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the fire that consumes all before it

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  1. flame and flower

Stars, hide your fires,

Let not light see my black and deep desires

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth (act 1, scene 4)

 

It simply won’t do.

If Gillian’s life were a video game—call it, say, Super Mario Sheep Farmer Deluxe—there would be no leveling up, just leveling down. Each and every ill-tempered, impulsive, and drunk move dropkicks her into increasingly stuporific levels of incompetency, with nary a chance of reuniting with Luigi or rescuing Princess Peach or achieving any mushroom power-ups whatsoever. Because at the moment, in this video game called life, she has descended to a particularly hellish level of fucked up: She has just admitted to herself that she would really like to have it off with the frighteningly snotty bitch who just might end up becoming her stepsister.

She sits in a pub aglow with fraudulent good cheer and loads of elderly gents basking in both innocuous 1960s pop songs and a roaring fire. Despite the warmth inside, the windows translucent with condensation, she keeps her jacket on. Not because she’s cold, but because she secretly fears silent, sneering judgment on tatty flannel from that miserable snotty toff bitch sitting at the head of the table as if she is a CEO—Cunty Executive Officer—of some nefarious corporation and that all present are her minions. The minions as such include Gillian, her dad, her son, and the snotty bitch’s mother, a tiny posh woman named Celia Dawson whom her father is suddenly intent on marrying. No matter that Gillian has met said tiny posh woman just like half an hour ago and that the old man hasn’t seen this bloody woman in like sixty years.

Scared half to death when Alan had called earlier to say his car had been stolen and there had been an accident, Gillian flew down to Skipton with Raff in tow, swiped a parking space from some snotty bitch in a fancy Jeep, met the aforementioned Tiny Posh Woman, and discovered that Snotty Bitch, who followed her into the pub and insulted her with vigorous self-righteousness, is the daughter of Tiny Posh Woman and then her dad announced to all present that they want to get married—she wonders if the chemist screwed up his heart meds and maybe he’s really high on benzos or something like that—and Christ all bloody mighty after all that she needed a few gin and tonics, but since she’s a bit skint these days the cheapest pints will have to do.

So Gillian flopped into a chair, caught the bartender’s eye, and with an apologetic shrug half-cocked her wrist in a universal give me your cheapest shit ale gesture. Meanwhile, after alternately threatening and cajoling her mother several times to come along home with her—to fucking Harrogate, of all places—the big blonde bitch reluctantly resigned herself to a social outing with trailer trash—Gillian, a slapper by any other name—and the trailer trash’s immediate family. Then the bitch—okay, fine, whatever, Caroline—sighed melodramatically, shed her fancy camel hair coat, and shimmied into a chair with such feline grace, and while wearing a tight skirt no less, that Gillian thought there must be a course on Not Sitting Like a Slag at Oxford because, of course, this bitch went to Oxford. She ordered white wine and, while impatiently waiting, crossed her long, shapely legs.

Thus, the current predicament wherein Gillian has completely lost her ever-loving mind.

She cannot help but stare at these magnificent fucking legs. To her extreme dismay, this snobby-snotty horrible awful no-good posh bitch twat ticks all the erotic boxes of a certain type that Gillian always fancies but usually does not get within a hairsbreadth of unless she’s ringing up their organic kale and almond milk at the store. Upon first sight of Caroline striding into the pub—hair flowing, mouth ablaze with furious invective—a familiar and unfortunate cross-circuiting of rage and lust sparked her nerves and she didn’t know if she wanted to slap the woman across the face or slam her against a wall and kiss her until she bloody well shut up. But Caroline is married and has kids, so Gillian’s been told, thus it is unlikely she swings that way. This does not prevent Gillian from cynical belief in an old joke that has, in her experience, frequently proven correct: many women are but a few strong drinks removed from having it off with one another. In vagina veritas. Still, it won’t do, she tells herself for what seem like the hundredth time in an hour, to shag or snog or even feel up—God, her tits do look amazing, no, you fucking idiot, don’t even think it—the daughter of her dad’s soon-to-be wife.

In other words, she’s not drunk enough to do anything about it yet.

While she is not exactly bereft of sexual companionship these days, darkly pretty Paul Jatri has thus far proven a piss-poor shag. The first time she chalked up to both of them being completely three sheets to the wind. The second time, though, they were both stone-cold sober and yet he still approached her body as if it were a video game—Super Mario Sheep Farmer vs. Piss-Poor Shag—that required nothing more than one-note, nonstop throttle on the control until an inevitable cascade of empty explosions occurred in which only one person was the clear winner and it sure as fuck wasn’t her. It would be nice, she thinks edgily, to have it off with someone in possession of a wee bit more understanding of female anatomy. That was a definite benefit to fancying women; you didn’t have to explain and reexplain how everything bloody worked all the time.

It has been too long since she’s been with a woman, the last time nearly two years ago: A gorgeous, overeducated twenty-something reading in behavioral sciences at Huddersfield who worked part-time at Greenhoughs. She was pretentious as hell, quoted Foucault, and gave it up for Gillian in the back of the Land Rover after a Christmas party. Gillian liked the way the woman writhed and moved in her lap, the contrast between soft breasts and hard nipples, the salt of her skin and the sweetness in her voice as she came. She even liked the occasional sleepover in the woman’s cold drafty flat—even though it was shared with an ex, who studied art history—largely because she got fresh coffee served in bed and it was nice to be on the other end of habitual kindness for a change. And then there were the books. With the smell of coffee filling the entire flat and dust motes fossilized in the silver-gold morning sun, she would flip through one of the ex’s big art books that she would drag into the bedroom and either gape at indisputable beauty or sneer derisively at stuff she thought that Raff could have done when he was five. Then her shag buddy would come into the bedroom with the coffee, and perhaps it was an affect of perusing all those big, expensive-looking books that put her mind into an artistic cast because it seemed like whorls of steam from the mugs actually caressed smooth, naked flesh.

As with most things in her life, Gillian experienced little in the way of ambivalence concerning the artwork she encountered. She either loves wholeheartedly or loathes intensely, there is rarely an in-between point. Yet in one of the art books she discovered something of perplexing beauty that she could not get out of her head, a painting—far as she could tell, it was part of some naff kind of series—that ensnared her in the no-man’s land between admiration and derision, where she fatally succumbed to a deep and desperate desire for understanding. The artist in question had a funny name that she no longer remembers, and a lot of his paintings looked simple and blotchy; sometimes they were accompanied by words, which at least nudged them toward specific or speculative meaning. The series of paintings had something to do with the Iliad; that much she could figure out. The painting in question was a big blot of furry vermillion, a lick of flame blooming on the page with this scrawled underneath: the fire that consumes all before it. The color so vivid and textured that she imagined being afraid to touch it; created from an admixture of blood and fire, surely it would burn and stain in equal impassioned measure. She would have gone back again and again to that apartment just to look at the painting in that book and to make love with the woman again, who was so fantastically attuned, so marvelously receptive to Gillian’s touch. Then the woman moved down to London to try her luck at finding a real job and, after making a drunken, unsuccessful pass at the ex, Gillian was no longer welcome in the book-lined flat.

Meanwhile, her dad tells stories. So far the good thing about Celia is that she hangs off every word he says; she practically beams at him nonstop. Gillian always believed her parents were happy and had a good marriage, but she never remembers her mum looking at him quite the way Celia does. It sets off a rumbling unease in her guts that is not purely the province of the leftover kebabs that she had greedily devoured earlier in the day.

So she rubs her sweaty neck, floats a moat of lager in her mouth before swallowing, and cuts another covert glance at Caroline’s legs before slowly taking in the rest of the supreme bitch as if she dominates a wall at the National Gallery. Her face has the beautiful, haughty immobility of an Ingres portrait—now this bloke’s name Gillian remembers, because her shag buddy’s art history ex went on and on about Ingres one night while shitfaced on vodkatinis. The pose Caroline strikes is like one of the paintings the drunk ex showed her: regal lean-back, upper arm propped on the back of the chair, a single index finger pressed against the side of her head, near her temple. The firelight etches a sharp shadow in the cleft of her chin. In the luminous stillness of the moment, and yet also like a portrait painting in a horror movie, her adamantine blue eyes slide over to Gillian, and slowly her inscrutable, too-polite smile curls into a confident, knowing smirk.

The bitch knows.

Gillian’s jaw would drop in astonishment save that she clenches it so fiercely that the joint scrapes in sickening silence. She has never been one to hide her feelings or temper her expressions very well, if at all. Open book, heart on the sleeve, all that fucking nonsense. Enraged, she hunches her shoulders and turns away from Caroline, tries to focus on whatever story her dad is telling now: Something about a hay ride—teenaged shenanigans with Harry and Maurice, Celia in the reflected golden glow of Bonfire Night.

After another doting smile aimed at Alan, Celia impulsively lays a hand on Raff’s arm. “Do you have a girl, Raff?”

Jesus Christ, Gillian thinks, we will be here all night. Her juddering leg is going nonstop like a piston and if it keeps up she may drill a hole through the floor; on the other hand, if that happens, maybe there’s a chance she will be able to fall through the hole into a more amenable dimension.

Before Raff can launch into rhapsodies about the teenaged cow who’s been jerking him around for nigh on a year now, Caroline stirs from her chair. All eyes at the table turn in her direction as she tosses her head, stretches, and rises, all in one breathtakingly graceful leonine motion. While Gillian is not surprised that her father stands up politely—certain generational manners never cease—she is stunned when Raff, who cannot haul himself off the couch to help her carry bags of heavy groceries into the house, jumps up as if Caroline is some minor duchess on a tour of West Yorkshire.

“Excuse me,” she announces to all. “Just going to the ladies.’”

The menfolk sit and the conversation carries on. Raff mumbles yes, there is a girl, Alan chuckles derisively and shakes his head, Celia’s eyes brighten with delight—and as Caroline walks behind Gillian’s chair her hand, unseen by all at the table, trails sensuously across the breadth of Gillian’s shoulders.

Also unbeknownst to all, Gillian cannot breathe—well, at least for several long, panicky seconds. Fuck. She could spontaneously combust and Raff would go on blathering about Ellie and Alan would go on praising Celia and she would be a pile of ash on the floor, all from the mere touch of that demon Oxford bitch. When she can breathe again, she jumps up and the force of nearly two quickly consumed pints of shit ale leaves her rickety, knee bumping the table, chair screeching loudly, as her father gives her his usual, irritated don’t embarrass me look.

“Going to the loo,” she mumbles to no one in particular, because they all continue chattering like magpies.

Just outside the ladies’, hand resting on a door sticky with old varnish, she hesitates. You’re rubbish, you’re a fool, you’re a pillock. If you do this, you will ruin everything. But the imaginary membrane between self-loathing and self-fulfilling prophecy is as inconsequential a barrier as the door to the loo and before she has a chance to fling more bitter invective at herself she’s putting shoulder to door and stumbling through to embrace her fate—or, at the very least, feel up those amazing tits.

She finds Caroline leaning against a sink, one hip jutting seductively, arms folded across her chest and looking every inch the headmistress—and this induces briefly uncomfortably arousing flashbacks to all the times Gillian ended up in the head’s office—Mrs. Owens, Welsh, dark hair, killer legs too, oh God—at her old school for any number of infractions.

“Not quick on the uptake, are you?” Caroline says.

It’s true that she had no idea what to expect here. All the same, Gillian cannot help but think that if Caroline really wants to fuck she might, well, you know, act nicer about it. Apparently bitchiness is no mere shtick with Caroline Elliot, but deeply ingrained in her as stubbornness in a ewe about to foal. “What do you want?”

“What do you think I want?”

Hesitant, Gillian wavers. She’s sort-of drunk, growing tired and, in these kinds of interactions and quasi-negotiations, never one for playing games. All this, along with a growing uncertainty of why such a beautiful woman would want to muck about with the likes of her in the first place, takes sinister hold and she begins to suspect Caroline is taking the piss, that this is some elaborate trap: She will try it on and Caroline will scream bloody murder and go running out to her tiny posh mother declaring that this degenerate trashy slag of a farmer tried to seduce her and surely the apple does not fall far from the tree, and that would be the end of things with Celia, that would be that for her dad.

With an exasperated rolling of her eyes, Caroline opens her purse. “God, you’re thick. If you weren’t so—oh shit, I don’t know what to call it—I wouldn’t bother—”

Gillian is about to tell her to fuck right off and do an about-face back out to the pub when Caroline pulls something out of the purse and tosses it at her. Instinct—a pagan force of which Gillian Greenwood is no mere humble practitioner but rather high priestess—kicks in and she snares it midair. At first she thinks it’s a handkerchief. Rather, it is a pair of lacy, dark blue panties—silky warm, faintly perfumed, melting in contact with her skin. She wants nothing more than to bury her face in them, but that seems like conceding a point before the game has even begun. In Regency days, the handkerchief was the erotic calling card of choice; women dropped them or if they didn’t, men would beg, borrow, steal for one. We’ve come a bloody long way, haven’t we? Here she has it, confirmation that the snotty bitch is indeed slumming it.

“Well?” Caroline’s eyes, so brightly blue in firelight, have darkened, edging sensually into a feral shade of midnight. Or maybe it’s just the dodgy fluorescent spasms of light in the loo.

Well. Gillian shoves the panties in her jacket pocket and practically leaps across the dirty tiled floor. Does Caroline give off a scent of fear, arousal, or both? At any rate, she does not protest when Gillian pins her against the sink counter, her ass dangerously close to puddles of stagnant tap water and bunched-up paper towels. They kiss roughly, all teeth and tongue, a frantic act of devouring, a mutual surrender. Her hand rides up the silk road of Caroline’s inner thigh and even though she is dimly aware that anyone, including Caroline’s mother, could waltz in at any second, she’s too far-gone to give a toss.

Caroline pulls at her hair; it’s not unpleasant, but it does bring a temporary halt to the kissing. “Jesus, not here,” she hisses, and steers them into the closest stall, the metal door slap-bangs as they tumble through. Caroline shoves at the door to close it and pushes Gillian’s jacket off her slim shoulders. The jacket sloughs to the gray floor and Gillian tries not to think about the sticky, grotty tile. The door does not stay shut. With a long leg capped by a stiletto heel, Caroline kicks the fucking thing shut and Gillian thinks this is probably the most arousing thing she has witnessed in recent times.

Before she can moan an appreciative God or wow, Caroline’s tongue is in her mouth again as she is pressed against the chilly metallic wall. Her right hand slips up and under Gillian’s shirt, soft palm gliding along the tight muscled stomach until it reaches Gillian’s bra, which in bra years is downright ancient because it was, if she recalls right, purchased while Labour were still in power. Mercifully all thoughts of the British political system grind to a blessed halt when Caroline breaches that tattily permeable fabric and cups her breast.

A sharp gasp slips out of Gillian’s mouth as Caroline caresses her tit, her fingers pluck delicately at the nipple. Then Caroline pulls away, stops kissing for a moment. Her eyes retain their wild darkness; the irises are narrow, flaming rings of blue around enlarged pupils.

“I don’t know—I don’t know why I’m doing this,” she says. “It’s not me.”

Gillian has been in this position enough times, in that moment of hesitation on someone else’s part prompted by conscience, tiredness, inconvenience, or creeping sobriety. It is a moment she excels in because impulse, the drunk driver of instinct that sometimes takes common sense with it as both go barreling off a cliff like Thelma and Louise, settles in behind the wheel. She can take control then. She likes control. More than that, she needs it. To take control within the confines of the dangerous, the unpredictable, is the ultimate joy.

Capitalizing on Caroline’s moment of doubt, she reverses their position, spinning Caroline around so that she is the one against the wall, and keeping her pressed there by pushing her thigh between Caroline’s legs.

She kisses Caroline, sucking and nipping at her tongue, until Caroline makes the slightest of whimpers—no small thing, she thinks, to make a woman like this make a noise like that. “Don’t mean we have to stop,” she mutters. “Does it?”

When Caroline returns the kiss—mouth making a broad, swiping tease at Gillian’s lips—she considers that the go-ahead. Frantic, she’s pulling and twisting at the buttons of Caroline’s blouse, eager to make contact with those glorious tits, while her tongue twists along Caroline’s throat in a bid to learn the salty new language of Caroline’s skin. She feels good, she kisses like a goddess on fire, she smells like a summer day in Provence. It’s all so grand that Gillian breaks into a sweat before even getting started. Then Caroline seizes her hand and places it on the enticing, wool-clad swell of her own thigh. Her breath rolls in intoxicating, wine-scented rushes into Gillian’s mouth and she whispers, “Come on. Fuck me.”

Well, it is a shag in the loo and not a night at the opera, so without any further preamble Gillian’s hand tents the wool skirt. There is not much that makes her sigh with unadulterated pleasure these days, except for a weirdly amazing stout beer served at her local that tastes exactly like a Snickers bar, but the slickness of Caroline’s thighs does just that. She’s so incredibly wet, pubic hair so downy soft, that Gillian ignores the buckling of her own knees and just wants to nestle her hand there for the rest of the bloody night. Slowly she draws her middle finger along Caroline’s opening, playfully strums her clit while resisting the urgency of Caroline’s hips rocking against her hand. Pausing, she angles her own hips just so behind her hand, and pushes in. Her hand is drenched. She thrusts once, twice, is galvanized when Caroline releases a guttural moan that ping-pongs loudly around the empty bathroom. She waits for the pushback, for Caroline to set the rhythm.

Usually when she’s fucking some bloke in a car or a loo, or even a bed somewhere—the bleak mechanization of the act brings about inevitable disassociation. The mind drifts. She ends up thinking about things needing done on the farm, or recalls other, better lovers. Or, like whoever she is fucking at the moment, she stares herself into the void, a vanishing point on a wall. Something about this woman keeps her connected. Maybe it’s because they cannot stop kissing, and Caroline breathes and moans steadily into her mouth the entire time, keeping pace with the writhing of her own hips, and the pumping of Gillian’s hand. Maybe it’s because she holds so powerfully to Gillian, even as her hands roam everywhere—digging into a bicep, scraping the back of Gillian’s neck, playfully flicking an earlobe with her thumb. There is a staggering but rhythmic immediacy to it, the give and take of breath and movement that creates something quite unlike anything she’s experienced before, and that drives an increasingly frenetic need to make this woman come.

But just as she’s about to kick it into a higher gear, the main door of the ladies room thumps loudly and someone comes in.

Without thinking she claps her free hand over Caroline’s mouth because the last thing they need is for someone to hear the moaning, however intoxicating the sound is. Caroline’s eyes grow comically wide with fury and Gillian nearly laughs—then winces in pain when Caroline bites one of her fingers. She hopes the bitch hasn’t drawn blood.

Meanwhile, they are treated to a one-sided agony aunt session: “—he’s a fucking tosser, Michelle. You don’t owe him nuffin. I mean, seriously.” The sound of running water, the furious crank of the paper towel dispenser, a tinny wah-wah voice on a mobile that makes Gillian think of the teacher in the Peanuts cartoons she watched when little. A stall door opens and closes. Gillian has never understood why some people wash their hands before having a wee.

Furious, Caroline grabs Gillian’s wrist and wrenches the hand away from her mouth.

The counseling session continues to the accompaniment of a rather steady piss stream: “Michelle, he knocked up another woman. Are you really going to let him camp out at yours until he gets a bloody job? Christ, she’ll be pushing that rugrat out before anyone even thinks to hire him.”

Additionally, Gillian has never understood people who have phone conversations while attending to their business in the bathroom.

“Even if he weren’t my brother I’d say the same fucking thing!”

Gillian nearly loses it. She presses her face into Caroline’s shoulder, shaking violently with a valiant effort to keep a loud cackle from ripping through the room, while Caroline clasps a hand over her own mouth. Even so, she makes a tiny squeak of amusement that is, fortunately, lost in the roar of a flushing toilet.

More running water, more shaming, a brief conversation about a mutual hot guy friend who looks like one of the long-haired gits on Game of Thrones—Robb, Theon, Jamie? They all sound like a fucking boy band, Gillian thinks—as her fingers reflexively arch and torque inside Caroline, who breathes heavily, shakily through her nose, and Gillian grins. It would have been grand to do this proper in a bed, she thinks, because Caroline has a beautiful explosion of freckles all across what’s visible of her chest and Gillian wants very badly to chart the wild, fertile topography of her body.

The door closes. Caroline releases a long breath, all ragged and heavy. Gillian is about to say that was hilarious when Caroline kisses her again, hips rolling against Gillian’s hand. No messing about then, right back to it. As they fall back into that amazing, delicious rhythm, implacable frustration builds within Gillian—bitter realization that she’ll want more of this, but likely won’t get itand so she fucks faster, harder, her hand and fingers so wet she cannot tell if she is coming or going, in or out, but Caroline seems to like it because she threads a chant of yes in between gasping and moaning, the leg she has partially snaked around Gillian’s tightens, the edge of a stiletto gouges the back of Gillian’s thigh, her hand slips underneath the collar of Gillian’s flannel shirt and she’s marking Gillian with such sharp, bleeding savagery that when Gillian has if off with Paul a week from now in a desperate bid to forget this night, he will see the faint, healing scratch marks and have a jealous screechy fit like some bleach-blonde bint out of The Only Way is Essex and that’s when she’ll tell him to permanently fuck off.

Caroline stiffens, draws in one final breath from Gillian’s mouth, and, breaking the kiss, cries out. The metal and tile bucket of the loo rattles and thrums with the vibrato of her climax. But she keeps moving, milking the last bit of pleasure from Gillian, and it is not until she slumps heavily against the wall that Gillian carefully removes her hand.

Not done yet. She keeps Caroline pinned against the wall while grinding furiously against Caroline’s bare thigh, a dual layer of undies and denim providing a sweet added friction against her cunt. She nuzzles Caroline’s chest, gets a hint of a light, sweet perfume, imagines Caroline lightly spritzing herself with some ridiculously expensive posh piss water, and gasps as Caroline clutches and squeezes her ass, urging her on. It’s all she needs and she comes quickly, breathless, hissing with joy.

She could cling to Caroline is post-orgasmic bliss for a very long time, but Caroline wriggles impatiently and—possibly in a similarly imperious manner that she takes to either an indolent student or one of her presumably spoilt children—lightly slaps Gillian’s shoulder. “Come on. We’ve got to go.”

They disentangle. Still breathless, Gillian slouches against the opposite wall and watches in quiet awe—Has she done this before? Shagging random slags in loos across Yorkshire?—as Caroline quickly pulls herself together: Grabs a hank of toilet paper and, hand disappearing up her skirt, wipes herself and flushes the paper away. Reclaims her panties from the pocket of Gillian’s jacket and slips them back on. Buttons up her blouse. Picks her clutch purse up from the floor, pulls out a compact, surveys the damage done to her lipstick. With another bit of toilet paper she wipes her mouth bare.

Gillian sort of admires the high femme juggling act of Caroline keeping her purse clasped under one arm while reapplying lipstick with one hand and holding the compact steady with another, and—bonus femme points—complimenting her as well: “Well. That was a bit of all right.”

Quietly bowled over by any sort of compliment from this woman, Gillian slowly sinks onto the throne. “Thanks,” she mutters.

The compact snaps shut. “It’d be nice to have a proper go at you sometime.” Caroline tucks the compact in her clutch. Gillian nearly spasms off the loo when Caroline reaches down and touches her face, fingertips trailing her cheek—not tenderly, but rather with a distanced, scholarly regard, as if Gillian is a subject on which she will submit a term paper. Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors in Middle-Aged Bisexual Sheep Farmers: An Informal Survey.

Then she nearly ruins it all with unbidden, unwilling thoughts of Eddie. One time in the kitchen, arguing about one of his motorbike weekends: sitting at the table with him looming over her, he reached down and cupped her cheek with shocking gentleness. Then his hand slid down to her throat and he squeezed until she could not breathe. I could crush your larynx without breaking a sweat, he said. His touch, always, covered her body with the unpredictable force of water: sometimes soft as a trickle, violent as a deluge, or all consuming as a flood. How many times did he do that? How many times was she besieged by him, how many times did he turn her desire into a weapon?

“I’d like to see you,” Caroline is saying. “All of you.”

The painting beckons once more—the fire that consumes all before it—as well as the series of paintings that it was part of, all about the Battle of Troy. Maybe that’s why she liked it so much. It was part of an infamous flaming siege, a losing battle in a losing war. Ten years at Ilium. Ten years—two thousand, five hundred and sixty-three days—of Eddie Greenwood. The flower, the flame, the long slow immolation of her life.

She blinks, unseeing, into Caroline’s eyes. Caroline gently drags her thumb over Gillian’s lips. “I’d like to taste you.”

Gillian bites her thumb, sucks it.

Caroline’s expression hardens back into the impassively flawless, Ingres-like mask she wore earlier this evening. Reluctantly she withdraws her hand. “But I’m afraid it’s probably not a good idea, trailer trash.”

Then she’s gone, closing the stall door behind her. Gillian hears the running water, the towel dispenser, the fastidious click of heels, and a blast of noise from the pub as the main door opens and closes.

She remains on the toilet seat, thinking of the long drive home made uncomfortable by damp knickers, and then wipes her hand on some bogroll. With one fire, so much ends and begins. A flick, a lick of flame, and everything’s gone. One and done. Has she ruined everything between her father and Celia Dawson? She claws at her face. No. She can’t let that happen. She’ll keep her trap shut. She knows Caroline will too; a woman like that isn’t going to ever admit she fucked some slapper in the filthy loo of some random shit pub.

At the sink she imagines herself as a neurosurgeon in a TV show—yes, I realize it’s risky to operate on my own brain but I must save myself from my own stupid decision-making—meticulously, soapily scrubs her hands, splashes water on her face, and stares down the dumb, dazed face in the mirror. Looking aces, Gillian.

“You fucking knob,” she says.

Diving back into the heated fishbowl of the pub after everything that just happened feels slightly surreal. She spots the back of Caroline’s camel-hair coat disappearing through the main entrance into the outside world, and a thickening dread composed in equal measurements of disappointment and relief cement her to the spot as she continues to stare at the door.

Her father and Celia are pulling on their coats. Raff leans against the table; from a paper bag he’s eating what Gillian assumes are greasy chips ordered as takeaway from the bar. She’s tempted to bitch at him for wasting money, until Alan—correctly reading the snarl that contorts her face—quickly mentions that he bought the chips. Then he informs her that he is riding along with Celia and Caroline back to Harrogate, where he will spend the night. He looks well chuffed. She is happy for him. She almost tells him to be safe and wear a condom, but frankly at this point in the evening she doesn’t have the energy to be cheeky.

She and Raff pile into the Landy. He takes a breather from shoveling chips in his mouth long enough to articulate a sentence. “Caroline said you two had a nice chat.”

“Yeah.” She turns the ignition and, looking at the bag of chips, realizes she is starving. She grabs a few from the greasy bag.

With the cuff of his jacket he swipes at his shiny mouth. “Did she apologize, then? For what she said to you?”

“Sort of,” she mumbles around a mouthful of over-salted, stale-vinegary, crunchy-soggy potatoes.

“Sort of?”

“Yeah, well. Good enough.”

It rains. Water drops form nascent silvery halos on the windshield; the evening paints itself into a deep blue corner. She pulls out of the parking space and eases onto the road, guided by a smear of red taillights, bright as blood, wavering in front of them. A lick of flame, a brief flower, and it’s done.

 

  1. the blue roller

The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

—James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime

 

Four years later at Christmastime, Caroline kisses her.

Every year, as a reward of sorts for ongoing survival, Gillian gives herself a Christmas gift. The gift of choice was always a bag of chocolates from a certain sweet shop in Ripponden, the same place she and her mum would stop at every time they were in town shopping and doing errands. Three years ago, however, she discovered it had closed for good; the shop owner had died.

In those subsequent years, the gifts that struggled to replace the beloved chocolates were high-tech merino wool socks that supposedly did not make your feet sweat (her feet still sweated); a bottle of Laphroaig that she thought would last the winter (it was gone by New Year’s Day, she had no idea Caroline was so fond of whiskey); and a vibrator that made such a bloody racket the one time she used it that they probably heard her wank all the way to Manchester and now it sits shamefully unused in a unmarked box in the closet (when Robbie had stumbled upon it he assumed it was a foot massager and she had to bullshit on a massive scale—factory recall! fire hazard!—to get him not to use it as such).

This year’s gift, so she thought at the time, was signing divorce papers. She had no idea it would take so bloody long to divorce someone who had immigrated to Canada. The papers arrived on the first of the month and she had them signed and in the mail that same day; in the evening she celebrated by having a pint with Caroline at their usual spot.

It’s Boxing Day. The telly shows the Yule Log on a loop to an empty house.

Earlier, Caroline had put on the Yule Log on as a joke; the fireplace needs fixing and she didn’t have time to get it repaired before the holiday. An epic fail for Christmas, she had said mockingly, in a certain light, well-practiced tone that always belied her silent, furious self-criticisms. But they had a laugh about it and drank hot chocolate spiked with whiskey (not Laphroaig, but something with a fair amount of posh twaddle on the bottle that employed phrases like small batch and refreshingly artisanal), and just when Gillian thought the day couldn’t get better, Caroline kissed her and she realized that this was the real gift of the year. Of any year, really.

The kitchen smelled of spices and meat and Caroline’s mouth tasted of whiskey and chocolate as her hand curled a warm caress against Gillian’s neck. The joyous shiver that went through Gillian caused her to grip Caroline’s waist—perhaps too hard, she thought at first, but then Caroline moaned in her mouth and the kiss went on, spawned a life of its own that grew over a millennium and solved climate catastrophe and other pertinent world problems like the continued popularity of Uggs, at least it felt like that until they were both startled back into holiday reality when the Yule Log music on the telly suddenly went full-on Christian choral aggro: Joy to the world, the lord has come! Startled, Caroline broke the kiss and wobbly Gillian backpedaled away, stuffing her shaking hands in the back pockets of jeans, and they both looked about nervously as if Jesus himself had crashed their party of two riding in on a reindeer and triumphantly holding aloft a fruitcake in each hand. Fruitcake we have heard on high, sweetly signing over the plains!—Gillian’s mind spiraled into unwanted riffs because she could not believe what had just happened. She wanted to touch her own tingling lips, as if that alone would somehow verify that this thing she had so longed for, and for so many years, had finally come to pass.

But Caroline dragged both hands down her face—her cheeks rosy from the combined heat of the kitchen and the moment—and said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” The afterglow of the kiss so strong and euphoric that Gillian could not quite believe Caroline was already ruining it with apologies and regret.

“I shouldn’t have done that. You know, just—like that.” Now she paced while pinching the bridge of her nose. “I must be drunk.”

“No,” Gillian replied calmly. “You’re not. I’ve seen you drunk.” That was last Christmas: They burned through a bottle of wine, a decent bit of the Laphroaig, and a box of chocolates while up until like 4 a.m. watching White Christmas. A few hours later she woke to Calamity hovering over her on the couch, saying Gran, you look like crap while bright-eyed, apple-cheeked Caroline, redolent of a holiday ad in Woman’s World, made breakfast for everyone.

It is easy to forget that Caroline is the same woman she fucked in the stall of a loo in some grotty old pub all those years ago. The unrelenting press and heat of history and loss have transformed the haughty bitch of that era into someone as multifaceted and beautifully flawed as a diamond. Or is it just that she knows Caroline so well now, perhaps better than anyone among the living?

Caroline once told her that human ashes could be transformed into diamonds; she had cackled delightfully at Gillian’s horrified reaction. But somehow this mad, beautiful chemist has gone rogue into alchemy, crystallizing a moment from the ash-heap of Gillian’s memory into a glittering lure that pulls her into waking daydreams or pushes her into the catacombs of sweet restful nights, something so fantastical and wonderful that Gillian still asks herself, did that happen? Did that really happen?

As Gillian struggled to discern between what to say and what not to say—which, really, was the story of her bloody life—Caroline tensed up ramrod straight as if preparing to lead a military parade. “I shouldn’t have. You see, it’s just that I miss—”

Gillian braced herself for what she assumed was the inevitable and obvious conclusion to that sentence: Kate, I miss Kate.

“—sex,” Caroline finally said. “I miss sex. Well, not just sex, but affection, touching, being intimate with someone like that.” Then a note of hesitation, voice trembling: “You know?” As if she could not believe that the Great Swaggering Slag of West Yorkshire would understand intimacy beyond the rudimentary in-and-out basics of fucking.

“I know,” Gillian replied gently, giving her the benefit of the doubt. Reassured, Caroline sighed and relaxed against the kitchen counter as the Yule Log stammered out a naff orchestral version of “Little Drummer Boy,” and Gillian obligingly supplied her own lyrics: I have no gift to bring, oh fuckity fuck, that’s fit for a bitchy queen, oh fuckity fuck, fuckity fuck, fuckity fuck.

As distraction from dangerous thoughts, she heedlessly plowed forth. “What about what’s-her-face, that one who was always hanging about here? What happened to her?” She feigned forgetting Olga’s name. She remembered Olga’s name, and beauty, all too well; at the time, the jealousy she felt ate her inside out.

“You mean Olga?” Caroline asked incredulously.

“Yeah. That one.”

“‘That one’—it’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen her! Also, you act like I’ve had a thousand lovers in the past year.”

“You could’ve, for all I know.” As soon as she said it, Gillian realized how jealous it sounded.

And she wasn’t ‘hanging about.’” Caroline groaned. “Stalking, Gillian. She was practically stalking me.”

“Oh,” Gillian replied absently. Then it settled in: “Oh”—said with genuine alarm. “Jesus Christ. You should have—shit. Did you call police?”

“I threatened as much, haven’t seen her since. So it’s sorted.”

“You should have told me. I would’ve chased her off or summat.”

“Very chivalrous of you.” Caroline smiled—one of her deep, genuine ones, where the affection she feels for Gillian comes through so clearly that Gillian doesn’t know how she ever doubted that the woman cares for her, at least in some minor capacity.

Cheeks aflame, Gillian attempted joking her way out of actually feeling anything. Not that it actually ever worked, but she liked—loved—making Caroline laugh: “You did keep all the wine she gave you, didn’t you?”

Caroline released a delighted noise of half snort, half snigger. “Always asking the important questions. Of course I did.

“Yeah. Good, good.” Gillian stared down at the goddamn merino wool socks roasting her feet; her worst character flaws, masochism and impulsiveness, embodied in the one tortuous gift that keeps on giving.

“I am sorry about—” Caroline straightened and folded her arms across her chest, once again achieving, in one fluid gesture, the marriage of the sultry and the authoritative. “—just kissing you out of the blue like that. I shouldn’t have. It was just selfish and not right and not fair to you.”

But what, Gillian thought, if I wanted it? The question she had wanted to ask for years burned the back of her throat, and could no longer be denied. “Fuck sakes,” she muttered to herself.

“What?”

But if she never asks, she will never know. “Do you ever think about it? About what happened—the night we met?”

“Yes.” Blinking and startled, Caroline said it without a moment’s hesitation. As if it were obvious. “Of course I do.”

The flame and the flower, the fire that consumes all before it. Recently, through the miracle that is the internet, she managed to find an image of the painting again. She had set it as a desktop wallpaper for about a day until Raff said, what the hell is this?—suspecting that the history professor who bought an abandoned farmhouse nearby as a “retreat” had somehow hacked their ancient computer and was inflicting all sorts of pretentious twattery on them—and so she changed it back to the old wallpaper: a gorgeous Sierra Nevada Bighorn ram.  

“I’d never done anything like that with anyone,” Caroline continued. “Before or since. I mean, it was madness. Absolute, total, complete madness. You know that. But it was also exactly what I needed. I think, I think it—I know this will sound weird—but it liberated me in a way. At first I thought it was a mistake, a huge mistake—God, if we’d been caught—” She shook her head and shuddered. “But it wasn’t a misstep so much as something that was taking me in the right direction. Giving me the courage to admit who I was, and what I really wanted going forward in my life. It made me feel—I don’t know, bolder?” She shrugged. “For a little while, anyway. You know me, always one step forward, two steps back. And now. I guess lately I’d been thinking more about that night and at the same time realizing, that I feel—” Caroline slouched and softened in the way she does when her guard is down, her entire demeanor now meltingly smooth as butter. Gillian wondered if she would end up as a beautiful blonde cashmere puddle on the floor.

“What?” Gillian prompted.

“Lonely,” Caroline finally admitted. “I feel lonely.”

“You?” Gillian could feel her nose scrunch up, was fairly certain that was not the best expression—or tone—to satisfactorily convey understanding and empathy.

If she expected irritation from Caroline, she got genuine curiosity instead: “Why does that surprise you?”

“I don’t know. I guess—you’re always so busy, working. Always have a full house over here.”

“Sometimes when you’re surrounded by people, that’s when you’re the loneliest. Why d’ya think I’m always asking you to dinner, or to meet for a drink, or inviting myself over? It’s not the bloody sheep I’m interested in seeing, I can assure you of that.”

“Oh.”

This elicited one of Caroline’s patented eye-rolls. “You really are thick sometimes.”

Gillian laughed mirthlessly. “Yep. That’s me. Brain-dead trailer trash.”

“God. And I am still such a snotty bitch.” Caroline pressed the heel of her hand against her forehead. “Even after all these years.”

“Wouldn’t want it any other way.” Gillian wondered if this could be taken as an admission of love.  

Not that Caroline’s cheeky grin is any real indication. “Get out.”

“No, it’s true. It’s also true that—” She massaged a callus on her hand. “I’m lonely too.”

“Really?”

She nodded and rocked on her heels, which gave her a piddling momentum of a just a step or two toward Caroline, who straightened out of her defeatist, spine-altering slump. “Maybe, maybe we should be lonely together.”

Caroline frowned in that very schoolteachery I see a flaw in your argument and I am now going to rip it to shreds manner. “That sounds very unhealthy.”

Is there steam coming out of my ears? Gillian wondered. Because it sure as fuck feels like it. “I wish for five f-f-bloody seconds, you would not—”

“Not what?”

Not be you.

“Okay, now you’re just blatantly contradicting yourself. Barely a minute ago you said you wouldn’t want me any other way.”

Once again Caroline cross-circuited her emotions and in her mind she has landed right back the beginning of Super Mario Sheep Farmer Deluxe, press play: that pub four years ago, with this glorious snotty bitch charging in and verbally flaying her. Caroline may be different now, but the encapsulation of what Gillian felt—utterly furious and utterly enraptured—has remained very much the same, except that she is most certainly in love with this damned bitch now, and that won’t do. It simply won’t do.

Then Caroline threw her arms around Gillian’s neck and, this close to kissing once more, Gillian glimpsed the promised land—the freckled cosmos hinted at within the v neck of the cashmere jumper.

“Well,” the snotty bitch declared. She smiled. Gillian melted. “I do kind of owe you one, don’t I?”

That’s how they end up in Caroline’s bedroom.

Because of a longstanding belief that she hadn’t a chance in hell of ever actually getting into Caroline’s bed, Gillian possessed few actual expectations of the enterprise except accurate envisioning of the obvious extraneous details: clean fancy soft sheets, a delightfully light, fluffy comforter, mood lighting (scented pine candle, a gift from Ellie last Christmas), dull bedside reading (a book on tectonic plates). But here she is, having come about three times in nearly two hours and leaving a significant damp spot on the sheets that she feels faintly embarrassed about, despite the hostess’s gentle assurances to the contrary.

What she did not dare hope was improvement on the improvisations of the first time: Caroline breathing wild desire into her mouth again and matching it in time with movement and touch; this time, however, is interleaved with detailed, artful attention to Gillian’s body. Her fingers course flat and smooth over flesh and veins in tender pursuit of what lies below the surface: fire and stories, the places that hurt, the places that can heal. Slow and careful, she extends Gillian’s left arm, as if assessing the wingspan of an injured goshawk.

Gillian thinks of another, vastly different painting she saw in one of those art books years ago: Albrecht Durer’s painting of a bird’s wing. She didn’t like it at first, finding it flawed because it was incomplete; it was just a wing, not the entirety of the great bird, the European blue roller. She did not know then what she has slowly come to terms with in subsequent years: fragments are compellingly complete in and of themselves, even as they may be part of some mysterious whole or message or something that she’ll never quite figure out, and maybe that doesn’t fucking matter. The flame a precursor of the fire. The ash immersed into diamond. The fragments have led her here.

The most exquisite and tantalizing kinds of fragments are, no doubt, vaulted away in Caroline’s mind. Which leads her to ask only the most urgent and banal question a lover possibly can. “What’re you thinking?”

Even as she apparently gives serious consideration to the query, Caroline does not stop touching her. “I’m thinking, ‘God, I hope we don’t have to wait four years to do this again.’”