Gillian's leg jitters rapidly. Her knee hits the table and her dad's pint jumps, slopping lager everywhere. He tsks at her as she scrambles for a napkin, scattering cutlery and apologies, and across the table Celia leans back, holding her orange and lemonade like she's afraid to put it down.
It's a nice pub, Gillian wants to point out. Instead, she takes another long swallow of her own pint, ignoring Alan's glance at how quickly the level is dropping. She doesn't need her father telling her to slow down on the drinking. She's got reason enough. It's a bloody nice pub, in fact, with bloody nice beer, and soon as Caroline shows they're going to have a bloody Sunday roast and play happy bloody families, just the four of them.
She'd like to think that's why her hand is shaking, so that she knocks her front teeth with the pint glass, so that she winces and swallows a curse. But "What is Caroline doing?" Celia exclaims, glaring at the door like she can summon her normally punctual daughter just by demanding it, and Gillian feels her face heat with embarrassment. If Caroline isn't coming... if Caroline doesn't want to see her...
She clutches her pint tighter, remembering the last time they saw each other: how Caroline gasped and pressed her cheek into Gillian's tentative touch. How they both paused like they were each waiting for the other to come to her senses. How they sighed when their lips met, like they'd been waiting for this moment for too long. And then – she frowns – how she pulled back, stammered something, and fled before Caroline had the chance to tell her off.
No wonder Caroline's not showed. She's probably waiting for a private moment to give Gillian a piece of her mind. Leaving her to cope alone with Celia's annoyance and Alan's disappointment today will only be the start of a long campaign of retribution. It'll lead to arguments, family feuds, probably, worse than ever. Gillian's just worked herself up to wondering what madness drove her to kiss Caroline – her! What was she thinking! Well, she wasn't, was she, that's always her problem – when the pub door opens and the woman herself hurries in, calling apologies before she even reaches the table.
"Sorry, sorry." Caroline unwraps her scarf and shrugs out of her tan wool coat, hanging it over the back of the chair. The hem trails on the floor and Gillian barely stops herself from reaching out to keep it from getting dirty. Instead she glares down at her half-empty pint, rolling the glass between her palms, trying not to look at Caroline, casual in jeans and blouse and windblown hair. She's saying something about the effort involved in handing Flora over to Greg for a few days. "Even when I'm not taking her, it's an extra twenty minutes just to get out the door, if we're lucky," she says at last, sitting down with a sigh.
That's Celia's cue to start reminiscing to Alan about Caroline's own infancy. Under cover of her exaggerations and Alan's amusement, Gillian sneaks a look sideways. At Caroline.
Who meets her eyes and smiles at her with astonishing gentleness.
Gillian's so startled, she forgets to look away. She stares as Caroline's smile deepens, as she reaches across below the table, out of Alan and Celia's sight, to squeeze Gillian's thigh in greeting.
The warmth of Caroline's touch makes Gillian shudder all over, nearly upsetting her own pint across the table this time. As Alan and Celia look over disapprovingly, Caroline pulls her hand back, turning to the menu.
"Have we decided?" Caroline asks, neatly distracting from Gillian's skittishness, and during the discussion that follows Gillian tries not to think too hard about how the pages of the menu shake a bit in Caroline's previously steady grasp.
They talk about babies through most of the meal, and the topic's safe enough. Even over food, Gillian'd rather discuss the horrors of Flora's nappies than go another round on why she and Robbie split. She swallows her usual reluctance to think of the past in order to share a few of Raff's funnier mishaps, out of their usual context. It's like penance, maybe, all the old echoes of pain as a sacrifice so she doesn't have to talk to Caroline, at least not about anything serious.
Between stories, Gillian eats fast, taking big bites – an old habit that comes back when she's nervous. She drops her fork onto her empty plate well before anyone else and only then realizes that now she might have to carry the conversation alone. Panicking, she jumps up gracelessly, nearly tipping her chair over. "Just – the loo," she says, too brightly. "Back in a mo." She doesn't quite run down the hallway, but it's a near thing.
In the loo, she bolts herself into a stall, then leans back against the door, breathing deeply. Even the toilets are posh: the air smells like fake strawberries, the doors are wood with wrought-iron handles, and there's no graffiti on the walls. None. No 'Jezza wuz here 05.11.15,' no 'Tamsin loves Khalid 4eva.' Not even 'Gillian Greenwood is an enormous slapper,' which, Eddie told her not long after Raff was born, should be on every toilet wall in Yorkshire. She remembered that the other day, wondered if Robbie'd ever laughed at it.
Pressing the heels of her hands into her eye sockets, she groans, the sound covered by the light chime of classical music being piped in. Who's she fooling, in a place like this? Left to her they'd all be down the local 'Spoons.
Would Celia ever willingly set foot in a Wetherspoons, Gillian wonders, half hysterical.
Somehow, the impossible thought of Celia frowning at a sticky table is weirdly calming. At least she doesn't have that to put up with. If she doesn’t figure out how to be less of a twat around Caroline, though, she'll have to deal with that level of disapproval or more. So, be less twattish. Well, it's a start, anyway, even if she's not sure how to pull it off.
Thus decided, she unbolts the door, determined to fake her way through the rest of the meal and sneak away casually. Unfortunately, Caroline is standing in front of the sinks, arms crossed, waiting for her.
"Sh-shit, Caz." Startled, Gillian actually thinks for a moment about stepping back into the stall and trying to hide till the whole thing's over. But, no, that would be the height of twattishness, and she's ashamed of herself for considering it. Instead she moves forward, turning the taps on at the sink next to Caroline even though she doesn't need to wash her hands. "Sent you to look for me, did they?" she asks, focused on soap and water but so aware of Caroline so close to her.
The silence stretches. Gillian turns the water off, reaches for a towel; she dries her hands and starts shredding the damp paper before she finally makes herself look up and meet Caroline's disappointed gaze.
"So." Caroline hasn't moved, her arms still crossed like she's trying to hold herself together. "That's it, then? You're just going to pretend nothing happened?"
Gillian nearly drops her handful of paper scraps. "Isn't that..." She swallows and draws in on herself, waiting. "Isn't that what you want?"
"Oh." Caroline exhales, so quietly Gillian barely hears it. She uncurls her arms and steps forward and cups Gillian's face in both hands. "No, you plonker," she says gently, running her thumb over Gillian's cheekbone. "It's not."
And then she leans down, and Gillian does drop the paper towel, because kissing Caroline – being kissed by Caroline – is. Well. It's better even than she remembered and she can't quite believe it's happening again. Caroline's touch is so careful, so precise, and Gillian wants to melt against her and trust that Caroline will hold her up.
Instead Caroline draws back, slowly, reluctantly, her fingers tracing over Gillian's skin as she steps away, as they both grin silly grins at each other. "We shouldn't," she says, looking at the door. "My mother – and I don't – I mean, not because you – " She stops short when Gillian laughs, delighted to have reduced Caroline's usual poise to incoherence.
"Yeah, uh. No. We should. Talk. First. Later." Gillian bites her lip. "Maybe – I'll go back to the – the table, and you wait? For a minute or two?"
Caroline nods jerkily. Gillian swallows and turns to go, and Caroline reaches out and grabs her hand. "Gillian, just – " She keeps herself from speaking, just leans in and kisses Gillian again, softly, like she can't help herself. "All right," she says then, squeezing Gillian's hand and letting go quickly. "All – all right."
Gillian stands in the hallway for a moment, scrubs the back of her hand over her mouth, forces her expression into practiced neutrality. There's a fresh pint waiting for her at the table and she reaches for it gratefully, hiding behind it as Alan and Celia debate pudding choices versus the heart-healthy foods list Celia carries in her bag. The argument runs until Caroline comes back from the loo and Alan appeals to her for support.
"Oh, no," Caroline says easily, "nothing for me. No, I think I might just pop into town for a bit before the shops close. I wonder..." She pauses, almost too long, then turns. Under the table, her hand rests on Gillian's thigh again. "Gillian, would you like to join me?" she asks.
Gillian's hands tremble, but her voice, when she answers, is perfectly calm.