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a good fixed star

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i. “The whole thing is very splendid and voluptuous and absurd.” 


Gillian first saw Clash of the Titans with a group of friends at a movie theater in Manchester during the summer of 1981. She was 16 and stoned and—to the delight of her parents—finally growing out the purple streaks in her hair. The previous year—not to the delight of her parents—she’d had an abortion. She was, she thought, done with boys. For a while, anyway. So in spite of the heat she wore a motorcycle leather jacket over her Gang of Four t-shirt and hoped her profuse sweating would repel the idiot sitting next to her, a friend of a friend named Derek who wore a pink Lacoste shirt and whom she barely knew, and who kept trying to convince her to give him a hand job. While she did not appreciate this constant distraction from the smoldering beauty of Harry Hamlin and the troubling voluptuousness of Ursula Andress, eventually she gave in toward the end of the film because he was everyone’s ride home, including hers, and she knew otherwise there was no way she’d get back otherwise. At least he bought her fish and chips afterwards. 


Since then she’s seen this guilty pleasure of a movie so many times that it’s become a family joke; this morning Raff had texted Clash of T on telly 2day but u probs already know. So some 35 years later here she is, watching the same bloody film, ignoring that unsettling summery feeling somewhere between restlessness and lassitude, and thinking that her life is on repeat with only the most pathetic of variations—this time she’s alone, divorced, sprawled on the couch with her head hanging off the cushion so that she’s watching Lawrence Olivier upside down, and wearing nothing but a t-shirt and underwear because it’s hot as hell outside and she hasn’t the faintest intention of really working today. The sheep are fed, watered, and sheltered; that’s all she cares about. A bottle of lager sweats on the table in front of her and creates a puddle that dams against the mobile, which rings at the crucial moment when Olivier famously intones, “Release the kraken.” 


Cursing and flailing, she reaches for the mobile and falls off the couch in the process. Eyes on the kraken, she swipes the damp edge of the phone against her t-shirt and answers with a grunted “Yeah,” assuming it’s Raff and he needs a babysitter because no one else really calls her unless some sort of favor is required. 


This is true even of Caroline, who messages her regularly and usually about Flora or work or some random bad date she’s had—I loathe women a recurring motif as of late and leave it to Caroline to casually drop the word loathe in a text—so Gillian bobbles the mobile when she actually hears Caroline purring, “Make yourself pretty for me.”


She laughs. In addition to the texting they actually see each other more now than in the past couple years and if Gillian actually trusted anyone other than Caroline for confession, she would swear that to her complete and utter consternation, the woman in question actually flirts with her now. She has a hundred reasons why this cannot be true, but two primary counterarguments suffice: (1) it’s delusional wishful thinking on her part and (2) Caroline doesn’t really mean it and is simply practicing flirting techniques on her—and not doing such a grand job if all her dates are shit, apparently. The situation, such as it is, percolates within her, giving rise to a fluttery feeling at best and, with cheap lager in the mix, outright nauseous terror at worst. Men are easy, women are complicated; this is normally her blanket excuse for why she had never seriously attempted a romantic relationship with a woman. In Gillian’s mind there is a Venn diagram comprised of two circles: one labeled flirting and the other women, and the convex sliver where they deliriously conjoin is marked oh fuck and this maddeningly curvy demimonde is where one Caroline McKenzie Hyphen Fucking Dawson currently resides in her jumbled brain.  


Gillian watches the kraken thrash around onscreen while Lawrence Olivier quietly contemplates a professional nadir. “What’re you on about? Don’t you have a thing today? Work conference?”


“Canceled!”  


“Oh. Why?”


“Outbreak of food poisoning!” Caroline says with unabashed glee. 


“Hurrah for salmonella.” 


“Actually it was staphylococcus. Had dinner with them all last night and everyone put mayonnaise on their chips, I noticed, except for me.”


“You’re like the Sherlock Holmes of bacteria.”  


“So I’m a free woman this afternoon. Let’s do something.”


“Do what? Too bloody hot to do anything.” 


“Which means you’re just sitting around in your underwear drinking beer and watching some shit movie.” 


“Do you have a spycam in my house?” Gillian takes a moment to glare suspiciously at her mobile. “Or are we Skyping by accident?”

 
“I cannot tell you how impressed I am that you know what Skype is.”


“Twat.”  


“Come on. We’ll go for a drive somewhere. Didn’t you say you wanted to go to that weird bookstore—the one in the old church?” 


“Caz, that’s like on the other side of Leeds. One of those little villages where they’ve probably filmed a hundred episodes of Miss Marple.”


“So? We’ll make a day of it. Put on pants, I’m five minutes away.” She rings off. 


Gillian stares at the phone. Indeed, the kraken has been released. “Oh fuck.”


She runs upstairs. Her jeans are all in various stages of smelly, filthy, and unwearable, so she throws on a dress—subtly flowered and linen, the only dress she owns that has earned some kind of positive response from Caroline. Distinctly she remembers the time she wore it last summer: family dinner al fresco at the farm, Caroline’s smiling appraisal with head tilt and cool murmur of approval—you look nice—and the resultant blush fire blazing across her face. She could not remember the last time anyone made her cheeks burn like that. She pulls on battered Chuck Taylors, looks in the bedroom mirror and sees all these overlapping iterations of identity, an entire life visible in one weary reflection: punk wannabe, mother and grandmother, survivor, slag, widowed farmer, and, currently, middle-aged idiot smitten with her stepsister.  She groans “oh fuck” one more time and goes downstairs, finds a cooler and dumps some ice in it along with the only bottle of white in the fridge, and then strides outside just as the Jeep Cherokee pulls up to the house.  


Caroline rolls down the window. She wears aviator sunglasses that bring Mad Men’s Don Draper to Gillian’s mind and, no surprise, carries them off just as well as he did. While she may not be as successful with women as Don Draper, she is certainly garnering a lot of attention from the scant lesbian population in the area because lately she’s going out on dates with seemingly random and vaguely energetic young females every other week or so. Gillian knows this because she is always the one assisting with the dismal postmortem every time, nodding sympathetically as Caroline ticked off romantic defects:  She thinks “The Archers” are a boy band. She used the wrong fork for the entrée. She asked if I was interested in rock-climbing. She admitted she drinks wine out of cans. She said I reminded her of her aunt. 


To Gillian’s unbridled delight she once again gets the head tilt and the compliment: “You look nice,” Caroline says. She nods at the cooler. “What have we got here?”


“We’re having a fucking picnic,” Gillian says. She puts the cooler in the back seat and climbs into the Jeep.


“Fantastic. What did you pack?”


“Pinot grigio.” 


“And?”


“Ice.”


Caroline puts the Jeep into drive. “Hell of a picnic.” 


Before they even turn around, however, an argument ensues about the air conditioning: Caroline wants it on, Gillian wants it off. 


“What’s the point of having a summer drive if the windows aren’t open, if we aren’t feeling the breeze?” Gillian says. 

 
Caroline looks at her uncomprehendingly. “My hair will get messed up.” 


“Oh, the vanity.”


“I’m not vain, I just don’t want to look like an escapee from the mental ward.” 


“No one’s going to see you, just me, and maybe a bunch of nerds at a bookstore. And you always look b-b—um, really good anyway.” Gillian folds her arms and glares straight ahead. “And it’s f-freezing in here,” she adds, even as another blush rampages across her face. “It’s not healthy, we’ll get summer colds and I can’t afford to get a cold because—”


“—you’re a farmer and you can’t afford to take off a single day because you’re hard-working salt-of-the-earth-blah-blah-blah—yes, I know, you’ve run that line on me before and yet here you are, abandoning your precious farm on the hottest day of the year.” 

Gillian pouts. 

It’s the hottest day of the year,” Caroline repeats in the vain hope that reality will weigh in favor of reason and air conditioning.  

Gillian ratchets up the pout into a sulk. 

Caroline sighs and relents: The air conditioning is turned off, all windows glide down. “Right then. We’ll be smelling sheep shit until we hit the M62.”

 

ii. “But I do adore you—every part of you from heel to head.” 

Women belong to summer. Or so Caroline thinks. In this season of bounty her heightened senses take note of women to delirious distraction: curling hands and lips, swirling dresses around bare legs, swaying hips, swelling cleavage, all of it—sweat and fading perfume commingle sweet as honeysuckle, throaty laughs, rich, wine-soaked voices. She has always attributed her frustratingly inexplicable attraction to Gillian to this summer madness—especially in that fucking dress, oh God—but the fact remains that she has desired this sullen, stubborn sheep farmer clad in any variation of plaid shirts, torn jeans, grotty jumpers, mechanic overalls, and even Elmer Fudd-esque winter caps, all of which render her desperate self-diagnosis null and void. 

On the motorway they’ve gathered speed, creating a roaring hot-air wind tunnel within the Jeep’s interior. When Caroline looks in the rear-view mirror all she sees is the Medusan rage of her hair and barely restrains herself from melodramatic groaning. 

Gillian leans out the window, almost dangerously so—half-perched off the seat, gripping the doorframe, and screaming woo-hoo into the void of the surprisingly sparse M62 traffic. Even as she takes quiet joy at the sight of Gillian—hair wild, squinting into the sun, wind plastering the summer dress against her strong thighs—this hanging out the window like a demented Labrador makes her nervous and she shouts,  “For Christ’s sake, sit down.”

To her surprise Gillian plops into the seat with uncharacteristic obedience, even putting on the seat belt. She looks at Caroline, hair streaked across her tanned face, laughing, and Caroline thinks I will remember you like this always. 

“Sorry,” Gillian hollers into the din. 

“I just don’t want to scrape you off the road.” 

“It’d put a damper on everything, wouldn’t it?”  Still smiling, Gillian leans back and closes her eyes for a moment while pushing hair out of her face. A tendril remains curled along her cheek and across her lips, a bit of ornamentation run amok outside its prescribed patterns. Caroline notices her stereotypical farmer’s tan—bronzed arms, face, and neck in contrast to bare white legs, upper bicep delineating the pale and the tan courtesy of dozens of t-shirts. The edge of her dress flutters tantalizingly around her thighs and Caroline forces herself to look at the road. Her relationship with Gillian has always possessed an inevitability about it—a fantastic, fatalistic entanglement courtesy of their star-crossed parents—but she has never loved anyone or anything so wildly unpredictable as this woman who now sits next to her in so deceivingly still and innocuous a manner that Caroline’s naturally suspicious mind expects that her next move will be to climb onto the roof of the Jeep and start singing “Sempre libera” from La Traviata in homage to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Except that she knows Gillian loves the movie, but hates opera. Nonetheless Caroline’s feelings remain a source of trouble, so much so that not only has she mindlessly thrown herself into dating and then ridiculously rejecting out of hand any woman who shows the least bit of interest in her, but also that at the present moment she misses the correct turnoff from the M62 and they end up meandering around the outskirts of Leeds in search of the tiny Miss Marple-ish village for a good half hour despite the continual hectoring of both the GPS and Gillian. 

“How could you miss the bloody turnoff?” Gillian grumbles again as they pass a sign that says WARNING: OWL SANCTUARY, LOW-FLYING OWLS for the third time. 

Wisely—just like an owl, yep, that’s me, Caroline thinks, who are you kidding, you pathetic numpty?—Caroline declines the option of admitting the truth, which is that she was so distracted by the continuous sensual writhe of the dress around Gillian’s thighs that she would drive around for hours just to witness the play of shadow, sun, and linen upon her skin and imagine how satisfying it would be to remove that dress and— 

“Maybe we should visit the owl sanctuary,” Caroline manages to suggest after loudly clearing her throat. 

Slouching and petulant, Gillian folds her arms. “If they give me sanctuary from your fucking driving, I’m all for it.”

 

iii. “I try to invent you for myself”

Finally they discover the bookstore—in its former incarnation known as St. Botolph’s, a modest, squat, moss-covered stone church—in a village with a blink-and-you-miss-it name: Marston Something, Offnor, Colward, Fuckward, who knows. So Gillian takes it upon herself to dub the unknown hamlet Owlshitshire: “Say it fast three times,” she dares Caroline. While Caroline parks across the road from bookstore-church and fusses with her hair, Gillian stares at the building with newfound apprehension. “You think we’ll spontaneously combust, entering a church together? The lesbian and the slapper?” 

Caroline adjusts—but does not remove—her sunglasses. “As if the joint force of our sins will merit our ruin? It’s deconsecrated, isn’t it?” 

“Reckon so. I’m just worried this will end up like The Omen.” 

Caroline sighs. “Everything is a bloody movie with you.” 

“Thought that was one of the things you—liked about me.”

“There are,” Caroline replies slowly, “many things I—like about you.”

With the Jeep at a sweltering standstill, sweat sprouts upon Gillian’s upper lip and falls in a tingling wave along the edge of her scalp. The white noise of her heart becomes clearer as Caroline leans in toward her—one more hundredth of a millimeter, one more sliver of a hairsbreadth and I swear to Christ or whatever pagan deity hanging about that I will kiss you, sweaty lips and all—

Inscrutable as an Italian film star from behind those bloody sunglasses, Caroline grins as she hits the button releasing the seat belt, which slithers off her body in perhaps the dorkiest strip tease known to humankind but that, unsurprisingly, still leaves Gillian breathlessly and idiotically aroused. “Alas, my dear, that is not one of them.”

The bookstore is second-hand—damp and disorganized, marinating in the sweet reek of old paper, wood polish, and pastoral, Anglican ideals long past. As she happily waltzes through the chaos, Gillian’s eager fingers tap random piles of books as if she is a pianist lazily running through scales and contemplating a piece for performance. Then her hand hovers above a heart-stopping find: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.  Before picking it up, however, she glances around with a stiff furtiveness that would be screamingly obvious to anyone witnessing her blatant, nervous interest in the love letters between two women. But there is no one in the store except an elderly couple and the proprietor behind the cash register, who is chatting up Caroline. Apparently he has discovered that she is a headteacher and is going on at length about the ruin of the education system thanks to political correctness and multiculturalism. Briefly Gillian considers swooping in for a rescue, but she knows damn well that Caroline can decimate this type of bloviate without working up a sweat; indeed, she leans in and murmurs something to him that shuts him up right quick. So Gillian turns her attention to Virginia and Vita, her thumb ruffling musty tea-colored pages while fearful of the dive into words that she suspects will only grant more clarity and substance to the inchoate feelings within her.
 
I always have such need to merely talk to you. Even when I have nothing to talk about—with you I just seem to go right ahead and sort of invent it. I invent it for you. Because I never seem to run out of tenderness for you and because I need to feel you near. Excuse the bad writing and excuse the emotional overflow. What I mean to say, perhaps, is that, in a way, I am never empty of you; not for a moment, an instant, a single second.

It’s like standing in church when the bell tower rings and the vibrato rattles your bones and stiffens your spine with a clarifying chill. And I’m in church right now, Gillian thinks, kind of appropriate, I reckon—then Caroline is beside her, so close that her breast brushes against Gillian’s upper arm. Her pale skin is flush with warmth, her fancy sunglasses glint on her head like a hipster crown and she smells good, like sun and sweat and grass and Gillian doesn’t know how she does that, she hasn’t been anywhere near grass unless she rolled around in a field before showing up at the farm, and Gillian’s senses riot and the beautiful words she just read tumble out of her head, the glue of their cohesion melts away.

“What’re you looking at?” Caroline asks casually.
  
“Oh—um.”

She tilts her head to look at the cover and Gillian stares at the shade of her jawline, the golden down along her cheek, and the strong lines of her throat because it seems the safer to look at these things rather than the freckled pointillism on her chest leading one astray into cleavage—though I walk through the valley of cleavage, I shall fear no evil, for the thought of wine in the cooler comforts me—or even the bracing blue of her eyes, those dangerous lodestones that, for some unfathomable reason, have always drawn out the deepest measure of truth from Gillian. 

“Interesting.” Caroline nods at the cover. “Do you like her writing? Woolf, I mean?”

“What I’ve read, yeah. I mean, I’ve not read much. Just a couple novels,” Gillian mumbles. “They kind of made me aware—” Now Caroline touches her elbow and she devolves further into a stammering, sweating mess. “—of, um, the interior life? Interior lives? How they could, er, work. How the mind kind of works some-sometimes.” She looks around frantically—why is it so bloody hot in here? “Sound like an idiot.”  

“Not at all. Have to admit I haven’t read much of her writing. You can blame John for that. Every time he wanted to prove he was a feminist he would quote from A Room of One’s Own.
  
Gillian laughs, and looks down at her ragged old Chuck Taylors. “That would do it. I—I’m sorry he ruined her for you.”

“Should probably give her another go, what do you think?”

“Yeah.” Gillian gnaws at her lip. On one hand, she wants to sit around and talk about Virginia Woolf and books and everything under the stars and sun with Caroline but on the other hand, she wants to be alone with the book and let it continue speaking to her like an eloquent oracle sans riddles. The latter might be best because right now words for her are scarcer than crow’s teeth. Usually she can turn on the tap and let language run rampant, not give a toss what she was saying to anyone about anything. More often than not, this got her in a fair amount of trouble; this time, she wants to find the right words that will lead into the right kind of trouble.

Caroline’s fingers tap playfully against her forearm and Gillian glances at this invisible tattoo, patiently waiting for some intricate design inked in a riotous rainbow to blossom on her skin. “Tell you what—I’m going to dash out and find us proper sustenance for a picnic.”

Gillian busts out a nervous, relieved smile. “You bored already?”

“Not in the least.” When Caroline replies to her stroppiness with a certain kind of lovely seriousness it always prompts in her innate, immediate trust. Then, predictably, Caroline goes off and sounds the schoolteacher and mum that she is: “But it’s probably not wise for us to consume nothing but a bottle of cheap white wine on a day like this.”

Why not? Gillian wants to say, but no—this is not a time when she wants wine rendering her into sloppy foolishness. “Right.”

“Be back before you know it.”

As she walks away, Gillian experiences such a ridiculous tightening in her throat, her chest, a physical manifestation of an irrational sense of abandonment—even though she knows Caroline is not some stupid toff boy with a fancy car who would leave her stranded in a big city or even, like here, the middle of nowhere—that she cannot prevent herself from blurting out Caroline’s name, even though she stops herself from bleating pathetically, you’re coming back, right?  

Caroline stops and turns around expectantly. The precise spin of her heels, the way she pitches forward as if she’s a dandyesque soldier determined to enter a fray she’s entirely unprepared for—the cumulative effect of her movement assuages Gillian, is more than a guarantee of her return.

Relieved, Gillian smiles. “I may be cheap,” she says, “but the wine’s not.”

Caroline laughs at the easy joke and Gillian then permits herself the lusty luxury of watching her walk away.

Alone, she tucks herself into a dusty corner of the bookstore on a faded burgundy settee with the Virginia and Vita book in her greedy hands; when she looks up again the sun slants suspiciously low through a high stain-glass window and casts jeweled baubles on the wall near an aged reproduction of a George Lambert landscape. The bookstore is empty, silent. Cursing herself for entering some kind of literary fugue state, she drops the book on the settee and commences working her way to the front of the church-store, dipping and swaying around so many claustrophobia-inducing shelves and tables and piles of books with such careful, sweaty precision she feels as if she’s performing an elaborate renaissance court dance.

At the front of the store sits the bookstore proprietor in all his balding, cranky glory. He squints at her and ruffles the pages of his newspaper, perhaps hoping its scant breeze will somehow propel her away on a powder-puff of air. She stares at the old, heavy doors barring her way and is strangely bereft.
  
I suppose it is good for the soul to be hurt and perplexed perpetually. I know at least that I miss you damnably: that is a good fixed star.

Amused, the owner watches her frowning at the door and then drawls sarcastically, “Oh, don’t worry, love. I’m sure your wife will come back for you.”

Gillian laughs. Of course, Caroline must’ve told this tosser they were married when he was bothering her earlier. After the divorce from Robbie came through earlier this year, she firmly declaimed to no one but herself that she was done with marriage; being Caroline’s imaginary wife for a day is, however, a union more satisfactory than reality has ever granted her.

“Yeah. Damn right she will,” she says. “Know why?”

He shakes his head.

She leans heavily against the cash register. “ ’Cause I’ve got the only keys to the sex dungeon in our flat.”

 

iv. “It seems to me that I only begin to live after the sun has gone down and the stars have come out.”


The rush of sunset brings cooler air through the Jeep, which runs parallel to some tributary of the River Aire. Venus glints in a layer of darkening sky above a thinning band of vermillion while Gillian sits with an open bag of brandy snaps in her lap. She’s already eaten half the bag despite Caroline’s admonishments not to spoil her appetite. The weakening sun jabs through the green interlace of tree branches and in those brief outbursts fills her eyes with light.

Somewhere along the river they find the right spot, kick off their shoes, and sit on an old blanket retrieved from the boot of the Jeep. They drink cool wine from a bottle blistered with damp and eat bread, cheese, and berries, and Gillian’s tongue loosens enough so that she talks haltingly about To the Lighthouse and of time passing, then she stops abruptly when the wind flutters the hair along Caroline’s serious brow—she listens so intently, Gillian notices, and it’s unnerving—and Caroline’s eyes resonate as a cynosure in the deep blue evening. In that moment everything stirs wild within her and she cannot keep still because she fears what she’ll say next. Barefoot, she walks through the grass to the river, the alternate swish and crunch of grass wet and stiff underneath her gait give way slowly to soft dirt and pebbles that press into the pads and arches of her feet as if pearls desperate to remain embedded in soft sanctuary. All while Caroline yells at her about the dangers of ticks and other hazards such as snails, broken glass, and used condoms.

At the edge, she stops. In darker times now past, she thought of drowning herself. Like Virginia Woolf, except without the eloquent note or a death notice in the papers. She doubted anyone would really miss her. Even Raff. Still, she could not, would not, do that to him. Bad enough the millstone of his father’s death hung around his neck; to have both parents labeled as suicides—regardless of the truth—would be too much to bear. She likes to imagine that if she had drowned herself back then, her body would have found its way to the freedom of a sea—silly, she thinks, but largely due to a proverb that always stuck in her mind: The sea refuses no river. She always liked that one. So much of the proverbs and verses she heard in church as a child seemed focused on judgment, control, condemnation, behaving in a certain way. But in the embrace of the land and the water, well, you belong to it—and not the other way around. Its silence carries no censure. Dusk drizzles over thickening clouds and she tastes the heavy humid air. A smattering of stars now attend Venus. The river has led her to this moment—not to drown, but to declare herself.

She turns around and glances quickly at Caroline, who is on the old blanket in an elegant sprawl, legs crossed at the ankles, calm demeanor belied by the continuous nervy flexing of her calves. “It’s beautiful here,” she says.

“You’re beautiful,” Caroline replies.

Uneasy, Gillian laughs. She’s been called a lot of things over the years, but beautiful has never been one of them and she’s old enough now that she mistrusts any easy compliment—even from the likes of the unimpeachably honest, unrelentingly forthright Caroline—and she is not to be won over that easily. Or so she thinks.   “Well now. Your game’s gotten strong—all those girls you’ve gone out with lately, eh?”

“I’m not interested in games. Or those girls, really.” Caroline sits, draws up her knees, and adds softly: “You must know that.”

“Do I? All I know is, here we are, picnic on the river, you saying nice things—”

“How dare you,” Caroline says with mock indignation, “I’ve said only one nice thing to you thus far.”

“—a woman could get the wrong idea.”

“Or the right one, as the case may be.”

Gillian frowns, bites her lip. Even in the face of blatant confirmation, her nerve falters spectacularly. Because nothing and no one has mattered so much to her in such a long time, she cannot remember.

“Gillian.”

“W-what?”

“Tell me all the things you have in your head, that won’t ‘stir by day, only by dark on the river.’”

The words ring clear and true. She sees them in her mind once again, feels the soft, foxed page at her fingertips. 

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads—They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.

Caroline pulls the book out of her purse. Of course, she bought it. When earlier she had triumphantly returned from her shopping excursion to the bookstore, she thrust a bag of brandy snaps at Gillian, ordered her to wait outside by the Jeep, and demanded use of the WC from the bookstore owner, who stammered consent in the face of this wild, dungeon-owning lesbian deviant schoolteacher.
And here Gillian thought it had taken her so long inside the store because she was doing number two.

The grass murmurs protest under Gillian’s feet and she winces when something sharp bites into the ball of her right foot, so as she stands there in front of Caroline she may be bleeding, her foot may become infected and she’ll get gangrene and end up spending the rest of her days gimping around as Yorkshire’s One and Only Peg-Legged Sheep Farmer, but none of that matters now because she can hardly get past stating the obvious.

“You bought the book,” she says to Caroline.

“Yep.”

“You know that—that quote.”

“Yep.”

As words continue to fail her in a way they never quite did for Virginia Woolf, she kneels upon the blanket, cradles Caroline’s face in her hands, and lays on the kissing equivalent of a Woolf sentence: long, glitteringly complex, sustained and full and magnificent and, in its aftermath, leaving one breathless and lingering sweetly over every fine detail, every bright facet. Everything rushes by in splendid sensate tandem: the light that fades and glows all the same, the whishing of the river, the wine limning her mouth, the corner of the book digging into her knee, her thumb caressing Caroline’s cheek, the star of Venus blessing the entire enterprise.

“God.” Caroline finally manages speaking. “If I’d known you’re going to kiss me like that over one old book, I would have bought out the entire bloody store.”

It is nearly dark, it will rain very soon, and Gillian is quite certain that her bare, dirty foot is bleeding. “Don’t need a book for that. In fact, you should know—I’ll kiss you like that anywhere, any time you want, for as long as you want, every day for the rest of your life.”

“Go on then,” Caroline says.