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the small fire of winter stars

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Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

—Mark Strand, “Lines for Winter”



Catherine does not hate Christmas; she hates Christmas parties.

She’s hairsplitting this while standing alone in the kitchen and trying desperately to ignore the shouting from the living room, namely Ryan’s bellowing, bastardized take on a beloved Christmas carol that likely sends poor George Michael spinning in his grave:

“Last Christmas, I gave you my farts—the very next day, you waved them away—”

Clare’s groan interrupts: “Oh, God.”

Another stroppy male voice joins in: “—this year, I won’t eat paneer—”

“Jesus, Daniel, don’t encourage him.”

“—and then they’ll smell really special—”

Spe-shul!” the boys chime in together.

Fart-themed Christmas carols: the nail in the coffin of her holiday loathing.

The clamor of voices from too many people stuffed in the tiny living room yoke her to the past, to all those Christmases when her children were young. She tries to remember Becky during the holidays—did she even like Christmas at all? The food, the gifts, the decorations? Did she go bug-eyed at the mere sight of Christmas lights? Her eyes. Were her eyes bluer than Daniel’s or was it the other way around? Photos would provide concrete evidence, but digging out the family photo albums meant exposing herself to the entire timeline of her daughter’s life from cradle to grave and that kind of morbid, heavy-duty self-evisceration during a supposed Christmas party is a bit mad, even by her own standards. As of late, there have been a lot of things she has done her damndest to ruin. But Clare loves Christmas—it was her idea to have the party, of course—so the best Catherine can do is sock away her coal-black moods by hiding in the kitchen and keeping her bloody mouth shut.

In the dangerous stillness of her mind, however, questions do not stop. Did Becky believe in Santa as a child? Did she believe in God? Did she believe in anything? Belief being something on her mind recently, for painfully obvious reasons.

Maybe it’s not just the parties; maybe she hates Christmas too.

Breathless and rosy-cheeked from running around playing hostess, Clare rushes into the kitchen and messily shakes some biscuits from a box onto a bright plastic reindeer-themed food platter. “How’s the punch?”

Earlier Clare had dragged out a massive punchbowl—Catherine didn’t even know they had such a thing—and made a nonalcoholic punch comprised of cranberry juice, some other juice or three, ginger ale, maybe Red Bull but Catherine was afraid to confirm that, apple slices, grapes, and mysteriously sludgy brown spices that floated on the surface of the liquid like dregs from the wreckage of an oil tanker.

Catherine knew if she didn’t at least try the punch she would catch serious shit from her sister, so earlier she took a plastic cupful of it, sipped it—and since has waited for a suitable solitary moment to dump it down the drain.

“Good,” she says, raising the cup in a half-hearted toast.  

Clare scowls. “Liar.”

Catherine sighs out a confession of disgust.

“You going to stand out here in th’ kitchen all evening?” Clare demands.

“No, I’ll be in a bit.”

Clare fixes her with a look and a curse word—she always doles them out sparingly so that when deployed, they carry more impact than Samuel L. Jackson saying motherfucker on an eternal loop. “Damned bloody liar.”

She is not even offered a biscuit before Clare goes back into the living room.

One guest is conspicuously absent from the party. Jane Oliver had the legitimate excuse of a Christmas Eve event at the church: Santa—rather, some poor old bastard tarted up in a smelly old red suit—would be doling out gifts to underprivileged children.

When Jane told them of the event a few weeks ago, Catherine could not help but take the piss: “Santa in the church? How secular. Would Jesus approve of pagan idolatry and materialistic excesses in his house on the eve of his big day?”

“Jesus likes shiny lights and free rumballs just like everyone else,” Jane had retorted.

Catherine knows she seriously buggered things between them recently when she had shown up rather dramatically, in the midst of an unseasonal soaking rainstorm no less, at Jane’s house. She had tried to convince herself it was not stalkerish in the least; one would think most stalkers would possess the common sense not to stand around waiting for the object of their affection in a torrential downpour so it was, perhaps, a genuinely spontaneous and selfless display. Except that it wasn’t. Most crims are shit for brains and when it comes to Jane Oliver she is definitely shit for brains, because if she still had a boombox she would have had it balanced on her head like a dark sleek mitre as it blared out something embarrassingly unhip and disturbingly romantic.

Jane had not been displeased at finding her on the doorstep. Once inside the house, she promptly removed the dog collar, which Catherine interpreted as a sexy move, like a fellow loosening his tie when he invites a woman in for a drink but who knew, the signs and signals involved in lusting over a vicar were extremely difficult to decode at times. After putting the kettle on—an innocuous action that forced her to reevaluate, because when was tea ever seductive except in a BBC costume drama?—Jane put Catherine’s bulky rain slicker and boots near a radiator to dry and flopped down on the sofa, where she looked so relaxed, happy, and dangerously receptive to overtures of romance that Catherine had no choice but to do an about-face and repay these hospitable, genteel actions by pacing in front of the gas fireplace and attempting to talk both of them out of mere contemplation of taking things further. One reason bled easily into another, all of it madly swirling into an incoherent anti-relationship manifesto and serving up enough self-flagellation that if she were still being forced to see that knobhead therapist, he would gleefully be scribbling up field notes for a paper to present at a conference.

The subject of my study is an emotional landmine of a woman who fears intimacy more than murderers—

“I’m a mess,” Catherine began.  

Jane nodded. “I know.”

“You’re not supposed to agree.”

Jane, who for some strange reason had expected gentle confirmation of the obvious to be a comfort and not a challenge, merely blinked in response.

“I’m not fit to be in a relationship with anyone, that should be pretty obvious, and I’ve never been in a real relationship with a woman, I’ve just, just slept with them”—there was an element of shamefacedness about this, and Catherine’s voice dropped into mumbled defensiveness—“you know, because of tequila and Rocky Horror—”

“Tequila and Rocky Horror, bourbon and Bound, vodkatinis and the Women’s World Cup—” With extravagant weariness, Jane sighed. “I’ve heard them all.”

Staring at the floor, Catherine pinched her brow, laughed mirthlessly, and said softly, “Vicars and tea.”

“Well, I’ve been told I make a good cuppa, but really, turning women queer is a power beyond my ken.”

Stop being charming, stop being funny, Catherine wanted to scream. Instead she slumped in front of the gas fireplace and as its tepid heat raked the backs of both thighs, she dared God to indulge in the ultimate, divine parlor trick of spontaneous combustion because she was on a bloody roll:

“On good days I’m agnostic and on bad days I’ve cursed God from the depths of hell and I’d probably compromise your very, very precarious standing within the church, I know th’ archbishop up here is pretty copacetic about gay stuff but still, even in this enlightened lesbian haven there are homophobic tossers always looking to stir up a shitstorm, and if it gets out they might boot you out of the church, and I don’t want to be responsible for that, and I don’t want to jeopardize the friendship we have just for shagging, because it is too valuable, it is, it is, too—” I am pushing you to the limit, God, oh God, am I going to say it? I am going to say it.

“What?” Jane asked gently.

“Sacred.” Well good, at least you didn’t say you were in love with her, because you probably are—oh, but sacred is pretty bad too, isn’t it?

Having choked out that damnably appropriate word, Catherine waited for the smiting to occur. Instead, the refrigerator in the kitchen clicked and hummed and outside a car horn honked loudly and someone yelled, we’ve got to go, ya gobshite. But she had surprised the lovely vicar, currently rendered speechless and still except for a few frantic beats of her eyelashes and the expressive arch of her eyebrows.

“Was that blasphemous?”

“No, not at all.” Jane rubbed the back of her neck. “Just, um, a lot to unpack before tea.”

All these things, of course, could be managed somehow, the mitigation would prove worth the risk if she did not believe in the one that reigns with Luciferian power above all others, even God: The things inside her, the blackness, the bleakness, the monsters in her head, particularly the one that wears Tommy Lee Royce’s face, and she fears that Jane could not endure it for long and even if she could, the alteration in their course would only lead to regret.

After all this ranting she committed the great tactical error of plopping down on the squishy old sofa that encouraged one to lounge as if in an opium den, sinking down into cushions right beside a woman she was absolutely smitten with and in front of a warm fire no less. If this was the doing of Jane’s God, Catherine thought miserably, She must be overfond of Hallmark movies.

One of the very first things Catherine learned in police training was a classic forward shoulder roll, and at the moment she was sorely tempted to dive toward the floor and launch into the only escape route possible, because at the moment the tiny vicar was more dangerous than a meth head with blowtorch and a chainsaw.

Before she could execute this dubious plan, however, Jane took her hand, caressed it, and for a very alarming moment her vision dimmed. Considering that the last time she lost consciousness was when Royce nearly beat her to death, this was not good. She did not have another disposable internal organ that could be cast off after this excruciatingly gentle flaying; she only had one heart and couldn’t afford to lose it.

Jane’s thumb continued to smooth over the lines of her palm. She caught her breath again; an epiphany flooded her senses as if it were some airborne contagion. It was amazing that while being rejected in the most awkward and passive-aggressive way possible, Jane Oliver still managed to be incandescently beautiful. 

“So.” Jane cleared her throat. She smiled sadly. “We’re at an impasse, then.”

Catherine closed her eyes for a moment. The warmth of the fire lingered in her imagination, became indistinguishable from the heat of Jane’s touch. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“You won’t. I promise you that.” Jane squeezed her hand, and then released it. Then she cleared her throat again, rose from the couch, fetched the tea, and Catherine thought that she had just made one of the biggest mistakes of her life.

The ease and power of Jane’s beliefs in God specifically and humanity in general has always impressed Catherine, even as Jane has reminded her on more than one occasion that faith is more of a quotidian struggle than laypeople might think. The conviction of this woman, who believes in not only the sublime, ephemeral existence of a supreme being but also a wealth of lost causes, a certain police sergeant among them, only enhances a numinous beauty that Catherine has yet to discover in any other person.  

Now Christmas Eve has arrived, and she must deal with people and merriment and no vicar and nonalcoholic punch, not to mention bearing witness to the relentless coupledom of almost everyone present, which only exacerbates loneliness and longing: Daniel’s new girlfriend, Ann’s new boyfriend, Shaf and his wife, Clare and Neil. She’d snog Joyce just for the hell of it, but there’s no mistletoe. It’d be worth it, though, to send her old friend into a homosexual panic because Joyce hasn’t had one for a good quarter century or so; it could be a palate cleanser, perhaps.  

On the other hand, Joyce seems pleasantly sozzled enough that she might not really mind a kiss—this initial observation from earlier confirmed when Joyce saunters into the kitchen to indict Catherine of subpar hospitality through the vehicle of seasonal song: “You’re a mean one, Mrs. Grinch—do do do do—”

In spite of herself, Catherine snorts with laughter. “What’s this, now? Insulting me in my own house on Christmas Eve?”

“Ah, ah, there now, I’ve come to help.” Joyce takes a guarded look at the doorway, pulls a flask from her jacket, and quickly pours a generous dram of amber-colored whiskey into Catherine’s plastic cup. “Drink up.”

Catherine sips, manages not to wince.

“How’s that? Better?”

“A bit, yeah. Still tastes like a recipe for diabetes.”

“Oh come on, it’s not that bad.”

Queasy and suspicious, Catherine stares at the red moat in the punchbowl that brings to mind the titular creature of The Blob in that it appears to roil of its own ominous accord; if it continues to do so, she will have no choice but to taser it. “It’s just not my thing.”

“Just drink up, down the hatch real quick, and come in th’ other room and be nice to people.”

“That’s not my thing either.”

Joyce eyeballs her. “All right, last offer: Come outside and have a fag with me.”

“Now that’s more like it.” Catherine grabs a hoodie and a pack of smokes.  

Outside the evening is clear, the whetstone of winter sharpens the air into fragile stillness. She pretends that the satellites flickering and hovering above in the sky are stars generating the illusion of guidance. In the coldest, darkest winter night the sight of stars always sends her bones churning like kindling logs frantically seeking a spark.

Last week, after the torrential rains had stopped and the bitterly cold weather settled in, she and Ann had discovered a body, a rough sleeper who had frozen to death in a car on the side of the causeway heading toward Blackshaw Head; the man was curled up in the back seat, head on an arm rest, positioned just so for gazing up through the back window at the night sky. It wasn’t the first time she had seen a dead body, of course, but the strangely peaceful repose of the body, the cradled head, the clouded eyes pointed skyward—all of it stayed in her head longer than usual and in fact remains there. At times her mind is nothing more than a swimmer immersed in tedious, punishing laps through a pool of memories. Later Catherine wondered what stars he had seen that night and wanted to tell Jane about the whole thing but she’s not an astronomer, she’s not a lover, she saw no point in regaling a good, kind woman with a tales of dead man out of options, out of time, found alongside a lonely road.

She and Joyce smoke together in amiable silence. The crinkling hiss of the cigarette, the blackened fissures in the orange flare of the tip is something she will miss when, once again, Clare will predictably decree on New Year’s Day that they’re giving up smoking. Perhaps this year she’ll make it beyond a month.

Joyce expels a turret of smoke. “Mike’s still on the warpath.”

Catherine sighs. “I know.” There was this flinty bastard, a potential witness in a rape case who wouldn’t offer testimony against the prime suspect. Catherine had encountered him a couple days ago, only meant to rattle his cage a bit, it got out of hand—or foot, rather. Hence the complaint.

“Seriously, could you have just given the boss a fruitcake rather than cause for a civilian complaint? Least the former, he could just chuck in the bin later.”

“Not my fault Shaf radioed me and told me that the scrote was in my vicinity, and lo”—Catherine gestures expansively—“there he was, shiny BMW right in front of my town car—”

“Your Christmas miracle,” Joyce says sourly.  

“—and it looked like he had a broken taillight—” 

“It wasn’t broken.”

“Looked like, seriously.”

“You are so full of shit.”  Joyce snorts, shakes her head. “Then you had to—”

“He tripped over my foot.”


“It wasn’t intentional.”

“Accidentally on purpose, then.”

That was a nudge closer to the truth, not that Catherine would admit it. “I have large feet, ask Clare, ask anyone. Ask Richard, even. We used to swap trainers all th’ time, it’s th’ only thing I miss about being married, really—although somehow he got custody of the Stan Smiths.”


“Honestly, he tripped, and when I tried to help him up he pushed me away and shrieked—shrieked, shrieked like a girl who packs the wrong lipstick on a date—acting like I was about to beat him within an inch of his life—”

Joyce’s face distorts into a comical masque of disbelief. “You, of all people! Unbelievable!”

Like any figure of moderate infamy, Catherine’s reputation is a rickety structure built with exaggeration and half-truths upon a crumbling, invisible foundation that now buckles under the passage of time and its unyielding expectations.

Joyce shakes her head. “Mike says the Queen was senile to ever give you a medal.”

“HRH was just lucky she didn’t trip over my feet.”  

Their laughter echoes in the alley.

Joyce shakes her head, takes a few more drags of the cigarette. She grins. “Me and Ann and her new lad did jello shots before we came over.”

“Explains why you lot had glazed expressions and giggle fits when you arrived.” Ann’s date is some fellow she met during a court appearance, one of the newer fish in the Crown Prosecution pond. In court he seemed young, slick, ambitious, a pile of carefully curated hair atop a too-expensive suit. “So, what’s he actually like?”

Joyce shrugs. “Nice enough.”

“In other words, she’ll be done with him by New Year’s.”


A Santa Claus carrying a rather large rucksack ambles up the alleyway. Not an unusual occurrence, as the season has found many charities going door-to-door for donations of some kind. Of course, Catherine assumes half of them to be scams and tends to give each one a fairly thorough bollocking when they show up at the house, which is why Clare usually scrambles to answer the door.

Santa appears to be making a beeline for them. Hackles up, Catherine exhales smoke and inhales a lungful of invective.

“We’ve no money, Santa,” Joyce calls out. “We’re public servants.”

As Santa gets closer, Catherine realizes that this is easily the skinniest and shortest Saint Nick she’s ever laid eyes on—a suspicious detail that niggles. Can’t be. I can’t be that lucky, neither God nor Santa is generous enough to—

There is, however, no mistaking the distinctive blue-green eyes above the bushy fake beard, nor the undeniably feminine, London-accented voice that happily proclaims, “Merry Fucking Christmas, public servants!”

Joyce gapes. “Reverend Oliver?”

“Shit, you’ve blown my cover, Joyce.”

Later, Catherine will feel a smidge of remorse for the rain of cackling laughter she and Joyce unleashed upon the costumed vicar, who now only sighs in resignation as she removes the hat and the fake beard.  

“Years of divinity school, and this is how I end up,” Jane says ruefully. 

“Oh my God,” Catherine wheezes.

“Oi, blasphemy.”

“What the hell are you doing in that?”

“The parishioner who plays Santa every year has the flu. So, a last-minute substitution was required.”

“And you didn’t have any tall, fat, Santa-type parishioners?” Catherine inquires.

“None willing to risk potential public humiliation.”

“And a suit that fits you too?”

“Myra is a miracle worker with a sewing kit.”  

With mock outrage, Joyce shakes her head. “So no man in your church can handle the responsibility of being Santa?”

Jane waves the Santa hat. “Weary is the head that wears the nightcap.”

“Well, you look grand and I’m sure to a group of little ones you were big enough to be a proper Santa,” Joyce assures.

“I did all right.” Jane shrugs. “Kept my voice nice and low.” A demonstration reveals a suave, rich alto that Catherine finds disturbingly attractive: “Ho ho ho.”

“Very butch.” Joyce practically purrs this, while batting eyelashes no less, and Catherine is profoundly infuriated that one of her oldest friends flirts better with the object of her affection than she ever has. Not that she would know how to flirt with anyone, really.   

Jane bows. “I shall take that as a compliment.”

Catherine drops a fag butt in the remainder of her dismal drink. Is her hand shaking, is the warmth filling her belly really a result of the spiked punch?  “Put the hat and beard back on for a mo, we’ve got to take you in and show you to our Ryan.”

“Are you mad? That boy will completely take the piss with me. He said the other day that Santa was bollocks.”

“Yeah, that sounds like him, but it might keep him from singing more fart-themed Christmas songs,” Catherine says.

“That,” Jane says, “is a musical subgenre of which I am blissfully unaware.”

“Come on. Please?” As she says this, Catherine feels the delicate pinprick of Joyce’s beady gaze tattooing an emotional bullseye upon her head.

“Well, then, in service to the greater good—” Jane doffs the beard and hat again. “Let the mockery and merriment continue.”

Inside, as if she is on a mission from God to bring Santa to the skeptical masses, Jane barrels straight into the living room to boom out another convincing ho ho ho. Unsurprisingly, she works a Christmas party as well as she does a Sunday sermon.

Ryan yells, “No way!” among the laughter and cheers.

“Hope they’re payin’ you extra for that,” Clare laughs.

The surprise wears off quickly for the youngest among them and Ryan’s critical eye takes over. “You’re too short and thin to be Santa.”

“Look, do you want free chocolate and rumballs or not?” Jane retorts.

Miserably, Catherine realizes Joyce must be right: She is a Grinch, because her heart now crowds her chest in an uncomfortably awful way, signaling that it’s time for a retreat to the kitchen. She has done her Grinchy due diligence and saved the Christmas party from Clare’s punch by providing a lesbian vicar dressed as Santa Claus who is currently dispensing leftover church candy to their guests. Mission accomplished. It’s the best she can do.  

Unfortunately, Joyce follows her back to the kitchen.

Catherine tosses the soggy fag butt in the trash and dumps the spoiled cup of punch down the drain. Then she glares at Joyce, who sports a smirk so wide that it threatens to crack the veneer of her well-applied, too-bright lipstick.

“What’re you on about?” Catherine snarls.

“You know what I’m on about.”

“No, I don’t.” She opens the refrigerator, glares at the contents, grabs a bottle of water.

“I just didn’t know that word was in your vocabulary.”

“What word?”

Joyce trills comically: “Please.

“Yeah, well, despite what everyone thinks I wasn’t raised among wolves.” This said while sloppily guzzling water and furiously swiping at her mouth with a flannel shirt sleeve. 

“Not to mention your face lit up when she took off the beard. But yeah, you said please to the vicar—and not sarcastically, either.” Joyce sidles up to Catherine and says, sotto voce, “I thought you said there wasn’t anything going on with you two.”

“There isn’t—not that it’s any of your business.”

 “You know, it’s amazing, you always get like, weirdly sulky and also polite when you fancy a woman. D’ya remember our first year out, that stripper—the one who shot the club owner on Birchcliffe Road? Handcuffed, covered in his blood, flirting with you and you, acting like you’re going out on a date wi’ her—”

Those first couple of years on the beat, she did a lot of stupid stuff—they all did, really, but who wants to be reminded of it? At least it didn’t get beyond flirting.


“Joyce,” she hisses, fumigating the rage out of her body through clenched teeth.


“Yes, love?” Joyce coos.


Joyce cackles. “God, Catherine. Who else could make Christmas candy sound as menacing as you do?”  Humming, she saunters back into the living room, the Grinch song serving as her outro.

About fifteen minutes later, Catherine’s mobile goes off. Mike’s name flashes on the screen. She almost yearns for the distraction of a murder or similar criminal chaos but assumes it’s nothing more than his usual bollocking.

That he doesn’t even bother with a greeting is sad but expected: “Just thought you should know—it’s sorted. I talked Mr. Hatch out of not filing a complaint against you.”


He sighs.



“Do you want to come to our Christmas party?”


“I said, d’ya want to come to our Christmas party?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake—” To his credit Mike ends the call before further obscenity is employed.

Catherine stares at her mobile. Well, she tried to be nice to someone today. “Rude,” she mutters aloud.

“Who’s rude?”

The question is from Jane, who has braved the kitchen fortress of solitude. She has shed the bulky Santa costume for normal streetwear. Whenever she’s not wearing a dog collar or vestments, she is usually dressed in some somber monochromatic outfit as if she is a descendent of a Venetian Renaissance banker or cultivating some grim London hipster lookor at least what in Catherine’s mind constitutes London hipster couture. At any rate, it’s always simple, dark, tasteful: tonight it’s black jeans, a dark blue jumper, Doc Martens.

It’s like she doesn’t want you to forget she’s not messing about in her time on this earth, Clare once observed.

Like a uniform, Catherine now realizes. It’s a wonder she can scrape together any cogent thought with Jane hovering about looking so serious and handsome and intent on saving her soul or having a biscuit, who the fuck knows, so of course she can only blurt out stupidly, “Where’s your Santa kit?”

“Stuffed in my bag.” Jane winces. “It reeks a bit too much of the Ghosts of Santas Past, I’m afraid.” She nods at the punch bowl. “How is it?”

“Fine, if you don’t mind losing your teeth.”

Briefly Jane flashes a lovely grin that perfectly highlights her own pearly whites before staring intently at the floor. She pushes at the sleeves of the jumper and rubs her arms, then shoves both hands into their respective jean pockets and hunches her shoulders—all the busy, wary motions of a teenaged boy repackaged into a middle-aged woman.

“Is it all right that I’m here?” Jane asks.  

“What? Yeah, of course. Of course it is.”

“I mean, Clare invited me, but that was kind of before we, um, talked—and I didn’t want to assume—”

“No, right, right.”

“I asked again the other day and she said it was okay—”

“It is.” What would her hair look like splayed across a pillow, in the glory of morning light?


“Yeah, it’s great.” What would it feel like to trail fingertips down her cheek?


“Yeah.” Or to rest a hand upon her bare chest, to feel the blessed throb of her heart?



Jane ups the conversational ante with a three-syllable word: “Wonderful.”

You can’t, you just fucking can’t. Catherine folds, putting the matter to rest with a singular, sharp, “Right.”

“Right, yeah.” Jane’s Doc Martens readily aid and abet her nervous, vigorous bouncing.

Mercy intervenes in the form of Ann and her fellow, who have crashed the kitchen demanding crisps. The aspirant boyfriend—Rick or Brad or Clint or something manly—is all over-gelled hair and Ralph Lauren cashmere jumper, and at Ann’s behest busies himself with an attempt at thinning out the wretched sweetness of the punch with some club soda. Ryan, already hopped up on an Advent’s worth of sugar, bursts onto the scene, running around and mouthing off, until Daniel lures him back into the living room with the promise of a game on the mobile. The invisible force field Catherine had set up around herself has been broached, and with the ebb and flow of the party now rerouted, time passes effortlessly—largely in part because she can alternate her attention between talking shop with Ann and watching Jane talk with Neil.

They are in the middle of a bitchfest about Jodie Shackleton when Ann barks out a laugh.

“What?” Catherine blinks.

“Nothing.” The reply is too quick, but Ann’s dark eyes pinball over in Jane’s direction.

When one’s motives are so easily flushed out yet discreetly ignored, the best thing to do is play for time and say nothing. The circle of life is a circle jerk of passive aggression. Still, she makes a mental note to kill Joyce, who has clearly and obviously outed her and now she’s wondering how many other people Joyce has blabbed this to—for fuck’s sake, does Mike know?

Ann misdirects: “D’ya know Jodie has leather pants?”

“Yeah, no, and frankly not sure I want to know how you know that.”

“She invited me out for drinks—”

“What did I just say?”

About an hour later, Daniel begins the round of goodnights that signal the gradual dissolution of the party. As people leave, Catherine spends longer than usual luring the punch-drunk Ryan up to bed; he’s so exhausted he falls asleep before reminding her of all the gifts he wants tomorrow, only half of which they actually managed to get. When she goes downstairs everyone is gone save for Jane, who is pulling on her leather jacket and chatting with Clare in the kitchen.

“—don’t mind if I pick it up later?”

“Yeah, it’s fine. Fact, I could bring it to you—”

Catherine wavers in the kitchen doorway, her Grinch heart so torn between contraction and expansion that she fears a heart attack. After years of smoking it takes this to get you worried about a heart attack, she bitches at herself.

“You’re going?” she mumbles at Jane.

“You could say I’ve another engagement.” Jane pulls on a dark watch cap and tucks a tartan scarf into the collar of her jacket.

“Another party?” Judgment bleeds into Catherine’s tone. But we are such super party people. What could be more fun than hanging out with a sentient menacing blob of holiday punch, a sweet-natured addict, and a grumpy old bitch of a copper?  

Clare gives her a rather pointed look. “I’m going out for a smoke and our righteous vicar is going to an all-night lesbian sex club.”

Jane takes pity on Catherine’s perplexed, irritated look. “Midnight Mass,” she reminds with gentle condescension.

“Oh, that,” she mutters.

“Yes, that,” Jane replies. No mistaking the archness in her tone, the I know you don’t take my vocation as seriously as your own subtext.

“Now if there were an all-night sex club, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were called Midnight Mass,” Clare muses. 

Are there all-night sex clubs here?” Jane asks with a nervous laugh, and Catherine detects—or so she thinks—a hopeful note in the tone, a randy twitch in the cheeky grin, and perhaps a touch of Londoner snobbery.

Clare tugs on her beanie, opens the kitchen door. “Could ask Sandy down at th’ Mission, she knows all that sort of thing—”

Jane does not listen. She fusses with the zipper of her jacket, pats her pockets for gloves, finds them, anything not to look at Catherine, anything not to say goodnight, but the cold air rolls in from the now-open door and Clare has a cigarette hanging off her lips, so finally she musters up a very sweet brave smile and a quick, gracious thank you and goodnight to Catherine.

The door closes. Catherine goes in the living room. The tortuous, spastic blink of the Christmas tree lights does not, thankfully, prompt hallucination, but they do ratchet up her irritation several thousand notches. The telly is on, sound muted. She drops onto the sofa and stares at the screen. It’s the movie where Will Farrell plays an elf and she knows many people find it funny, but strangely enough two hours of watching a grown man behave like a child isn’t something she has ever found amusing. She’s not sure how much time has passed. Minutes? An hour? An eternity? Such is the timeline of lost chances; the moment stretches luxuriously, the great unknown of the breaking point always appears light years away until, like a broken rubber band, it snaps and slaps you in the fucking face.

She gets up, stands in the doorway of the kitchen, hands loose and empty at her sides, dull pain carving the meat of both palms.

In a burst of cigarette-scented cold air, Clare comes back in, shakes off the chill, and sheds her jacket. Catherine does not remember the world without her sister, she cannot read anyone as well as she does Clare, which means that Clare does not have to say a word to accompany the eclipse of pity, frustration, and love that traverses her face.

But as sisters are wont to do with one another, Catherine goads her—in this instance, to say what she means. “Something on your mind?”

Clare hangs up her jacket. “Idiot,” she says gently.

Catherine growls, swipes the cigarette pack out of Clare’s hand, and charges out into the night.

“Put on yer coat!” Clare shouts after her.

Outside she stares down the dark, empty alleyway. If she runs fast enough, maybe she could catch up to Jane. Maybe she could even go to Midnight Mass; the church isn’t that far away, about a fifteen-minute walk. She doesn’t remember the last time she went to a midnight mass—perhaps when Daniel was a baby? She has a dim memory of struggling not to fall asleep while boiling in a wool overcoat over a dress she hated and with an infant sprawled in her lap.

She lights the cigarette but does not smoke it. The vermillion tip edges closer and closer to her fingers, a winter star threatening collapse on the knuckled rise of her hand. As the wind slices through her she shivers, wonders what it would be like to lie down in the middle of the street and surrender her hopeless, sluggish heartbeat up to the stars, to bathe in their cold clarity until death. She thinks again about the rough sleeper. Had he really given up, or did the stars indeed give him hope that he would wake the next day? What was it like to truly give up? Was it a relief? Could it be that simple, perhaps the moment itself possessed a certain kind of beauty? Even in her darkest moments she has never thought of really giving up—putting a gun in her mouth, jumping off a bridge, driving a car off a cliff—and after all she’s been through, she hasn’t the faintest idea why.

This is you, the stars say. This is who you are.

When she comes inside, Clare is wiping her hands with a dish towel and staring forlornly at the massive amount of liquid remaining in the punch bowl. “Weren’t a great success,” she sighs.  

“No.” Catherine’s tongue punches the inside of her cheek. “But the party was.”

“Can’t fit that bowl in the fridge.” Clare gives her a plaintive look that veers into exaggeration.

So she knows it’s now safe to make a joke: “Do you want me to put it out of its misery?”

A shared burst of giggles escalates into snorting laughter.

“Oh, God,” Clare wipes away tears of laughter. “Next year I’m following a recipe, I promise. Maybe you’re right, to hate Christmas.”

“I don’t hate it, honest. I want to believe in goodwill toward men even though many of them are kind of shit—” Catherine puts the brakes on the tirade. Go easy, she tells herself. Neil has left for the evening, so no Christmas canoodling will occur; he’s off to see his kids bright and early tomorrow sans Clare, the continued lack of interaction with his children a sore point with his long-patient girlfriend. Catherine has been grateful for Jane emotionally wrangling Clare on this issue, because her tolerance for men making messes of the lives of everyone around them plummets daily, with no bottom in sight.

“So.” Catherine straightens. “Off to bed with you, I’ll finish up down here.”

“You sure?” Unsurprisingly, after a day of prepping and hosting a party, Clare looks exhausted.

“Yeah, go on.”

Despite her tiredness, the long hug that Clare gives her sister before heading upstairs is no less affectionate than usual.  

Catherine dumps the punch, washes the bowl, finishes the dishes and the rest of the kitchen clean-up; everything seems ready for tomorrow’s never-ending round of cooking. Then she sits in the living room for a while, staring at another Christmas-themed movie, this one black and white and old all over—the one with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire and the interchangeable blonde women that they constantly bicker over. She closes her eyes, willing herself to fall asleep. But the flicker of the Christmas lights print a spangled vortex on the inside of her eyelids, an astronomical map leading nowhere except charting a course through the same old turbulent pathways. But if this is the closest she comes to sleep this night, so be it.

The sound of the mobile pinging seems dreamlike and far away, as if the phone is in another country and not smothered in the pocket of her jeans. She sighs, rubs her face. Another crime, another crisis, or maybe Ann had a row with the pomaded prosecutor and is stranded outside a pub somewhere—

It’s a text from Jane, and a cryptically cheeky one at that: Baby it’s cold outside.

God’s sake, Catherine thinks—is she outside the house? It could be a kind of holiday surprise. Extra rumballs or murder. Like a double homicide she worked a long time ago, Christmas 2004. She remembers that crime scene well, a never-ending Johnny Mathis Christmas cassette tape playing, tinsel inlaid in a bloody footprint on a carpet. Hopefully, she thinks while wearily rising from the couch, the good vicar practices the nonviolence that she so eloquently preaches.

When Catherine opens the back door she does indeed find Jane on the stoop, fiercely rubbing her bare hands for warmth.  The vicar blinks in surprise, her eyebrows jump up and align themselves closer to the edge of the dark watch cap on her head. “Oh. You are awake.”

“‘Baby it’s cold outside’?” Catherine asks incredulously. “Are you drunk?”

“I may have had a nip of sherry after the service,” Jane says defensively. “It’s tradition. And a stereotype too,” she admits, “but some things can’t be helped.”

“Did you forget something?”

“No. I wanted to talk because I didn’t like the way we left things earlier—well, the way I left things.” Jane blows air into a fist.

“Where are your gloves?”

“Oh,” Jane mumbles and shoves both hands into the pockets of the leather jacket. “Lent them to Mrs. Ross before she went home—she forgot hers.”

Catherine thinks it awfully kind of her to sacrifice gloves to an old crone who thinks her skiver son is a perfect match for a vicar. But Jane, with her slender shoulders hunched against the chill and her well-worn leather jacket, resembles at the moment one of those thuggish waifs or waifish thugs that always give coppers on the beat shit for their mere existence. “Come in. Your shivering is making me cold.”

Gratefully Jane jumps across the threshold as Catherine closes the door behind them, and similarly leaps right into the matter at hand. “I don’t think I’ve conveyed it very well—both tonight, and the other night when we talked—how important our friendship is to me. I would never deliberately do anything to compromise that or make you feel uncomfortable, and I think I was making you uncomfortable tonight, and I certainly didn’t mean to.”

“How d’ya think you were making me uncomfortable?”

“I don’t know, merely by being here?” Jane mumbles the miserable truth. “I should back off for a bit, yeah?”

“Please stop being noble.”

“I’m not trying to be noble,” Jane retorts irritably.

“No, you’re not trying, you just are, you can’t help it—”

“Don’t put me on a fucking pedestal, Catherine,” Jane snaps. “I hate that. I’m human, I’m a woman, I have feelings and desires and I fuck up and makes mistakes all the time, like I shouldn’t have texted that to you just now, I was trying to be funny, but also I’ve had that song in my head, it’s been a bloody earworm for days now.” Furiously, Jane wriggles a cold, gloveless hand in the vicinity of her right ear. “Because the children’s choir had a practice at the church on Wednesday and they performed that song and while I like to think I’m a pretty broad-minded person I don’t believe a bunch of ten-year-olds should be singing that, it seems really inappropriate somehow and I should have said something but I didn’t because I get really fucking tired of people acting like I’m overreacting when I’m just sick, I am so fucking sick, of how the bloody world is run sometimes—well, all the time, actually.”

So, she tells herself, here’s your Christmas miracle: This lovely, amazing woman who froze her arse off coming over here at nearly two in the morning to needlessly play the supplicant and who then rants at you, and you realize that despite her radiant kindness and innate goodness and all that she’s just as fucking fed up with everything same as you.

“Right,” Catherine says softly.  

All energy spent on this Thomas Becket donning a hair shirt confessional type of moment, Jane leans against the door. “Well,” she says tiredly. “That’s all I wanted to say, really.” She summons a bit of strength and straightens. “I should go.”

“All right, yeah, but, ah, before you go, I just wanted to say something too.” Classic stalling tactic. She has no idea what she wants to say, except stay, but the courage requiring that single syllable seems misplaced.

Jane Oliver, kindly, principled vicar and woman of faith, Cambridge intellectual prat, thuggish waif-waifish thug, defiant Chelsea FC fan adrift in Yorkshire, patiently waits as Catherine Cawood finally parses through the syntax of identity to this: flesh and blood, needs and desires, a heavenly corporeal body actually within reach—stars above, stars below. Perhaps there is some external force dictating this impulsive grab for happiness; the stars, or God herself, won’t allow for surrender just yet.

Something, Jane surmises correctly, goes on in Catherine’s head. “What?” she prompts softly.

Oh, fuck it all. She takes the steps leading toward doom or destiny or perpetual arguments about faith and belief, and cradles Jane’s face in her hands. “Baby, it is cold outside.”  

Jane’s lips are cold, her mouth warm and sweet and yielding to whatever is offered. Eons have passed, great tectonic shifts have occurred since Catherine has lost herself in a kiss with anyone; it’s a relief to give herself over, particularly to someone who apparently knows the give and take involved in doing it proper. She is not sure how much time passes, or even if time passes anymore. There is nothing but heat and the maddening tease of mouths, the creak of Jane’s leather jacket—and a very cold hand sliding up her shirt and resting on her bare abdomen that makes her jump.

Jane apologizes quickly: “Oh, shit. Sorry.”

Catherine laughs, tugs at the zipper of the leather jacket. “Is it wrong to muck around on the sofa after Midnight Mass?”

“I’d have to check the Canon.”

At the moment, Catherine cannot decode the deadpan. She unzips the jacket, glides a hand up Jane’s torso, heel to heart, fingertips to collarbone.  “Maybe later?”

“Maybe later,” Jane echoes. The darkened kitchen, illuminated only by the greasy ancient light over the stove and the penumbra of the hallway light, shades the disconcerting, distracting intensity of her eyes. She breathes deeply, her body moves under Catherine’s hand and it is both thrilling and sacred, an instrument played, a star’s flickering warmth bestowed.

“I’m interpreting all this as you changing your mind about things,” Jane says.  

“Yeah, that would be accurate.”

Jane’s hand, cinched in the worn warmth of her shirt hem, tugs. She kisses Catherine, the rough demand of it a gift in itself and wrapped in the silky ribbon of a whispered question on her tongue: “Why?”

The answer is closer than ever, the slow crystallization of knowledge that occurs when the stars in the sky finally align with the maps in your head and in your hands. She is close to fulfilling the visions of so many beautifully idle thoughts about Jane—her head on a pillow, her heart a touch away.

“Stay,” Catherine says, “and I’ll tell you.”