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Pictures of Strangers Always Looking Down on You

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Gill wakes in the morning with the headache from hell. She sits up slowly, squinting against the dim light as her pulse thunders inside her skull. Her mouth is fuzzy and she's still in her dress. Must've been a hell of a party, she thinks, trying to swallow.

Her throat burns all the way down, and she remembers.

There's a roaring in her ears, suddenly, leaving her head spinning. It's dizzying, like the wind whipping about her on the top of the cliff. It's cold and brutal and exhilarating and so strong it feels like it's pulling at her, so strong it feels like it could hold her up if she falls. And she does fall, forward off the bed onto the floor until she's on hands and knees clutching at the carpet, the bed at her back solid and reassuring and the same safe haven she retreated to last night with a drink or five, until the whirling in her head was under her own control.

She lets go of the carpet to grab the bedspread, the bedspread to grab the nightstand, levering herself from crouching to sitting to standing like a pensioner creaking off the settee. The roaring doesn't go away, nor the dizziness, but if she plants her feet firmly enough, she can navigate through it upright.

Her hand sets the nightstand to shaking, glass chiming, and the gin, she thinks with a lurch of her stomach. But it's not; the alcohol is gone and a tumbler of water sits there instead, pinning down a note. There's a flash of fear – who's been in while she slept? – but her eyes refocus and she recognises Sammy's surprisingly neat script.

Moved on to the clubs once Dad and your friends left, it says, and Gill chuckles, then coughs uncomfortably. We'll kip at Orla's. Text me x She rubs her thumb over the bold writing. Her Sammy, engaged.

'Aw, bless. Bless his heart.'

The voice is so clear, so mocking, that she whips about expecting to see its owner in the room with her, expecting Helen Bartlett with her mad grin and her sharp knife and her accusing eyes. But there's nothing, of course. She's alone in the house. And Helen Bartlett is on a slab somewhere, wrist open in one last scream of pain.

Gill grasps the glass Sammy left her in a shaking hand. She'd rather it were gin, but she drinks the water instead, every drop. In the toilet she cleans her teeth, splashes water on her face. The bruise on her temple is livid, purple and blue already, but only barely tender to the touch. Well, she's a hard head after all.

Around her neck, though, the ligatures from the belt run criss-cross up and down her throat, red and swollen. She tilts her chin, examining them. She can see impressions from the holes in the leather, and there a small cut, angry and still weeping. She doesn't remember that; it must've happened at the end, when she was so desperate to be free.

There was no permanent damage, though, the paramedics at the scene told her. She was lucky.

Lucky.

Turns out trying to cover the bruises hurts, the turtleneck like someone's hands around her throat. So she pulls on a vest and an old, baggy cardigan, soft trousers and comfortable slippers. She'll need the support, she reckons, to see what the party's done to the place. As long as she needn't scrub sick off the floors, she'll call it a win.

Halfway down the stairs, though, she pauses. Something prickles at the back of her neck. She thought she was alone in the house, but the way the air moves suggests otherwise. Her heart leaps immediately into her throat and she stills, fingers clawing around the handrail. For a mad frozen moment she's suspended at the clifftop again, so close to that edge.

In the kitchen, the floor creaks, the dishwater clatters shut. Someone sighs, and then 'Bloody Dave,' Julie mutters, and Gill goes weak with relief.

'What's Dave done to you?' she says, walking down the rest of the stairs on rubbery knees. 'Ah, wait, I don't want to know.' She holds a hand up as she enters the kitchen, warding off Julie's annoyance and hoping it hides the effort of speaking normally.

'Gill!' Julie turns from the sink. Her eyes drop immediately to Gill's neck, and Gill has to fight not to clutch her cardigan shut like a maiden aunt.

'Place looks better than I expected,' she says instead, heading straight for the kettle. 'Wish I'd known the lengths I have to go to, slap, to get you to tidy, I'd've tried it earlier.'

'Gill,' Julie says again, only this time her voice is tender and worried. Gill has to bend her head over the kettle and take a breath to keep from snapping at her. 'For god's sake, let me – just let me see you,' Julie continues. Her hands settle softly on Gill's shoulders, and that tentative touch hurts almost as much as the bruises.

Gill turns, lets Julie gather her up, but she's so gentle, too gentle, and the whistle of the kettle is a welcome excuse to break away. She drops teabags in two mugs, dollops cream and sugar in Julie's, and fills them both, pleased by her steady hands. 'You been here all night?' she asks, handing Julie one mug, cradling the other against her sternum and letting the heat work its way into her.

Julie nods. 'I got here fast as I could, after, but you were – ' She hesitates uncharacteristically. 'You were asleep.'

Gill licks her lips and nods. 'You're not here for my follow-up statement, then?' She can tell from the way Julie's looking at her that their professional obligations are the furthest things from Julie's mind, but it's the only way she can think of to redirect the conversation. 'D'you want me to come in?'

'God, no!' Julie physically recoils at the idea. 'You've got leave as long as you need it, we can manage.'

'D'you think anyone's missed you?'
'I have no idea.'

Gill clears her throat and carefully doesn't look behind her. 'Trying to say I'm not indispensible, are you?' She smiles crookedly, waiting to catch Julie's return barb and throw it back with interest. But Julie sidesteps the opening, her face softening in concern instead, and Gill feels her stomach drop.

'Not hardly,' Julie says, 'you know that, we'll be begging you to come back soon enough, but.' She sits down at the table, looking up at Gill. 'I just... wanted to see you, is all, and not on that sodding video screen. Needed to make sure you're all right.'

'I'm fine,' Gill says firmly. 'I am, I don't want any fuss, I – ' She runs her free hand through her hair, wincing as she grazes a bruise.

'Fuss! I'm not fussing, Gill, bloody – '

'You are, though,' Gill snaps, gesturing wildly with her mug. 'Christ, slap, when's the last time you ever did my washing up?' She glares at Julie, who glares back in shock – and a little bit of guilt. Julie opens and closes her mouth, searching for words, and then bursts into laughter. Gill tries to hold her glare, but Julie's laugh is infectious even though Gill's throat is still raw.

'Fine,' Julie says, 'sorry for tidying, hell, woman, wouldn't've done it if I'd known it'd send you off the rails.'

'Too right,' Gill says, 'felt the whole world go topsy-turvy for a moment there, Julie Dodson cleaning without threats.' That's more true than she wants it to be; everything feels unstable and Gill's grasping for normalcy.

'Hey,' Julie says, still gently but without the undercurrent of worry from earlier, 'you don't want my help dealing with the morning after, that's fine by me.' She sits back in her chair and jerks her head towards the lounge. 'You might think about making that an informed decision first, though.'

'Oh, hell,' Gill mutters, but she moves forward steadily, almost eager for the tip she expects the room to be. A plan for the day, a goal to accomplish, these are things she can hold on to firmly.

But the lounge, when she peers in, is – well, it's not spotless, but the surfaces are clear; all it really needs is hoovering to get rid of the crisp crumbs. Even the decorations are neatly piled in the corner.

'Surprise,' Julie says behind her, voice smug. 'Now tell me again how I never do anything for you.'

'It's not much fun, is it? Not being in control?'

Gill sighs, her shoulders slumping. 'Thanks, slap,' she says, trying to sound like she appreciates the work – and she does. But she can also see, stretching out in front of her, a whole host of well-meaning friends and colleagues falling all over themselves to shoulder her burdens. She's not let anyone treat her like this, ever, not even during the worst of it with Dave. She's always been self-sufficient. Helen Bartlett has stripped that away, left her fumbling and uncertain, made her look like someone in need of rescuing.

She'll be damned if she lets that happen, Gill will.

'Thanks,' she says again, turning to Julie. 'But I need you to go now, okay?'

'What,' Julie says, 'get me to do all your dirty work and then toss me out? That's a fine how-do-you-do.' She's joking, but the smile slides off her face when Gill doesn’t return it. 'You're not serious?'

'I am, yeah.' Gill won't, can't explain herself. Stop helping me – it sounds too ridiculous, even to her.

'I'm not sure I should go.'

Julie's looking at her again like she's something fragile, wounded, and the effort of not lashing out is shuddering along Gill's spine like an earthquake. 'Don't try me, Julie,' Gill says, controlling herself carefully. 'Not today.'

'I just don't think you should be alone,' Julie says bluntly.

'And I don't think it's up to you,' Gill fires back. 'I don't want you here, not right now, do you understand? I need space.' Her voice gives out on the last word and she nearly chokes on her own vehemence. Julie reaches towards her and Gill throws her arm out. 'Don't,' she warns.

Julie steps back. 'All right,' she says at last. 'I'll go.' She scoops her blazer off a chair in the kitchen and shrugs it on over her crumpled, slept-in blouse. Bag in one hand, keys in the other, she follows Gill through the hall.

Julie opens the door, then pauses. At the last, she whirls, grabbing Gill in one more hug. This time she holds tightly, not afraid to pull Gill close, and though Gill returns the pressure, she's desperate to be free.

'Take care of yourself,' Julie says to the top of Gill's head. 'And listen, just text and I'll be here, whatever you need, okay?'

'Thanks, slap,' Gill repeats, pulling back. She shuts the door behind her, leaning against it, but not before Julie, outside, shouts one more time.

'Anything, Gill, I mean it!'

'You're missing the point, you're pissing in the wind, the damage has been done.'

'Yeah, Helen,' Gill whispers into the still air of her empty house. 'I think it has.'