of fifty, almost looked like she'd belong to a different era, but still managed to come across as timeless icon of the NHS as she pulled the stethoscope from her neck.
“Then young miss Wingrave I'm going to have to ask you to leave that lap you're in and come let me have a look at you.”
Jamie placed her chin on Flora's shoulder and held onto the girl's waist as she in turn presented her arm to the doctor. The young man smiled reassuringly at both of them as he took the arm in gentle fingers and began manipulating the tendons, muscles and carefully getting the feel of the bones in small arm before him. “It might hurt a little when I do this and that's fine, but if it starts hurting too much then you have to tell me, okay?”
He had a gentle demeanour that reassured Dani even if the visual of his large hands engulfing her tiny little arm sent a shiver down her spine. Something about it brought back memories of reading Of Mice and Men in high school, Lennie and his damn mouse. He seemed young to be a doctor too, but in reality he was probably around her age, but there is always something frightening to realise you put your confidence, life or health in the hands of someone the same age, someone who might be as confused about life as you are.
Flora on the other hand seemed to trust him explicitly and nodded as she clamped down with her good hand on Jamie's arm around her. A few strands of the girl's hair had escaped her braid and Dani gently pushed it behind her ear. “You are the bravest, Flora.”
“Here we go,” the man went back to examining the girl's wrist, every now and then asking, “Can you do this? Does that hurt? How about now?”.
Dani kept her eyes glued on the man's fingers, then back to Flora's face and back again, looking like she was trying to keep up with an extremely stressful game of tennis where the stakes were life and death.
“Dani, relax! You're breathing down my neck so hard you're making me nervous. Think of the poor doc.”
The man in question actually laughed a little and smiled at them. “I'm quite used to it by now.”
Dani released a breath she hadn't realised she had been holding. “I'm sorry, I-”
“Hey,” Jamie's voice was soft as she reached out for Dani. “It's okay, sit down, there's plenty of room on this table.” She gently tugged at her arm and Dani easily collapsed next to her just in time for the doctor to finish his initial assessment.
“I think, Flora, that we are going to have to have another and a better look at that wrist of yours. I am going to order some x-rays done before we do anything else, okay?” It was more of a rhetorical question and he immediately continued, “I'll get everything in order and then I'll have the nurse come get you. So try to relax,” He smiled another reassuring smile. “All three of you,” he added knowingly.
As the initial adrenaline had begun to wash out of her system Dani suddenly began to truly feel the stress and once she did, the feeling of failure came with it. It was like she had told Jamie back at Bly, Flora was in her care, this was actually her fault. Her carelessness had put this sweet kid in the hospital with a broken arm and that's the best case scenario. She could have fallen and broken her legs, gotten a concussion. She could have--
“What thought have you twisted into a loop in that pretty head of yours now?” Jamie asked from her position next to the door.
Dani looked up at her, eyes glazed over with a faint shimmer of tears waiting to fall. “What?”
Jamie pushed off the wall with her shoulder and stepped over to where Dani was sitting, she crouched down on the floor next to her. She held her hands out over Dani's thighs for a moment, watching the blonde's face for clues if the action would be welcomed or not. Dani made the decision for her by placing her own on top, letting both their hands fall into her lap. Keeping eye contact Jamie splayed her fingers out across the fabric of Dani's jeans, hoping to ground her through the touch. “Dani, don't do that thing.”
“Where was your mind right now?”
Dani looked at her with sad eyes. “You were right, this is my fault.”
“No, I wasn't right, I was scared and acting like a prat. Who the hell listens to prats?!”
“But you were right, I failed.”
“Dani,” she sighed. “You did not fail. Kids get hurt all of the time. You can't be everywhere at once.”
“It's literally my job to take care of them, Jamie.”
“And you are. Taking care of them doesn't mean supervising their every breath. You have Miles listening to every word out of your mouth and he's a significantly littler shit than when we got here. And Flora,” Jamie rubbed her legs again. “Flora adores you. She gravitates to you like you are the sun and she radiates happiness like the fucking Chernobyl when you are around.”
Dani laughed and wiped at the corner of her eyes. “I'm pretty sure Chernobyl doesn't radiate much happiness.”
“Shut up, you're the one with the fancy degree, not me. Leave my dysfunctional metaphors alone.”
“Actually it's an analogy.”
Jamie shook her head with a smile. “Shut up.”
Going with her instinct Dani reached out and let her thumb stroke alongside Jamie's jaw, feeling her lean into the touch, unable to tell if it was the last momentum of the head-shake or an active movement of Jamie's.
“We're done in here,” Eunice declared as she opened the doors to radiology. They both looked over at her like they'd just been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar of forbidden pdas. “Fine.” “Right.” They mumble in unison and got to their feet.
“What we're looking at here is a distal radius fracture.” The doctor said looking between the three of them. He pushed his chair over to the x-ray display and placed the film on it. Taking a pen from his breast pocket he stood up and indicated on the screen. “You see this little line here-”
Flora got up from her chair and walked over to get a better look. “That's me? On the inside.”
He smiled down at her. “It is. These are all the bones in your arm and hand, and this one here, this is the reason it hurts.”
Dani bit her remaining fingernails as she too took a step closer. “Is it-” she quieted. “What now?”
The doctor looked over at her with that same reassuring smile that had almost begun to get on Dani's nerves, there was something almost Stepfordian about this doctor and she-- “It is actually a fairly fine break,” he reassured her. “And with children this age there's hardly ever any lasting complications. We'll put on a cast and in a couple of months time you'll be back to climbing things you're not meant to climb.” He said with a wink at Flora.
“No, thank you. I'll burn down every inch of ivy when we get home,” Jamie promised from her position in the corner of the room. Dani found herself nodding in silent agreement.
Dani had been right. She hadn't just spent a lot of hours at the hospital, they had spent all day. Her wristwatch read 11 and she was tired to the core. If she hadn't been so tired she would probably have been starving too, but nerves and fatigue played tricks with her stomach. She stroked Flora's temple, tracing the tear tracks and wishing she could somehow make the hurt disappear with her touch. The girl's eyes were closed and she had finally fallen asleep due to the sheer exhaustion of the long day and the pain. She had been so strong when they put on the cast, more tears as they forced her arm and wrist to stay in position, but she hadn't complained not even once. Now all they were waiting for were the last dot over the i's and then they could finally return home. Eunice looked up at her as she finished writing in the chart in her hands. The woman had a soft expression on her face as she walked over to Dani and Flora.
“I want you to know that I think what you are doing is very brave.” Eunice told Dani as she squeezed her shoulder gently.
Dani looked up at her surprised and confused. “Brave?”
“Brave. I see how some treat people like you. The slurs, the hatred. It can't be easy. But for you to give that child a loving home despite that. It is brave, lass. It's very brave.”
Her overly tired mind wondered for a second if it really was that common for English people to hate Americans that much. Sure she'd heard the occasional Yankee joke and she'd gotten a bit of ribbing, but hatred and slurs? She shook her head, maybe things were different this far from London.
“It's probably not sweet enough for you, but I got you--” Jamie walked into the room hold two paper cups. “Oh, sorry, didn't mean to interrupt.”
“It's fine, love. I've done my part, now it's your turn to take care of your family.” Eunice gave Jamie a big bright smile and a pat on the shoulder on her way out of the room.
“Oh.” Left Dani's mouth as her over-worked brain caught up with the situation and the conversation, gingerly she took the cup from Jamie and looked at her with a stunned expression.
“My family?” Jamie asked with a bit of trepidation in her voice.
Dani raised her eyebrows and nodded slowly, mostly to herself. “You know what-- I think that's the first time in my life someone has assumed I'm a lesbian.”
“You should keep me around then. I'm a good influence.” Jamie gave her the ghost of a smile, one that looked a little questioning, a little uncertain, a far cry from her usual bold confidence. To Dani it felt like a siren's song, as attractive as her usually self-assured nature was these moments of vulnerability and insecurity had begun to hit her really hard whenever Jamie allowed herself to share them. These moments landed in the pit of Dani's stomach and spread a warmth through her entire being until she yearned for more of it, for more of Jamie.
“You want a cup?” Hannah asked as Dani walked into the kitchen with a look so tired Romero would have loved her as an extra.
“I think I could use one.” She collapsed into one of the chairs, attempting but failing at producing a smile.
“How did it go?” Hannah placed the cup in front of Dani and pushed the sugar bowl over.
“She is such a brave little girl.” Dani put two spoonfuls into the tea and began stirring, counting to ten and then changing direction while restarting the silent count.
“A distal radius fracture, apparently.” She placed the spoon in her mouth briefly before putting it down on the table. “Yes, broken, but according to the doctor it should heal nicely.” She wrapped her hands around the cup, drawing comfort and warmth from it.
“She had to--” Dani looked up with a slightly confused look on her face. “I don't really know. She said she had something she needed to do. I forgot to ask.”
“Oh darling, you need some sleep.” Hannah rubbed her back affectionately.
“I really think I do,” she agreed with a tired smile. “Did you get hold of Henry?”
“I did.” Hannah removed her hand and sat back. “He...he told me to keep him posted.”
“He's not on his way?” she asked with a frown.
“No. No he's not.”
“How-- how can he not care?” The words almost left her mouth in a slur, too many impressions, too much stress, too long a day and Dani was almost close to intoxication.
“I'm sure he cares in his own way.”
“This is his family.”
“I think Mr Wingrave has had a very difficult relationship with the idea of family ever since his brother and sister-in-law were killed,” Hannah explained.
“The more reason to treasure what family you do have left.” She sipped her tea taking comfort in the warmth that hit her empty stomach and the sweetness that clung to her palate.
“Few things make our differences stand out more than in the many varied ways we react to loss.”
“He has a very strict routine for how he attempts to express his affection. For the next week he will be making daily phone calls checking up on them and then he will shower the children with gifts.”
“A gift isn't the same thing as love and affection.”
“No, but I think it is all Mr Wingrave has to give at this moment.”
Dani looked at her and tried to process her words, but she couldn't. Maybe she was too tired, but no matter which way she turned his actions they were not good enough for her. That wasn't how you were supposed to treat family. Why did people keep doing that? Parents were supposed to be there for their children. She rubbed at her suddenly aching eyes. “I think I need to turn in.”
“Go ahead, dear. I'll clean up here.”
Something startled Dani awake, maybe her dreams, or a distant bird call from outside. Whatever it was Dani was awake and something was wrong. She reached over onto the other side of the bed, but the sensation of wrong continued, because instead of being met by the lingering warmth of Jamie's body she was met by cold untouched sheets. The last vestiges of sleep left her and she was suddenly not just awake, but painfully awake. She looked over at the alarm on her night stand, the red numbers glared 03:29 at her and fear turned her veins to live wires buzzing with adrenaline. She kicked off the covers and sat up, looking out into the room, blinking a few times hoping her vision would lose the final blur of sleep, but the shadows were deep and silent around her. “Jamie?” she called out quietly receiving no answer from the empty room.
She got out of bed and quickly went over to the bathroom, opening the door and turned the light on, momentarily blinding herself, but finding no traces of the woman. Her heart began to catch up with the adrenaline and took up a hard erratic rhythm as it slammed itself against her breastbone. For a couple of seconds she just stood there in the electric light staring around the bathroom feeling the fear build around her. Shaking her head as if that could dislodge it she headed back into the bedroom. Again looking around, but there was nothing, and the lights had now made her vision worse and the shadows deeper. “Jamie?” she repeated.
As she realised she was alone in the room she acted on instinct and headed out into the house, creeping out into the corridor quietly, trying not to wake the rest of the household. Her mind was struggling with balancing the logical thinking of where she could have gone and the irrational fear that gnawed at her. On bare feet she made her way down the stairs, first heading to the kitchen, same thing there, nothing and no one. Then where? The greenhouse? Why would she, it's the middle of the night. Where else? Was she gone? Had she left?
With her mind an explosion of anxiety her feet took her into the sitting room where she abruptly came to a halt when she caught the familiar figure sleeping on the couch. Curled up into a small ball on the large sofa, a blanket draped over her was Jamie, sleeping soundly.
Dani stood there and the thoughts still danced to the tune of a frizzing nervous system. Why? What had she done? Had she done or said something to make Jamie uncomfortable? Had she overstepped some invisible boundary? What had she done? She continued to watch her for several minutes before she became self-aware enough to realise that if someone caught her staring like this – her eyes lingered on Jamie for a few more seconds before she quietly returned back to her own room and the empty bed.
Lingering in the kitchen after dinner Dani tried to think of something to do, anything to take her mind off the growing heaviness that had spread across the house. Her need to escape her own room and the expanding silence between her and Jamie had begun to get out of hand. Even Flora had told her the other night that three bed time stories was enough and that she really was very tired and wanted to sleep. Which had been a new kind of humiliating to hear from an eight year old. But what was she to do? Go back to their room and sit in bed waiting and hoping for Jamie to join her and then what? Would she even have enough courage to ask why? Or ask what she had done to--
As if sensing her distress the universe took that moment to take pity on her and have the phone ring out. Almost jumping up to catch the call Dani tried to force some cheer into her voice and answered, “The Wingrave residence, Dani speaking.”
“Splendid, just the woman I was hoping for.” Mr Wingrave's voice had become very familiar over the phone the past week, because Hannah had been completely spot on in predicting his behaviour. Every night he had placed his call asking in-detail questions about the children, but showing no intention at all of actually coming to visit and see for himself. “I wanted to ask you Miss Clayton, you are not by any chance allergic to dogs?”
“You see, I thought the children might care for a little playmate. Someone to bring some happiness into the house after this dreadful accident. I have already been in contact with a very reputable breeder. All children should grow up with a dog, don't you think?”
“I'm not allergic,” she stammered into the phone. No matter how much loss he had been through she did not understand this man. How would a dog ever be able to substitute the care and affection of an uncle, the only family there was? There was a part of her that wanted to ask him that outright, there was however the other part of her that enjoyed the generous checks that came with working for him. Capitalism won and she kept her mouth shut.
“Excellent, then it is settled. I'll call later so we can iron out the details. I'm sure the children will be thrilled.”
A dog? She hung up the phone and shook her head. A dog.
She walked over to the kitchen counter and found herself simply standing there looking out into the empty kitchen. Actually she didn't hate the idea. She hated what it represented, Henry's lack of physical presence and a cheap buy-off, but not the dog itself. She had begun to feel...lonely. She hardly got to see anyone besides the children and Miles was still much more morose than his usual self and it had begun to feel contagious. The boy appeared to have been more affected than Flora herself who seemed quite content with a cast and an adventure to regal. She wished she could get through to him, but the accident still lingered like a fresh wound or maybe not just the accident, but Jamie's reaction to it too. Maybe a dog wasn't actually such a bad idea after all. Could help break the ice, perhaps.
“Deep thoughts?” Mrs Lloyd's voice spooked her enough for her to literally jump away from the counter.
“You scared me!”
“I'm not surprised, you looked miles away. Trouble in paradise?”
“What's the term for it? Domestic partner? Trouble between you and-” She raised an eyebrow as if that would somehow finish the sentence for her.
Dani openly stared at her. What did you say to someone asking that if your relationship was real? Much less when it was a complete charade? Annoyed she wanted to bite back and tell her to, 'mind her own god damn business', but she didn't. “I don't know what you mean.” Were the words that finally did leave her mouth.
“I've noticed Jamie sleeping down in the study--” she sipped the glass of wine Dani realised she was holding. ”On more than one occasion.”
'Well fuck you too', was the next thing Dani wanted to say, she didn't say that either. Instead she clenched her jaws and flared her nostrils before somehow transforming the grimace into a smile. “Sometimes she needs a bit of alone time.”
“That's how it starts, darling. The next thing you know they're throwing eyes at your sister.”
What exactly is happening here? Was the only thing Dani could think to herself and there was absolutely no decent reply she could possibly come up with to voice out loud.
“Then the only thing left doing is getting yourself a good divorce solicitor.” She took another sip from her glass and Dani realised she was actually quite inebriated. Great, ambushed by your drunk landlady and forced to endure bad relationship advice about a fake relationship, Dani's week was really turning into a beaut. Viola however gladly continued, “But I guess that's not a problem for you, you lucked out there. Saves you some troubles at least.”
Dani was not the kind of person to think ill of others, she wasn't, but in that moment she had come down hard on the side of despising Mrs Lloyd no matter how intoxicated or heartbroken she might have been. Right now she was the straw that broke Dani's back.
The phone took that moment to fortuitously interrupt them before Dani got a chance to actually do or say what was on her mind. Mrs Lloyd sauntered over to the phone, the wine in her glass swooshing dangerously close to the lip as she moved. “'ello,” she said. “You've come to the home of heartbreak and the Wingraves.” She turned around and gave Dani a sloppy wink before frowning. “Hello?” As there came no reply she shook her head and banged it back into place and by the time she turned back around Dani had fled from the kitchen.
The crackling sound coming from the dancing flames in the fireplace should have been soothing, but it wasn't. The snaps were too harsh, the wheezing of the wood sounded ominous and the flickering of the flames drew Dani's attention away from the book in her lap. By all means it was a good book, she was certain of it, but right now everything tore at her attention and nothing kept it. Giving up on reading she closed it and resorted to simply sitting there in silence tracing the font on the cover. Footsteps on the stairs made her look up and she saw Mrs Lloyd make her way down, from the angle she was sitting in the other woman probably couldn't spot her and Dani was by no means going to make her presence known. She did spot the packet of cigarettes in her hand and somehow that only annoyed her further.
Trying to distract herself again she opened up the book, eyes falling on, 'the idea hoovered and shimmered delicately, like a soap bubble, and she dared not look at it directly in case it burst'. She read the sentence again, then snapped the book shut in indignation.
“Did it offend you?” Hannah asked as she walked into the study with a cup of tea in her hands.
“What?” Dani looked up with a frown.
“The book. The way you shut it will surely teach it not to give you ideas again.”
One corner of Dani's mouth took on a small smile. “I'm being...I'm having a moment.”
“It's quite alright, we all have them from time to time.” Hannah offered as she sat down next to her. “Where's Jamie?”
“The greenhouse I think.” She went back to tracing the letters on the cover of the book as her jaws clenched.
“At this hour?” Hannah asked surprised. “In this cold.” She shivered in empathy.
Dani didn't say anything, simply shrugged her shoulders. Hannah studied her out of the corner of her mouth as she sipped her tea. “How's Owen?” Dani asked changing the direction of the conversation before there were any more questions she didn't want to or couldn't answer.
“He's—I think he's having a hard time.”
“His mother isn't getting any better?”
“No.” Hannah sighed. “No better and no worse, which in turn takes it's toll.”
“I wish there was something we could do.”
“I don't think there is much we can do, besides offer an ear and a shoulder when needed.”
Dani nodded and looked into the flames, a wave of insufficiency swept over her. Why did it feel like she was swimming upstream?
Without another word she leaned into Hannah and took comfort in resting her head against her shoulder. It was a small comfort, but she desperately needed it.
Maybe it was getting close to that time of the month, but Dani had to fight back tears as she watched the children play with the new addition to the household. The little black and white miniature schnauzer was possibly the cutest thing she'd ever seen. The puppy excitedly danced around the children, it's claws scrambling against the hardwood floors in a way that made her feel a little sorry for Hannah.
“What is that?” Jamie asked suspiciously as she stepped into the foyer, shaking the rain off her hat and scraping the dirt off her boots. “Is that a rat with a moustache?”
“This is Colin!” Flora exclaimed and Dani winced at the name again. Of all the names in all the world and they had to saddle the little furry bundle with that one. But it had been Flora's responsibility and she wasn't going to take that away from the girl who shone brighter than a supernova as she had dubbed him Colin Wingrave.
“He's going to be staying with us,” Miles added cheerfully as the puppy ran over to Jamie, barked twice and than ran a couple of laps round her before losing interest in the stranger who stood stock still and stared at him.
“Great, exactly what we needed, a domesticated badger who can destroy my garden.”
Without being too deeply affected by her comment the little trio took off scrambling in the direction of the study. Colin excitedly continued his exploration tour of the house and the children more than gladly followed in his little paw prints.
With her hand on her hip Dani glared at Jamie. “Have you gotten your period yet?”
“What?” She stuttered as the dropped her boot on the floor in surprise.
“It needs to hurry up, because you've been especially obstinate and contrary this month and soon I am going to dump something cold over you or choke you with the socks you keep leaving on the bathroom floor.”
“Well fuck, Dani, excuse me for not living up to your mild-mannered expectations.” She bent over to take off her other boot as well.
“My expectations should not be that hard to live up to. All I am asking is that you act like an actual grown up and that you don't constantly belittle and mock the things that make the kids happy.”
“Sorry to be letting you down, but I'd rather speak my mind than breeze through life with a fake smile on my lips and pretend that everything is fine all of the time, like some.”
“You think that's what I'm doing?”
“I don't think. I know. I told you Dani, you are an awful fucking liar.”
“Well-” the frustration, anger and hurt worked it's way onto Dani's vocal chord and firmly blocked them from uttering further replies. She felt the tears starting up and gave Jamie one last look before she walked off leaving her standing alone in the foyer looking rain drenched and miserable.
The bedroom door opened with a gentle creak, followed by quick footsteps before the mattress shifted under the weight of another body. Dani could hear a sigh and recognised the sound of Jamie leaning against the headboard, the telltale little thud against the wall. But she stoically refrained from turning around, no, if Jamie wanted a fight she wasn't going to back down.
“So turns out, I got my period.” There was another thud against the wall as Jamie settled in. “I'm sorry, Dani. I was a-- bit of a shithead.”
Dani's resolve was as sturdy as a house of cards and she had turned around before the y on the sorry had finished rolling off of Jamie's tongue. “I should get mine soon too,” she admitted and Jamie gave her a lop-sided smile. Dani pulled her own pillow from under her head and placed it across Jamie's abdomen warm side down, she gently held it in place. Leaning on her elbow she had now fully turned into Jamie who was still half-sitting, half-sprawling in bed. “I'm sorry too. I was a bit of an ass too.”
“You kind of were, but I deserved it.”
“No, you didn't. I think you are great with the kids and I don't want you to live up to anyone's expectations but your own.” She waited until Jamie met her eyes. “But I would really like it if you threw your socks in the hamper and not on the floor.”
Jamie smiled. “Yeah, that's --that's fair.” She leaned her head back and groaned a little, placing her own hand on the pillow as well. Without looking over at Dani she continued, “You know you can talk to me-- if you want to. You don't have to bottle everything up, it's okay to be sad, to be mad, to be whatever it is that you are.”
Dani didn't say anything as she let her head fall back onto the mattress, but she kept her arm across the pillow, trying to keep some pressure on it but not too much, trying to hit that perfect spot to help alleviate Jamie's pain rather than to exacerbate it.
“Why haven't you been sleeping in the bed?” Dani finally asked. “Have I done something that--” Surprised Jamie looked down at her. “It's a big bed, but it's not so big that I won't notice when you're not in it.”
“No, it's not...” She looked very uncomfortable and Dani almost regretted asking, but only almost. “It's definitely not you, or well it is, but not like that.”
“It sounds like you're about to fake break-up with me.”
Jamie chuckled. “I would never do that until I've packed my bag and made sure all of my clothes were in it.”
“Viola seems to think we're about to break up.”
“Why would our landlady think we're about to break up?” Jamie's forehead furrowed deeply.
“She's seen you on the sofa.”
“That's--” Jamie's body shuddered under Dani's arm. “Creepy. You telling me she's been watching me sleep?! Can you remind me again why we're still here?”
“It pays well. Also, we kind of like it here.”
“We do? Are we sure about that?”
Dani didn't reply, but changed her position so her head was resting on her free arm. She closed her eyes, just for a moment and breathed in, feeling herself relax as the familiar scents of Jamie's deodorant and the washing detergent from her clean clothes hit her. She forced her eyes open as Jamie continued to speak. “I've been having nightmares and I didn't want to bother you. So I slept downstairs on the sofa.”
Mindlessly stroking the corner of the pillow cover Dani began to hear the siren's song again and it was growing dangerously loud. “Why would you having nightmares bother me?”
At first there was no reply, the only sounds their breathing and the old house settling around them with the familiar creaks and cracks and rumblings that at first had been horrifying, but now had turned familiar. “I move around, I think sometimes I-- I sometimes wake myself up with a shout. That's bad enough to do to yourself. I wouldn't want to wake up by someone else shouting next to me.”
“At least then you would know there is someone next to you and that it was a dream, a nightmare.”
“Doesn't seem fair.”
“I don't mind, honestly.”
“I don't know.”
More silence was shared between them in the same way you share a warm blanket on a cold night.
“What are the dreams about?” Dani asked and a part of her knew this was going too far, getting that level of vulnerability and openness from Jamie was maybe something she didn't truly deserve. But the need, her own need for it was stronger than propriety at this time.
There was no answer at first and Dani thought that maybe she had indeed gone too far. “About my little brother.”
“Yeah.” There was a pause as Jamie clearly tried to find the words to express herself. “You got the cleaned up version of my family history when we decided to do this thing. My mum-- she left when we were small and da-- he wasn't cut out to raise kids. So that left me, a kid trying to take care of a wee tyke and I couldn't even take care of myself.” She sighed deeply. “I did what I could, but it wasn't enough. There was an accident, a boiling pot and two dumb kids. It could have gone so much worse, but it went bad enough for social services got involved.”
“Jamie, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you to come to the hospital with us. I didn't realise.”
“No, Dani, that's not-- I couldn't very well have sent you off to be a mess on your own.”
Dani chuckled into the mattress. “You know that goes both ways, right? So if you need to be a mess occasionally, then stay in bed, don't go running off. Wake me up, talk to me about the dream, or don't. Talk to me about something else-- like soil nutrition and busy Bennets.”
“Yeah, those cute little white and pink ones you've got all over the beds up against the driveway.”
Jamie laughed and then groaned in pain, balling up the pillow in her fist until the worst of the cramping settled. “Busy Lizzies, not Bennets.”
“Oh, what did I get Bennets from?”
“I don't think anyone knows, your mind is a madly unpredictable thing, Dani Clayton.”
They fell back into the easy silence that once again felt comfortable between them and not like the heavy weight they had dragged around for the past few days.
“Stay, don't go.”
“I'll stay,” Jamie promised.
Before she knew it Dani was tethering between wakefulness and sleep. She could have sworn she felt a warm hand envelop the bones in her wrist, and a thumb stroke the fine hairs on her arm in a soothing manner, but it could also have been sleep that spun wishful thinking into dreams.
Chapter 5: Ghosts of Christmas Past
The universe seems to have a way of balancing things out. There is a natural equilibrium in the way the chips fall. What nature don't give a rat's ass about however, is fairness.
Dani had spent so many years in bed with someone she desperately did not want to touch in any way other than platonic. So to balance that out she was now stuck sharing a bed with someone she desperately wanted to touch in every way, but this time-- the person wasn't hers to touch.
So each night she went to bed feeling the body next to her, always so close but a galaxy away. As a result her curiosity kept playing through her mind even when she willed and wished it away. What would it be like to reach out? To catch Jamie's hand beneath the covers. That's where it started, then in continued until she felt like the room was crowded by her unspoken fantasies and sleep was difficult to find.
And waking up wasn't much better even though Jamie almost always was fully dressed already. Because then her mind would play other scenarios. What would the buttons in Jamie's shirt feel like between her fingers if she were to unbutton them? What would it be like to press her lips against that spot on Jamie's neck?
She folded her hands under the cover and pressed them together, visualising all of these kinds of thoughts being squashed between them. But they never were squashed, instead they simply find a another route to the same destination, what would it be like to feel Jamie's hands beneath her nightgown, to feel her bunch up the fabric and--
“What's wrong?” Jamie asked from behind her book.
“What?” Dani croaked and coughed to clear her voice of the night's slumber.
“It sounded like you groaned. And good morning, by the way.” She smiled, the kind of smile that felt like it was born for a leisurely Sunday morning.
“Empty stomach,” she lied. “Hungry,” she said and meant it. She rubbed her hands over her eyes and rolled over to look up at Jamie. As always the other woman was dressed, all ready for the day, book in hands, casually leaning against the headboard. Dani wanted to groan again, but somehow managed not to. She cleared her throat again and asked, “What are you reading? Is that my book?”.
“Yeah, you seemed to mostly move it from one tabletop to another. So I thought I'd borrow it.”
“In my defence the kids keep interrupting.”
“That's a poor defence.” Her face and tone was gentle. “For a kid's book it's kinda good actually.”
“It's not a kid's book. It's young adult.”
“It's about a kid and her magic pet friend. It's a kids book,” she stated. “But it's good.”
Jamie's eyes returned to the pages but Dani's focus went to her hands, like moths to a flame they zeroed in on the way Jamie's fingers were splayed out across the back cover. Her right hand held the top of the book and wrapped around the front cover, her fingers curled around the pages. Dani closed her eyes, but it didn't help as the visuals already danced through her imagination, they robbed her mouth of moisture and redistributed it to other parts of her body like a Robin Hood of horny.
“Wow,” Jamie's voice was low and held a reverence.
Dani's eyes snapped open and for one terrifying moment she somehow thought that maybe her thoughts were written on her face-- somehow. But what she was met by was Jamie dropping the book and crawling out of bed with a look of pure childlike joy on her face. She scrambled over to the window and with an open mouth stared. “I don't believe it.”
Following her out of bed Dani shivered as she set her bare feet on the cold floor, but joined her at the window. The view that met her was breath-taking, big white snowflakes twirled through the air and had already begun to dust the landscape in white fluff. It looked so perfect it was hard to think of it as real.
“I don't think--” Jamie laughed and it was such a simple and happy sound Dani's heart brought up an internal error code, unsure of how to handle the sudden overload of affection she felt. “I can't remember the last time I saw actual snow, and--” she pressed her head towards the glass and looked down at the ground. “-snow that didn't immediately melt away on dirty tarmac.”
“So beautiful,” Dani sighed.
“It really is!”
“Of course they must give you time off for Christmas!”
“It doesn't work like that, mom,” Dani said and twirled her fingers through the loops of the phone's chord.
“They have to understand that you have a family of your own,” Karen Clayton argued.
“I have to be here. Even if I could get a day or two off, it wouldn't be enough to fly back and forth. Besides with the prices over the holiday.” It was strange how much easier it was to find excuses than to voice the words, 'I don't want to'.
“Don't they pay you? Danielle, you have such a good education I don't understand why you are wasting your life away like this.”
“You're making it sound like I'm a bum or a drug addict.”
“You might as well be. What are you doing with your life? You walked away from a perfect man and perfect opportunities – and for what? To live with a bunch of English sheep farmers taking care of someone else's children?”
“Sheep farmers? Where is this coming from?”
“You aren't telling me anything so I can only assume.”
“There are no sheep farmers, but there isn't much to tell.”
“Then why are you so set on staying? Stop running and come home. You are not a kid anymore, it's time you start acting like an adult.”
“And what does that mean?”
“You're not getting younger. You should be settling down, you should be creating your own life.”
“I am. Mom-” she sighed. “I am happy here.”
“You're all alone in the middle of nowhere.”
“I am not-”
“Two spoiled brats that you get paid to take care of doesn't count.”
“It's not like that. Besides I have Owen and Hannah. I have...I have Jamie. I have good people around me.”
“You never tell me anything about them. How good can they be if you're ashamed to tell your mother about them.”
“I'm not ashamed, but don't know what to tell you, mom.” They're my people and I don't want to share them with you, they're too precious for that, she thought and felt herself frowning.
“Who are they? What do they do?”
“Does it matter? They make me happy, isn't that good enough?”
“Of course who they are matters.”
“Fine, Owen is the cook, Hannah the housekeeper. They're lovely devoted people who take good care of us.”
“And they live together?”
“No, Owen lives with his mother in town and Hannah lives with us.”
Her mother was silent over the phone for an extended period. Dani almost started wondering if the line had disconnected. “What about this Jamie person then?”
As if summoned by someone speaking her name half a world away Jamie appeared in the kitchen with rosy cheeks, rubbing her hands together for warmth.
“Jamie?” Dani spoke into the phone and the real deal turned towards her at the sound of her name. “Jamie is-”
“Cold as fuck,” she mouthed as Dani pre-emptively held her hand over the speaker in case something worse than the random fuck would find its way out of Jamie's mouth.
Dropping the safe-guard Dani went back to her conversation with her mother. “Jamie is distracting,” she admonished the brunette with a smile. “Jamie's the groundskeeper.”
“Living out there...with you and this Hannah woman?"
“Yes.” Dani frowned.
Her mother went quiet again, then she cleared her throat with intent. “I hope you are at least being careful. It might sound romantic to go off with a foreigner, but think about what you're doing before you find yourself in a situation that isn't reversible.”
“Like what?” She covered the handset again. “There's a plate in the oven for you,” she informed Jamie.
“Danielle, sometimes I worry about your innocence.” She tutted. “I don't want to become the grandmother of some country bumpkin's illegitimate mistake.”
Jamie chuckled at Dani's tone and went rummaging through the kitchen cupboards, foregoing the offer of food, instead looking for the tin. As she found it the look on her face turned into one of deep satisfaction.
“I am trying to look out for you, Danielle, but you are making it very difficult.”
“I appreciate that, mom. I really do. But you've got nothing to worry about.” Dani watched Jamie put a cookie in her mouth and with an evil expression on her face waited until she had started chewing to add, “You really don't have to worry about Jamie getting me pregnant.”
Jamie sprayed shortbread across the entire kitchen counter.
Jamie had finally been persuaded to leave the biscuits alone in exchange for the spared plate of actual food. At first Dani had been surprised to realise there was almost as much work do be done around the grounds now that the cold weather had hit in full force as there had been during the warmer sunnier months. Fallen leaves and now snow on top of it made for an abundance of work. Jamie usually toiled away long after daylight was gone before she found her way inside again, by then usually covered in mud, smelling of woodfire and the cold. Dani came from a place where gardens were neat little squares of green grass and that was the closest she ever came to nature, before Bly. Now she gladly made the kids skip their regular lessons to help out around the grounds, both as an excuse to spend time with Jamie, but also as a way of spending time surrounded by a scenery she had become to fall a little bit in love with. All those growing things around you felt good for the soul, somehow. Maybe that was what she needed, a trip outdoors, to clear her mind and settle down into how she should handle her overbearing mother.
But instead her mind went back to something more pleasant and she watched Jamie eat in silence. She noted how pristinely clean her hands were but her face still held a few streaks and spatters of mud and her forearms-- she frowned as she spotted a large red welt just below the bend of her arm.
“What happened to your arm?”
She looked down at it almost as she too was surprised at the wound. “Dropped my gloves into the fire barrel. Forgot the bloody thing was actually still hot from before.”
“Nah, it's not too bad.” She chewed slowly and swallowed before she tilted her head and looked over at Dani. “You want to talk about it?”
“If that's who's got you so quiet.”
“It's not my mother directly, it's--” She reached over and stole a green bean from Jamie's plate, not because she was a huge green bean fan, but because she needed time to come up with the right words.
Jamie let her set the pace and quietly continued her dinner. “My mother keeps pressuring me about things that will never happen, but it's not really her fault, because I haven't been entirely honest with her.”
“Hard to fault someone if they don't have all the facts.”
“That's true.” She stole another green bean, this time because it really was very good, Owen could work wonders with garlic and lemon. “Maybe I should come out and tell her?” Dani voiced the one thing that's been on her mind the past five phone calls with her mother.
“Tell her what?” Jamie wondered with food in her mouth.
Dani looked at her and took a deep breath before replying, “Tell her I'm gay”.
Jamie swallowed and sat up straighter. “You mean go with this whole thing with professional couple only?” She twirled a finger around in the air as if indicating, Bly, them, all of it.
“No, not the charade, the truth--” Dani cleared her throat. “I haven't...told her- I wasn't completely honest with any of them when I called off the wedding.” She took her time. “You know how some things can be hard to say out loud?”
Jamie looked at her intently and nodded slowly.
“I was so bad at finding a way to say it out loud that I decided it would be better to buy a plane ticket and put four thousand miles between myself and the situation where I would be required to.”
“That's dedication to not wanting to say...it. Do you really think it's such a-- do you really think it's that bad?” Her voice held noticeable traces of vulnerability.
“No, it's not. But I'm not very brave.”
Jamie laughed. “Well that's complete bullshit.” Raising an eyebrow Dani looked over at her. “You're the bravest person I know.”
“I don't—no I'm not.”
“This is not something we are going to argue.” Jamie's voice held so much conviction it almost left Dani speechless.
“Well I wasn't brave enough to tell my ex-fiance that I loved him, but only as a friend. I wasn't brave enough to tell him that everything else only happened because I was so busy repressing who I am that I went along with everything blindly.” She looked into Jamie's eyes and held her gaze as she added, “And I'm still not brave enough to tell my mother I'm a lesbian”.
Jamie looked at her for a couple of seconds. “It's not like my mum knows I'm a lesbian either. Do you think that makes me less brave?”
They looked at each other for time that stretched on, not saying anything, just looking. Some part of Dani knew already or had suspected, but as the words were there - out in the open, it felt new. It wasn't wishful thinking, it wasn't a desperate longing for at least one other human being who understood you, understood the language you spoke, no it was real. She wasn't alone and she hadn't imagined. That woman sitting across from of her, the woman with those beautiful and sometimes stormy eyes, with those perfect lips that tugged on strings Dani had tried for so long to pretend she didn't even have – Jamie – Jamie was like her. They didn't just share silence, and laughter and a friendship, they shared this too. The confirmation of it was so huge there wasn't even any words for it.
Hannah walked into the kitchen and picked up on the strange tension. “You two alright in here?”
“Sure, we're just talking about mothers, and what they need and don't need to know.”
Hannah laughed. “That's one complicated issue.”
Dani nodded but didn't say anything.
“Miss Clayton, do you think Uncle Henry will be visiting for Christmas?” Miles asked with a faraway look on his face.
She looked up from her task of going through his math notebook, placing the red pen back on the desk she met his eyes. “I don't know, Miles.” She wanted nothing more than to reassure him, make sure he knew he was loved and cared for, but she wouldn't lie to him and she put no trust in Henry when it came to his ability to show affection. “But I know you will have to put up with me and Jamie at least.”
“Don't you have families of your own you need to be with?” His question was so similar to those her mother hand bombarded her with, but the tone was entirely different, it was one of curiosity.
“Sometimes the people who are there when you are born aren't the people who will be your family. And even if you are related to someone they're not always family. For me, my mother is-- my mother. But she's not my family. Right now my family is here.”
“Can you do that?” Miles sounded as if his mind had just been spectacularly blown. “Pick like that?”
“Of course you can. You find people you love and care for and then you make them your family.”
“Do you have to ask them first?” Flora who had listened with wide ears and silent lips up until now needed clarification on this to her, new idea.
“It's always nice to ask first. But sometimes you can do that without using words. If you take care of them, if they take care of you-- then that's family.” A small part of Dani wondered if she was going too far, if she was putting 'wrong ideas' into their heads. She really didn't think she was. If she had known this earlier she would have saved herself a lot of self-loathing and heartache. Family is a commitment to caring, sharing strands of DNA should not be allowed as a shortcut through those promises of affection. There is no way knowing that would hurt them, hopefully it will make them stronger and less prone to accept neglect though.
The door to the classroom opened and Hannah stuck her head in with a look on her face that could best be described as grim. “Dani, I need you to come with me, now.” Her tone left little too the imagination and Dani's stomach twisted into a desperately tight knot.
“Is everything alright?” she asked standing up, assuming off of Hannah's look that everything was far from it.
“There's been a little incident, but no need to worry.” She pressed her lips together into something that might have been intended as a smile. “Children, stay in here until we come get you, please.”
They both looked at her curiously, but nodded.
“Dani?” she gestured for her to follow.
“Can you stand still so I can take your clothes off!” Owen's agitated voice could be heard before they entered the kitchen. Dani raised an eyebrow in surprise and confusion, feelings that only amplified as she stepped into the room.
Owen towered over Jamie who was white as a sheet, shaking violently and as Dani got closer she realised she was dripping wet from head to toe. Jamie opened her mouth and said something, but the words were so horribly mangled by her shaking, shivering and chattering teeth not a word could be heard.
In sluggish movements Jamie tried to wrestle out of her coat, getting stuck in the wet fabric, Owen tried to help unsuccessfully, making it look like he was trying to dress an unruly child.
“What's happened?” She firmly moved Owen to the side and took over the task, one she actually had a lot of experience in. As her fingers grasped around the fabric she realised it was absolutely drenched and freezing cold, gently tugging and manoeuvring the shaking Jamie she managed to get the oversized coat off of her. Only to realise the rest of her clothing was equally wet. “What have you done?”
With a clenched jaw and through short sharp breathes through her nose Jamie managed to exclaim, “Lake!”.
“You went into the lake?”
“Fucking-” more shaking and shivering “-Colin!”
The dog in question barked as his name was spoken and Dani looked over to see the little bundle wrapped up in a towel. It really did not clarify anything in Dani's mind.
“Get her clothes off and get her into bed and I'll bring as many hot water bottles as I can find,” Hannah commandeered the situation and stirred Dani back into action.
“There's an electric blanket in Flora's closet.” She remembered as she grabbed hold of Jamie's hand. Her heart sank as she noticed exactly how cold her skin was, she pulled gently and tried to drag her with her up the stairs.
“Wet.” Jamie shook.
“I know, that's why I'm taking you upstairs.”
With every slow step up the stairs Dani was growing increasingly scared, the way Jamie's lips were almost blue and the fact that she couldn't stop shaking like a leaf made her want to stop right there on the stairs and tear her clothes off. But she also knew she'd get more fight out of Jamie that way. Instead she tugged harder on the hand in hers and forced Jamie to speed up her stumbling steps until they were finally in their bathroom, having left a wet trail across half the house.
Dani pushed her down on the toilet and began tugging at the heavy boots, trying to untie the stiff and almost frozen laces. Her fingers were screaming at her to stop and it scared her to think what Jamie was feeling who was this cold all over. Finally she worked them lose and pulled them off Jamie's feet. As she reached up to start at the buttons of her shirt the distant look in Jamie's eyes and the fact that she had stopped shaking scared her so badly she stopped untying and instead tore the buttons off. As the tiny white buttons landed on the bathroom tiles they made an unnaturally loud clinking noise that briefly startled Dani before she shook her head and went back to removing the shirt. She's going to kill me for destroying her shirt, managed to cross her mind. Just as she'd finished that thought she got a disgruntled little harrumph out of Jamie and it made her so happy she started laughing. “Oh honey, I'll buy you a new one, I promise.”
It took far too long and by the end of it she couldn't feel her own fingers, but she finally had managed to get Jamie out of her clothes and into a dressing gown and towel. With minimal prodding she got her into bed and pulled the covers over her and curled up close behind her back, her arm tightly around her waist. She hugged her as close as she dared without squeezing the air out of her, noting that her breathing was still shallow, but at least it was still rhythmical. She placed her lips on her neck, feeling the cold seep into them, hoping that Jamie somehow could siphon off her warmth. Pushing her nose into her hairline, smelling the dank ponder water on her flesh and hair, but wanting to be no where else. “You're going to be okay.”
Hannah walked through the door with her hands full and the electric blanket stuck under her arm. “How's she doing?” she asked, her voice low.
Dani reluctantly let go and pulled back so they could turn down the blankets for the water bottles. The second they pulled back the covers Jamie began shaking violently again and Dani's heart broke in her chest. “I'm so sorry, we're almost done.” She cradled her face in her hand while Hannah returned the covers. The moment she was done Dani returned to her position as a human koala around Jamie's waist.
“I'm fine.” Jamie told Hannah. “I'm fine.”
Dani hugged her close pressing her lips to her neck again, the skin still cold to the touch, but no longer freezing.
The laid like that for...Dani had no idea how long, she only clung to Jamie and held her as close as she was allowed, feeling the shaking coming and going. Hannah must have left, she couldn't remember when.
After a long period of no shaking at all she suddenly became scared again and leaned over to take a look at Jamie's face. The woman's eyes remained closed, but she opened her mouth and said “I'm not dead if that's what you're worried about”.
“Smartass.” She leaned back again, but first placed a brief kiss on Jamie's jaw, her skin still felt cold, but no longer freezing.
“If I'd known all it took for you to tear my clothes off was to jump in a lake I would have done it much sooner.”
Dani chuckled and when the sound of it died out the tears began streaming down her face. “If you ever do that again I'll let Owen undress you.”
Jamie shivered again, but this time no longer from the cold. “I promise I'll never do that again.”
“What happened?” Dani asked now that Jamie seemed to have gotten enough warmth back into her body to form both full sentences and sass.
“The little rat chased a squirrel onto the ice. The bloody thing wasn't solid enough for the squirrel, much less Colin. I had to wade into the damn lake to fish the fucking dog out.”
“Can you and Flora stop doing things that scare me half to death, please.”
“You can't blame me for this, it's all Colin's fault.”
The silence returned both of them content in simply being, wrapped up and close.
After a while Dani felt herself compelled to break the silence, she knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't stop herself. “The scars – on your shoulder, was that the accident, with Mickey?”
Jamie didn't reply at first, but she stayed still and calm in Dani's arms.
“It's fine if you don't want to tell me. I did get to see you naked so I guess that makes us a bit uneven.”
“Yeah, it's a bit unfair,” Jamie agreed.
“Lets even it out, don't tell me about the scar.” Dani said and let go of her grip on Jamie.
Jamie rolled over onto her back and looked up at Dani who was now sitting up in bed. She pulled her blouse up over her stomach and against her pale skin there was a faded but very visible scar across her abdomen.
“What are you doing?” Jamie wondered with a look on her face that was a curious mixture of scared and feverish.
“I'm showing you my scar, so we can go back to being balanced.” Jamie moved her hand beneath the covers and for one brief moment Dani thought that maybe...maybe she'd reach over and touch her scar. It was such a dumb idea she felt stupid for even letting it cross her mind.
“As scars come that looks pretty perfect,” Jamie complained in a low voice.
“Nothing. It's just annoyingly attractive.”
“Is that a compliment?”
She refused to answer and instead asked another question. “So how'd you get it?”
Dani laid down next to her, head on her own pillow, but still close enough to feel her body through the duvet.
“Appendicitis when I was ten. My mother thought I was faking it so I didn't have to go to school. She told me to stop fussing. I ended up collapsing in gym class, only time I've been in an ambulance. Got to the hospital and the appendix had burst. It was the last day before Christmas break so I actually didn't end up missing too much school.”
“Fuck, that's serious, isn't it?”
“It can be. I got lucky. Had to stay in the hospital a few days, but I enjoyed that, not the pain, but the hospital. It felt like an adventure and everyone was so nice to me.”
“Your mum is a bit of a twat, you know that right?” Jamie asked.
“She's--” Dani started, her first instinct was to defend her, regurgitate the excuses she's used to herself and to others so many times already. “I know.”
“You deserve a lot more.”
There were insane amounts of food on the table. Paper crowns on everyone's heads. And various states of being dressed up. Owen wore an absolutely dreadful Christmas jumper with tiny bells on that jingled at each movement, something he was inappropriately proud of. Hannah's red dress was gorgeous. Miles had tied his own bowtie and despite the crooked nature of it shone with pride. Flora was a taffeta dream of pinks. And Jamie, she'd been persuaded to wear the gift Dani had gotten her, a black shirt with yellow patterns that seemed to recreate the whorls of climbing ivy. Maybe she was partial, but Dani thought it was insanely gorgeous on her.
Everyone was bustling around in the kitchen, mostly being in Owen's way. He didn't seem to mind too much though and the atmosphere could only be described as happy, joyfully happy.
The phone rang out and Dani couldn't help to hope, for the kids sake, that maybe at least Henry would call. “I'll get it,” she called out and walked over to it. “Wingrave Residence, this is Dani speaking.”
At first there was a moment's pause, then a voice carried across the line, “Danielle? Is that you?”
Ice travelled up Dani's spine and out through every nerve ending. Her breath caught in her chest. “I need to take this in the other room, Jamie could you?” she asked and almost ran out of the kitchen as soon at Jamie took the handle from her.
One breath in through your nose. Slowly exhale, feel the air rush past your lips. And repeat.
Her legs carried her into the house, through the formal dining room and into the foyer. She needed space, she needed distance from that bubble in which she was happy. With a shaking hand she picked the phone up again.
“How are you, Danielle?” The voice was still there, sounding exactly like he always did. There was time and distance between them, but at the familiarity of Edmund's voice it was hard to remember that.
She stared at the picture hanging on the wall above the telephone. The frame was gaudy, painted gold and carved into intricate twirling patterns, maybe it was abstract, maybe they were supposed to be acorns.
“I am good, and you?” She roused herself and answered into the phone, wincing as she did. Someone you have known your whole life and the conversation had the same depth as the small talk you shared with the person next to you at the bank.
“I'm...I'm good.” He lied, she could tell, even without seeing his face, she still...knew him.
“Why are you calling?” she asked.
“Your mother gave me your number. I've been trying to reach you for a while.”
That wasn't what I asked.
“I think about you, a lot.”
I think about you too sometimes, but every time I do I wish it was under different circumstances and not so filled with shame.
“I miss you.”
I'm sorry, but I don't miss you. My life is finally the way I want it to be, or close to at least.
Dani could feel the tears sneaking into her tear ducts like tiny ninjas ready to release their flurry of blows.
“I know we left things...raw between us.”
It wasn't raw, it was...I broke up with you and you told me...
“I wanted to say I'm sorry, for how I reacted. I should have realised you weren't ready to get married.”
And I'm not going to be ready to get married until it's legal between two women. That's the problem.
“I didn't mean to run you off like this.”
You didn't run me off, I finally escaped. “Eddie, why are you calling?”
“I thought-- when are you coming home?”
That's not what you're asking, is it?
“I don't know.”
That's not what she wanted to tell him.
“I want to see you again. Talk things through.”
What is there to talk through? She was gay, she was in love with the woman who pretended to be her girlfriend and no matter what the future held, Eddie wasn't in it.
“I think if we could only start again we could make it this time. We've both grown.”
She stared at the picture in front of her, the tree tops, the leaves painted to look like they were rustling in the wind. The dark forest that held shadows, the grey sky that threatened rain. “Eddie-” she quieted, she closed her eyes and she gathered every ounce of it, drawing from every corner of her being, forcing a bravery to manifest.
“Eddie, there is never going to be a future for us. I love you, still, in my own way. But you must know-- you felt it too didn't you?”
“How wrong it was between us.” She paused, trying to temper her words so they could tell the truth, but refrain from being brutal. “I wasn't happy. I couldn't be happy with you.”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing.” She looked back at the picture, noticing the thick layers of paint, briefly wondering who painted it. Forcing her drifting mind back to the conversation she added, “This isn't about what you did, this is about me.”
“I don't understand.”
She took a deep breath, in through the nose, gently past the lips. “I'm gay.”
“You don't have to come up with these things to-”
“You're not listening to me. I'm not making excuses, I'm offering an explanation. I'm sorry I wasn't strong enough to break things off between us sooner, I really am. But even if I was a coward about it for too long - it doesn't change the fact that I'm a lesbian.”
“Just like that? Is this your way of trying to hurt me?”
The ninjas struck and the tears began to flow. “I'm not trying to hurt you.”
“It sounds a lot like you are.”
This isn't about you, she wanted to scream. But he never did understand that, he never understood her, no matter how she phrased things there was always something lost in the translation between them. “I'm sorry.” Her words were simple and there were no more words left in her so without a goodbye she hung up the phone.
As her fingers dropped the phone the familiar tunnel appeared and it was shrinking around her. Something squeezed her heart and her lungs were suddenly filled with so much cotton there was no place for air.
“Are you--” Dani hadn't heard her approach, but there was Jamie's voice cutting through it, she wanted to focus on it, but it was so hard, her body shaking, shivering like someone suddenly had opened all the windows and the doors, letting the cold air in. “What's wrong?”
Dani hyper-ventilated, but still somehow made the words leave her mouth. “I think I'm having a panic attack.”
“Can I...can I do something to help?” Jamie asked sounding uncertain and worried.
Dani counted her breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. “Tell me where I am.” One more breath. “Tell me anything.”
“I can do that. You're at Bly.” She momentarily paused as she tried to think of 'anything'. “Owen and Hannah are back in the kitchen making eyes at each other, but neither of them have the courage to say fuck it and well-- fuck. Or maybe they have, I don't know. I don't want to think about it too much.” She cleared her voice. “There's two little gremlins in there with them too, either annoying each other or plotting ways to make my life harder. Somewhere upstairs there is one creepy lady neither of us have been able to figure out. And over there in the shadows is Harold-”
Dani opened her eyes and looked over at Jamie who nodded towards the dark shadows cast by the stairways. “Who's Harold?”
“Oh, that's the bloke who drowned himself in the lake.”
Dani looked at her horrified, but no longer panicking. “You named the ghosts?”
“There's more than one?”
“Well, ghost then. You named the ghost?” Dani looked over at the shadows and luckily saw nothing more than actual shadows.
“Thought it was the decent thing to do.”
“What did I tell you about ghost stories?!” Dani exclaimed with a shiver.
“Maybe I get cold at night, want you curled up close.”
“Be quiet now, or else I'll be sleeping on top of you.”
Jamie looked at her, bit her lip and gave a small grin. “Is that a threat or a promise?”
Dani looked at her with rosy red cheeks, her breath still hitched, but now for entirely different reasons than panic. Her body felt like a taut string going from extreme emotion to the next.
Jamie licked her lips and suddenly looked a little...yeah Dani didn't know exactly what that expression was. “Owen said something about tequila eggnog, sounds minging if you ask me, but-? I mean you don't have to if you don't want to...”
“Maybe that's exactly what I need,” Dani sighed glad to leave this particular moment which was entirely too sexually charged for comfort and contained way too many ghosts.
Contexts are curious things, Dani thought as she had spent the most part of dinner sneaking glances at Jamie and mapping the moles across her face and the exposed parts of her neck. Eddie had them too, the tiny little discolourations across his skin, one very noticeable that always teased his adam's apple when he spoke. The number of time's she had looked at it instead of his eyes were too many to remember, but on Eddie they had been random spots of extra melanin, it wasn't more exciting than that. But on Jamie...against Jamie's skin they were constellations that begged to be traced, touched, venerated. Without ever having caressed them deliberately she already knew them by heart with the fluidity of a favoured poem, and she burned to learn the next verse unhurriedly, not just from catching glances secretly.
It was amazing that on one they were nothing more than pollution, on the other they were exquisite brushstrokes on a perfect canvas. The nature behind them was the same, but the way Dani perceived it couldn't have been more different. The workings of a human body was a wondrous and weird thing.
Also, Dani had to admit, she was a little more than buzzed at this point and despite her intentions of leaving her libido in the hallway, it seemed to follow. She blamed it on the tequila, which despite Jamie's misgivings had been a perfect match with the eggnog. With super human self-control, at least if Dani got to say so herself, she tore her eyes away from Jamie's exposed skin and stared longing into her drink instead. Curious to realise eggnog was such an aphrodisiac. Forcing herself to focus on less pleasant things she cajoled her attention into something entirely different.
“What's Mrs Lloyds deal anyway?” Dani wondered with the faintest of slurs.
Owen leaned forward eager to dish some gossip. “You want the full story?” His brown eyes shone with the buzz of alcohol.
“It's Christmas. Are we really going to gossip?” Hannah wondered, but still settled in on her chair looking more than ready for it.
In unison Owen and Jamie replied, “Yes!”. And proceeded to laugh uproariously both of them.
Taking his glasses off to wipe the tears from the corner of his eyes, Owen continued, “She was married to the former groundskeeper, you know?!”
Dani frowned at him. “Is that why she's so weird around Jamie?”
Owen and Hannah looked over at Dani and then Jamie. “Weird how?” Owen asked.
“She's creepy.” Jamie admitted. “Every time I go for a smoke she's there, like she's got some tracking device attached to my arse.” She shuddered. “What happened to her husband? He didn't off himself too?”
“Let me guess, he ran off with her sister?” Dani wondered.
Owen looked surprised over at her. “How'd you know? Are you psychic?”
“Something she told me.”
“I didn't know you two were that familiar with each other,” Hannah sounded a little surprised.
“We're really not, but she got it into her head Jamie was about to leave me--”
Owen laughed loudly. “What gave her that idea? You've got this one so whipped I could make Eton mess off her.” He nodded towards Jamie.
“Shut up, man!” Jamie complained with red cheeks and fiery eyes.
“She kept sneaking downstairs to sleep on the sofa--” Dani clarified.
“Do we really need to tell everyone our business?” Jamie grumbled scrunching up her features into a full face frown.
“What? It's Owen and Hannah.”
“Fine. I was having shit dreams, didn't want to make her suffer too.”
Owen snickered, “Stiff peaks”.
“You live dangerously, Bly boy!” Jamie threatened and playfully kicked the leg of his chair.
“Anyhow, Mrs Lloyd seemed to think our relationship was doomed and offered me a lot of unsolicited relationship advice. It was a whole drunk mess and I got the feeling she's not so fond of her sister.”
“It was rather tragic actually, the affair destroyed more than a marriage.” Hannah's calm voice sobered them all up a little. “Viola lost not only her husband, but custody of her daughter too.” Hannah drifted off and seemed to lose herself to recollection. “She was a very different woman before that. A sharp tongue, but funny and strong.”
“I can't imagine,” Dani said and felt a deep sadness for the woman. “I feel for her.”
“She is still kind of creepy though,” Jamie added before emptying her mug.
“Are you awake?” Dani turned over on her side and stared at Jamie in the darkness.
“No,” she mumbled.
“So get something to drink.”
“I don't want to go downstairs on my own,” Dani complained as she scooted closer and poked a finger in Jamie's waist to get her to open her eyes.
“Stop that,” she said, eyes still closed. “Put your head under the tap in the bathroom.”
“I'm not a wild animal.” She sighed in exaggeration. “This is your fault, you need to come with me.”
“How is this my fault?” she finally relented and looked over at Dani. “You drank all of that tequila on your own.”
“It's your fault because you named the ghost and now I can't stop thinking about him.”
“To make him more familiar.”
“It didn't work. Get up you're coming with me.”
Jamie groaned, but did as she was told.
Halfway down the stairs the creaking sound of a door was heard from upstairs. Having had enough of Viola to last a lifetime Dani grabbed hold of Jamie's hand and hurriedly dragged her with her to the coat room just off the foyer. She opened the door and quickly turned the light on before she unceremoniously pushed Jamie into the tiny room and hurried in after her, closing the door behind her. With one hand on the doorknob she listened intently for the sound of footsteps heading towards the exit.
“Am I really going to have to ask what's happening right now?” Jamie asked from behind Dani.
“I dislike that woman.” Dani stated over her shoulder, hand still on the doorknob intent if need be to hold it shut.
“Viola?” Dani nodded, but didn't turn around. “I thought you said you felt for her, that was two hours ago, maybe less.”
“I can do both.”
“That is your prerogative, but why the hell push me into a closet?”
“All I want is water, I'm still drunk enough to do what I want, but not drunk enough to handle more relationship advice from her. Now quiet before she hears us,” she whispered.
It was in that moment as the silence hit that Dani realised Jamie's hands were on her waist. How they got there was a blur, but there they were. Their warmth seeped through the fabric of her nightgown, her fingers curled around her waist, gentle but reassuring. It felt right to be held like this, by her. Dani looked up at the closed door, breathed in slowly and stood there for a few seconds feeling everything. Her body and mind aligned, feeling calm and in control despite the way her heart raced and her blood now sang in her ears.
Dani let go of the door and turned around, she looked at Jamie's lips, then her eyes and then—
--then she kissed her.
No doubts, no hesitation, for once in her life she knew what she wanted and she was done wishing, hoping and waiting. She wanted Jamie's lips, so she claimed them and hers were welcomed in return. Slow at first, tentative as they both sought the permission to let go. And when permission was granted there was the hunger untethered.
She felt Jamie's hands leave her waist and find their way to her neck, tracing her pulse point, caressing her skin, tangling in her hair. Her own hands grabbing, holding, worshipping. Unpolished, raw and gentle, at the same time, all of it releasing and disintegrating every last grain of doubt in Dani's mind.
But maybe she had been wrong, all those months ago when she told Miles that people did not have locks and there were no keys, because in this moment she felt like she had found hers. Lock and key. Jamie's lips on hers, the taste of her mouth, the touch of her hands on her skin. Everything clicked into place.
Jamie pulled back and looked at Dani with dark eyes, pupils wide and intoxicated. “Yeah?” she breathed.
There seemed to be better ways of using her tongue than to form words Dani decided and leaned forward to meet Jamie's lips again, unable to stop smiling.
Having sex with a woman as a woman is usually not something that happens without careful consideration. That we at some point fall into bed with one specific woman might be a bit of fate or fortune or five drinks at happy hour. But that we fall into bed with a woman in the first place seldom happens until we've firmly processed what that might actually contain, in depth.
So that there would be something left in it to surprise Dani was, well it was surprising. She knew her body well enough to know how it responded to certain stimuli. She knew how and what would send her flying. That kissing and lips across her jaw, neck and chest would make her wet was not a surprise. That Jamie's hand stroking her a certain way would set her off was not hard to understand or imagine. But there were quite a few new things she had no idea would be so...satisfying. And no matter how much time she had spent thinking about what sex with a woman would be like, and lets be honest it was a lot, there were things that had passed her imagination by completely.
Such as the thrill of feeling Jamie's wetness against her own thigh, to have her traces on her skin. That was a reality her mind hadn't even been able to envision the grandeur of. Neither was the empowering feeling and sensation against her tongue as she used it to apply pressure to that small bundle of nerves that would get Jamie's hips to buck into her. Not to mention the electric tingle in her palm as she traced stiff nipples with her lifeline. These were things she was not prepared for. And there were a lot of these things, small things in themselves, but adding up until she would stare at her reflection in the mirror unable to stop the laughter from forming.
Reaching this point hadn't been easy and Dani would be the first one to admit she would not be leading any Pride parades in any kind of future, but looking at her reflection, looking at that smiling woman – she was finally content and proud of the person she saw. And maybe most surprisingly of all was the realisation that homosexuality wasn't a burden to carry, it was a gift to treasure.
“I like your ear,” Dani said and traced the outer rim of it. In the background the open fire was crackled. The days had finally begun to turn warm, but the evenings and nights still clung to the cold of winter and a fire at the end of the day was still a most welcomed thing.
“You only like me for my ears?” Jamie turned slightly, her head resting on a pillow in Dani's lap and her legs slung over the armrest of the sofa. Around them the house was quiet and seemed to almost be slumbering.
“No, I like your nose too.”
“That's it? That's all you like me for?” Jamie teased.
“I like your moles too, especially Casio.”
“Yeah, this one,” she bent over and placed a kiss on her neck on top of the mole in question.
“You've named my moles?”
“What if I have?”
“After a Japanese wristwatch?” She chuckled. “And they say romance is dead.”
“No. It's short for Cassiopeia. I've named them after constellations.”
“Seriously?” Jamie gave her a tiny disbelieving smile. “What's this one then?” She pointed to her hand.
“Libra.” She paused before she leaned over again, this time to place a kiss on her nose. “That one is Circinus.” Dani leaned back again and let her thumb caress Jamie's eyebrow, enjoying the way the other woman's eyes fluttered shut as she did so. “That's Leo Minor,” she added.
“Is there a Leo Major?” Jamie asked as she opened her eyes again, now with pupils wide enough to go for a swim in.
“Yes,” Dani pushed her shirt up and skimmed along the hem of Jamie's jeans. “This one,” her fingers caressing. Jamie's skin erupted into goosebumps in the wake of her dancing fingers.
Foot steps plucked their attention from one another and made them both look out towards the entrance to the foyer, standing in the hallway was Mrs Lloyd. Briefly there was a reflex that wanted to be triggered in Dani, the one of flight. She felt a twitch through her limbs, like an ingrained need to recoil from the body in her lap, as if it represented danger, as if she had done something wrong. She recognised it for what it was and stayed where she was.
“Good evening, Mrs Lloyd,” Dani greeted her formally. Her palms began to sweat, but she kept them on Jamie's body, she refused to cater to her own internalised homophobia.
“Evening,” she nodded in return. “Viola is fine.”
Dani felt Jamie shift slight within her arms, but didn't look down at her face instead she kept Viola's gaze and gave her a smile, a very sincere if somewhat surprised one.
Jamie gently disentangled herself from Dani and sat up. “I need a smoke –“ She looked over at Viola and a hint of uncertainty could be found on her face. “You want to come?” Jamie finally asked Viola.
The woman seemed almost as genuinely astonished at the question as Dani. “Was heading that way myself,” Viola admitted. “Sure.”
“Dani?” Jamie wondered, putting her hand on her thigh briefly to catch her attention.
“No, I'm fine. I'll stay here.” A thought manifested in Dani's mind and refused to go away. “Viola...we – we were thinking of sharing a bottle of wine, would you – do you want to join us?”
Jamie looked over at Dani with a raised eyebrow which she pretended she didn't see. Maybe she did have complicated feelings towards the elusive Mrs Lloyd, but perhaps she never had given her a chance either. If what Hannah had told them about her past was true, maybe it wasn't so difficult to understand the woman's frosty exterior and curt behaviour, all things considered. She didn't seem to have anyone in her life, hiding away in her room, barely sharing space with the rest of the household. That had to take it's toll on a person. Not that she had entirely dropped the idea Jamie had planted in her head, because there was something in the way she did look at Jamie that made repressed lesbian seem very plausible in Dani's mind. But beyond that she was probably as socially awkward as Dani had initially suspected. The longer you go without human interactions the harder it becomes to navigate. No human being should have to endure that against their will.
Viola looked as startled as Jamie by the offer and her face went through a myriad of expressions before it landed back on the blank one she seemed to use as a mask to hide behind. “I would like that.”
“Get your filthy habit out of the way and I'll get us some glasses and something red,” Dani told them with a shooing motion towards the door.
Dani sat in the kitchen, back straight, painfully straight and she stared at it. Such a mundane looking thing, but the way it made her feel was full of daggers and hurt. She had taken it apart, ripped out the guts of it and spread it across the kitchen table. She had then frantically tried to put it all back together in, stuff it back where it came from and curb the feeling of being mocked, of being taunted.
“What's that?” Jamie asked, Dani hadn't even heard her enter the kitchen.
“It's funny because it sort of looks like a parcel.”
“It's guilt in a box,” Dani clarified.
Jamie stepped over and looked into the box. “Looks like a fair bit of other shit too.”
“My mother sent me-” Dani sighed. “Knitted oven gloves and an embroidery that says 'no place like home' and she doesn't knit or embroider. Then there are all these pictures of my cousin's and their families, there's even a family photo of the O'Mara's in there.”
“Can I see?” Jamie wondered as she leaned on the back of Dani's chair.
“Why would you want to see the O'Mara's family Christmas photo?”
“I want to know what know what Eddie looks like in case he ever tries to steal you back,” Jamie said with narrowed eyes and a clenched jaw, making a mockingly threatening face at Dani.
Dani flipped through the photos and took out the one in question, pointing towards a man with curly dark hair and big glasses. “This is him.”
Jamie leaned closer. “He's so tall,” she said with a frown.
“Then go for his knee caps, because I have no intention of being stolen back, so I will trust you to prevent that.”
“Trowel through the patella it is.” She pulled back and looked at Dani's face. “I take it you're not pleased with the gifts?”
“It doesn't come from a place of caring, it's meant to be a guilt trip making me feel bad about not coming home for Christmas and it's sort of working.”
“Do you wish you would have spent Christmas back in the States with your mum?”
“No, not at all. But that's why the guilt trip is so effective. I feel bad for not feeling bad about it,” Dani complained.
Hannah stepped into the kitchen looking distraught which stopped Jamie's reply on her tongue.
“What's wrong?” Dani asked.
“It's-” Hannah looked up with a pained expression. “Owen called, his mother has passed away.”
That they would all attend the funeral was not something they had to discuss, it was a given. That the decision would be controversial or cause any stir didn't even occur to any of them. But as they all got to the church there were a lot of looks, a lot of turned heads and a lot of tongues that flew back and forth. And perhaps it shouldn't have been so surprising, because they were a pretty secluded bunch up at the manor, seldom finding reason to visit the village. Also together like this, Dani had to admit they were somewhat of a conspicuous bunch. Hannah with her natural poise, Mrs Lloyd who strode into any space like an ice queen, then there were the well-dressed but wide-eyed children, and then there was Jamie with her larger than life attitude. Plus there was her, with her loud American accent and Dani also knew there was absolutely no way she could hide what she felt for Jamie as she looked at her, which might catch people's attention too. Together they were quite the crew, so a turned head or two made sense.
By the time the funeral was wrapped up and everyone had relocated to the Winchester, the village's one pub and general meeting place, the curiosity had gotten the better of many of the locals and looking wasn't satisfying enough. Dani felt like she had been bombarded with questions from an endless stream of older women with sharp eyes and even sharper tongues.
It had begun to be a bit tiring, but least the children seemed to enjoy themselves. Dani kept a watchful eye on Miles through the window, as the boy had found a group of kids his own age that were playing with some kind of plastic miniature toys in front of the pub. Flora on the other hand followed a young curly haired boy around as they ran from room to room looking to be deep conversation. Despite the circumstances both Miles and Flora looked happy and excited about being around children their own age and Dani realised she needed to find a way for them to socialise more with other children and not just the adults up at the manor.
Her train of thought however was interrupted as yet another curious old woman with snow white hair and bright eyes took a seat at the table next to theirs. “Haven't seen you in some time, Viola. Still kicking the bricks in that ivory towers of yours?”
“I hear you are your old vital self, Agnes,” Viola turned towards her, but her face gave away no emotions and in no way prepared Dani for what was to come.
“The world won't get rid of me that easily.” She spoke the words as if they were both meant as a threat and a promise. “So who's this then?” she threw her head in the direction of Dani, one eye narrowing as she studied her. “Another one to add to the collection up at Spinster Manor?”
Dani choked on the air and started coughing violently. “You alright there, dear?” the old woman asked, for the first time actually directing her words at Dani.
“Fine, thank you, " she said once she got her throat and lungs back under control.
“American,” she narrowed her eyes further and made a strange little sound in the back of her throat which could have meant anything.
“Don't be disrespectful Agnes, this is Miss Clayton.”
“Dani, to most,” she reached out her hand. Agnes eyed it suspiciously, as if she might catch either the accent or hepatitis A through C from the limb, but she took a gamble and extended her own.
“So what's your tragic backstory?” she wondered as she began to unpack yarn and knitting needles from her oversized purse.
“Do I have to have one?” Dani asked with a little laugh, not sure if the woman was being sincere or making fun of her.
“All you pretty ladies holing up in that manor. With yer sad eyes and mysterious pasts. It's like the Wingraves are running a retreat for wayward damsels.” She eyed her suspiciously again.
Flora luckily took that very moment to interrupt as she came running over. “I see you've found a friend,” Dani said and gently pushed a rebellious strand of hair behind the girl's ear as she came to a stop in front of her.
“That's Philip. He lives here. He lives in a pub!” She was so excited that had she had seams then they would have been bursting. “Can I take this off?” she pulled at the cardigan she wore over her dress.
“Of course,” Dani agreed.
Flora twisted herself out of the shirt in one quick motion and practically threw it at Dani before she ran back to her new playmate.
“Watch it!” Jamie admonished her as she nearly bowled her over in her hurry. A sorry flew in the air behind Flora, but she didn't have time to look back.
“How much sugar have you fed that one!?” She set the drinks down on the table. Pushed a gin and tonic towards Viola and placed two pints in front of Dani.
“None, but she's found a new friend.”
“She could use that,” Jamie said as she slide in next to Dani resting her arm behind her. “You won't believe it!” she added in almost the same breath.
“Believe what?” She took a sip of the very forgettable lager.
“That white haired old man over at the bar –“ Jamie pointed towards a man who looked back at them and gave a small wave and a big smile. “His name is Larry.”
Dani laughed and placed her drink back on the table. “Was he lecherous?”
“Nah, he seems like a pretty decent bloke.” She put her lips to the glass and wet them briefly against the foam. “His son-in-law works at a pig's farm up the road from Bly. He thought he might hook me up with some manure.”
“Only you would be happy about that,” Dani said with an affectionate smile, she reached down beneath the table and softly caressed Jamie's thigh mindlessly.
She suddenly heard a loud clearing of a throat that cut through the chatter in the pub like nails on a chalkboard. “So--” Agnes sucked her teeth. “Odd girl not wayward damsel.” She sniffed in a way that made it sound like an exclamation point. “Who's this then?” she squinted over at Jamie.
“Agnes,” Viola warned in a sharp tone. “This is Jamie, she's the one that's been taking care of our grounds.”
“By the looks of things she handles more than that.” She tapped the side of her nose and gave Viola a pointed look as if she was letting her in on a newly discovered secret.
With a confused look on her face Jamie looked over at Dani who gave a small shake of her head. She leaned over Dani and extended her hand. “Jamie.”
Agnes grabbed the hand and turned it palm up, then turned them over and then looked back up at Jamie's face. “Hm,” she hummed to herself. “You look like a solid one. For a northerner,” she said with another sniff masquerading as an exclamation point.
“Thank you?” Jamie replied hesitantly as Agnes finally grabbed hold of and shook her hand.
“A little rabbity maybe, but solid enough,” she nodded. “So what brought two odd fruits like you to Bly?”
“Work,” Jamie said carefully.
“They've been here for the past year, Agnes, so don't chase them away now,” Viola answered for them. “They answered the ad after Miss Jessel...went back to London.”
“It's not every day you come across a wanted ad for both gardener and teacher in one.” Dani said with a playful smile aimed at Jamie.
“So you knew each other before that place? You didn't turn odd up there at that queer place?” Agnes wondered in a tone that would have taught KGB a thing or two about interrogation.
Dani wanted to bury her face in her palms and she felt how Jamie stiffened next to her. “We were odd long before that,” Dani replied diplomatically in the old woman's own language. “The reason we applied was that they were looking for a couple, so it seemed like the perfect spot for us.” The last part said as a challenge aimed at Agnes.
“What?” Viola asked glass frozen halfway to her mouth.
Dani looked over at her frowning. “What?”
“Why do you think we were looking for a couple?” Viola asked as she placed her drink back on the table.
“Because that's what it said in the ad,” Dani replied, frown deepening.
“Why would we put that in there? That would have made it incredibly limiting,” Viola said shaking her head.
“The ad very specifically said 'Professional Couple Only',” Jamie leaned forward and rested her elbows on the table, lines of confusion on her forehead.
“Then there must have been some sort of mistake along the way. Explains why there were so few applications.” Viola looked off into the room. “Maybe we lucked out in the end. We were so pleased when we got your joint application, saved us finding accommodation for two.”
Dani made a noise that was somewhere in between a cough and a laugh.
“Don't fucking believe it,” Jamie chuckled.
“What?” Viola asked.
“Nothing. We're just very glad you gave us the opportunity. Some people wouldn't have.” Dani replied, trying to smooth things.
“Maybe your relationship is...unorthodox, but I sincerely doubt being hard working is in any way linked to who's in your bed at the end of the day.”
Dani took it back, every bad thought she have had about the woman. Mrs Lloyd was one of the decent ones. Her thoughts were however cut short by the old woman again.
“That's a lot of bull Viola and you know it. I'm not going to trust you to to even take my rubbish away if you've got Mike Thrum in your bed at the end of the day.”
“Who's Mike Thrum?” Dani wondered with a choked laughter.
Agnes' eyes lit up at the chance of gossip and she turned to Dani like a predator having spotted prey.
The day had dragged on into evening and it was early night before everything was settled at the Winchester. Viola and Hannah had taken the kids back to the manor and somehow Dani and Jamie had been left in charge of handling Owen, making sure he got home safely. Somehow the minor detail that he was the only one who had stayed sober and with access to a car had turned the tables and he was now the one in charge of getting them home. Jamie had collapsed in the back-seat and two minutes into the drive was firmly asleep. The radio was playing softly in the background, but the volume too low for them to make out songs only rhythms.
Dani looked at Owen in the rear-view mirror, the paleness of his face, the lack of expression, it worried her a little. Seeing anger or hurt or grief would have been reassuring, but this expression that seemed to be the essence of nothing was scary.
“How are you?” Dani asked him, leaning her head on her arms as she hung halfway into the front seat.
“Confused.” He admitted with a sigh. “She was my mother and now she's not there.” He paused for a moment. “Everything about her had been linked with so much pain for so long that now – I know she meant the world to me, but...I've put that love away. I've kept it in storage. Because every time the phone rung my heart froze. Every time I opened the door to her room I held my breath.” He paused and his face began to transform, the slack jaw and empty eyes were beginning to fill with pain. “Now the worst thing has happened and everything goes on like before. The world isn't a new colour, we're not even on a new chapter, I'm not a new man. It's Wednesday, Bly is still...Bly. But now...I find it hard to remember where I put my love for her. I don't know where I put that box.” Tears were streaming down his face by now.
Dani realised her own tears were flowing freely as well.
“So how do I go on from that?” he asked with a sob.
“I don't know.” She wiped her cheeks. “I wish I could tell you.”
The radio kept playing and the tires were loud against the road and for a good five minutes they both cried their own silent tears while Jamie went on sleeping peacefully.
“I think you should stay at the house tonight,” Dani eventually added.
“Stay with Hannah.”
“I wouldn't be much company.”
“Isn't that for her to decide?” He shrugged and she changed tactics. “Where do you want to be tonight?”
He wiped away his tears. “With Hannah.”
“So then ask her if she wants you to stay.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“It is. It's incredibly easy, but it takes insane amounts of courage to actually do it.”
He met her eyes in the mirror he gave her a washed out smile. “Problem is we're not all as bold as you, Dani Clayton.”
She scrunched up her face at his words. “I don't know if that's the word I'd use to describe myself.”
“It doesn't feel like it fits.”
“Why not? You live your life by your own standards.”
“You mean I'm gay.” She sounded tired.
“I mean the way you live your truth. I don't know what it's like, but I know people are assholes about anyone remotely different. I can't hide from those assholes, but you could, if you wanted to. But you don't. You don't shy away from people knowing what Jamie is to you.”
“I –“ She tilted her head with a little shake. “To me it's more important she knows what she means to me than that some stranger don't sneer at me.”
“Like I said, bold.”
Dani felt a bit uncomfortable in their discussion so she decided to veer them back onto the former topic. “Ask her. Ask her if you can stay.”
Owen swallowed hard, but nodded. The rest of the drive was spent in silence.
The day had been long, a lot of conflicting emotions now swirled around inside her. She ached for Owen and his loss. Then there were all the looks and questions, all the words bouncing around echoing inside of her. The curiosity, mostly benign, but some questions, some words that could potentially hurt if she allowed them. To add to all of that was the realisation that the only reason they even were in this place to begin with was due to a typo or a mistake. Some human being had made a mistake and the result of that was she now had a job she enjoyed, a found family in which she felt cared for. And on top of all of that she now got to share a life with a woman she felt everything for. All of this because of a mistake. If she hadn't been so tired she thought that maybe there was something profound to be said about all of that.
There was a tentative knocking at their door, Dani pushed the covers back before Jamie stepped in from the bathroom her face still wet from having been scrubbed clean. “Stay, I'll get it.”
Jamie opened the door to reveal Miles in his pyjamas. His eyes were rimmed with the pinkness of shed tears, his face a mixture of shame and pain.
“You okay there, dust rat?” Jamie asked and reached over to rub his back reassuringly.
“It's stupid,” he said and sniffed back a sob. “I'm not a kid.”
Dani pushed the covers down again and made a move towards them. “What's stupid?” she asked.
“I had a nightmare - “ His gaze fell on the floor. “I'm scared,” he admitted in a tone that made no doubts about how ashamed he felt about it.
“How is that stupid? That's the bloody point of a nightmare,” Jamie told him as she gently moved him into the room, guiding him towards the end of the bed.
He looked up at her and the tears were still so close to the surface his eyes shimmered like polished steel in sunlight. “You're not supposed to...to let it scare you when you're an adult.”
“That's a load of shite,” Jamie sat down on the edge of the bed and motioned for him to join her, Dani sat down on the other side of them. “I'm adult enough and I sometimes wake up screaming.”
Disbelieving he looked over at her.
“What's that look for? If you don't believe me, ask her, she's the one that has to hold me when I wake up.” She tilted her head in Dani's direction.
Miles looked over at her with a questioning expression, clearly not ready to buy into the idea of adults or Jamie in particular suffering nightmares.
She nodded. “We all have nightmares occasionally. Being scared is – it happens to all of us whether we're two months old or ninety-five.” She paused to let her words sink in. “Want to tell us what it was about?” Dani asked softly.
He looked down at his hands, opening and closing his fist in what Dani realised was an exact imitation of Jamie's mannerisms. The thought of how easily we influence those around us, especially children, briefly touched her mind in a whirlwind of amazement and fear. We know our actions have consequences, but how often do we actually consider the reach of those consequences before we act?
“I dreamt about my parents.” His voice hitched as if there was a sob threatening to escape alongside the air in his lungs. “But I had forgotten their faces and it made them angry.” Dani put her arm over his shoulders and hugged him towards her. “It made them so angry they needed to hurt us.”
“You know my dad died when I was a kid,” Dani told him. “That was a very long time ago now. Sometimes it can be hard to remember his face, but I can always remember him.”
“But we're supposed to remember their faces aren't we?”
“I don't think we necessarily have to remember what they looked like, we remember their stories and we remember how they hugged us, how they loved us. And maybe at some point we do forget.”
“Besides, forgetting isn't a bad thing, earthworm.” Jamie placed a kiss on his hair before ruffling it self-consciously. “Our brains will twist us up and try to scare us with things that aren't there, things that will never happen and things that are honestly stupid. Whenever it happens give your brain the v's and forget about it.”
Maybe Dani didn't entirely agree with the notion of teaching kids to flip anyone or thing off, but the statement and Jamie's earnest tone made her smile despite herself. And the way she felt Miles body relax under her arm made her think it was exactly the right thing for him to hear.
At Flora's insistence they were having a picnic and it did feel like the perfect day for it. The air was warm and welcoming and the scent of fresh flowers beginning life again made for pleasant fragrances. It was a stark contrast to the heavy atmosphere that had settled in the wake of Owen's loss. A bit of natural light and the outdoors seemed to have mellowed everyone's moods and it felt more than a bit like a turning point. It felt like the first day of summer and as if the world held nothing but promises and potential.
Even Viola had been persuaded to join them for cucumber sandwiches on a blanket next to the lake, which if you forgot about it's history made for a pretty idyllic spot. It hadn't taken long before Viola faded into the background and disappeared back into the house however, but she had made an effort and Dani thought, or well she imagined at least that she looked a little bit happy. She hoped so at least.
The kids had the same amount of patience and had taken to skipping rocks on the tiny little lake as soon as the last crumb was swallowed. The only one who seemed content in relaxing was Colin who had promptly curled up into a ball and fallen asleep. Dani looked at him longingly and couldn't help to think he was onto something.
“Oi! Leave the fucking ivy alone!” Jamie yelled after Miles who had tired of the lake and was running in the direction of the house. Flora chased after him.
He looked back at her and threw his hands in the air. “I know, you only bloody tell me every time I get close to the house.”
“Watch your fucking language, little man!” Jamie warned him.
“Someone should do something about that tongue of yours,” Dani said with a smile as she leaned back, resting on her hands behind her back.
“Are you really the one to complain about my tongue?!” she replied and made Dani blush profusely. “Thought as much.” She smirked at her. “Where'd Owen and Hannah go?”
“They went for a 'walk',” Dani said making air quotes with one hand.
“That's what they call it?” Jamie raised a knowing eyebrow.
Dani smiled at her and laid back on the blanket, staring up at the sky briefly before she let her eyes fall shut in contentment. It didn't take long until she felt fingers trace her skin along the neckline of her dress, her smile grew wider. The sun was momentarily blocked and her nostrils enjoyed Jamie's scent before she felt her lips pressed against her collarbone, slowly questing towards her neck. As they ghosted past the lobe of her ear she heard Jamie's gentle voice say, “At some point we need to come out here without the audience.” She shivered pleasantly at the implication.
Almost reluctantly Dani opened her eyes and was met by the visual of Jamie resting on her elbow leaning over her with the softest of expressions on her face. It made her feel like she must have swallowed a Golden Retriever, because her chest was filled with a ball of dumb, fluffy unconditional love. “This is a very good day.”
The buzzing of a bee was loud against the backdrop of easy breaths and silent sunshine.
“You know Owen is talking about leaving,” Dani mentioned as she toyed with the buttons on Jamie's shirt.
“What about you?” she asked.
“What about me?” Jamie scooted even closer.
“Do you want to leave?” Dani's hands stilled against the fabric of the shirt.
Jamie looked down at her surprised. “I haven't really thought about it.” She proceeded to do just that. “Why would we?”
“I don't know. See the world. Do something different.”
Jamie tilted her head and repeated the question back at her. “Do you want to leave?”
She caressed her fingers up Jamie's arm. “Right now I really like where I am.”
“Partial to where you are as well,” Jamie leaned over and kissed her, slow and lazily, savouring the unhurried moment. As they pulled apart Dani stroked Jamie's jaw and let her thumb drift across her lips.
“You don't have any plans?” Dani asked.
“I spent so long just getting through the day that plans have always seemed – like something other people had.”
“I don't know. Maybe. What about you?”
“I heard that maybe, so don't pretend you didn't say it. Tell me.”
“I don't know.” She rubbed her neck before she placed her hand on Dani's hip. “It would be cool to travel. Maybe see more of the world than one damp corner of it.” There was a pause as she looked up and out across the lake, returning her eyes to Dani she added, “And I'm not buying that someone who spends so much time thinking about everything hasn't thought about her future. So?”
“I – It's silly, maybe.”
“What? You want to raise Alpacas and open a cheese-ry on the Scottish moors?”
“What's a cheese-ry?” Dani laughed.
“Fancy place that sells cheese, I don't know do I?!”
“No, I don't want to sell cheese.”
“Then how silly can it be?!”
“I'd like--” Needing a bit of reassurance she let her fingers curl around the warm skin of Jamie's wrist, enjoying the grounding sensation of their physical link. “I would like my own home. I would like a place that was mine, a place where I was – home.”
“I guess your American dictionary is different from ours, because that's not what silly means – a place where you get to set the rules, that sounds a bit like a dream.”
“Yeah, it does, doesn't it?”
“Is that something you want – now?” Her tone was careful and maybe a little insecure.
“No, right now I like us here. There are a lot of good days here.”
“There are,” Jamie agreed. “What about one day at a time and see where that takes us?”
It was so easy to get hung up on the past or obsess about the future that you sometimes could forget what an adventure the now was if you allowed yourself to live it. So as far as plans went, this one sounded pretty perfect to Dani.
“I would love that.”
Well, that was fun, at least for me.
If you got this far, thank you. Hopefully it was a fairly pleasant experience and maybe, just maybe there are enough loose threads that if I ever were to return to these two then their story would still have enough appeal to ignite a bit of interest.
Also, if you haven't actually watched Spaced, give it a go, it's silly and dumb and a lot of fun (if you're a nerd at least).