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Returning Tides

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Patsy spent the early hours of the morning laboriously struggling with a bag of balloons and a cheap mini manual pump bought in a fit of optimism a few weeks ago in the pound shop. The grey rainclouds didn’t disperse outside as she worked and it filled the room with a gloomy light as she flitted about the space. Only the back kitchen wall retained a shred of cheeriness and it made Patsys stomach flip as she watched the faint wisps of stray sunlight bounce off the newly painted yellow.

Just a manufactured hope for sunlight to banish the shadows away. Maybe it would work eventually?

The task was a drawn out, fiddly affair, peppered with muffled curses and made far longer than it needed to be because of her missing finger. A fact that she resented Abraham for far more than she could ever convey. The pump was a necessary addition too. Her lungs weren’t as shot as the doctors had warned her they might be but she still wasn’t up to puffing away into fifty balloons. Unfortunately that wasn’t the only problem because of course it couldn’t be could it. No, the bigger problem was tying the damn things.

Patsy was getting quite good at working around the lack of middle finger but there really were some things that just required one and sadly balloons were one of those things. She had to dig deep not to quit when what felt like the millionth balloon tumbled away from her clumsy fingers and blew around the room wetly. It was definitely moments like this, Patsy reflected irritably, that most people advised shacking up with someone when raising kids. It helped to have someone there to put a finger on the knot.

Trixie probably didn’t count as a second person although there was another candidate possibly... Patsy had to very firmly stop her thoughts drifting down this mental avenue when it started. She knew who she wished would be here to help tie balloons with...

By the time the kitchen clock showed half past four she’d just about managed it. She huffed with smudgy pride to see the changes she’d wrought to her little house. Balloons hung from the beams and walls. The arch leading into the kitchen wore a spangly silver banner as did the front door. A few left over balloons cramped the floor simply because Patsy had stubbornly refused to be beaten by unyielding balls of rubber.

Nodding in satisfaction at a job well done Patsy set about tidying the kitchen to her satisfaction before hopping upstairs to grab a shower before Fern woke up.

Fern was usually the second up in the house. Trixie most likely wouldn’t surface until midday and Seppie would lay in all day if she thought she could get away with it.

In the bathroom Patsy shucked off her clothes quick as she could, studiously ignoring her reflection in the mirror as she did it. She was well aware of the mess her chest looked nowadays but it still bothered her when she caught sight of it. Her brain was slower late at night; she’d forget for maybe a second and then spot the flash of red and it was like she was seeing it for the first time all over again.

The scar was raised, red and ran from collar to breast. When she touched it she could almost feel the slice of the hook, the way it had splinted the skin as it was beaten through and down. She’d always quite liked her boobs before Abraham had got involved. Val had liked them. Delia seemed to as well. Now the idea of them and him and everything related just made her angry.

There were so many things she couldn’t change. So many things she should have been able to prevent if only she’d-

Enough.

Shrugging her shoulders to force some much needed momentum into proceedings Patsy turned on the shower and got in before the hot could kick in. The cold water hit her skin painfully and she flinched at the contact but she made herself stay under the spray until it warmed up before scrubbing her body. It helped to be clean, even if it didn’t last long it helped a little.

She might have dirt in her blood but she could at least smell of apples. Psychology be buggered.

To her surprise her morning ablutions were interrupted not by Fern but Trixie. Patsy was just washing the conditioner out of her hair when the door burst open and Trixie flung herself across the room to kneel at the porcelain alter. Patsy groaned as the sound of Trixies stomach unloaded at speed down the bowl with nauseating splashes as an accompaniment.

Rolling her eyes Patsy rubbed away the last of the suds and reached out to pluck up the closest towel. As she wrapped it round her torso she eyed her friends heaving back and snorted.

“Heard of knocking?” Patsy called acerbically and Trixie groaned.

“I think... I think... God I think I’m dying.” Trixie had to stop as she continued to retch and Patsy hmmphed unsympathetically.

“You’d better bleach that thing when you’re done, you’ll give the girls your germs.”

Trixie retched again but managed to grip the sides of the toilet long enough to raise a finger in wordless response.

Patsy closed the door on her friend without another word and then worried that she was a bad person for a half a second before shrugging off the worry like a coat she didn’t want to wear anymore. Wasn’t like Trixie wasn’t vomiting rather regularly recently after all; the whiskey went down fine enough but the blonde didn’t seem able to keep it down. So far even daily vomiting hadn’t been enough to curb her enthusiasm for the stuff though.

Patsy dried, dressed and primped as quickly as she could while she listened with half an ear to Trixie staggering about and flushing the toilet over and over again in the bathroom. Served her right, Patsy thought sanctimoniously as she did her worst with a few licks of mascara.

Trixie only exited the bathroom when Patsy was leaving the bedroom. Their eyes met across the hall and Trixie gave a half conscious wave of recognition.

“I’m making tea.” Patsy offered a little louder than strictly necessary. Trixies eyes fluttered closed at the noise.

“My heads pounding.” She garbled, her blonde hair hanging unusually limp around her ears.

“Heavy night?” Patsy deadpanned, Trixies answering groan echoed through the hall.

“I thought you said you were making tea?” She grumbled, wiping something oozy in texture from the corner of her mouth.

“Yeah yeah, wash your face and I’ll make you one you piss head.” Was Patsys reply as she slid past the blonde. She didn’t want to see her friend like this; it was depressing.

Patsy was as good as her word and had the cups ready by the time Trixie had made it downstairs like a good little housemate. Just as well she had done it too Patsy noted dispassionately, Trixies steps were tepid, her face drawn. She looked like she needed something vaguely wholesome in her system. There were dark circles under her eyes and an uncharacteristic flash of acne appearing around her red nose.

She looked like someone who needed a break from the bottle.

“You look smart, what’s the occasion?” Trixie asked hoarsely, accepting the cup of tea Patsy offered her with muted delicacy.

“Didn’t know there had to be an occasion to look smart?” Patsy evaded without thinking. She was busy watching Trixies hands and the way they shook and made the surface of the tea jolt.

“No, that’s very true, but Pats- Look, you’ve even polished your boots.’ Trixie pointed at the pair of boots which were indeed polished and waiting by the back door. ‘Who are trying to impress?” Trixie frowned as she plopped down the mug onto the counter and groped for something in her dressing gown pocket. Patsy spotted the flash of gold foil lid that suggested a bottle.

“Bit early in the day to be drinking don’t you think?” Patsy noted frostily, frustrated that Trixie was already hitting the drink at this early hour.

“I’m on twilights so no, not really.’ Trixie raised the bottle in a smug toast. Her lips were pressed tightly in a concentrating grimace and she still looked pasty. The hand holding the bottle still shook. ‘Besides,’ Trixie went on with forced cheer, ‘beside it’s five ‘o’ clock somewhere isn’t it?”

“5 AM perhaps. Maybe you should just drink your tea normally this morning, I don’t want the girls smelling whiskey on your breath.” And I don’t want to smell it either come to think of it Patsy sounded off in her own head.

“Oh please.’ Trixie looked at the ceiling haughtily as though seeking patience in the woodchip. ‘The girls father was a drug addict not a drunk. They probably can’t even tell, you’re being sensitive.”

“I can tell though.” Patsy said tightly, battling down the anger before it could ruin the rest of the morning. It was pointless to go over Allie and Micks lifestyle with Trixie. Trixie didn’t want to hear it.

“Oh of course.” Trixie breathed, suddenly speculatively as she appeared to be struck by something. Patsy braced tiredly and watched as Trixie poured a generous slosh of the whiskey into her tea before turning round to peer at Patsy as she sipped, eyes glinting with realisation.

“Oh of course what?” Patsy grumbled. Fully aware that Trixie was changing the subject and disliking the purposeful evasion. That was Patsys favourite trick damn it; it was irritating to be on the receiving end for once.

“I understand why you’re all dressed up now. Delias back today isn’t she?”

“Delia? Is she?’ Patsy ran a nervous hand through her hair with as much feigned surprise as she could muster. The movement fooled absolutely no one, ‘I hadn’t realised.”

“Course you haven’t sweetie.’ Trixie smirked as she sipped her tea with a gentile sniff of amusement, ‘I suppose it’s a good thing I am on nights then isn’t it if today’s the big reunion. What’s the system going to be? Hat on the door?”

“Today’s Seppies birthday Trixie.’ Patsy pointed out forcefully. ‘Nothings going to happen like that. I haven’t even talked to the woman properly for weeks.”

“Oh please, you two were making eyes when she still had that girlfriend. She’s probably got a picture of you tucked away somewhere in her diary and been sighing somewhere dreadfully romantic. You’ll probably be at it before lunch time.” Trixies lips curled into a sneer that barely hid the tint of jealousy. Divorce was making Patsys friend almost as cynical as Patsy on a bad day.

“Don’t talk about her like that,’ Patsy swatted at the table sharply, surprising herself with the unlikely urge to protect Delia. ‘You know she had no idea what she was living with. She’s been through just as much as the rest of us. Look, it’s a big day, I don’t want to argue but would it kill you to be less spiky for a bit?”

“Touchy? Pardon me for pointing out the flaws of saint Delia, yes yes, I know.’ Trixie rolled her eyes when Patsys hand slapped the table again meaningfully and she tilted her head still watching Patsy with amusement. ‘What are you going to say to her? Have you written a speech?”

“Speech?” Patsys face turned wooden. Something like anxiety but more insistent pulsed around her stomach region. She’d started feeling a shade panicked as the morning had properly dawned. She wasn’t sure what she would say to Delia yet but didn’t much fancy using Trixie as an independent opinion. The table was a nice one, it would look bad if it was thrown across the room.

“One knee, violins, maybe a fat baby with a bow and arrow.” Trixie offered blithely, entirely unaware of her housemates dark ruminations.

“Is that how Tom managed to reel you in?” Patsy teased unthinkingly and watched as the laughter drained from Trixies face like water down a sink. Trixie took a much more deliberately deeper swig of her tea and then placed the suddenly empty cup on the side. Her hands were shaking.

“No,’ Trixie said bitterly, ‘he told me he was a good man and I believed him.”

There was an awkward silence as Patsy watched her best friend over the rim of her mug. Well... There went that conversation. Still, she might as well ask while they were here. Trixie had said she would go and see Tom before work yesterday. They’d never got round to a catch up, Trixie had already gone out when Patsy got back from the shrinks.

“How did it go yesterday in the end? Did you manage to sort anything else out between you?”

“What do you think?’ Trixie patted her pocket reflexively, her voice fragile. ‘He wants a quiet divorce, the new girls all moved in. Bastard asked me if I wanted to store any of my things in the garage until I found somewhere more permanent, said he’d put a good word out for me amongst his parishioners if I wanted to buy locally.”

“And you told him to get in the sea I hope.” Patsy finished, trying to force a bit of levity back. Trixie was so changeable with her moods at the minute that it paid dividends to err on the side of humour to get through this kind of conversation. Trixie didn’t smile.

“I told him he could keep it all, I don’t want anything that he’s touched and furthermore I informed him that the tacky art work the new girls put on my walls makes the house look as bland as she is and if that was the way he intended to live now then it’s clear to me that I’ve dodged a very large bullet.”

The new girl. Trixie had taken to calling Barbara that; refusing point blank to refer to the brunette by name. It was a tricky situation. On the one hand Patsy disapproved of the way Tom had handled the break up so brutally but on the other hand Barbara as a person wasn’t as terrible as Trixie wanted to make out. Barbara and Phyllis seemed fairly close too which didn’t help all that much. Patsy had been forced to end more than one conversation with Trixie when Phyllis was in ear shot.

Phyllis Crane was definitely the loyal type.

“What did he say to that?”

“Not much,’ Trixie ran her finger along the wet circle left from her mug and pulled the liquid in shapeless patterns on the counter, her voice sulky. ‘He just said that he hoped we could move past this and be friends again.”

“Well I suppose that’s why he’s a priest.’ Patsy sighed thoughtfully. ‘They all do love a lost cause.”

“I just can’t understand it Pats.’ Trixie mumbled distractedly, evidently not listening to a word Patsy had said. Two lines cutting the space between her perfectly plucked eyebrows where she frowned. ‘I mean honestly what on earth does he see in her? The woman has no style, no charisma. She wears Kagools and crocs without a hint of irony. I don’t see... Why does he want her over me? What does she give him that I can’t?”

Patsy sighed, not in possession of the answers Trixie wanted and reached into her pocket to fumble for her day time packet of cigarettes. Trixie held out her hand for one and they both walked to the back door to smoke in silence. When they’d finished Trixie stubbed her fag out and walked back inside. Patsy followed her more sedately, fiddling with balloons as she moved through her living room and sat at the table to wait for Fern to wake up. Inwardly she was worried she’d gone overboard with the decorations. Trixie distracted Patsy quickly though and surprised them both when Patsy was seated by standing behind Patsy and brushing her chilly fingers through Patsys hair.

“You need a haircut sweetie, it’s a mess.” The blonde announced softly. The softness surprised Patsy even as she leaned away from the touch. Trixies breath could peel paint from nearby doors.

“Got to grow it out somehow.” Patsy grunted. She didn’t like talking about her hair; it was a sore spot and Trixie was well aware.

“Just a bit of shape would help,’ Trixie wheedled hopefully moving around the table to sit opposite, ‘it might help your cause with Delia if you didn’t look like you belonged in a zombie apocalypse.”

“It’s not that bad.” Patsy said, running a hand through her hair defensively. She felt a mite wounded, she’d fluffed it a bit at least.

“All women could do with working to improve themselves.’ Trixie warned in a sing song voice. ‘It’s a lifelong effort Sweetie.”

“I have word of the day toilet paper, how much more improvement could I possibly need?”

Trixie rolled her eyes and lounged back in her chair waving a finger in the air vaguely.

“You can laugh at me all you like but letting yourself go won’t do you any favours. Even lesbians have standards you know.”

“Quite often they’re even higher than you straights.” Patsy ribbed with a little bit more venom than usual. Trixie was getting under her skin far more than she did when they could go to their separate homes.

“Not from what I’ve seen in the company I keep.” Trixie snarked back, her delivery equally cool.

“Yes, however will I find a wife if I lose my good looks?’ Patsy said wryly, scratching at her nose with her middle and index finger pointedly. ‘The girls will need to grow up in the poor house if my dowry doesn’t cut it- And I have one of those too you know.”

Patsy stopped talking abruptly. Trixie had flicked Patsy the middle finger as she edged back to her bottle and Patsy raised her right hand in mindless response. Holding up the stub of finger hanging over the table pointedly. Trixie raised her eyebrows; considering the half limb disinterestedly.

“Not much of one. Is that supposed to impress me Patience?”

“No.’ Patsy said relaxing on her elbows lazily. ‘I just didn’t want to use the whole one with you, I realise it’s been a while and I’m safeguarding your self control. Not to boast but I’m terribly well endowed. Besides, the mops broken. You might quicken and then the kids will step in it when they wake up.”

“You’re disgusting.” Trixie said mildly as she topped up her empty cup with more whiskey.

“Just a slave to reality.” Patsy intoned sourly, annoyed that Trixie hadn’t at least pretended to hear what she’d said.

“What are you doing today? Other than working on your stand up routine I mean?”

“No.’ Patsy yawned and sipped at her untainted tea, for all the world looking like a content and relaxed woman at rest. ‘Got my meeting with Ursula. Hopefully I’ll get reinstated to CID.”

“I’m sure you will.” Trixie for once sounded more encouraging and Patsy melted a little. Her friend really wasn’t in a good place and Patsy shouldn’t be so harsh, she’d been worse in her time.

They both sat quietly for a few moments, lost in their own thoughts, until the silence was broken by slippered feet coming down the stairs. Patsy craned her neck round, anxious to gauge a true impression when Fern walked into the kitchen.

Fern was a tall kid, skinny from the feet up although quite how she managed this given the alarming rate that she ate anything not nailed down Patsy couldn’t fathom. Hollow legs was as far as Patsy had managed to guess. She was still wearing her pyjamas when she came into view and Patsy grinned as she took in the granddad set. She’d suggested new pjs a few weeks ago and had been quite touched when the girl had made a bee line for the plaid.

Ferns feet stopped when she reached the door from the stairs and Patsy spied the look of shock on the teenagers face as she looked at the balloons and banners. Hesitantly, her long fingers reached out to poke at the closest pair of balloons taped to the wall, her lips twisting into a shy grin.

“Morning sweetheart, we’re in here.” Patsys call was quiet enough but Fern still pulled back her hand like she’d been shouted at. The girl hung her head as walked hurriedly into the kitchen. Embarrassed at being caught looking. Patsy smiled affectionately in greeting and shot a warning look at Trixie and her pocket bottle.

“Well? What do you think? Do you think she’ll like it?” Patsy hoped Fern wouldn’t pick up on the genuine concern in her voice. To her relief Fern didn’t seem to.

“It’s...’ Fern glanced around, her attention caught by a banner above the door, ‘it’s like nothing I’ve seen before, I didn’t even know you could buy stuff like this.”

“Clintons and sellotape can do some real magic kid.”

“Did you get a cake?” Ferns eyes shone, the perpetual love for anything coated in sugar rearing it’s head. Patsy nodded indulgently.

“Course I did, it’s the best part, it’s in the fridge.”

Fern hummed to herself at that and had managed to half trip towards the fridge eagerly before she caught herself and stopped dead. Her head switched back to Patsy, indecisiveness etching onto her face and Patsy sighed inwardly.

“It’s okay Fern, this is your house too, you can look in the fridge. You don’t need to ask.” Patsy watched sadly as the girl sparked back up at the invitation and opened the fridge door.

Growing up with Allie and Mick had left their own marks. Maybe the girls didn’t have the scars on the outside like Patsy but they were still there. Fern had been raised to take what she could when she could. She struggled most of all now with was being able to take small things and trust that the rest of it would be there for her later; always a small part of her head held the rest of her body back. It was frustratingly reminiscent for Patsy who had learned quickly not to push on anything too hard just in case Fern clammed back up again.

Fern hummed appreciatively when she saw the cake and then walked over to the kettle to pour her own mug of tea. Patsy wanted to tell her to sit down, to offer to make the girl a cup but resisted. That was another thing she was learning to live with; Fern had practically raised Seppie growing up. She was used to being independent and rarely accepted help for things she’d been doing most of her childhood.

Patsy coughed, trying to clear her dark thoughts and smiled at Fern when she turned around a mug clasped in her first carefully.

“I didn’t know whether you wanted to wake Seppie up? You do it so well and I know she’d like to see you first thing.” Fern did do it well Patsy had to admit it but the offer wasn’t only for that. Fern was more than a sister to Seppie and Patsy wanted to make sure the girls had that time on their own. The world had changed so drastically over the last few months and for the most part the changes had been positive but even so... Some things needed to be acknowledged.

“Are Phyllis and Helen coming round?” Fern asked eagerly, a splash of tea flecking down her chin as she gulped the drink too fast. Fern had grown quite close to the older set and Patsy had wondered a few times on her lower days if the teenager didn’t on some level wish she’d moved in with them instead.

“No, not today but I’ll call them while your upstairs. They’ll want to see Seppie open her presents.”

“Presents!” Fern stood a little straighter in anticipation, relishing the foreign word and Patsy bit her lip to stop the smile from spreading too widely on her face.

“Presents.” She agreed cheerfully.

“What did you get her?” Ferns eyes were roaming around the room now and Patsy shook her head.

“Go and get your sister up and you’ll find out won’t you? Go on, I’ll call the others.”

Fern half sprinted out of the kitchen and Patsy winced as heavy footfalls stomped there way up the stairs. Trixie grinned a sincere smile now as she caught Patsys eye.

“The girls are going to freak out when you tell them. Where’s the bag?”

“In there-‘ Patsy pointed over Trixies head to one of the higher cupboards and Trixie stood up obligingly to retrieve it. ‘Better call the long haired generals while we’re at it though.”

The kitchen blurred a little as Trixie fumbled at the cupboard and Patsy pulled out of her phone to video call Helens phone. The phone had barely rung once before the screen was turned a brownish black.

“Hello, Phyllis Crane how can I help?”

“Phyllis?” Patsy squinted at her phones screen as she tried to work out why she couldn’t see the woman’s face.

“Speaking. Patsy is that you?”

“Phyllis,’ Patsy smirked as she realised the issue, ‘you’ve got the phone pressed against your ear. It’s a video chat, move it away-There you are.”

The phones screen was suddenly full of Phyllis Cranes face at close range. The slightly wrinkled mouth split into a smile as she called off camera to Helen.

“Hel! The girls are on the FaceTime, hurry up.”

“I’m coming, give me a second I’m just trying to find your specs.” Helens voice was muffled and far off. Something clunked in the background.

Phyllis and Patsy stared at each other through the phones screens a little awkwardly as they waited for Helen to finish whatever she was doing in the background. Patsy studiously tried not to focus on the fact that Phyllis still clearly seemed to be in bed.

“Big day today.” Phyllis offered routinely and Patsy nodded as neutrally as she could manage with someone who had quite clearly woken up with her mother this morning.

“Lots to look forward to.” Patsy replied in a beige tone.

“Claire says Seppies really settling in well in class.” Phyllis was a traditional woman, she bore awkard silences almost as well as Trixie bore sobriety.

“Yeah, she seems to be liking it, Claire’s really been a help with that actually, I think Seppie having someone she can talk to in class stops her feeling alone. Very invested too, she gave me her number in case I wanted to ask any questions.”

“Yes...’ Phyllis have a delicate kind of cough as though something was playing on her mind. ‘Claire’s a good lass, new to the area. She seems to have a high opinion of you.”

“She seems like a bright girl.” Patsy replied non commitally. Not at all that intrigued by Seppies school helper.

“She’s certainly very capable... We were very fortunate to get her in such short notice after Ellis’s accident.”

Ellis had been the previous senco. A retired teacher by trade who’d liked to keep her hand in the game even at the ripe age of seventy something. Patsy had been forced not to laugh when she’d found out the old girl had recently curtailed extra curricular work after losing a foot in her extreme sports trip to Swasi Land.

“Did they ever catch the croc she was diving with?” Patsy asked with a twitch of her lips.

“No.’ Phyllis intoned without the hint of a smile. ‘Although she told me she’s thinking of taking up mountain climbing instead.”

“Without a leg?” Patsy asked wryly, wanting to break Phyllis’s facade a little.

“Oh Ellis has always been a bit of an optimist, she says when someone shuts all the doors there’s always the cat flap.”

“They really don’t make them like that anymore do they?” Patsy said wonderingly as she heard a tell tale creak from upstairs that told her Fern had managed to extricate Seppie from her bed.

“Thankfully not- Ahh” Phyllis cut off looking relieved as Helens torso and arm appeared holding a pair of glasses in one hand.

Patsy watched as Helen carefully balanced the spectacles onto Phyllis’s face and then smirked as a blush ran up Phyllis’s neck.

“I said I didn’t need them.” Phyllis muttered off camera and Helen tutted as the phones angle moved and Patsy met her mothers smile with a wider one of her own.

“She hates wearing her glasses.” Helen stage whispered conspiratorially and Phyllis tutted.

“I have twenty twenty vision with good lighting.” Phyllis butted in sounding grumpy even if her lips finally twitched too. Helen apparently had a golden ticket when it came to melting the northerner.

“The optician said to wear them when using screens.’ Helens arm moved subtly to pat Phyllis’s leg as she spoke making Phyllis’s smile deepen. ‘Anyway, What have I missed? Where’s my girls?” Helens face enlarged as she drew closer to try and see past Patsy somehow.

“Charming? What am I, the next door neighbour?” Patsy huffed, only half joking and Helen rolled her eyes.

“Don’t be silly, you know what I mean. Have you got everything sorted? What time are you picking it up?”

“After work, I’ll probably be done around two today, Ursula will want to grade in my return to work no doubt.” In lew of the company Patsy managed to hold back most of the bitterness she was feeling towards her superior. None the less Phyllis’s eyebrows raised.

“Delphine will only do what she thinks is best lass. She’s always been by the book.”

“Right, well we’ll soon find out won’t we? Our appointments at half nine.” Patsy hoped her nerves weren’t showing. She didn’t know how often Phyllis spoke to Ursula. Helen had a tendency to evade any questions when the subject cropped up.

“Of course!’ Helen smacked her forehead dramatically. Too dramatically. Patsy was instantly on high alert as she felt her mothers interest land on her like a misfired rocket. ‘So how did your meeting go yesterday? You never called me afterwards. What did she say?”

“Meeting?” Patsy felt a twinge if guilt at the unspoken dig. She’d not been ready to talk to anyone when she’d left Young’s office yesterday. She didn’t feel like talking about it today either if it came down to it.

“The counselling Pats? I marked it on the calendar when you gave me the days. You did go didn’t you?” Helens eyes narrowed as she observed her daughter with well deserved suspicion. Helen was a kind, thoughtful and patient woman but above all of these traits she was also thoroughly realistic and had been the only person who’d managed to raise Patsy in her hay day. She had iron running through her bones. Patsy gulped.

“Yes of course I did. I promised you I would go didn’t I?”

“And you talked to her? Properly?’ Helen still appeared rightfully disbelieving. ‘You discussed everything? About how you’re managing and your injuries.”

“I am managing.” Patsys jaw stiffened stubbornly as she felt the insubstantial yet all together too real weight of Phyllis and Trixies eyes trained on her face. She didn’t appreciate being questioned like this and bit back the urge to snap at Helen for doing it.

If it had been just Helen and Patsy on their own perhaps it might have been easier to explain what had happened in Cassandra Young’s office. If it had just been them together Patsy might have been able to relax her grip on her self control ever so slightly but it wasn’t just them. Helen always seemed to be with Phyllis these days and as much as Patsy liked the northerner Phyllis simply didn’t have the right to judge Patsy. She hadn’t done nearly enough air miles.

“I know you are,’ Helen said a little more gently now as she read Patsys face expertly, ‘but we both know you need to talk to someone sweetheart.”

“Thanks.’ Patsy rolled her eyes, hoping Helen might let the subject rest. ‘Big vote of confidence there for me Helen.

“Oh stop being so prickly, you know what I mean.’ Helen inclined her head as she spoke but there was no heat in her words.,The indulgent lilt to her voice usually made Patsy cave in but today it seemed to have lost its magic. Patsys lips thinned in response, Helen went on anyway. ‘All I want to know is that you talked to her about everything? I mean everything, full disclosure, you need to decompress properly sweetheart.”

Patsy looked into Helens concerned face, at Phyllis’s equally focused eyes and felt Trixie fidget beside her intently. She couldn’t tell them the truth. They needed her to be okay. No one needed Patsy falling apart.

“Yeah.’ A guilty heat coated her tongue as she lied to them all but she ignored it. It was what they all needed to hear. ‘Yeah we really covered some ground. She was a great listener, it felt really good to get it all out. I came out feeling brilliant.”

“Brilliant?” There was the faintest tinge of suspicion residing still in Helens face and Patsy invented madly quickly as she realised she’d gone in too heavy.

“Well... Not brilliant maybe.’ She hedged. ‘Just easier in myself. She shrunk my head pretty good.”

“That was really brave of you lass.” Phyllis’s cheeks deepened as her mouth set in a grim smile. Her hand slipped over Helens shoulder when she spoke and Patsy saw the knuckles flex as she squeezed Helen a little closer.

“It’s a good start sweetheart.’ Helen was more reserved in her praise but she too looked to be finally mollified just a little. ‘I’m proud of you for doing it, we all are, I know how hard that must have been for you.”

“Yeah, thanks guys.” Patsy couldn’t meet anyones eyes as the guilt worked hotly inside her stomach. She was already regretting the lie, she never lied to Helen... But she couldn’t see any other options. How would they understand? They all wanted her to be better so that was what she had to be.

“So what was the outcome?” Helens voice shunted into Patsys thought process with all the acuity of a pin hitting a balloon. Patsy had to force herself not to physically wince.

“Outcome?” Patsy contorted her face into feigned confusion, trying to buy a few more seconds precious brain space as her thoughts scrambled around trying to foresee a reasonable add on to the first lie.

“What are they going to do for you next? Counselling, support groups? We can help with the girls so you can get to them as long as you give me the dates.” Helen was in full steam roller mode. A woman with a calendar and a pen was hard to negotiate with at the best of a times but Helen had clearly planned this.

“She...’ Patsy internally swore as she tried to dredge up what she’d been told before she’d left. ‘She said I didn’t need any counselling after we’d talked. Said I was managing really well.”

“She said what? You’re kidding me?” Helens eyes were narrowed again and Patsy was glad they’d agreed Helen and Phyllis wouldn’t come round today after all. In the flesh Helen would not have let this go.

“No, she said I seemed to have it all squared away and she said-“

“She didn’t offer you more sessions?’ Helens voice held the rising threat level akin to the crack of a whip. ‘I thought Delphine said the service was highly recommended?” Helen had turned to look at Phyllis now who blinked slowly at Helens ire before shrugging easily. Patsy inwardly cursed the fact circles within circles dogged her life; Delphine? It still felt strange to find out her superior had a first name. Or that she had a life outside of work after all.

“She did. She said she’d make sure Patsy was given emergency status.” Phyllis’s response was placid and Patsy envied the woman’s ability to absorb Helens annoyance so easily. Patsy had never been very good at that.

“Which wasn’t necessa-“ Patsy began feebly but Helen cut across her.

“Well they must have made a mistake then. Patsy, I want you to go back and ask for more sessions. This sort of thing takes time; they shouldn’t just let you walk away without a care plan in place.”

“They haven’t’, Patsy said quickly, wanting to head off the next avenue before it cropped up and hit her in the face, ‘they’ve said I can go back if I want to but not right now.”

“They did?’ Helen peered at Patsy through the phone, her eyes lazering into Patsys in that disconcerting way Helen had when she was guessing what Patsy was thinking. ‘So why don’t you have another appointment?”

“I said I’d prefer group work, you know, being with people who are going through the same thing and she said there was a waiting list. They’ll call me when there’s a place. Honestly Helen, I’m fine. I don’t need you to interfere.”

“A waiting list,’ Helens head jostled as she bristled at the word. ‘How can they just put you on a waiting list? I would have thought after everything you’ve done they would at least bump you up the queue a bit.”

Patsy allowed herself to relax just a little as Helens frustration aimed itself at a much more universal target.

“What can I say?’ Patsy said with a convincing sigh. ‘It’s bureaucracy at its finest. I’ll talk to Ursula today about it if you’re really worried.”

“Well, see that you do,’ Helen seemed to settle a little bit more comfortably against the headboard but she wasn’t quite finished yet. With a quick look at Phyllis she seemed to waver for a second before breaking; ‘and tell Delphine from me-“

“How about’ Patsy butted in quellingly before Helen could grab onto another stem of thought, ‘I talk about my career with my superior first before I go in throwing hand grenades about the room regarding my non existent mental health care needs.”

They stared at one another, both as hard headed as the other and then Helen smiled.

“Fine. I’m only saying it because I love you.” She muttered slightly abashed and Patsys heart fluttered in her chest.

She wished they could have talked about this without the audience.

“I know... You too.” Patsy said a little awkwardly, still keenly aware that the others were watching her.

“Right... So,’ Helen sounded like she had a slight head cold now, ‘what were you all talking about before I interrupted?”

“We hadn’t really managed to talk about anything, I was just about to mention Claire though.” Phyllis took it upon herself to fill the gap and shot Helen a meaningful look.

“Oh not this.” Helen tutted disapprovingly while Phyllis shuffled around on her spot looking a mite henpecked.

“I just wanted to make sure no lines could become confused.” She said doggedly and Helen sighed.

“Well if it puts your mind at ease but I’m telling you it’s not going to be an issue.”

“What issue?” Patsy said just as Trixie also said;

“Ooh this all sounds rather juicy Phyllis.”

Phyllis swallowed as she considered her answer and then she spoke very quickly.

“I merely wished to point out that ms. Snyde is a very kind lass whose new to the area and I don’t, that is to say we don’t... I would just hope that nobody intends to press their suit so to speak.” Phyllis trailed off, her face determined but her tone slightly embarrassed.

There was a ringing silence for two beats and then-

“Well, that’s you told Pats isn’t it.” Trixie laughed as she lightly punched Patsys arm.

“Pressing my suit?” Patsy repeated incredulously, her ears reddening.

“I’m only trying to look after my staff.” Phyllis said stiffly. Patsys eyes narrowed.

“I don’t intend to press anyone for anything. I don’t even own a suit and quite frankly Phyllis in future you can feel quite free to mind your own fu-“

“Patsy!’ Helen cut through Patsys anger swiftly, a protective edge evident in her voice that the child who had never grown up inside Patsys head secretly loathed. ‘No one is accusing you of anything, Phyllis just wanted to mention it. Besides, as I’ve already mentioned, I was under the impression you were already involved elsewhere.”

Patsys heart sunk as she felt her the tips of her ears darken a few shades. She didn’t have to take this and resorted to evasive action.

“You’re both looking very fresh this morning. Late night was it?” The insinuation wasn’t even slightly modest and Phyllis swallowed but Helen didn’t.

“Yes, it was actually.” Helen raised her eyebrow in silent challenge.

Patsy decided to give in but found that she was quickly saved from thinking of another distraction as Fern finally came back down the stairs with a startled Seppie in tow.

The girls entered the living room slowly, Fern holding Seppies hand very tightly as they admired the room as a whole.

Patsy took the opportunity while everyone was distracted to open the rucksack on the table and pull out a sheet of paper. She’d got Helen to print it off the other day and the rehoming centre had sent her a few pictures when she’d asked them to. The bloke from the center seemed quite nice actually, they’d been talking for over a month as Patsy checked in to see what was available. He’d called her last Friday with a prospective candidate and Patsy had fallen a bit in love.

Now she only had to hope she’d made the right choice.

Trixie was murmuring quietly to Helen when the girls finally walked into the kitchen. Patsy supposed Trixie was giving them the heads up but she didn’t listen too hard. Seppie was looking at her and Patsy world turned soft at the edges. She couldn’t help it.

“Good morning, happy birthday baby.”

“I’m not a baby.’ Seppie corrected immediately before faltering and getting lost in the decorations again. ‘Is this for me?” Seppie pointed to the balloons a look of awe on her face and Patsy nodded.

“I had to.’ Patsy winked at Fern over Seppies shoulder. ‘It’s not every day that someone turns 46.”

“Red!’ Seppie rolled her eyes. Forever exasperated by the strangeness of grown ups. ‘I’m not 46, I’m 5.”

“No, really?’ Patsy widened her eyes in feigned shock, ‘okay what about 64?”

“No!’ Seppie giggled as she signed big to emphasise her point, ‘you silly. I’m only 5.”

“Hmm, okay okay, 16 then?”

“Red!’ Seppie stomped her foot but still couldn’t stop laughing, ‘you silly. I’m not 16, 16 is really old!”

“You is old, you is old like Helen!” Patsys eyes crinkled when she said it. Little and large was becoming the new name for Seppie and Helen. Helen thoroughly enjoyed being a grandmother and Seppie doted on her something chronic.

“No Red! I is not as old as Helen.” Seppie rubbed at her smooth forehead as if to prove the point, Fern snorted as she walked past to put her cup in the sink.

“You is,’ Patsy teased in mock severity, ‘You is just using Helens magic wrinkle cream.”

“What was that?” Helen asked sharply from the direction of the phone, possibly spotting the tail end of the last sign.

“Nothing,’ Patsy winked at Seppie as she signed and talked, ‘we were just saying how well you look after your face.”

Helen hmm’d at the same time that Seppie crossed her arms and threw a disapproving look so reminiscent of Patsys mother that it was disconcerting. Patsys grin dulled as she pulled herself together; tugging free one of the chairs and tapping it so that Seppie knew to sit down there.

“What do we do now?” Seppie asked, a ripple of anxiety combing her face as she settled into the seat. All eyes in the room watched her carefully.

“Well, because it’s your birthday we all want you to have this. It from all of us because we love you.” Patsy pointed at the rucksack laying on the table. The bag was black and pink with an eye watering amount of coloured felt dogs glued on the front. Seppie frowned at it.

“Why do you give bags on birthdays Red?” She asked curiously, a novice traveller on one of life’s latest highways.

“Because some girls like bags.” Patsy shrugged.

“I like dogs.” Seppie offered absently, her finger poking at one of the felt adages.

“I think theres something inside the bag.” Patsy suggested, standing a little way back to make sure the others could see. Helen murmured something to Phyllis who laughed quietly.

Very carefully Seppie opened the zip. Something large and circular and wrapped heavily in bright silver paper tumbled out of the cramped space and nearly fell into the little girls lap. Seppie yelped in surprise and Patsy sensed rather than saw Fern fidget close by. Watching keenly.

The circle was lifted from the bag and placed on the table with a ceramic whine as it touched the wood. Patsy watched, her heart fluttering with nerves, as Seppie looked first at the gaudy mess of paper and then at the assembled group of adult watchers and then back to the paper once more. Patsy spotted the nervous way Seppie clicked her feet together under the table and signed hurriedly.

“It’s a gift for you. It’s yours.” Patsy wished she could freeze time. She wished she could banish the confusion from Seppies face. She wished she’d been quicker just to stop the addition of more trouble. She wished she had the power to change things easily.

Seppie frowned as she read Patsys hands and then stared back at the lump of wrappings even more dubious than before.

“Thank you... It’s good.” Seppie said eventually even as her hands hovered over the gift like a sad sort of question mark.

“It’s a present!’ Fern signed knowledgably as she bounced closer to the table, her face alight with excitement, ‘You’re allowed to open it.”

Seppie seemed to freeze as she mulled this over and Patsy silently nodded an affirmative that Fern was telling the truth as the little girl caught her eye uncertainly.

“I... I can keep it?” Seppie asked looking non plussed, inspecting the gift with more wary interest now as though it was a bomb that might be about to go off somehow.

“You’re supposed to rip it.” Fern said hurriedly, her own hands hungry to touch the paper. There was a lush tearing noise as the first sellotape tack was pulled apart and Seppie made a fascinated sound as something white flashed. Her hands flexed longingly as she watched her sister go mad with the wrappings.

Patsy let Fern have her moment and then stepped forward to tap the teenager on the shoulder. When Fern dragged her attention away from her task she turned such a desperately happy face to Patsy it made Patsy falter. There was a hunger for something that had not been found before laying in the teenagers eyes. A child’s excitement lost in an almost woman’s face. Patsy made herself smile even as something tightened in her chest.

“Well done kid,’ Patsy stage whispered gently, ‘ten out of ten for teaching but I reckon you can let Seppie have a go now.”

Ferns cheeks reddened with immediate shame at the slight admonishment and the air was suddenly full with flutters of paper drifting from her hurriedly slackened grip.

“Sorry,’ Fern mumbled in a small voice, stepping back from the table self consciously, ‘I was just trying to help.”

Patsy tutted swiftly and twirled the girl towards her by the arm before she could back away too far. Fern gave a surprised giggle as Patsy hooked her arms over Ferns head to hold Ferns back to her front securely. She felt Fern stiffen for half a beat at the hold and then the teenager sighed and rested her head on Patsys shoulder. Tethered where she stood to home.

“It’s not long ‘til Christmas, you’ll get your chance.” Patsy whispered quietly into Ferns ear so that the others wouldn’t overhear and embarrass the teenager.

“Sorry,’ Fern muttered again shamefully, ‘I’ve just always wanted to open a proper present.”

“Me too kid, don’t worry I get it. You’re not in trouble.” Patsy reassured on autopilot.

Truth was she really did understand and that helped more than she could explain. Hindered too sometimes.

Patsy rested her chin on the top of the girls head contentedly and made sure she didn’t squeeze too hard. She’d had to work hard to remember that bit quite a lot recently. It was harder than you’d imagine and she couldn’t always help herself either. There was an irrational and until recently long buried part of Patsy that wanted to hug the kids all the time; like she thought she could make up for the ones that hadn’t happened before this time if she did.

Fern swapped her feet ponderously and Patsy had to blow errant strands of hair out of the way of her nose. The idea made her grin. It was harder than it had been even a few months ago for Pats to see over Ferns head. Patsy noted the change with amusement as Seppie had a go with the rest of the paper. Both of the girls seemed to have sprouted upwards since their introduction to regular meals. It was nice to know she was doing something right at least.

Fern shifted a little in her arms, her eyes trained on her sister with excitement. Patsy smiled as she felt Ferns hand move to grip Patsys wrist tightly without thinking. She sighed, sparing a look down through Ferns mousy roots.

It had taken Patsy a long time to understand how helpful a hug was when she had first moved in with Helen. She was determined to teach the girls that lesson too. Fern could be clingy when she wanted to be but she still seemed to wait too often for permission. Half convinced Patsy might push her away.

They both watched as Seppie finished shredding the paper and held up a large ceramic bowl with one hand. Seppie frowned at it looking confused.

“What is it?” Seppies nose wrinkled as though she suspected a joke of some sort.

“It’s a bowl. For you.”

“Oh...’ Seppie paused, her shoulders sagging just a little as she battled disappointment before she recalled her manners. ‘It’s... very good. Thank you Red.”

“Keep looking in the bag.” Patsy suggested, unable to keep her face straight as she watched Seppie dip back into the rucksack.

Slowly the ceramic bowl was joined by a small red collar, a blue rubber bone, another bowl, a leash.

When the collar fell out of its wrappings Trixie snorted, still sipping her spiked tea sanguinely.

“Think you need to go back to the shop Pats, it’ll never fit you.”

Patsy ignored her, quickly distracted from forming a comeback when she felt Fern jolt in her arms as though the girl had missed a step that should have been there.

“No way,’ Fern breathed in disbelief, shocked incredulity brewing in her voice, ‘no way Patsy, there’s no way you’ve-“

“Shh,’ Patsy momentarily forgot that Seppies surprise would of course not be ruined by others spotting the ending before she did as she shushed the teen. Her own throat bubbled up with barely restrained laughter, ‘Shh, let her work it out in her own time.”

When all of the bag was seemingly emptied Seppie sat back in her chair, her fingers running along the bone curiously. Patsy gave Fern another squeeze and then let her go so that she could kneel down to eye level for Seppie.

“So... What do you think?”

“I... I think they nice. Thank you.” Seppies hands were nervous, wanting to please. Patsy forced her smile to fade as she mock frowned at the presents before shaking her head slowly.

“You like it?”

“Yes,’ Seppie looked down at the line of strange gifts and her tongue pressed hard against her teeth. ‘They very good.”

“Hmm’ Patsy tapped her forehead pretending to ponder, ‘no... No I think somethings missing.”

“It... It’s my birthday presents.” Seppie signed with a flash of spirit. The little girl glanced down at the table, her hands reaching to hold the bone very tightly as though she thought Patsy night snatch it away from her. Patsys heart clenched tightly but she kept going. She’d been planning this for far too long.

“You can keep this but I think you need one more thing so it’s complete.” Patsy waved a hand at the table, willing Seppie to make the connection.

Seppie looked around the room for clues, nervous at being unexpectedly put on the spot but no one else spoke. Patsy smiled and ran a thumb on the closest bowls edge.

“What do you think? What should we get to go with this?” Patsy probed, exerting all of her iron will into forcing her mouth to stay in one continuous straight line.

“I... I don’t know. I want keep my presents. You said I could keep them.” Seppies eyebrows folded as she tried to think through the unknown fear of loss. Patsy picked up the collar and held it up to the air for inspection, waiting for the penny to drop.

“You can keep them but... We should get one more thing,’ Patsy hinted hopefully, ‘so it can all be together properly I think. What do you think we should get?”

Seppie bit her lip as she searched the room for answers. Pinned by uncertainty. Patsy smiled and reached to squeeze the girls knee encouragingly.

“I don’t know.” Seppie signed slowly, her fingers pinching the words anxiously.

“Seppie,’ Patsy eyed the collar meaningfully, literally throwing the child a bone, ‘what do you really really want for your birthday baby?”

“I...’ It was not actually possible to whisper in sign but Seppies fingers moved so jerkily the sentiment still managed to translate, the girl looked like she might burst into tears at any moment. The pressure from the room seemed to deepen as she sketched out the nervous words ‘I want a dog?”

Patsy pursed her lips as though she was mulling this idea over carefully for one second before she nodded slowly.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Seppies bottom lip wobbled dangerously as she mimicked Patsy in disbelief.

Patsy broke, unable to stop the excitement bubbling inside her as she nodded frantically.

“Yes! Yes you can have a dog!”

Seppie froze, her fingers squeezing hard on the rubber bone as she wavered in the air like a reed in high wind. Her mouth opened and closed as she sucked in air and she reached out blindly to hold on to Patsys shoulder for support. Her hand shook through Patsys top.

Patsy felt like her cheeks were going to split as she kept nodding; a five year old reducing her to one of those bobbing head toys on a back shelf of a car. Patsy had promised herself she wasn’t going to cry today and she forced herself to ignore the burning behind her eyes as she reached to snag the print out from the shelter in her back pocket.

“What about this one?” Patsy held out the paper with the picture from the rehoming center to Seppie who seemed to be hyperventilating as she stared at the outstretched final gift in awe. Fat little tears were dripping down Seppies pointed chin as she closed her eyes and pushed her fingers over them.

“No way! We’re really allowed a dog!’ Fern squealed as she dived between them both to swipe the paper out of Patsys hand and dragged it to the phone to show the others. ‘Phyllis did you know! We’re getting a dog! Helen we’re getting a dog.”

Someone said something in the background but Patsy only had eyes and ears for one person at that moment.

Seppie had jolted a little as her sister took the photo and looked at Patsy through shaky fists.

“Can I really have a dog?” She asked sniffling and Patsy grinned as she nodded.

“Yes.”

“A real dog?” Seppie questioned carefully.

“Yes baby, a real dog.”

“Can I keep it forever not just a day?” Seppie seemed determined to iron out any possible loop holes before committing to anything. The fear warring against the hope in her face and Patsys heart tightened as she heard Fern giggle at something Phyllis said.

“You can keep it forever.” Patsy agreed solemnly.

“Can I take it to school with me?”

“No. Dogs don’t go to school but you can take it everywhere else.”

“Is... Can I really have a dog?” Seppies eyes were hungry, the bone still hanging at her waist limply.

Patsy took the bone gently feeling the slight resistance as Seppies grip tightened just for a second before letting it go. Patsy put the bone back on the table and stroked Seppies ear playfully as she forced herself to understand how hard trust was to the kids. How dangerous it could be to leave yourself open to the risk of disappointment.

“I promise you it’s a real dog. Your dog. We are going to get a dog when you come home from school tonight I promise.”

Seppie sobbed, finally convinced that Patsy was really being serious all in one moment and fell into Patsys waiting arms. Patsy felt a snotty face burrow into her neck and, even though if anyone else had done this she’d probably have worried about the germs, she found herself utterly elated at finally pulling off something exactly as she’d planned.

Patsy couldn’t stop the whoop falling out of her mouth as she stood up with Seppie clasped safe in her arms. Patsy gave the kid a few seconds to compose herself as she bounced Seppie on her hip idly and then she reached to pull Seppies hands away from her face so that they could talk.

“Happy birthday baby.”

Patsy pressed a kiss to the girls cheek and turned just in time to see how Seppies teeth were very white against her lips when she bared them in a wide grin. At a time like this Patsy could almost forget the rest of it.

For one golden moment the sun was too bright even for shadows and the clouds. Patsy could only hope it would last the day.