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Photophobia

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Photophobia (from Greek φῶς, “light” and φόβος, “fear”): a symptom of abnormal intolerance to visual perception of light.

 

 

 

1. Kate meets Irene Adler for the first time without Irene Adler noticing, which will later, but not yet, seem strange. She's fixing someone's tie when Kate's eyes first fall on her: a curve of dress, a slightly different curve of back.

 

Kate, feeling a little uninvited, and not quite relishing the party-crashing she's resorting to, feels the strap of her camera bag cutting into her shoulder. It's only a matter of time before they're thrown out; she can feel it in the looks from the people around them.

 

“Irene Adler,” Giovanni says, smirking suggestively, sliding his fingers over the condensate on his wine glass. “Do you know her?” The question is loaded, because they're both there for pictures, and beneath a veneer of friendship there is always competition.

 

“I wouldn't be much of a lifestyle photographer if I didn't,” Kate says, irritably.

 

Hello, she thinks.

 

 

 

 

6. “Come live here,” Irene says, looking at her wine glass as though it's a revelation.

 

Kate blinks – two, three times. “Why?” she asks.

 

“Because,” Irene says, and for a second it seems that's all she will say. She finally looks away from her glass, and her eyes are alight. “Because no glass of wine will ever be this good ever again,” she says, mouth corners quirking. “It's perfect. The complexity. The freshness, the fruit. The acidity. The temperature. A hint of darkness at the end that you rarely find in rosé. And you're here. Nothing else will do. Come live here.”

 

“Is this your idea of romance?” Kate asks, gripping her glass tightly, feeling a shocked sort of happiness bubbling up in her gut.

 

“Yes,” Irene says, and she's not being fair, which is not a surprise. The light, subdued, plays in her glass.

 

“You're serious,” Kate says, and with the words comes the realisation.

 

“You could take all the pictures you want,” Irene says. “All of the scandals up close. You'll know everything!” She's grinning. “You could be my...” She waits, picking out a word. “Second in command,” she finally says, and it's a soft-edged world, this is, with Irene sitting there with the light of the room between her fingers, a jewel with her lips on it, and her words, and their truths. Kate has to close her eyes against it.

 

“Your maid, you mean,” she says, unable to suppress the smile tugging at her mouth.

 

“God, how boring,” Irene says. “You'll pour me rosé. I'll tell you all of the gossip. You'll take all of the incriminating photos. You'll open the door to let people in, I'll open others to let you in. You can come and go as you please. Especially the coming, of course.” She's sly and obvious: playful.

 

As Kate watches her, Irene looks away and holds her glass with her hand like a flower closing, and Kate thinks, with a small jolt, wait, no, she's nervous.

 

“Have you thought about this?” she asks, reeling a little.

 

“Not at all,” Irene says boldly, and then, contradictory in a way that Kate doesn't understand yet, she says, quietly, soft-edged: “It's a big house.”

 

 

 

19. Irene comes home one morning as not a ghost, not yet. She's carrying her shoes by their heels on her fingertips and she smells of sex in such a different way than Kate is used to that she has to fight an impulse to ask what Irene's been doing.

 

“Politics are delicious,” she tells Kate, smiling a smile that is more eyes than mouth. “This will make your career, I promise. Not yet, though.”

 

“Eggs?” Kate asks casually, gripping the handle of the pan tightly.

 

“Benedict,” Irene confirms, and stretches, like a cat in a ray of sunshine.

 

 

 

20. “Not bad,” Kate says, a struggling laugh lodged in her throat like a bitter brick.

 

“That's an understatement,” Irene says, then, into the phone: “No, not talking to you, pet. Do carry on.”

 

She looks up at Kate with the tip of her tongue in her mouth corner, eyes full of a secret smile. She's holding one phone to her left ear delicately, and angling the other away from her face. Like she's the secret midway passage for the people talking to her; husband and wife, unaware that they're in different rooms, talking to the same person, sharing the same shameful secret that makes their own sex life energetic for the first time in years.

 

Irene tells the phone: “A moment, sweet, I've got to take another call,” and switches conversations. Slips into slightly different expectations, a lightly differing version of herself.

 

Kate swallows around the chunk of aborted laughter in her throat. Irene never stops looking at her, holding three conversations at once. She's been getting more complicated lately, chasing things with a new energy that Kate is hesitant to enquire about. She has five phones now, though she still only takes the one to bed, still only takes pictures with the one. It's unsettling to remember that Irene told her once, though she can't remember when, that the key to survival is keeping one's secrets in one place so they can be easily leafed through and disposed of.

 

Kate doesn't know what it is that expands in her chest, a painful sort of pride, maybe; either way it is there, jagged and bursting.

 

 

 

21. Irene is sprawled on the sofa, laughing with a paperback novel lying open over her face. Her voice is distorted by it, by the flexibility of words and paper.

 

Kate plucks it off her.

 

“Read the dedication,” Irene says gleefully, blinking against the sudden light.

 

Kate flips to the front. To I, because: me, not mine.

 

“It was the height of his pillow talk. I'm dedicating this novel to you. You brought me back to life. Thought he was being reckless and mysterious.” She laughs, generously, as though it's a blessing. “He must've been too late to change it,” she says then, with a happy sigh.

 

Kate looks at the words, and quietly thinks that he might not have been.

 

“They're reconciling, did you know?” Irene continues, closing her eyes. “It's hard to be angry with someone for making your own mistakes.”

 

Sometimes Irene is wrong. Rarely, but not never. Kate closes the novel and caresses its spine, tracing where Irene snapped it.

 

 

 

-3. Kate is thirteen and twirls a lock of bright red hair around her finger, scowling at her reflection in the mirror of her mother's bedroom.

 

All she wants is hair like Jessie Poole's. Dark and bouncy with subdued waves when she undoes her long, single braid in class. Kate, still thirteen, sitting behind her, tuning out Ms. Lawrence's exposé on the conjugation of mare, always watches how the dark waterfall comes loose bit by bit and how Jessie Poole's long, thin fingers thread through the shiny locks with ease. Knotting is something that happens only to lesser hair.

 

Jessie re-braids, lazily, with fingers that slip through the hair as if it were butter. Her hair is so slippery-shiny Kate can see how the tightness of the braid starts relaxing immediately, like threads of silk sliding over each other, too light and flighty to have any hold. Slippery-silky-soft, or that's what Kate imagines, and looks down to find that she's pushed her pen through her notes, dotting an i with a tiny window to words underneath.

 

One time, as if feeling the weight of Kate's stare, Jessie turns around, fingers pausing, sliding down the strands that remain.

 

Kate, leaning forward in her seat, starts to whisper something and doesn't know what; only when the Can I comes out does she hear her own voice.

 

Jessie's eyes are as dark as her hair. She throws the half-done braid over her shoulder and balances on the hind legs of her chair; she only can because Ms. Lawrence's back is turned.

 

Kate runs her fingers down the line of hair that is coming loose at the bottom without Jessie's fingers to keep it in place. The braid unfastens slowly with Kate's caress, and she pushes her index finger through one of the twists, feeling something inside her turn into hot liquid as the hair accommodates her and opens up around her touch.

 

Jessie's chair falls forward with a controlled clank; Ms Lawrence calls out her name, annoyed. Jessie's shoulders are hunched, and her hair fans out over them, a thin sheen of protection that Kate wants to destroy.

 

 

 

13. “I want your hair,” Irene hisses at Kate, and yanks on the lock she's curled carefully around her thumb so Kate's head falls back. The pain is sharp and short, a surge of electricity on Kate's scalp that shocks her nerves to awareness, and she shivers.

 

“You have it,” she responds with a sigh, feeling the tension generated by days of boredom bleed out of her muscles, replaced gradually with a growing sense of blessed unifocal awareness: just her body, the growing pain in her ankles as she balances on her heels, the prickle of the chilly air on the warmest, most naked parts of her, the whiny discomfort of her neck muscles, bent backwards in an unnatural angle.

 

“I have everything I want of you, don't I?” Irene asks, and she sounds pleased, and a little bemused, as though she doesn't know already. She never sounds this surprised outside of sessions, which Kate isn't sure she entirely understands.

 

“Yes,” Kate says, her voice breaking on the word, because her throat is bent and too full of a deep trust to properly speak.

 

“I know you never wanted your hair,” Irene says, and twists her wrist further, rolling up the lock of hair around her fingers. “But I do.”

 

Kate's eyes slip closed, unasked, and unpunished, because Irene doesn't mind if she doesn't look. She seems to understand, when she wants to, that she's hard to look at this way, trapping all of the light and all of the want in the room, reflecting it back like a dark prism. There's just a little too much love gathering in the labouring point of Kate's throat to risk looking at Irene right now.

 

“It's yours,” Kate manages. Irene doesn't kiss her, but brings her lips so close that Kate can taste the inside of her.

 

 

 

11. “Look,” Kate says, the corners of her mouth taut and painful with held-back words.

 

Irene is looking out the sitting room window, hand with phone in it curled strangely around the back of her neck.

 

“I need to go see her.”

 

“You don't want to,” says Irene, fingernails like bright vertebrae emerging blood-red from her skin.

 

Kate turns the words over in her mouth before saying them, because she's not sure. “That doesn't really mean anything.”

 

Irene is angry; it's clear in the line of her shoulder. Irene is often angry for Kate, because Kate doesn't know what to be angry about.

 

“She's my mother,” Kate tries, though she can't be sure that that means anything, either.

 

Irene is not a ghost. Not yet. She sends a text facing away, typed blindly, sent with the gestures of ingrained motor habit, her hand in that strange place on her neck. “You've tried to get away all your life,” she says, voice low. “It's not necessary for you to go back now.”

 

Irene isn't like most people, she really isn't. “You don't understand,” Kate says, and feels the warning of tears prickling in her throat, because it's too true.

 

“In all these years –” Irene begins, stops. In the silence she sends another text, the click of the keys audible, and Kate wants to take that phone and step on it, splinter its screen with the point of her shoe. She would if it weren't so clearly Irene's external memory, brain waves distorted into pixels.

 

“I'm going,” Kate says, because there is hardly anything else to say.

 

Just before she steps outside the door, the leather handle of her purse warm and sticky in her hand, Irene echoes her: “Look.”

 

Words have a strange power with Irene. Kate tries to look but it's hard. Irene isn't wearing mascara today.

 

They kiss, twice, like Irene's taking it back as soon as she's given it.

 

In the cab, Kate sees the text, Irene broadcasting from across a room, having two conversations at once. You deserve to not go xx it says and Kate exhales steadily, as though shedding an old thought.

 

 

 

-2. At home, it's hard to say whether her mother can't stop crying for fear or anger. As Kate watches, her mother sucks on her hair instead of eating, dampening the ends into the colour of a fire going out, contrasting with the bright flame of the rest of it.

 

“Pass me the salt, Kate,” her father says, gruff, spoonful of soup suspended between bowl and mouth.

 

Her mother, a twitchy creature of sinew and nerve and quivering flame in her own darkness, eats her sobs. Her father, knuckles white where he grips his spoon, times the tapping of his feet to the rhythm of the tears dripping off his wife's chin.

 

Kate, thirteen, twists her hair around her thumb and yanks on it, hard. There's hair in her soup, like spun blood in a murky river.

 

 

 

14. “So how long has she been there?” Irene says, and it isn't demanding. Her voice pulls Kate back from the threshold of sleep, and in Kate's chest there is a spark of sudden alertness, a flint of fear. Irene, seeming to sense some of her vulnerability, tightens her arms around Kate's shoulders, and the firmness of their voluntary imprisonment in each other is enough to soothe, and to bring back some of the boneless relaxation of almost-sleep.

 

“For...” Kate slurs, then counts, fighting through murky exhaustion clouding in her brain. “Erm. Thirteen years... Christ.”

 

“You were sixteen,” Irene says softly, and she slides a hand up to Kate's nape, a gentle, intimate touch over skin and vertebrae.

 

“Hmm.” Kate's eyes slip closed, but then open again as slight wakeful tension restores itself to her muscles, and unbidden images of her mother rise up from the slow dark froth of night-time thoughts. “She, erm... She used to come home for the holidays. Then even that stopped.” It helped – that it stopped. It was easier to separate things that way. Her dad: something like home; the living room, with pictures; the kitchen, with soup; the car, with the scent of his shoes. Her dad: trying to fill the spaces by being too large, by speaking too loudly some times and too quietly at others. Her mum: something not like home. Her mum: sitting slumped at a white table with a plastic flower in a vase, trying so hard to eat a pancake from a paper plate. Her mum: trembling so hard a nurse with a kindly voice came to wheel her away, apologetic; not today, it's not a good day, sorry, she'll be better in the morning. Her mum: off-white walls with patients' paintings on them, often so shockingly beautiful Kate's eyes watered looking at them. Her mum: sitting under halogen light, looking at Kate, seeing someone else. Her mum: sucking on the ends of her hair, and smiling, strained, a smile of teeth with hair between them.

 

Kate sighs deeply. “It's funny,” she says, though she sort of means the opposite. “She tried so hard to die, and they always stopped her, and now she'll do it anyway, slowly and painfully.”

 

“Would you have wanted it to be more on her terms?” Irene sounds interested in a way that would set Kate's teeth on edge if it weren't her, but it is her, and her fingers are playing a soft little game on Kate's neck.

 

“I dunno.” Kate stretches, enjoys the way Irene shifts her legs to accommodate her, and pushes her face a little deeper into the warm, damp junction of Irene's shoulder and neck. “Yes. Though, you know... Maybe this is her final fuck you and she wants it this way,” she mumbles into Irene's skin.

 

Irene hums, a light sound. A beat of silence. “I like that,” Irene says.

 

I don't, Kate thinks, because it shouldn't be, none of it. Her mother: stretched so thinly in a life she so clearly didn't want, poured full of profane potions tethering her to existence, until she was so riddled with holes that the cancer didn't even have to try very hard to slip inside. Either she should have died already or she shouldn't this way, now. It's someone's fuck you, that's for sure – Kate just isn't sure whose.

 

“I'd have you kill me,” Irene says confidently, invisible, but not a ghost, not yet – warm and moist and smelling of sex where Kate's nose is pressed against her collarbone.

 

Kate shivers; a deep tingling of hot ice that runs slowly down to her tailbone. “I'd do it,” she finally says, tongue suddenly in her mouth like a dry sponge, throat like sand with sun on it.

 

“I know,” Irene whispers. “I know.”

 

 

 

-1. Kate is sixteen and Jessie Poole grinds up against her in uncontrolled want.

 

Kate claws at her hair, long and heavy and unacceptably beautiful, dragging her head back on her neck, and Jessie gasps, half in indignation, half in arousal. Her thigh, long and lean and covered in a skirt that is far too short for uniform regulations, presses hard between Kate's with a lovely pressured friction that makes Kate flatten her even more against the wall.

 

“Oh my God,” Jessie groans, pressing her hips forward even as her eyes flit up and down the deserted corridor, “they'll – Ms Conway – she'll come looking for us – we shouldn't –” Interrupting herself, she yanks Kate towards her by her tie and kisses upwards sloppily.

 

“Let her,” Kate says, breathless, after dragging her mouth away, and slips a hand between their thighs.

 

Jessie swears when she comes, and it's beautiful, because she never does so otherwise. Kate bites Jessie's hair as she spasms and gasps fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, pressing down on Kate's thigh and her fingers, and later, during Biology, Kate draws a spit-sleek dark hair from her mouth and lays it out on her notepad to dry.

 

 

 

18. Kate's legs spasm in earnest for the first time; the sharp bite of the bonds on her ankles is a reminder.

 

“Oh, now,” Irene says, voice muffled with skin as she mouths the crease of Kate's thigh. “Do control yourself.” She moves in, slides her slippery chin right across Kate's clit and teases her tongue above it, too hard, not enough, not there, too close and Kate's jaws clamp down on a strangled sound of need she didn't know she had in her.

 

There is a deep, continuous burn in the deepest point of Kate's belly that flares so hotly it burns cold, numb. It's like her body is trying to disassociate from Irene's touches; her fingers on Kate's hip are only barely noticeable anymore, though Kate knows the shape and size of the bruises that will be there tomorrow.

 

Irene shifts again, licks over Kate's clit directly – far too directly, a broad, hard lick that makes pleasure-pain-pleasure rattle up Kate's spine, and she feels her muscles tightening around nothing, and God, Irene knows, Irene knows, she knows far too well. Kate tries to clamp her thighs together, just to get a little, just, God, please, Irene, and it takes a moment to realise it's words she's saying, and the bonds are secure and tight around her ankles, and there is nothing to grasp, nothing to ride against. A twitch of her inner muscles brings her agonisingly close, but Irene reaches up and splays her fingers on Kate's face; a fan of wet stickiness that distracts enough to take the edge off.

 

“You can do it,” Irene says calmly. “Hold it off. Do it.”

 

Kate whines, feeling sweat tickle its way down her neck. She manages to focus, and relaxes, stepping back from the edge, feeling the fire flare icily, seeing lights pop furiously behind her closed eyelids.

 

“Perfect,” Irene praises, languidly, slowly, “beautiful. That's six.” She nuzzles the skin of Kate's inner thigh. “Think you can make it to ten?”

 

God, no, Kate thinks deliriously, straining against her bonds involuntarily.

 

“I think you can,” Irene says, pressing a smile against Kate. She slides her hand from Kate's knee up the length of her inner thigh, smoothing out her slickness over the skin.

 

“Please,” Kate says, broken and ruined. “I can't, Irene, not ten, please.”

 

“Shhhh,” Irene says, gives a little kiss to Kate's cunt, which twitches half-painfully, half-wonderfully in response. “You can.” She sits back a little, and lets the raw sting of Kate's desperation soften a little. “Of course you can,” she says, voice full of smile, and Kate wants to please her, she wants to, but this isn't possible, it just isn't...

 

“Look down,” Irene commands, and Kate complies without a second thought. Irene's fingers, long and nimble, tease through Kate's strip of wiry rust-red pubes, and her own smell thickens around Kate. “You're so delicious like this,” Irene says conversationally. “I could just eat you forever and never need anything else ever again.”

 

Kate whines softly in response as Irene's index finger, gently, impossibly, infuriatingly gently, slips over her clit, sparking a raw shock of pleasure, and further down, inside her, easy and smooth.

 

“You are so ready, aren't you?” Irene asks. “You're so ready to come.” She slips in a second finger and Kate's muscles tighten around her, already flirting with the edge again just from that. “You could come if I just moved, couldn't you? If I just pressed upward... just a little...” Her voice is low and dangerous, but her hand is still.

 

Kate bites her lip hard, twitching at the slight sting when the skin finally breaks and there is the metallic hint of blood on her tongue. Her body wants to push forward, swallow those fingers, push them up, close down around them. There is a low, insistent whine in her ears. She stays still with an intense effort of will, muscles in her calves and thighs protesting sharply.

 

“Good girl,” Irene says. “Stay still.”

 

Kate exhales; a breath of tumbling, meaningless sound. Her hair, damp, is itchy on her forehead.

 

“You're beautiful,” Irene says, and twists her wrist just so, so the pad of her index finger presses up against that ridge inside Kate and rubs up against it, again, again, again, and there is a mad quivering of muscle, and Kate's head bumps the headboard as it falls back –

 

“No,” Irene says, and Kate sobs brokenly, leg muscles seizing up in a shock of pain as she forces the orgasm off. Irene puts her unoccupied hand flat on Kate's belly, straining with lost breath. Kate bangs her head against the headboard again, on purpose this time, and focuses on the sharp ripple of pain to chase away the quivering pleasure deep in her belly. She can't stop the high whine that comes from somewhere in her chest, a point deep and hot and flaring.

 

“Oh, lovely,” Irene half-whispers, fingers on belly pressing down, “so lovely. I thought I'd lost you, Kate, but you're so... You're so lovely.”

 

“Please,” Kate gasps as Irene wiggles her fingers and immediately brings the edge back. Irene pulls out, leaving Kate gasping with the loss, her cunt spasming around nothing.

 

“So desperate,” Irene says, and draws patterns of Kate on Kate's thigh, smears of musk and sex.

 

Please,” Kate says, looking at Irene, who's crowned in light, distorted with tears of frustration, of want.

 

Irene caresses Kate's thigh. “Okay,” she says then. “Just one more, because you're doing so incredibly well.” Her voice is warm, and Kate feels such an intense rush of liquid relief that she sobs again.

 

Irene crouches down and tongues Kate's labia, teasing them apart, and licks quick, certain strokes over Kate's clit, so consistent in speed and strength that it can't be longer than thirty seconds before Kate's hips cant forward and there is a hot wave gathering in her gut. Irene stops immediately, but leaves her face there, apparently drinking in the smell, just breathing as Kate struggles desperately, too wired to breathe, to get the orgasm under control before it crashes over her.

 

She tries to swear when she emerges, still battling the shocks running up her spine, but all that comes out is a jumble of vowels. The cold fire is hissing and spitting inside her, the raw razor of her need cutting through the tension in every muscle.

 

“Beautiful,” Irene mumbles, and then, before the final shock waves of the interrupted orgasm have receded fully, she slips two fingers inside Kate, pressing upward without question, without pretence, and she leans in to rest the tip of her tongue against Kate's clit – and oh, it's enough, Kate's body does all of the work, she can't stop it, the way she tightens around Irene's fingers, and she milks the orgasm out of herself shock by incredible shock, second after miraculous second, pressing forward against Irene's motionless fingers and tongue, and after every wave there is another one, it's like she's emptying, like she's letting something go she didn't even know was there.

 

Irene keeps her fingers in her all the way through the aftershocks, though she sits up already, and she flickers in and out of Kate's vision; a negative, a black spot lined with light, a wavering projection, a razor-sharp photograph of flushed cheeks and wetness down from her mouth all over her chin.

 

And then when it's over, and Irene's fingers pulling out spark as much discomfort as helpless pleasure, Irene moves up and kisses her with Kate all over her face, and it's messy and too much and Kate can't focus on the kiss, can only endure it, though she can taste the notes of Irene under herself.

 

“Gorgeous,” Irene says quietly. Kate can't reply, can't do anything, can't reject it, can only accept. So she does. She accepts. She accepts. She accepts.

 

 

 

 

5. “You're jealous,” Irene observes, leaning forward over the bridge railing.

 

“Not as a rule,” Kate says, a little tightly, and opens her hand, dropping a couple of bread crusts to the ducks swimming expectantly underneath their feet. The water of the pond is a steely blue, tinged orange at the sides, reflecting the leaves overhead that have burst out in triumphant streaks of colour before the frost.

 

“Oh, dear Kate,” Irene says warmly, and Kate can hear her smile, even though her mouth is hidden behind the elegant black knitting of her scarf. “I'm surprised to hear you even have rules.”

 

Kate watches as the ducks argue noisily over the food. “You're the one with the rules,” she says, sullenly, flicking another piece of bread into the pond.

 

Irene laughs, freely. She hooks an arm around Kate's elbow. “Dear Kate”, she says again, like it's the beginning of a love letter, “one of my rules is that I never feed any ducks with anyone.”

 

Kate turns to face her. They're both bundled in coats and scarves and there are lines of laughter around Irene's eyes. “I don't know if I get it,” Kate says, and she feels awkward, standing there in the fireline of Irene's face.

 

“Me? Or my work?” Irene asks. Kate badly wants to take her picture, because as she's standing there on the bridge, just a little higher than Kate, they're exactly the same height, and the water beneath them plays with the sun above so Irene is showered in dancing bronze coins. It's hard to look at her, almost. “There is a difference, you know,” Irene continues after Kate fails to fill her part of the conversation. She's frowning lightly, now.

 

“I know that,” Kate responds automatically, but immediately she realises it isn't really true. Irene is still The Woman, even leaning against a bridge in a sun-spotted winter coat with a gloved hand on Kate's arm.

 

Irene knows, because that's what she does. Her frown deepens. “I never do this,” she says, and it's almost like an accusation.

 

“What do you do, then?” Kate asks, and forces herself to keep looking at Irene.

 

Clamouring of indignant ducks, expectant wind in the oaks, gleefully testing the leaves before the storms. Dogs barking. “I fulfill wishes that people didn't know they had,” Irene says finally. “That they usually still don't know they have while I fulfill them.”

 

Irene has this way with words that makes them become true, like there could never have been any other way to put it. Kate, here and now, is beginning to learn it, the shape of it.

 

“But how do you know?”

 

“I don't know how,” Irene says, and it doesn't seem to pain her at all. “I just do.”

 

“You play a part,” Kate says, careful.

 

“Of course I do,” Irene says immediately.

 

They're waiting for something. They were strolling before, and now they're just standing there. Neither pulls the other forward to continue their walk. The old bridge is patient with moss. A watery sun sets beneath their feet; the pond is streaked with flame.

 

Kate hand-picks her words with care, like she would with any collage. “When are you not playing, Irene?”

 

Irene makes an impatient sound. “Everyone is always playing. It would be stupid to deny it.”

 

Kate blinks against the second-hand light. “Then when are you yourself?”

 

“Don't be silly,” Irene says, as though that settles it.

 

But Kate can't help pursuing it. “But how do you... don't you ever turn it off?”

 

“It's not like that,” Irene says, and then, true to form, she's the one who nudges Kate back into motion. The moss is a little slippery. Kate is taller than Irene, once more. “It's not something I switch on and switch off. It's a way of reading people.” She's silent for a moment. The path crunches underneath their feet. “What I do with it varies according to the situation, but it's just how I translate the world.”

 

“I didn't realise the world needed translating,” Kate says, but there is a warm bubble of relief sitting just over her stomach that she doesn't quite understand, but accepts gladly.

 

“Of course you did,” Irene says easily, “why else would you be a photographer?”

 

 

 

 

7. The curtains, half-open, allow a little of the sky to fall through and come to sleep in their bed. Revealed: slivers of Irene, Woman, Irene. Lips the colour of clouded glass in the milkiness of light-polluted night.

 

At one point it worried Kate that Irene sometimes goes so silent, but... Oh, what's the point, it worries her still. But worrying about what Irene does or says or the way she looks away sometimes has the effect of making things worse, because what Irene likes most about Kate (Kate thinks) is that Kate doesn't worry that often, that Kate said so when do we start when Irene had told her that she's only really good at ending relationships. Worrying says so when do we end and that is what Irene never wants to hear, because when she does it is, automatically, the end.

 

Words have a strange power with Irene. It's like when she says I have you. I know you. Magically it becomes truth.

 

In the sparsely lit angles of night Kate sometimes catches Irene looking different. Moving up from between her legs with her heart still in her throat, Kate sees Irene as a statue with her eyes turned away; a benign bestowing of being able to look without being seen or a curse of the deprivation of response – it's hard to say. Kate feels one of Irene's pubic hairs tickling in the back of her throat, an intimate prickle against the dry uncertainty that always washes the spit-mixed-with-Irene away quickly. Irene after an orgasm is a hard, still presence, turned inwards; Kate, the heavy weight of the chemical aftersparks of sex and bodies and other words that fall outside of science pressing her down, tentatively attaches herself to the hard point of Irene's collar bone, there where it changes into the softer plane of the beginning curve of a breast. Traffic outside sends belated, diluted streaks of dancing headlights over the covers, soundless, remote. The brush of light seems to caress Irene into a new relaxation, and she shifts closer, drawing Kate's head further onto the damp swell of her breast, skin sticky-slick with sweat against Kate's cheek. If she seems uncertain Kate is sure that is only because she's imagining it, because in moments like this it's easy to assemble an Irene out of dreams and contrasts of light and night; slices of person, imagined together sloppily, because night is idiosyncratic and doesn't always need to clear boundaries of day, where it is clear where things start and where they end. It is possible to mingle like this in the dark. Irene's breast smells like her, like skin, like human and life and warmth. Kate can taste her when she swallows.

 

Irene doesn't speak, just breathes. Hard to tell if she's sleeping. Kate thinks, staccato, crescendo, willing the silence's boundaries to allow her thoughts to trickle in: please let it be you. please let it be you. please let it be you.

 

 

 

8. Please let it be you who lives.

 

Someone who plays games this dangerous shouldn't lie down in one bed with one person for a whole night. Try as you might, you are still here for far too many hours. It brings you together. It makes you solid.

 

You are an easier target to hit after a night in this bed.

 

It can't last. It's only crueler this way.

 

 

 

12. Her mother, lying on a white pillow glinting dull-red with fallen hair, does not say Forgive me. Such is her removal of the ways of family that Kate strains and strains, and still doesn't manage to hear it spoken in silence. There is only so much of the way that she can go on her own.

 

When her father catches her eye, he looks blank. Not accusing, and not comforting either. It's like none of them are there, like they're all projections from another time when they still knew each other, and the projections know, and that's why they won't talk.

 

She leaves far earlier than she intended, and spends an hour sitting on a bench, looking at pigeons and people scattering, because this once, she can't have Irene looking at her and knowing all of it.

 

 

 

9. “I want you unconscious,” says Irene. Her voice threads the words through each other, jumbles of whisper and vibrato sounds. She's far away, sitting on Kate's knees.

 

“How is that fun?” Kate replies from beneath her, pulling on her restraints just enough to feel that she couldn't break them even if she really wanted to.

 

“It's not.” Irene leans away. Her shoulders are too sharp and make shadows where there shouldn't be any.

 

“Then why do you want it?”

 

Irene's response is a soft laugh, dark and intimate. There is a shift of weight. Away from Kate, not towards her. She can't open her eyes, not now. She wishes Irene would blindfold her.

 

“You don't show me everything,” Irene says. She sounds disapproving.

 

“That's rich, coming from you.”

 

When she speaks after a moment, Irene sounds genuinely surprised. “I do show you everything.”

 

Kate's eyes open. Irene, backlit by the day, is long and pale; her breasts are islands of light surfacing out of the shadows cast by her hunched shoulders. Her lashes are lines of shadow across her face. Something's wrong.

 

“Did you drug me?” asks Kate.

 

“Why?” Irene asks pleasantly. “Would you like that?”

 

“Maybe,” Kate says, and the letters seem to stick to the roof of her mouth. “But not without warning.”

 

The window behind Irene is open, despite the cold. Kate can see the hard points of her nipples. There is a small smudge of eyeliner on her right eyelid, a crease turned just a bit darker – a miscalculation on Kate's part that Irene was too impatient to properly fix. It makes her look a little lopsided.

 

“I warned you,” Irene says softly.

 

“You did not,” Kate says, or tries to: her tongue trips over the words. The bed is of a softness that is incredible, like... like whipped air. Like descended clouds.

 

“I did,” Irene says, suddenly close, so suddenly it can't be true, like Kate has lost a bit of time, seconds that saved themselves and got out before it was too late. She's lost the ability to measure things, and that is what Irene wants from her today.

.

“What will you do?” Kate asks, double-tongued, or maybe the words are only in her head. It doesn't occur to her to be afraid, and that is reassuring.

 

It might be that Irene laughs, or it might be the winter playing with the curtains. There is air on Kate's cheek, hot-cool.

 

 

 

10. “You can't do that,” Kate tells the ceiling when she comes to – suddenly, like stepping out of a room into a lit corridor. She's lying under the covers. Her bonds are undone, her hands winter-cooled on top of the covers, resting there like she's a dying saint and someone needs to paint her before the end.

 

“Of course I can,” Irene says, and she's so close the words are like licks on Kate's ear.

 

There is an argument here, but so much of it is still hidden inside the fog.

 

“You dreamt,” Irene says.

 

“Not of you.” It's a wonder but it is true.

 

“Of course not,” Irene says, matter-of-fact under a dancing ceiling. “I'm already here.”

 

Kate half-turns, feels her head spinning, but Irene takes shape in stages nevertheless; face so close it is blurry, (retreat a little), legs drawn up, body curled up so her hands are beneath her knees, (close eyes, feel the darkness churning). She is rounded angles and a green robe that is see-through and catches where her legs are drawn up in creases of skin. The sliver of her that Kate can see looks human.

 

“What did you do,” Kate says, losing the question mark along the way. It is warm in bed.

 

“Everything,” Irene says, and the words are so close they're kisses.

 

 

 

15. Her mother is dead.

 

Kate's father calls her at an impossible hour (six in the morning, when her phone is not yet switched on – somehow he still knows her well) and leaves a terse message in which he doesn't invite her to the funeral, and manages to make an omission sound clumsy. He talks with pauses between his sentences that are just a fraction of a second too long, which makes Kate start to reply to him every time until it re-registers that she's listening to a recorded message, an imprint of him on the other side. He sounds washed out, but maybe that's the mediation of the phone. And of Kate. Of the time between them. It occurs to her that while she's listening to his voice, here, now, he's doing something else entirely, there, now. Making soup, maybe, like he's done every day for the part of his life that Kate knows. Accepting condolence calls. Cutting his fingers on the sharp-edged envelopes of condolence cards – though this is just a fantasy that she has, because it's too early for cards.

 

Kate, twenty-nine, writes her father a condolence card. It's a labour of days, of having it sit in the corner of her eye whenever she enters the sitting room, still blank, silent and mocking.

 

“You're writing him a card,” Irene observes drily. “How very post-broken childhood.” She's sprawled out on the sofa, a becoming chaos of lovely limbs, one stockinged leg slung over its armrest. She's trying out a new corset: a ridiculous piece of bone and scraps of fine fabric that has her breasts threatening to spill over the edge with every breath, like rising bread.

 

“Could you stop?” Kate asks, too politely for what she really wants to say, but then she isn't even sure what exactly she's referring to; the swinging leg, the struggling breasts, the thumb slipping over the moist rim of a glass full of rosé, Irene's voice?

 

“Probably not,” Irene says, but the leg stills.

 

Kate's eyes burn. Irene's new corset is white and ridiculously flimsy and she absorbs all the light in the room, like an inverted beacon. Kate doesn't want to, but she has to look away.

 

“Oh,” Irene says, and her voice is low and inflected with wonder, “oh, dear girl. Come here. I'm sorry.”

 

When Kate looks at her, she's Irene again; glass of wine abandoned to the coffee table, legs and arms soft and open, fingers outstretched like they're trying to catch the air.

 

They catch Kate, who rests her eyes on the miraculous skin of Irene's breasts, and allows the hard edge of the corset to slip between her lips so it sits just against her lower teeth. Irene even smells a little like a loaf of bread, there, warm and somehow yeasty and moist, now, with the unexpected wetness from Kate's eyes. Not quite tears, just smears of Kate on Irene.

 

“I really am quite bad sometimes,” Irene tells the top of Kate's head, as she threads her fingers through Kate's hair and holds her head like it needs the help to stay still. The words warm Kate's scalp.

 

“No,” she tries to say around the metal wire of the corset, and shakes her head into Irene's breasts. No, because it isn't bad, the way Irene is bad, it's good...

 

Irene laughs; the breasts are shuddering pillows under Kate's eyes.

 

“Yes,” is the warmth of her mouth in Kate's hair. “I so easily forget you had a mother. And that you lost her. Several times.”

 

Kate breathes Irene's skin for a long time until she can bring her mouth to let go of the corset wire so she can speak. “Everyone's got a mother,” she says with a voice like water. She wants to say: and everyone loses her, several times, but she thinks about Irene and how impossible it seems that she should have a mother. She seems so fully formed, so sprung from an idea of humanity rather than from an imperfect approximation of it by a couple of people.

 

“Yes,” Irene says, quiet and close by. “I suppose so.”

 

 

 

16. Kate writes, after days of hiding the card, and hiding herself out of the sight of the card:

 

Dad

My condolences.

Yours,

Kate

 

Words have a strange, weakening power around Irene, and Kate thinks about the Yours because it is something people say and not many people mean. She would have said I'm sorry, but she can't do it in the generic I'm sorry something happened-sense. And her mother did not say forgive me, looking up wide-eyed and lashless from her pillow of dripping blood-hair. She also did not say I forgive you. Kate can't say I'm sorry, even if it would be true.

 

When she goes to post the card, she lifts it out of its envelope a final time; a shot of a lake and drooping branches and snow and heaped, powdery sentiment. She could do better, if she were in the condolence card business. She'd do trees, hacked down. An unbothered, blazing sun. A detail of wood rings with rot between them, maybe. A rusty swing. Snow, yes, maybe, but the slushy, grey kind on a city pavement, with anonymous feet slipping through on their way to work. A windowsill half-dry after the passing of a rainstorm, and a curtain-less window darkened like closed eyes behind it.

 

She opens the card, without a clear motive – Dad My condolences Yours Kate, in a handwriting that is her own but she only barely recognises, and she has to consider the possibility that she strained her hand to withhold from her father the intimate, natural bent of her m and the unclosed ring of her a – and then, underneath that, large and red and luscious in the wide white space she felt unequipped to fill, there's the imprint of Irene's lips, with a pale shadow on the other side of the card.

 

“Fuck it,” Kate says involuntarily, something heavy and dark spiking from her peripheral vision, like someone's thrown a bucket of dirty water in her face. It's not possible anymore, in her life, to have things without Irene, and it makes something in her rebel starkly. She fights the urge to smudge the lipstick print, and stands staring at it for a while, insides reeling with slow waves of a complex, layered anger.

 

Then it recedes suddenly, leaving her heavy and tired. There's no more room for decisions; she just posts the card; there is no taking back some things, and if her father thinks this is just Kate doing what she does best – pictures, not words – she guesses she can let him have that. There might be some comfort for him mistaking someone else's mouth for his daughter's.

 

 

 

17. It is when she comes home and she begins “That wasn't –” but Irene kisses her, twice, like she's taking it back, with the same mouth that she kissed the card with, with the same lipstick still there, a little smudged, that Kate thinks she understands – that maybe Irene was only doing what she does best, too.

 

 

 

22. “How many pictures of me are there on your phone?” Kate's voice is heavy and lazy, like the evening.

 

Irene, at ease in the half-dark, is many invisible movements at once. A phone-warmed fingertip slipping under the hem of Kate's satin shirt is a small surprise. “None at all,” she says. There is another click of the digital shutter – Kate's wondered before if she'd be able to tell the difference between an analog camera and Irene's high-tech camera phone if she only had their shutter sounds to go on.

 

“What do you mean, none at all?” Kate says, half-smiling.

 

“I mean: none at all.” Irene sounds serious. If someone, someone with a command of words, were to write this scene as a screenplay, they might add italics: none at all. Or none at all.And a stage direction: (serious). Or they might trust that words gain a secret power around actors and let them make their own choices. Meanwhile, outside of instruction, Irene's eyes reflect the light.

 

“What? But you take loads of photos of me,” Kate protests lazily.

 

“I delete all of them.” (unbothered).

 

A small silence. They've got hours of night ahead of them and Kate is full of Irene's penne all'arrabiata and a slow anticipation.

 

“Why?” she asks.

 

“Deletion has a beauty of its own,” Irene just says, is herself, with her strange, weakening words, and her fingers, tangled in the hem of the shirt, slide upwards. (nonchalant, with an underlying hint of tension).

 

“Okay,” Kate says unnecessarily, uncomprehending, a bit lamely – she's just not good with words. Pictures, yes. Irene hits a key on her phone audibly.

 

(meaningful pause). If such a thing exists.

 

Deletion, Kate thinks. There I go.

 

 

 

24. Irene sends a text, after twenty-seven hours of unexplained absence: Deletion has a beauty of its own. xx

 

Then she dies.

 

 

 

26. There is not, but there could have been: a world in which Kate calls her father, and he picks up, because it's a reasonable hour, and he's making soup in his slowing-down way, and her card is sitting on a shelf, and in this world he understands her clumsy attempts at language, and in this world it doesn't matter that Irene had to step in in the end, and in this world there is a way to close a distance with telephone voices like brainwaves, and surplus measures of loss.

 

 

 

27. There probably is not, but it is possible there is: a world in which Kate, willful and strong, goes to Sherlock Holmes to demand of him what the fuck it is that he knows, and what makes him special enough to know it, and he sizes her up and like other people's miracles he finds her adequate, and with a sort of electricity in his voice he gives her a different version of the truths that Irene could make of her words, and it will be just as true because he has the same talent, only in reverse. In this world, Kate can be a private detective's client with a lost loved one and it won't even be as complicated as she imagines, and in this world, maybe, she will come to understand a little.

 

 

 

28. There is not: a world in which Kate knows where Irene is, or why.

 

 

 

29. She leaves Belgravia because it wasn't hers to begin with, with its soft lighting on polished streets and houses that confuse her sense of orientation.

 

And she can't afford it. Of course she can't. The house's occupant was her job, and the house was part of the payment. In the cold hard light of post-Irene, that's what it is.

 

If she had any friends left she's sure they'd agree over a glass of wine that her situation was unfortunate, to say the least, and that in the end Irene was bound to fuck her up, to say the least, and that she's been incredibly stupid, to say the least.

 

 

 

30. When Kate reads books, which she does out of an unplaceable sense of guilt, she always wonders what happens to the characters in between the scenes. It seems wrong that such finely defined consciousnesses should fade out of existence when no one is looking. Literary narrative has a logic that at times squeezes her heart like a fist. Moments in books lead to things, even when they pretend that they don't. Someone's hopeless, deepest, darkest moments create an intimacy in writing, because the reader is there to share them, obeying the inherent nature of words. That way there is a beauty to pain in books that just isn't real. Characters who feel alone never really are.

 

(It's why she prefers pictures, in the end: there is no pretence of development. There are no excuses. There is no language reaching out; just reflected light that can be caught by an iris if it's in the right position. It's a frost, inflicted on a moment. People in pictures can be stranded alone, and people who look at them can feel incapable of ever reaching them.)

 

In the mornings, every morning, Kate makes coffee for herself in the old, tiny tin pot that a school friend brought back from a wedding in Padova and gave her as a birthday present because they'd forgotten to buy something else, and that she'd never used when she lived in Belgravia, because it only makes enough for one cup. She stands over it as it comes to the boil, hands on the flaking kitchen top, feeling the wet burn of the rising vapour, and there is nothing that she can think of that it leads to, and there is no beauty in it that she can see. If this were a story, held in the capable, concerned hands of an author, the readers would be touched by how the words that describe her plunge down, as a mirror of the silent, diminutive pain in the sloping line of her defeated shoulders, and when they'd drink their nearly-forgotten, luke-warm coffee, and trace with a careful finger the careless ring on the wood of the table on which the book rests, they'd feel connected to something.

 

 

 

31. As a hello, Irene snaps a picture of Kate when she opens the door.

 

“Hello,” she says then, redundantly, eyes on the screen for a second too long, a second-hand greeting.

 

And she's not being fair, which is not surprising, but all the more infuriating. No matter how many times Kate has opened this door with hope like heartburn in her throat, there is no way to respond to something like this; not for normal people, people who can't crawl out of the pit that the weight of their love has buried them in, people who can't be content with only the knowledge that somewhere, someone is still drawing breath.

 

“Go away,” are the words she can pluck from the screaming static that is her brain.

 

Irene slips the phone into the pocket of her out-of-character black jeans; Kate hates that she knows that the picture has been deleted. “I will,” Irene says, too gently. “I just wanted to see you for a moment.”

 

She's just there. Like it hasn't been six months. Only barely disguised. She's a little tan, she's wearing a lipstick Kate has never seen, she's exactly the right number of inches shorter than Kate. Over her shoulder she's carrying a black dry-cleaning bag, as though she just picked up the laundry or made some time to shop around, and it makes Kate want to kill something.

 

“Can I come in?” Irene asks, pointedly, and Kate, who is not Irene, who was raised by her mother, who is still all of the things that she tried to tear out of the cross-stitching of her life, automatically steps aside.

 

And inside the living room, which Kate honestly hadn't thought Irene would ever see, where the walls are a faded forest-green, and where like mutated flowers, far too helpless, far too intimate for a place that is only separated from the street by a door and a hall, there are prints of the things she just can't let go of, Irene is silent for a moment, then says: “I always thought you were keeping things alive.”

 

Kate could kill her, and the feeling is so familiar it's like a shot of mulled wine, warm and lovely. Irene looks so much like herself, standing still under the picture that Kate snapped of her just after she'd returned from six days in Hamburg, suitcase still in hand, looking back over her shoulder, and face folding open like a letter.

 

“If things go well,” Irene, the original, says, “something will end tonight that I've been planning for...” Her smile is slow-blooming. “A long time. It will make me very rich and very compromised. I might have to leave for another bit after it.”

 

Kate, exposed, desires mounted on the wall, tries to take the words at face value. “Oh,” she says.

 

“It's a bit presumptuous, I know,” Irene says, and has the audacity to flash her familiar smile in that unfamiliar lipstick, “but I'd love it if you'd help me rehearse a little. Big night.” Then, like it's nothing: “And then I'd love it if you came with me, after it's done.”

 

It's so easy to forget that language isn't really performative when Irene is talking. It's so easy to feel like nothing can ever go wrong with things that have been pronounced by her, as though they're set in stone once they leave her mouth.

 

Decisions are made in split seconds, when it comes down to it.

 

“Don't – wrinkle it,” Irene scolds, but the words are trembly with arousal, and she lets Kate push up the lush material of the dress further around her hips, so Kate's fingers can fuck her just that little more deeply. Her head falls back on the arm rest of the dingy sofa, and she's bright in the sorry-looking living room, a new bulb, a switch flipped. Kate, wet up to her wrist, bites Irene's sounds away from her lips roughly. Her arm is burning with the strain of fucking Irene with all of the hatred and all of the love nourished for six months.

 

“Oh, fuck,” Irene whines, fingers digging into the sofa, and as Kate works Irene's clit with her palm, she can feel Irene tensing and relaxing around her fingers, finding that balance, that point of shattering.

 

“Don't you dare – close your eyes,” she pants, because the lights are on and she wants to keep them that way. Irene makes a sound between a laugh and sob, and when she comes, spasming around Kate, she's saying no, no, not yes, and Kate laughs, kisses Irene's slack mouth as she fucks her hard through it, through the slow-crashing waves of orgasm, because she understands the response, this time. No, I won't. I won't.

 

Afterwards, Kate keeps kissing the lipstick away, until Irene says, flushed and giddy and warm and alive, “God, stop it; I'll be late. He'll notice I'm gone soon.” She's radiant with expectation, and it's so easy to silence the doubt that it isn't because of Kate – because Irene looks at her with eyes like burning coal and a mouth like a forest fire.

 

It's so easy to think that everything is being said when Irene speaks. It's so easy to think that no one can outsmart her.

 

 

 

32. Made a mistake. Smaller than they think. Still, complications. I'm sorry. Not yet. xx

 

There should have been, but there was not: a world in which Irene is infallible, and in which she doesn't think that they're better off apart.

 

Just carry on keeping me alive. xx

 

In the forest of her living room, where she's reminded of the things that can die every day, because they're hung on her wall, Kate receives message after message from Irene, one sent almost immediately after the other, an indication that something is really, really wrong, even if she sounds calm. Irene's words desperately at work.

 

I'll be in touch. xx

 

Kate could cry.

 

I'm going away. Not for long. xx

 

From Irene, Kate has learned some of the values of words that are performative, that make their own truth. So she does what she can. I love you, she responds, to all of it, because it's the only way she knows how.

 

Irene's silence is full of relief, and Kate is almost completely certain that it's not her projection.

 

 

 

2. When they meet for the first time, Irene Adler says by way of greeting: “Well then.”

 

The Belgravia street is posh even in its lighting; a soft, understated glow on the rain-gleam of the asphalt, like it's been polished recently. The porch of the house is dark, a subdued presence of white wood in the gloom, and Irene, framed by the doorway, is back-lit in a way that suggests a painter sitting in a corner of the room, measuring her with his brush.

 

“Hello,” says Kate, circling her thumb and index finger around the strap of her camera bag, because it reminds her why she's there.

 

“You certainly look... competent,” Irene says, drawing out the words, and leans a shoulder against the door frame. She makes no move to invite Kate in. Her face is hard to make out, and Kate's spine straightens, an instinctive response to the deceptively soft presence of the woman in front of her; it's obvious Irene is sizing her up. There is a small pocket of delicious tension sitting right in her throat.

 

“You certainly look... professional,” she replies, measured.

 

A car passes, its engine so advanced it's almost soundless save for the liquid glide through the rain puddles on the ground. Startled headlights skitter across Irene in the doorway; she's smiling, and that smile is visible long after the light leaves, like a negative, like a sunspot in Kate's vision.

 

“You know why I need you?” Irene says, and her shoulder comes loose from the door frame so she's standing straight again. She's not quite as tall as Kate.

 

“Photos,” Kate says evenly.

 

“That for a start,” Irene says, and her teeth are visible and white.

 

 

 

3. After the session, when Kate is screwing off the camera lens with fingers that are far more trembly than they should be, Irene drops down into one of the sofas in her huge sitting room with an audible sound.

 

It's probably very like her, not to change after a photo session for a prodomming website. The last picture Kate took was of Irene with her back to the camera, the dark patterning of the wall sending the light her way, to the sculpted line of her back. A simple ribbon wrapped around her wrists with all of the powers of suggestion Kate can imagine. Kate couldn't stop pressing down on the shutter button.

 

“What can I offer you?” Irene asks pleasantly from behind her.

 

Kate turns around, intending to be smooth and playful, exactly like she knows she can be if she tries. Irene has, in fact, put her bra back on, which might make it worse, the rest of her, her skin, the parts of her that shouldn't be so hard to look at for their brightness, and she's undoing the strange, dark, beautiful coils of her hair. “Wine,” Kate manages. “Red, if it's convenient.” Her hands are too empty without the camera, Irene is too direct to look at this way.

 

Irene smiles. “Drinks, yes. What a lovely idea.” She gets to her feet – stockings, heels, bra, the light imprint of where the straps were on her shoulders before she took it off and put it back on. “I'm currently looking for a domestic servant,” she says, softly apologetic, “but not much luck, so far. Excuse me a moment.”

 

She goes, shoes clicking, and Kate realises more and more with every passing second that Irene was offering something other than a drink; the knowledge drops into her, heavier and heavier with every tap of Irene's heels.

 

“Well then,” Kate tells herself, alone in the bright living room, and clicks shut her camera bag.

 

 

 

23. Irene is not a ghost. Not now.

 

She is wearing a ghost's coat. Her shoulders are not wide enough for it. She disappears into its folds, the way she often disappears; a word said in reverse.

 

Though Kate doesn't think she spoke, Irene says: “Shhhhh.” She says; says she, in every direction, back to front and front to back, and her eyes are devoid of light.

 

Kate reaches up instinctively towards her, then winces as her body shoots through with electric pain sparking from a point in the back of her head. Irene's fingers, a little sharp with nails, find their way gently over the throbbing point of drums over Kate's ear.

 

Kate collects what happened from areas in her brain where words burst into light, tries to transfer it to her tongue, loses it along the way, makes a sound that she can't control and that doesn't mean anything. Brain-sparks fly when she closes her eyes.

 

Irene makes the backward sound again, a soft, reassuring hiss. “They hit you,” she says, slowly. “You've been out for a small while. When you think you can stand, I'll help you over to the bed.”

 

Not yet, Kate thinks but can't seem to say. There are questions she needs to ask, like who were they and why were they here and what happened to you and where are Sherlock Holmes and his assistant and should you even be here at all isn't it dangerous if they came here to get you and you got away then why did you come back. The words flicker like faulty flares, and she opens her eyes.

 

“Shhhh,” Irene repeats a third time, and her finger is a gentle coercion on Kate's lips. The ceiling hovers over them. “They're gone. We got them. Come. Let me help. You'll be fine. The police are on their way.”

 

Things are tightening at the edges, retreating to their normal form, and the room is no longer full of flitting lights when Kate allows Irene to pull her more or less to her feet and half-carry her over to their bed. The coat Irene is wearing is sturdy and luxuriously scratchy against Kate. She smoothes down the pillow next to Kate's cheek, which is pointless and therefore worrying.

 

“You'll be going, then?” Kate asks, over the slow thud of blood in her head.

 

Irene isn't a ghost; she doesn't waver. Not now. She smiles, and Kate can't tell whether it is because she's pleased or because she's not pleased at all.

 

“Well, I do have a coat to return.” She runs a finger along the coat collar, red nails startling against its dark material.

 

“And after that?” Kate asks, because she can't help it.

 

“After that I'll be naked,” Irene says softly and she bends down to kiss Kate, in a spot that isn't quite cheek and that isn't quite mouth.

 

Suddenly and violently, Kate wishes for her camera. She doesn't want this moment to go; for all its childishness that feeling is the reason for all of her photos. It could work, this time: she could snap Irene's back, dark, coated, and then circle her, back to front to back again, snapping pictures as fast Kate's thumb could work, always leaving half of Irene invisible, unlayering her and then layering her again. Giving her something else to wear than the nothing that she will have. Irene is always wearing something, even when she isn't – especially when she isn't. Kate can hardly stand the idea of her being unable to cover up.

 

Kate doesn't say be careful, because Irene has a strange twisting power over words, and this is not the time to experiment with it.

 

Irene does say goodbye, and Kate really, really wishes she hadn't.

 

 

 

25. Irene is a ghost, and she always has been.

 

She didn't die. Not yet. Kate knows that much.

 

Still, here she is; it is that most collectively hallucinated and rare of Christmases in London: with the sound of the city lovingly choked by snow. Unbidden, Kate thinks of anonymous feet slipping through, on their way to all of the different places people go on Christmas Eve. The darkness beyond the window of the bedroom seems to press against the glass, swollen with snow; there is no breath left to draw, and the outside is looking in. She can't bring herself to close the curtains.

 

Irene didn't die but she is dead all the same, because Kate knows absolutely nothing.

 

“I hate you,” Kate tells the screen of her phone, but words are just words around her, and nothing changes. In the window her face is pallid with phone light. Snow melts agonisingly against the glass. Someone, drunk, is singing outside.

 

 

 

4. Irene is infectious, especially – as Kate will think, but not yet – that first evening.

 

Her lipstick, by now, is lost on Kate; there is a smear of it in the corner of Kate's mouth that she will be tempted to leave on, later, when she looks at herself, uncomprehending, in the mirror in her small, echoing bathroom, and there are particles of it all through her hair, and under her nails, and in the damp creases of her thighs, and in that point where ear and neck meet. Irene's mouth looks soft and naked and she lifts her hands over her head, hooking her fingers over the elegant wood of the headboard. The result is that she is a long stretch of body on bed, skin drawn taut over the too noticeable hint of ribs under the improbable generosity of her breasts.

 

Kate's infected by her unselfconsciousness, the way that she doesn't look for the most flattering angles as she's lying there. It makes her want to be slow, and so she moves from naked to dressed in stages, pulling on articles of clothing without hurry. She walks around for a minute without her trousers, one of her bra straps off her shoulder and her blouse half on, one of her socks in her hand, scanning the ground for the other. She abandons the search on a sudden impulse to return to the bed, drawn to it as though the line between them is only relaxing slowly, and wordlessly Irene offers up her mouth, more breath than kiss.

 

There is a moment, when Kate sits on the bed with her back towards Irene, her newly acquired sock sliding over her heel, and she's just starting to move her head to look back to where Irene is splayed out, when there is the sound of a camera shutter. She aborts her movement, selfconsciousness very suddenly restored. She takes pictures, instead of letting other people take them, for a reason.

 

When she does look, Irene is just there, in the same position, hands on the wood above her head, and her eyes are closed.

 

 

 

0. Maybe there is, but it's hard to say now: a world in which Irene looks at her phone and can see how the light flows back from it, pixels of black splitting into thousands of greyscales as they hurtle apart, red and blue and yellow losing their strictness, their limits; how the light of the flash spits itself back out, fades away, restores the softness of the day as it hits Kate's back, arched as she pulls a sock over her foot, reconstructs how skin is a reflective surface. How a picture of Kate is like a word of Irene.

 

And it will be enough to close her eyes, and see how things begin as the same, how words and light spark into being together. No deletion necessary.