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Returning Tides

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The next hour was simple mayhem trapped in a too small cottage.

Too late Patsy realised her mistake; to promise a dog and not produce one at the same time was not accepted very well by the younger generation. Both girls seemed quite open to skipping school in order to get the new housemate. Patsy had had to resort to shouting in the end just to be heard over the high pitched applications from Fern only to then have to repeat herself again in order to tell Seppie that school was not optional.

Neither Fern nor Seppie was particularly impressed with Patsys attempt at parenting. Seppie had stalked off long before Patsy could explain again why they couldn’t all skive off.

The little girl had stomped up the stairs and slammed just about every door in answer which was irritating if only because Seppie had no way of knowing just how loud she was being. Fern chose to sniff and look beseechingly at Patsy like she’d personally grieved them both which, in the girls eyes, she probably had. Patsy hadn’t weakened.

“School.” She’d ordered firmly which made Fern flounce off after her sister with a hmmph noise.

Trixie snorted into her spiked mug as the sounds of music drifted from upstairs. She’d walked over to hover in the shelter of the back door for another crafty fag while the debate had raged.

“Thank you for all your help there Trix.” Patsy muttered caustically as she play punched a balloon sellotaped to the wall close by.

“Grateful things aren’t they?” Trixie observed with just the faintest beginnings of a slur. Patsy hadn’t seen the blonde refill her mug from the kettle but there seemed to be some kind of liquid there nonetheless.

“They’re just disappointed,” Patsy sighed rather forlornly, annoyed at herself for not planning things better. Trixie snorted into her mug and Patsy eyed her friend a little sadly as she mulled internally over the mental image of Trixie sitting in the house with the lights still off when they’d all gone, slowly polishing off as much of the whiskey as she could before she had to go into work.

She would be lucky if she didn’t get sacked in the end.

Shaking her head and trying not to dwell on things she couldn’t change right now Patsy reached for her cup of tea that had been left on the table to go cold. There was a bitty scum on the surface now and the brew was bitter with chill so she sipped it in tiny mouthfuls, rinsing it over her tongue before she swallowed.

“My dad bought me a playhouse when I was six.’ Trixie offered rather dreamily as she shut the door with a snap and walked back through the living room, cheeks flushed from cold. Her balance was already going Patsy observed glumly and she managed to kick the sofa as she passed. Whether she noticed that the furniture moved at her passing was anyone’s guess. When she got into the kitchen she sat down but she didn’t let go of her mug. ‘Horribly expensive. They tended to spoil me; only child and all that.”

“That sounds nice.” Patsy said as neutrally as she could manage with her mind fixed to the sound of feet apparently trying to stomp all the way through the ceiling above her head.

“It was pink.’ Trixie went on, ‘had curtains in the window, the ones you can see through. Great big hulking plastic monstrosity; my mother told me they’d gone without for weeks to buy it. Totally impractical for the house too but my dad said he thought it looked fit for a princess so he’d wanted to get it for me. He could be like that sometimes,’ Trixie sniffed tremulously, ‘my dad; I was always his princess he said.” Trixie swigged her mug looking melancholic, the whiskey dragging her down the usual dark paths. She’d be angry in an hour or so and then she’d climb higher if she didn’t sleep it off.

Trixies dad had died a few years ago; liver cancer. As far as Patsy could worked out father and daughter hadn’t spoken at all since the day he’d walked out on Trixies mother to start a new life alongside the secretary he’d been having an affair with for over a decade. Trixie had a brother somewhere she’d told Patsy one of the nights she’d been in a sharing mood. Her father had always wanted a son apparently.

“Hmm.” Patsy hummed non commitally, not really knowing what to say in answer to that titbit of information and unwilling to make up some vague reassurance just to fill the silence. Wasn’t like Trixie would listen to her anyway.

Wasn’t like Patsy could offer any soppy memories of her own childhood either was it?

Patsy had a vaguely uneasy sensation in her chest as she thought about the birthdays she might have had as a child. She wouldn’t have known if it had been her birthday or not; Abraham hadn’t been big on marking important dates. After the commune had ended there hadn’t been any birth certificates to tell her when the original date had been either; the doctors had been forced to guess at her age through dental work mainly and then some faceless member of social services had assigned a new birthday that they printed on a back dated birth certificate. It worried Patsy sometimes that they might have got her age wrong; maybe she was a year older than she thought she was.

Shaking her head to force the dark thoughts away Patsy picked at the handle of her mug. She certainly hadn’t ever been bought a present that meant much to her by anyone until Helen. The children’s home gave all the kids the same package at Christmas; shower gel, shampoo, a colouring book and something handed in by well meaning members of the public. Most of the good stuff was usually stolen by the bigger kids during the evening but Patsy had always managed to hang on to hers. She’d tried to stop some of the pilfering too. She’d been in trouble one year for breaking an older girls nose when she’d caught her stealing from the little kids bags.

Patsy had refused to apologise when the carers had found the two of them on the floor, faces bloody but she hadn’t told the adults why they’d fought either. It had cost her a mince pie pudding in the end but she hadn’t cared.

“Tom buys me perfume on my birthdays usually.’ Trixies cut in, her voice was brittle with bitterness unaware that Patsys attention had drifted. The tone was becoming the norm at the moment when this subject began. ‘I suppose...’ Trixie swallowed harshly, blue eyes flashing as she reached with shaking hands for the pocket of her dressing gown reflexively, ‘I suppose he’ll be buying the new girl perfume from now on. He’s nothing if not predictable.”

“Trixie,’ Patsy frowned and tried to reach forward gently and stop her friends tipping fingers on the neck of her bottle, ‘it’s early. Do you really need that? Honestly? You’ll lose your pin if you’re caught drunk on the job.”

“I won’t be drunk.’ Trixie snapped back, defensive immediately as her hands pulled the bottle out of Patsys reach. ‘I’ve got all day to sleep it off. I only got up because I knew you’d want me around for morale support.”

Morale support? Patsy barely suppressed a sneer as she glared at her friend while she drained the bottle into her mug.

“I thought it was because you were chucking your guts up.”

Trixie rolled her eyes; “I had a bad kebab yesterday that was all. Save your dramatics for someone who needs it sweetie.”

Patsy gave up.

“Make sure you shower before you go to work,’ she grunted shortly, standing up and walking to the living room, ‘you stink of spirits.”

They both sat stewing in their own irritation while Patsy waited for the girls to come downstairs. This task in some ways did serve as a distraction even if the distraction itself came in the guise of utter exasperation.

Before the girls Patsy had her free to leave the house without much thought. With the girls the once simple task was complicated somewhat.

Seppie had to be sent back upstairs no less than three times to change her clothes before she was ready to leave the house. The first time because all she’d done was put on a different set of pyjamas. Tolerant though Phyllis was towards their smallest family member Patsy highly doubted even Phyllis’s blind spot was big enough to overlook a massive black and yellow batman onesie. The second time the girl had finally slipped into her school uniform but, in the way only small children could, she’d decided to ignore the pounding rain outside and declared summer all over again by putting on her summer dress and cardigan. The third time she’d come downstairs with a book after conveniently forgetting she was supposed to be getting ready for school.

On the fourth go Patsy had been satisfied that Seppie was dressed appropriately only to realise that the drama hadn’t ended and that Seppie wanted to wear her wellies rather than her school shoes today.

There are many dictators in this world; they are most usually overly entitled old white men with rubbish haircuts and questionable facial hair choices but all of them faltered into nothingness when compared to a five year old girl who wants nothing more or less than to wear frog wellies to school. Wars were waged for less.

Nonetheless Patsy forced herself to try. The two of them had stood in the hall and had a brief discussion about the need to wear the proper school regulation shoes. Seppie had folded her arms stubbornly and stared Patsy out in the irritatingly direct way that she’d clearly copied from Patsy herself. Eventually Patsy had capitulated after a lengthy loss of diplomacy deciding just to shove the things in a bag and allow Seppie to change into them once she was in class. Barbara could deal with something for once, lord knew Patsy was cleaning up the brunt of the young teachers messes on a day to day basis with Trixie.

Then they’d had the usual coat debate. Wherein Seppie didn’t think it was necessary and Patsy, patience thinning, explained that it wasn’t actually a matter of choice and that any excursions outside the house without suitable outerwear would result in pneumonia.

This had very little effect in scare tactics however because Patsy didn’t know the sign for Pneumonia and Seppies vocabulary wasn’t at that level yet. Seppie did put on the coat in the end though. It was yellow and had a duck design on the hood which cheered her up a bit as she fiddled with the toggles waiting for Fern to join them.

Fern had been the last one down and Patsy had felt like a skipping record as she shouted up the stairs every few minutes that the teenager would miss her bus if she didn’t get a move on. When Fern did eventually return Patsy tried not to roll her eyes.

Ferns was too distracted to notice Patsys impatient tapping foot as she fiddled with the collar of her white shirt self consciously. It was tight and the correct fit for her neck. Fern was still getting used to it. Allie hadn’t ever had much spare money for uniform so the girls had tended to wear whatever second hand stuff their mother could lay her hands on; baggy shirts and faded blazers the wrong shade of blue. Patsy had made sure that this wasn’t the case now of course but she wasn’t entirely certain if that had been the right thing to do in hindsight.

Although Fern had said she was very pleased to finally have a blazer that fit and belonged to her schools stock when Patsy had bought it for her Patsy knew it made her uncomfortable looking so different to what she’d been. The newness of the fabric rubbed at her skin. Patsy hated knowing that she’d caused the teenager extra angst.

Patsy had asked Fern if she wanted to stay at her old school half way through the holidays and Fern had said that she did. Patsy had held reservations about this decision when it was made but had at least known not to voice them at the time. The local high school had a rubbish reputation and Fern had never had all that many friends there to begin with. It was familiar though and perhaps that was the pull to stay for Fern. Given everything else the kids had lost in the last few months Patsy had agreed, not wanting to uproot them any more than they were already.

So Fern had returned to her old school and her old friends and of course the rumours had been flying about what had really happened to Allie and Mick. Patsy had tried to talk to Fern about this, had offered to go to the school to talk to the headmaster but Fern had asked her not to. She’d said she didn’t want to talk about. She’d said she could handle it.

Patsy had her doubts.

Fern was changing; for one thing the makeup was beginning to be ridiculous. Patsy hadn’t ever really bothered with the stuff when she was a teenager so she couldn’t be certain if it was normal for someone to think their skin should be the colour of an orange. Fern hadn’t worn make up before but on the first night back from school she’d asked Patsy if she’d buy her some. Patsy had obliged thinking that at 16 Fern was just growing up. Unfortunately Ferns skills were still definitely in the developmental phase. Patsy was currently trying very hard not to interfere, knowing everyone had to find their own style.

Sighing at her own shortcomings, Patsy watched Fern slip on her shoes and wondered if it would be kinder to tell the girl that she shouldn’t do eyes and lips at the same time. Fern favoured bright lipstick and dark eyeshadow. The smudgy collection or browns, blues and blacks painted around her eyelids up to her eyebrows gave the impression of a bruise rather than sultry provocateur which, Patsy assumed, was the original intention. Patsy recalled Allies face, all the times she’d had to help patch the woman up after Mick was done with her and shuddered. Fern looked so much like her mother at times.

She made a mental note to bring up the subject of blending colours into conversation and wondered if she could rope Trixie into it too. Makeup was more the blondes thing than Patsys after all.

Fern looked up at Patsy once her shoes were on, adjusting her tie as she went and Patsy gave a pointed cough. Patsy didn’t actually care that much about uniform or that Fern left her top button undone but she felt that four was taking the piss somewhat. She might as well wear her bra on the outside if that was the reason for doing it. With a sigh Fern made a show of doing the bottom three up looking sulky. Patsy shook her head knowing full well the buttons would be undone again the second Patsy was out of sight and shouted a swift goodbye to Trixie who didn’t bother to answer as she shoo’d Seppie firmly out the door.

Fern heaved up her bag and shut the front door behind her as the three of them advanced through the front garden into the brisk September morning like the uneven fingers of an extending fist.

A boy was waiting at the gate for Fern expectantly when they got to it and beside her Patsy felt Fern falter. Patsy smiled in a friendly sort of way over at the newcomer when their eyes met. The boy was a local who got the same bus as Fern and he’d clearly developed a bit of a soft spot for her over the last few weeks. He’d been waiting at the gate nearly everyday this month and he followed Fern around like a lost puppy.

Ollie Frye was a red headed teenager who could only really be described as long. The word almost encapsulated everything that he was. He was still fifteen but his body seemed to be stretched somehow, the gentle scratch of fluff on his cheeks looked wrong on his young face. He had a long torso with long thin legs that never seemed to fit well inside his flapping trousers so that when he walked he was lost in a constant ambling gait. He had a long neck with a constantly bobbing Adam’s apple. His long face housed a long freckled nose that he scratched shyly at their approach with long fingers. His long feet backed away hurriedly as Patsy reached to open the gate.

“Morning ms Mount.’ He said in a voice too deep for his body, ‘Morning Fern.’ He whispered, voice cracking a bit as he smiled at the girl and then he started as he saw Seppies head over the hedge, his long arms rushed to make hurried swooping signs. ‘And birthday happy to you September.” He signed incorrectly with slow deliberation to Seppie who stared at him in surprise before smiling shyly up at the boy. Pleased that a stranger had bothered to learn how to talk to her.

Fern shook back her head, her hair flashing in the weak sun and bent down to kiss Seppie on the forehead as though she hadn’t heard or seen him at all.

“Have a good day at school, love you.” She signed in a motherly fashion to Seppie who folded her arms and reached to hold Patsys hand.

“Have you got enough money for the bus?” Patsy asked with wry amusement, feeling sorry for Ollie who stood statue like staring at Fern as though waiting for instruction on what he should do next.

Fern shouldered her bag carefully and nodded jerkily before turning and walking straight past Ollie, nose held high in the air, like he wasn’t there. There was an awkward pause as Seppie rested her head on Patsys hand and waved at Ferns retreating figure.

“Have a nice day! Love you!’ Patsy shouted, slightly annoyed that Fern hadn’t said it first. ‘You better get on too lad or you’ll miss your bus.” Patsy suggested softly at Ollie who hadn’t moved. Ollie gulped, his adam’s apple bobbing like a ball trapped in a tube and then nodded as he began to run after Fern. His legs flailed a bit as he rounded the corner.

“I think he wants to marry her.” Seppie signed seriously to Patsy as they walked over to the jeep. Patsy smirked, helping the girl up and into her car seat.

“No, she too young to be married.” Patsy signed back when the click of the seatbelt told her Seppie was in properly.

Seppie seemed to consider this before shaking her head, ‘that’s okay, he can be her boyfriend maybe to start.”

Patsy laughed, ‘what do you know about boyfriends?”

“I have twelve,’ Seppie breezed carelessly after a moments mental maths, she chewed her lip thoughtfully, ‘and nine girlfriends.”

Patsy stared at her daughter, adding up the number of classmates Seppie had in her head so quickly that a few neurons were left to rock in the corners of her brain in fear when she found the answer. 23.

“Boyfriends and girlfriends?” Patsy probed carefully.

“Yes.” Seppie replied simply.

“Right.’ Patsy swiftly decided she was not going to fall down this rabbit hole, ‘who aren’t you going out with then?” Patsy asked slowly, a little afraid of the answer.

“Kyle.’ Seppie answered darkly, immediately grimacing, ‘he’s very not my boyfriend anymore.”

“Why?” Patsy asked, transfixed at the dynamics of five year olds.

Seppie shrugged, “he doesn’t like dogs. I tell him we can work on it but..’ she waved a hand delicately in a comme ci, comme ça gesture. ‘I not holding my breath”

“Hang on, you going out with everyone in your class but Kyle?”

“I don’t want to commit too soon.” Seppie said with a terrifying lack of irony. Patsy found herself nodding weakly.

“Okay then, apparently you really are my kid.” Patsy muttered under her breath as she shut the car door and walked round to the drivers side.

The drive to the primary school was quick but silent. Patsy didn’t bother with the radio and after one trip out that had led to an emergency break Seppie knew not to talk while Patsy was driving.

Poplar school was as flat and green as ever when they parked up in the street beside it and made their way towards the small trail of people walking in the same direction. Seppie usually liked holding Patsys hand when they walked to school but today she was in a more calculating mood.

“What if,’ Seppie began idly as though she hadn’t been thinking about this all the way here, ‘we got back in the car and got the dog right now Red?”

Patsy grinned down at the little girls hopeful smile shaking her head at her optimism.

“You have to go to school baby.”

“Yes I know,’ Seppie signed impatiently, ‘I not saying we have to get the dog I just saying... what if.”

“And I just saying we will get the dog after school.” Patsy replied equally calm. Seppie hmmphed, her wellies splashing in the puddles as she stomped along the path momentarily out manoeuvred.

When they arrived close to the gates Patsy squinted through the throng to check who was on duty. Phyllis had told her in a round about way that Delia would be there but Patsy didn’t want to get her hopes up too high.

She spotted Claire first; her blonde head bobbing above the crowd like a cork lost at sea. Beside her and half a foot lower down a dark head stood close by. Patsy spied the fringe and a pair of dimples from a distance and felt her heart beat unevenly in her chest. Something electric pulsed along her wrists and down her palms.

Seppie was already striding towards the gates and Patsy didn’t feel ready. She didn’t know what she going to say.

“Wait,’ Patsy tugged Seppies arm without force so the girl had to turn back and opened her mouth. ‘look at my teeth.”

“What’s wrong with your teeth?” Seppie looked confused and a little bit weary as she stood on the grey pavement together with its grey sky.

“Have I got anything in them? Anything green maybe?”

Seppie glared up at Patsys mouth carefully for a moment before shaking her head. “No. You haven’t eaten anything green Red!” Seppie frowned up at Patsy as though she thought she’d gone mad. Patsy took a few exaggerated breaths, her hand clasped to her chest dramatically knowing it would make the child roll her eyes.

“But I made you smile.” Patsy pointed out.

“You silly.” Seppie crossed her arms in another of her Helen copy cat gestures.

“I am.’ Patsy replied feeling a warmth spread in her chest as she was struck randomly by the heady realisation that Seppie was hers, ‘I’m very silly and you is far too smart for someone like me. I super lucky.”

“Lucky enough to let me go and get the dog?” Seppie smiled toothily, batting her eyelashes.

Patsy laughed, shaking her head at the mind of the pint sized future debate captain she’d adopted. Or had Seppie merely adopted Patsy? The girl had certainly carved out a territory all of her own in Patsys life before Patsy had even realised it was happening. Patsy reached out a ran a thumb over the point of Seppies nose.

“Enough. After school we’ll get your dog, not before then.”

Seppie pouted but heaved an acknowledging sigh as she turned on the heel of one frog green welly with ill concealed frustration. Patsy watched in amusement as the tiny girl trudged towards the gates. The weight of the world seemingly resting on her bobbing back.

Had Patsy ever been in a position at her age to be so visibly upset she wondered.

Patsy shook off the ridiculous question immediately, angry at herself for even thinking about something like that. Of course she hadn’t and it was stupid to think about those things now. Seppie could wear her sadness for the short term simply for the fact that Seppie would not have her life ruled by others. She would not be prevented from feeling or thinking exactly what she wanted to. She would not carry Patsys scars. Neither of the girls would. Patsy would make sure of that. She would always make sure of that.

By the time Patsy had caught up with her daughter Seppie was already in Claire’s care. The two of them stood a little outside the crowd as they chatted excitedly.

Claire Snyde was a 24 year old woman who exuded so much raw energy that Patsy usually left any conversation feeling faintly exhausted. She was tall and plump with perpetually red cheeks and blonde hair that she braided up in complicated designs Patsy had yet to fully fathom. Seppie liked her though and that was the main thing. Seppie thought that she was cool because she had a tattoo along her right forearm. Patsy had been less impressed when she learned it was the word Claire in Arabic. She quite liked the odd tattoo but had never seen the point of having your own name inked into your skin. Presumably the only time it would help Claire would be if she was struck with sudden amnesia in the Persian Gulf.

Claire caught Patsys eye as she approached and ducked her head blushing.

Beside Claire Delia stood with her back against the fence, a steaming mug in one hand and the other hidden behind her back. Her eyes were fixed on Patsy too. Patsy pushed her bad hand deeply into the pocket of her coat and tried not to look like a woman who was close to a panic attack as she drew nearer.

Delia looked far better than Patsys memories; her hair was pulled back from her face. The break seemed to have done a good turn for her, the dark shadows on her eyes had disappeared. Her face and neck were stained darker from too much sun. She looked alive, solid and satisfyingly soft too. She’d been soft. It had just been the one night they’d been together but Patsy remembered it well. Too well.

Delia shifted against the fence, her bad leg straightening and it was almost as though Patsy could feel the weight of the limb in her hands again. There was a pulling sensation in her gut, a tugging thread that bound them was finally shortened. Delia was here.

Delia was right here and Patsy wasn’t going to let her go without a fight this time.

“Morning!” Patsy said brightly, looking at Delia but speaking to Claire. Her body didn’t feel like her own somehow, the strange heaviness was smothering her bones.

“Morning.” Both women replied to Patsy in unison before looking over at each other with the tiniest show of interest.

“So,’ Claire was the first one to break, she reached forward and patted Patsys damp shoulder boldly, ‘how did this morning go? Seppie tells me your households expanding.”

“Err,’ Patsy hesitated, glancing over at Delia who was looking down at her mug, ‘yeah, she wore me down I guess.”

“You’re such a softie.’ Claire gushed, shoving Patsys shoulder playfully and without force but the move still made Patsy wince. The ache in her chest flashed red hot as the still healing skin was pulled apart. ‘Will you be bringing it here after school? I’d love to see it.” Claire’s eyes traced Patsys with a familiarity and confidence that she didn’t really have permission to hold.

Patsy spread her lips into as genuine a smile as she could and stepped back just far enough that Claire would need to lean forward to follow her. Patsy saw Delia look up briefly to watch the exchange. Delias eyes narrowed just a little as they settled on Claire’s hand.

“I’ll do my best.’ Patsy promised, angling her body in Delias direction. ‘It’s good to see you.” She murmured across the divide to the Welsh woman. Delia licked her lips and dipped them to her tea as she smiled cautiously back at Patsy over the rim.

“And you. You look-‘ Delia glanced over at Claire ruefully, ‘wrapped up.”

Patsy used her good hand to pick at the thick wooden scarf muffled round her neck. It was a serious scarf meant less for fashion and more for warmth. She’d been feeling the cold more and more lately.

“Did you have a good summer?” Patsy was aware of Claire in the periphery eyeing the pair of them curiously but didn’t much care. All she could see was Delia. Something was inflating in her chest, pressing against her ribs as her lungs expanded.

“It was alright,’ Delia parried looking just as keenly back at Patsy, ‘my brother got married. Did some cycling.”

“You look great.” Too late Patsy realised she’d said that out loud. Delias cheeks pinked and Claire coughed. Patsy felt a hand on her thigh and her attention snapped downwards to meet Seppies gaze which was fixed on her, her mouth still turned to sulky points. ‘Right you,’ Patsy signed kneeling down to hug her daughter, ‘have a good day, learn things, don’t start any more relationships.”

Seppie giggled, ‘Red! They not proper boyfriends and girlfriends.”

“Whatever you say. Keep playing the field, I’ll be here when school finishes okay?”

“And then we get the dog?”

“Then we get the dog.”

Seppie squealed, running forward to wrap her arms around Patsy hurriedly before running off along the playground to disappear amongst a huddle of equally small children. The huddle opened up to admit her and swiftly closed again hiding her from view. Patsy stood up, brushing a few pebbles off her knees and winked at Claire.

“She’s a bit excitable today, you might have your work cut out.” She offered without any real apology. Claire waved the sentiment away airily.

“Oh she’ll be fine. The life she’s had she’d probably get excited by just about anything the poor thing.” Claire laughed.

There was a chilly pause, Patsys eyes hardened for half a second and then she forced herself to relax, knowing Claire hadn’t meant anything bad by it. She turned her attention over to Delia who hadn’t said anything and who even now was looking back down at her drink, apparently fascinated by the red surface.

“Probably.’ Patsy said tightly, ‘either way I’m sure you’ll manage it. Delia? Could I have a word with you?”

It wasn’t really a request but Delia must have been waiting for Patsy to ask because she stepped away from Claire almost at once. Patsy gave the blonde a curt nod and followed the Welshwoman until they were a little way away from the others.

The wind was stronger here, the fine misting rain arced in spirals around their heads. Delia licked her lips again but didn’t meet Patsys eyes.

“You’ve made quite the impression on her you know.” Delia said with a bitter quality to her voice.

Patsy rubbed at her nose as she stared down at the woman who’d haunted her dreams since she’d disappeared. She had a fleeting image of Ollie doing almost the same thing only fifteen minutes ago in front of Fern and dropped her hand immediately.

“Who? Claire?” Patsy could barely focus on the blonde as she drank in Delia. Her brain was shuttered into tunnel vision that ended with blue eyes and dimples.

“Claire’s been telling me all about you actually.” Delia said quickly, her spare hand touching her right hip in an unconscious move Patsy recognised as anxiety.

“Has she?” Patsy wasn’t really surprised and she didn’t want to hear what Claire thought about her. It wasn’t like she particularly cared about what Claire thought of her one way or another after all but a small insidious part of her wished Delia would agree with Claire’s opinions. A bit of praise would be nice right about now; a hint that Delia was still interested. A fucking clue.

“She has the most all mighty crush on you.” Delia breezed a little too easily, her knuckles whitening on the cup she held.

Patsy pressed her lips together in faint amusement that Delia could be in any way worried about Claire’s interest matching Patsys.

“She seems like a nice girl.”

Delia looked up sharply, her cheeks not just red from the cold now; “she seems lovely. Pretty.”

“Young.” Patsy supplied affably.

“Yes.” Delia said through gritted teeth.

“Smart with it too.’ Patsy went on neutrally, tracking the way Delias eyes were searching her own, ‘she won’t be on her own for long I don’t think.”

“That’s... That’s exactly what I thought.” Delia swallowed hard looking for all the world like her tea had been replaced with piss and Patsy cracked a wry smile.

“Not with me though.”

Delia finally met Patsys eye with a bit of defiance. “No?” The faintest whiff of a challenge drifted along the single word and Patsy wanted to kiss her.

Patsy wanted to-

“Did you think it would be with me? No, far too young; she wouldn’t have a clue about good music for a start. What radio channel would she pick in the car? That’s important you know and,’ Patsy leaned in conspiratorially, ‘between you and me I’ve never really had much of a thing for blondes. Too... Close to home for me I guess.” Patsy waved a hand over her hair vaguely by way of explanation.

“Oh, well, that’s a shame.” Delia said without much sincerity, her shoulders relaxing.

“Always preferred brunettes as it goes.” Patsy continued, finally on a roll.

“All brunettes?” Delia enquired slyly. Quirking her eyebrow.

Patsy bit her lip, “not these days.”

“Is it red heads now then?” Delia teased, the tips of her ears turning red.

“Not red heads either,’ Patsy smirked, ‘just one particularly brunette that I can’t seem to get out my head.”

Delia paused and looked down at her mug, “lucky woman.”

Patsy looked at Delia. She felt the ghost of pressure along her limbs, the itching need to be close to her. She was beautiful and Patsy could feel the anxiety choking her. She felt awkward in her own skin. Tongue tied as she fought back nerves. Subtle. She needed to play this cool, calm and collected.

She was Patsy Mount for Gods sake. This was what she did.

“You have got no idea how glad I am that you’re back. I really missed you.” Okay, not exactly subtle but it could have been worse as an opener Patsy told herself.

“I... I thought about you a lot over the summer.” Delias face was still guarded as she gave her admission but Patsy couldn’t stop the thing that was expanding in her chest from swelling just a bit more.

Delia had been thinking about Patsy.

“Missing my rakish charm?’ Patsy smirked, preening. ‘Stella personality? All that good stuff?”

“Something like that yeah.” Delia said dryly, her eyes warming unconsciously.

“Was it in fact something exactly like that?” Patsy pressed hopefully and was rewarded by dimples. Gawd she’d half forgotten those bloody dimples. They were so deep, Patsy wanted to run her fingers across them just to see how far in they went.

When Delia smiled at Patsy some very complicated muscles seemed to wind in tighter. It was like the sun had finally decided to shine.

“You had a good summer then?” Delia asked still smiling, changing the subject subtly and Patsy was helpless not to answer.

“It was alright. The girls kept me busy and there was loads to do in the house and everything; it’s really starting to come on actually.’ Patsy hesitated just a little nervously at this, teasing her way over the point of no return. ‘Doubt you’d even recognise the place.”

“I’m really pleased for you Pats.” Delias dimples were still there, the smile stayed in place but the conversation seemed too formal. Patsy deflated a little. Pleased? Delia was pleased?

Oh well, Patsy decided to just get this bit over. One way or another it would be easier to ask and know straight away.

“I thought... I thought you might like to see it yourself actually. The house I mean.” Coward. Patsy clenched awkwardly inside, holding her body stiffly, waiting for Delias answer.

“Pardon?” Delia blinked slowly like she was pulling out of her own thoughts with difficulty.

“The house?’ Patsy repeated with stuttering brightness, ‘I thought you... I was hoping that you’d like to come round at some point... Soon maybe.” God, Patsy could choke on her own eagerness right now.

Ahh well. So much for smooth.

“You want to see me?” Delia sounded taken aback. Patsy frowned, wondering if she’d got this wrong.

“Of course I do.’ With the last bit of nerve she had Patsy stepped forward and ran her thumb along the back of Delias hand. To her relief Delia didn’t pull away although she still looked on edge. ‘I’ve... I’ve missed you.”

“But... You didn’t text me.” Delia mumbled, not exactly pulling her hand away but not moving any closer either.

Patsy paused, thinking Delia was being a bit over the top here. She had text. Three times all in all... Which probably hadn’t been enough Patsy now realised with a sinking feeling.

“I didn’t know what to say.’ Patsy explained apologetically. ‘I tried a few times but I knew you were really busy. You said you needed space and I didn’t want to rush you if you weren’t ready to talk.” Half a truth. Patsy hadn’t known how to phrase exactly she wanted, hadn’t been quite brave enough to see it in black and white. Baby steps, she’d told herself, you had to start somewhere.

“Oh.” Delia didn’t really say the word consciously, her lips merely opened into a circle and she seemed push the sound out on an out breath. Patsy smiled shyly.

“I’ve been thinking about you a lot though.”

“And now?” Delias eyes tracked Patsys face; searching for something that Patsy didn’t know how to convey easily.

“Well...’ Patsy blew out a breath and fought back the urge to fidget. Ridiculous as it was she’d never actually had to do this sort of thing before now. Women tended to just turn up; Patsy had never had to chase anyone. ‘Now that you are here... I’d like to talk to you... quite a bit.” More than talk actually but it was definitely a start wasn’t it?

Patsy knew she wasn’t going to win any prizes for heartfelt chats but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t try for Delia. She fleetingly thought that she’d do almost about anything for this woman which was a strange and slightly terrifying realisation.

“I thought you weren’t interested... I thought that you’d- I thought... ” Delia sounded like she was sleep walking, her voice muzzy at the edges.

“I told you I’d wait didn’t I?’ Patsy said gently. ‘I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it Delia.”

“You really waited for me?” Disbelief coloured Delias voice and Patsy tried not to be too offended by it.

She’d said hadn’t she? She’d promised Delia and Patsy always kept her promises. Okay they hadn’t talked much but Delia hadn’t text Patsy either. Patsy had assumed they were holding off the time to have a serious conversation for face to face. Had Delia honestly not believed her? After everything that had happened?

“Course I did.” Patsy affirmed heavily.

They stood silent for a moment, buffeted by the September winds, strands of Delias fringe blowing across her forehead. Patsy wound the fingers of her bad hand around a loose thread in her pocket as she waited anxiously for... What? What did she do now? She’d imagined this a fair bit and in every scenario it had been, well, smoother. Easier somehow.

In the most embarrassing of visions Patsy had secretly hoped for a bit of excitement, flirting maybe, a kiss at a stretch but Delia was merely looking at her with expression more akin to shock and something else. Something harder to define. Patsy focused hard on the woman’s face. Teasing out any kind of sign that Delia didn’t want this.

To her rising disappointment she thought that she might be on the right track. God. If she’d fucked this up already, if Patsy had done this wrong, she wasn’t sure what she’d do. She wished she was better at this kind of thing, wish she’d bothered to learn how to date at the same time as learning to fuck.

“If I’m overstepping the mark,’ Patsy said eventually in a dull voice, ‘let me know and I’ll stop. I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable.” Patsy felt uncomfortable though. She wondered if she could extricate herself with a bit of dignity.

Probably not.

“I’m free at lunch.”Delia seemed to have come to a decision, her empty hand reached forward to snag the zip of Patsys coat, tugging Patsy towards her.

Patsy hadn’t even realised she’d been turning away until Delia was pulling her back with cautious eyes. Patsy wanted to sag but forced herself to remain exactly as she was. Still and unknowing.

“You want to talk to me?” Needy. Patsy sounded too needy for her own peace of mind. She’d never been needy before. She didn’t like it much but she wanted Delia to say it back. Wanted to hear that Delia wanted her in some small way in return.

“I need to talk to you.” Delia corrected, her eyes darting over Patsys shoulders. Patsy blinked, remembering vaguely that they were standing at the gates of a school. People were walking past them and their positions didn’t exactly scream neutral.

With a sigh Patsy took a reluctant step back. Felt colder this way but it was probably for the best. Delias hand followed the movement, she still held Patsy and Patsy hoped she wouldn’t let go. Hoped it meant she wanted to stay and see where this went.

“Pats?’ Delia interrupted Patsys internal panic, ‘this lunch time? We could go for a walk maybe, talk about things.” Delia still looked nervous and Patsy wanted to say yes. Couldn’t really fathom a world where she would decline but her schedule poked its way into her head and she scowled.

“I can’t,’ Patsy groaned regretfully, ‘it’s my first day back. I’m meeting my boss and I’m not really sure what time I’ll be finished.”

“You’re going back to work!” Delias face shuttered, her hand dropping away as she stared at Patsy in astonishment.

“Yeah,’ Patsy rubbed her thumb along the metal patch Delia had touched, it was still warm. ‘Sorry, I should’ve planned this better.”

“But it’s too early, you said ten weeks.’ Delia said sharply, eyes narrowed. ‘Why are they making you go back to work so soon?”

“They’re not making me,’ Patsy defended mutinously, embarrassed that Delia might think she was incapable of pushing paperwork around for a few weeks. ‘I was going mad walking around the house all summer. It was my request.”

“But you need to rest up, you can’t go off gallivanting around town putting yourself in danger.”

“Gallivanting?’ Patsy scoffed, ‘I don’t even own a gally, I couldn’t gant if I tried. Come on,’ she bent her neck trying to meet Delias eye, ‘Poplars not dangerous, whats the worst that will happen? Some farmers call in for help with a rogue swan.”

Delia sucked in a breath, suddenly tense. “It was dangerous enough for you to nearly die a few months ago.” She said in a constricted voice.

“That wasn’t normal for Poplar.’ Patsy rushed, concerned that Delia was worrying about shadows. She threw caution to the wind again and ran a forefinger under Delias chin, holding her there for half a beat, speaking firmly. ‘It’s a safe town Delia. I’m not in any more danger than anyone else walking out their door every morning. Less than a lot of other places.”

“How...’ Delia began and then stopped as though she was forcing herself to say something she didn’t want to. ‘How is your chest?” Her eyes lasered into Patsys torso, her face too pale. The point of her chin between Patsys fingers had been too sharp. She’d lost weight.

All of a sudden Delias thin coat looked too thin, the air was chilly and Delia looked cold.

“Haven’t you got a scarf or anything?” Patsy asked with random concern.

“Pardon?” Delia blinked, perplexed at the change of topic.

“A scarf,’ Patsy repeated patiently, ‘you look like you could do with one, it’s bitter out. Here, take mine.” Patsy hurriedly unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and reached over to wind it about Delias. Intent on her goal as she was Patsy still felt a faint thrill at being able to touch Delia. Delia blushed at the move but smiled wanly up at Patsy when she’d finished.

“Still trying to save me?” Delia asked with a smile in her voice.

Patsy smoothed her hand along the scarfs end, securing it in place.

“Well you know what they say; if it ain’t broken.” Patsy muttered absentmindedly.

“Pats,’ Delia said firmly, refusing to be distracted, ‘you have been looking after yourself haven’t you? You’ve been taking things easy?” Suspicion laced itself among the curled vowels like snakes in a river.

“Me?’ Patsy widened her eyes as though she wasn’t someone who had been asked this question far too often of late. She gave her best brush off. ‘I’m fine. Honest. You know how it goes, wouldn’t know how to give up if they showed me how with a map.”

“I’m aware of your stubbornness,’ Delia deadpanned, clearly not at all convinced. ‘But you didn’t answer my question. Please tell me you’ve been looking after yourself?”

“Course I have. Fit as a fiddle.” Patsy said gruffly. Her neck was cold now and she shivered, guilt pricked at her as she met Delias gaze.

“And you’ve not been smoking. Your lungs are shot as it is, I hope you’ve helped them out a bit m.” Delia raised her eyebrow but her lips twitched.

“Err...’ Patsy teetered between an open lie and swiftly chose to hedge her bets. ‘Not- Not many. Only a few when the kids are in bed.”

“Hmm.’ Delia surprised them both as she leaned forward and pressed her hand right against Patsys heart. Patsys twitched at the unexpected warm touch. Delias eyes glinted and pushed Patsys jacket away to delve into an inside pocket. She returned almost instantly with a packet of cigarettes held in her hand. Patsys mouth hung as Delia waved it like a victory flag. ‘Knew it. You always get the same look in your eye when you’re lying.’ Delia breezed a little smugly ‘I did tell you that before didn’t I?”

“I’m allowed one vice surely?” Patsy muttered plucking the pack from Delias unresistant fingers.

“Just the one?” Delia challenged.

Their eyes met again.

“Have dinner with me tonight at mine.’ Patsy offered it on impulse, wincing at the way it sounded blurted. ‘Come home with me after school.”

“Isn’t it Seppies birthday?’ Delias smile faded. ‘You’ll be busy, it’s probably not the right time for all of this.”

“Please,’ Patsy hated that she was pleading. Hated that she sounded this pathetic. ‘I’ll be dead to them when the dog turns up, I could do with the company.”

“It’s a bit short notice,’ Delia shifted on her feet looking unaccountably guilty, ‘I’ve got a friend from Wales staying with me, I can’t just leave her on her own.”

“Invite her too if you want.” Patsy offered. In reality she wasn’t all that keen on the idea of someone there to distract them but if it made Delia feel more comfortable...

“You don’t know her,’ Delia supplied looking conflicted, ‘it might be awkward.”

“Then only come over for a cup of tea and go home afterwards. An hour tops, I’m sure your friend can fend for herself for another hour.” Patsy was determined not to lose this opportunity.

“Well,’ Delia said slowly, capitulating in one word but still maintaining an unwelcome guard about her. ‘Maybe an hour wouldn’t be too bad.”

“Just to talk. Nothing more.” Patsy reassured with far more confidence than she felt.

Delia sighed and shook her head as though exasperated with them both.

They stared at each other and Patsy opened her mouth to say something else but stopped when the bell released a tinny scream from its place on the school wall. The sound made them both jump and Delia straightened immediately looking at her watch.

“Shit. I’ve got to go.” Delia said rather pointlessly. Patsy nodded, already watching Delia hurry away from her again.

“I’ll see you later then.” Patsy called to the woman’s retreating back and was rewarded with a furtive wave in return which Patsy decided was probably an affirmative.

Patsy waited where she was for a while after that, following Delias form as she was swallowed by a swarm of children trying to line up and failing quite spectacularly. She saw Seppie standing with Claire on the periphery and waved at her. Seppie blew her a kiss in return; her previous annoyance apparently forgotten with five minutes play. Patsy couldn’t prevent the stupid grin plastered onto her face as she watched the kids file off. When they’d all gone inside and there was nothing left to watch Patsy turned around and began to walk back to the car, whistling quietly to herself as she went.

All in all it had gone better than she could have hoped for really.

She had an appointment to keep and a busy evening to look forward to. Things were looking up.