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Bluebirds

Chapter Text

London
November 2013

 

When she caught her suitcase on the lip of the door into the Euston Tap, the jolt shocked her back to a reality she hadn't known she'd left. Everything before that – the conference, the train journey, the months in that grey, sanitised office, even her years in chambers – seemed suddenly to exist only in snatches. The space between was filled with white noise and a vague, sickening unease – a sense of her life rushing over her head in great gulping waves, of being stuck treading water, never quite able to break through the surface and breathe. Suddenly she saw and heard and felt with utter clarity. The colours of London in winter were bright and piercing, the chatter in her ears crystalline, every delicate cadence and shift in pitch as sharp as the light that sliced the sky.

From behind her came a cough, a huff, a sarcastically polite, “Excuse me.”

Claire apologised to the smartly-dressed couple who had attempted to hurry in behind her and been forced to halt. She tugged her suitcase over the threshold, and made her way to the bar.

The Tap was crammed, as she had known it would be, late on a Friday afternoon. It might be mid-November, but that did nothing to stem the tide of tourists and hen parties and workers that flowed in and out of the capital on a daily basis, some shrieking giddily in anticipation of an all-weekend drinking session, others sighing with relief that the drudgery of their week was done. Normally she preferred to drink in quieter, cosier places, where she could curl up in a corner with a book – that was, when she had the time to go out drinking at all. The Tap, though, stuffed into the old guarding lodge by Euston Station, was an exception to her usual rule. She loved its history, its benevolent, welcoming feel, and the comforting lineup of northern breweries whose crests were tied to the pumps. Invariably these took her straight back to her sixth form years in Sheffield, and the long evenings spent sampling honey ales and double strength lagers and strange fruit beers with Puneet, while Lucy shook her head in despair and herded them home at the end of the night.

Besides, she wanted a crowd this evening. She didn't want to hear her phone if it rang, or be tempted to check her emails. She certainly didn't want to make any calls.

Her leather tote was heavy, weighed down with files and notebooks and her clunky office laptop. She shifted so it wasn't pulling so hard against her shoulder muscles, and winced at the taut ache in her neck. She could almost hear her grandmother's voice in her head.

“It's not good for you, carting all that rubbish around...you'll ruin your posture, not to mention do your back a mischief...”

Well, she wouldn't be carrying any of it for much longer.

She wriggled her way onto one of the bar stools, pulling a face as her tight pencil skirt twisted and stuck around her thighs. Claire liked clothes – just not ones designed to force her to walk in a certain way, or that complicated tasks that would have been perfectly straightforward in trousers. Her heart skipped a little at the thought of giving away all her business suits – of having a small wardrobe full of pretty yet practical things...

Woah there. She reined in her mental excitement. You'll still have to earn a living somehow. Don't go throwing everything out.

The idea of finding another job sent cool, nervous tendrils creeping through her gut, and they clung like strands of poisoned web. She turned her attention to the beer list instead. The choice was impressive for such a tiny pub – and though she recognised some of the brewery logos, she realised she had no idea where to start. Networking events had meant expensive wine or strong cocktails; clutching a glass of ale would have been unthinkable.

She ordered a pint of strong porter, the least ladylike choice she could think of.

Pubs were wonderful places for being in company and yet at the same time utterly alone. Claire sipped her drink, savouring the soothing richness, the weight of it, smoke and silk on her tongue. She thought again of Lucy and Puneet, and wondered where her friends were now. Lucy had gone into nursing, she knew, and she had a vague idea that Puneet had moved to Germany. Not without a pang, she smiled at a group of young women clustered in the corner, teetering on their high heels and forming a protective circle around their suitcases. They were about eighteen or nineteen and dressed for a Big Night Out, giggling as they sipped each others' drinks, linking arms and fixing each others' hair and makeup with deft fingers. Claire wondered what they were celebrating – a birthday, perhaps, or a romantic youthful engagement. Or just being young, free, not tied to a job or a house or a car loan, or any of the other trappings of adulthood.

It isn't all bad, she reminded herself sternly. After all, her job was – had been – well paid. She had savings, which meant choices.

She kept half an eye on the giggling girls as she drank, vaguely wondering if she should text Lucy or Puneet. But would they care any more? They hadn't spoken in years. She wasn't even sure she had the right phone numbers for them.

A shriek distracted her from her gloomy thoughts. One of the girls, a petite, curvy brunette, had tripped on her heels and tipped her drink down the front of a young man standing nearby. She'd managed to spill his drink too, grabbing onto his arm in an attempt to steady herself. Claire smiled, looked away – and then looked slowly back.

The young man was nearer Harrison's age than her own. He was strikingly tall; he'd have a good three or four inches on her cousin, who cleared six foot easily without shoes. The little brunette, now mopping at his grey t-shirt and apologising effusively, didn't even come close to his shoulder. And it wasn't only his height that was striking; his glossy black hair, curtain-straight, was bobbed at his chin and streaked with thin bars of silver, navy and teal. He wore black jeans tucked into studded cowboy boots, an assortment of silver pendants, and rings on most of his fingers. His face was pale, all angles and symmetry, though when he glanced up and caught Claire looking, his blue eyes were clever and kind.

When the brunette was finished mopping, she lowered her lashes and looked up through them, one manicured hand laid enticingly on the young man's arm. He shook his head and gently disengaged himself, then met Claire's eyes again with a rueful smile. Claire smiled back, wondering how accidental the spillage had been. She sneaked another glance at the group of girls. Judging from their disappointed expressions, not very accidental at all.

The stranger was on his way to the bar, most of his beer now adorning his front. He moved with a fluid, controlled grace that immediately made her think Jedi, then she laughed at herself inwardly. Harrison and Theo have been a bad influence on you.

He rolled his eyes as he approached, and gestured at his front. “I'm going to smell like a brewery all night.”

Claire's ears pricked up at the accent. Not English, that was for sure. Dutch, maybe? “I think if they'd had their way, you'd have been smelling of pink gin and six types of perfume.”

He laughed, a warm, merry sound that made her think of sunlight on the sea. “Not much chance of that. I'm gay.”

She grinned, feeling naughty after the adrenaline rush of the afternoon. “Hi Gay, I'm Claire.”

He threw her a startled look, then laughed again and held out a hand. “Gil Walker.”

“Claire James.” She shook his hand, noting the strong grip, the slender fingers, the unusual jewellery. The designs were elegant and curved, not quite Celtic, and one of the rings bore the crest of a flaming sun. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise.” He settled into the bar stool beside her. “Can I get you anything?”

“Oh!” Her cheeks heated. She hoped she hadn't looked like she was hinting. “I'm fine, thank you.” She held up her pint glass. “I still have most of my drink.”

His eyes flicked curiously between her and the porter. “Do you recommend it?”

“I like it. I don't know enough about beer to say whether it's good,” she admitted, and held it out. “You're welcome to try...?”

Gil sipped, and grinned. “That is good.”

Claire refrained from commenting that he didn't look like a beer drinker, knowing the same could be said of her. “The brewery's just down the road from where I grew up.”

For a moment Gil looked like he was going to try and guess, then he shook his head. “I'm sorry, I'm still no good with British accents. I'll only offend you.”

“Sheffield.”

“Ah.” He glanced at her suitcase. “Is that where you're going?”

“Not from Euston,” she laughed.

Gil shrugged, pink creeping through his cheeks. “I don't leave London much.”

Her instincts prickled at that. She'd been about to ask where he was from, but her gut warned her to refrain. Instead she continued, “I'm actually just back from Manchester. I had a couple of days up there at a conference.”

“And now home to the big smoke?”

“Mm. For the time being.”

He tilted his head curiously. “Meaning?”

She didn't know this man – barely more than a boy, really, he was at least five years her junior – and yet she felt a wild, giddy urge to say it out loud and solidify it. A promise to herself. “I quit my job.”

“Oh!” Carefully, he said, “You don't sound sad...”

“No. I don't know what I'm feeling, but it definitely isn't sad.”

“Then – congratulations?”

“I'm not sure about that.”

“When did this happen? While you were in Manchester?”

He sounded genuinely interested, and she realised with a startled rush that she already felt easy around him, like he was an old university friend she'd bumped into by chance, not a stranger in a bar next to Euston station. “Yes. Well, kind of. I handed my notice in while I was on the train back, but I decided in Manchester.” Her heart began to thump the way it had when she'd realised what she was about to do; her blood rushed hot in her limbs, and her face turned cold. “There was a client of mine at the conference. Former client, rather; he actually got me the role at the firm where I work now. He asked me to do something I wasn't comfortable with.” She drank, her insides curling at the thought of the pale grey eyes, the way his mouth had thinned with surprise. “I said no; he said if I didn't then I'd never work as a lawyer again; I thought about it, realised that actually none of it was what I wanted, and never has been, so I told him where to go.”

She rushed over the last part, almost defensive, but Gil looked impressed. “Good for you,” he said, and drained his glass. “What did he want you to do?”

“I...” She bit her lip, knowing that even now she needed to be careful with what she said. “I practised as a commercial barrister for almost five years. You find things out – you can't help it – things that would affect whole markets and economies if they were publicly known. I left to join an LLP, but I'm still party to sensitive information that certain people would like to get hold of.” Her stomach clenched, aware that she'd slipped into corporate-speak without meaning to.

Gil didn't seem to mind. “So you were a barrister.” He let out a low whistle. “Wow.”

She laughed. “It's nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds.”

“I'll bet.” His blue eyes held hers, gentle and questioning. “What did you really want to do?”

“I...” She breathed out as a deflating realisation washed over her. “I don't know. Isn't that ridiculous?”

“No, I don't think so.” He turned his empty glass between long, elegant fingers. “The world's so good at telling us what we should want. It's no wonder we forget to pay attention to things that actually make us happy.” He flashed her an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I don't mean to sound like an agony column.”

Again her instincts prickled; something sat under his voice, a note of isolation, a longing for a path not taken or for something precious now lost. Not your business. And you don't know him. “I always loved books.” She shrugged. “But reading isn't a career.”

“Does it have to be?” Gil asked. “What else do you enjoy?”

“The theatre.” Her cheeks burned like it was an admission. “Ever since I was tiny I've loved the stage. Musicals, mostly, but Shakespeare too, once I was old enough – then Ibsen, and Bennett, and then I got into contemporary theatre...what?”

Gil was smiling. “How about dancing?”

“I was never much of a dancer. Basic stuff, you know, for shows, but nothing more than that. To watch, though? Yes.” She looked him over again, weighing her options, and went for it. “Why do you ask?” Though she suspected she knew already.

“I was a dancer.”

“Was?” She'd been about to hazard a guess at ballet, but the past tense startled and wrongfooted her. Gil was young – he couldn't be above twenty-four – and should have his best dancing years ahead of him.

“Total stupidity. We were rehearsing Sleeping Beauty; I'd been understudying the Bluebird, and I was meant to be dancing the Saturday matinée. I was late – running to rehearsal – and it was wet and I slipped on the pavement. Next thing I knew my foot was angled east and my ankle was pointing north towards Scotland.”

Claire paled.

“I'm sorry,” Gil added belatedly. “Are you squeamish? I should have thought...”

“I'm not, usually.” She swallowed. “It's just...I don't know. Something about twisted ankles and broken bones.”

“You get hardened to that sort of thing. It's part of being a dancer; you see it a lot.”

“I'm sure.” She glanced down at his right leg, elegantly crossed over his left. “This wasn't recent, though?”

“Eight months.” He flexed his ankle, rotating the black cowboy boot that adorned it. “And I might dance again, but the jury's out at the moment; I was an idiot and rushed back into training before I was ready. Now the tendons are a mess on top of everything else."

“I'm so sorry.”

He shrugged, feigning nonchalance, and looked at her empty glass. “You want another?”

She told herself she should probably eat dinner; she'd been too dazed on the train, and her first drink had already made her lightheaded. “Sure. Why not?”

But Gil had sensed her hesitation. “I wouldn't want to keep you.”

“It isn't that.” Instinctively she laid a hand on his arm. “But I could do with some food, if you'd like to join me.”

Gil's eyes widened – and she was a little surprised at herself, issuing the invitation so easily and casually. “Really?”

“Only if you want to. But it sounds like we could both use the company.” She glanced over at the group of giggling young women, who were still eyeing Gil with considerable interest. “And I'm not entirely convinced they've given up on you.”

Gil grinned. “Lead on, Macduff.”

She refrained from pointing out that the correct quotation was “lay on”, and instead concentrated on climbing down from the bar stool without ripping her skirt. Gil, after a moment's indecision, offered her his arm, with the palm of his hand turned down.

“Thank you.” Carefully, using the crook of his elbow to balance, she slipped down from her perch.

“I never know whether it's sexist to do that,” he admitted.

Claire shook her head, smiling. “I didn't take it that way.” In the corner, the brunette and her friends were looking somewhat dismayed. “Grabbing me would have been one thing, but offering is completely different.”

“I wouldn't have grabbed you.” Gil looked vaguely offended at the idea.

“I know.” Her certainty surprised her as much as her readiness to spend her evening with a total stranger.

They found a pub beside the station that served food – mussels in cream sauce, great bowls of fat glistening chips, garlic bread, dressed salad, olives. Claire found herself panicking about dairy, carbohydrates and fats, and put a hand on her stomach to calm herself and soothe her breathing.

It doesn't matter any more. You can eat what you like; who cares if your suits don't fit you?

But the habits of years were hard to break.

Gil seemed to be having similar thoughts. “I still can't get used to being able to eat what I want – or near enough.” He stirred the cream sauce with a piece of bread. “We weren't on a diet, not exactly, but we had to think so carefully about what we put into our bodies.”

“I can imagine.” She lifted her eyes, considering. “Do you miss it, though?”

“God.” He swallowed, and laughed softly. “Yes. And it wasn't even my idea at first. My mother wanted to be a ballet dancer when she was young, but back then there weren't any big companies in Johannesburg. If you wanted proper classical training, you had to travel to one of the London schools, or Paris, or Russia, or New York. It wasn't an option, not for her; my grandparents wouldn't pay for it. She taught, though. Ballroom, mostly.” He poured Claire a glass of white wine. “Then she got pregnant with me.”

“And...she pushed you into it?” Claire hazarded.

“I wouldn't say pushed.” Gil's lips quirked. “It was a little more subtle than that.”

Claire nodded. “I know what you mean. My parents never explicitly said they wanted me to be a lawyer – but they wanted me to do something impressive, my Mum especially. The kind of career path she never had access to. Something respectable and steady, not like acting, or -”

“Dancing?” Gil suggested with a gleam.

She blushed. “What did your mother say after your injury?”

“She doesn't know. I haven't spoken to her for two years.” He still smiled, but cool hurt lay behind his eyes. “It wasn't a healthy relationship.”

She took his hand, the gesture coming as naturally as the invitation to dinner.

“It's alright.” He squeezed her fingers. “What will your mother say?”

Claire snorted. “I dread to think. Jesus.” She withdrew her hand and shredded a breadcrust over her plate. “I don't even know if I can stick to it,” she admitted. “What am I going to do instead?”

“Do you need to answer that right now?”

“No,” she said slowly.

“Is there anyone else you can tell?” he asked. “Someone who won't try and talk you out of it, who'll know you've done the right thing?”

Harrison. “I don't want to use my phone,” she admitted. “Even if no-one from work tries to ring me, it still picks up my emails.” She bit her lip. “I don't even want to go home,” she realised, hating that her voice wobbled. “If I do, I'm going to spend my whole weekend sitting on my bed convincing myself that I've done something really, really stupid...”

“It isn't stupid.” For the first time Gil's voice was sharp, and he took her hand again. “Claire, I've known you for two hours, and I can tell already - this isn't right for you.

She breathed in. “I know. But -”

“No buts.” Gently, he flicked her wrist.

“'Goats butt, birds fly,'” quoted Claire.

“Isn't that from Mary Poppins?” Gil laughed.

“Yes, but it's also what my Grandma used to say to Harrison and I when we argued with her.”

“Harrison?”

“My cousin.” She smiled fondly. “He's an idiot.”

Gil leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. “You know what you need?”

“What?”

“A distraction. A weekend-long distraction.”

Her smile widened. The tatters of nervous energy stirred in her stomach, warming into something like excitement. “Did you have anything in mind?”

“I think you need to get out of London.”

Her eyebrows flew up. She hadn't expected that. “Where?” she asked, and then immediately felt stupid.

“Anywhere. Brighton. Somerset. The Chilterns. Kent.”

“I thought you didn't leave London much?” She paused, a thought striking her. “What were you doing, on your own in the Tap?” It wasn't a local drinking place; as much as she liked it, it was effectively a quirky waiting room for Euston Station that happened to serve alcohol.

He shrugged. “Passing the time. There's something about people going on journeys – beginning an adventure, or coming home.” He smiled into his wine, long lashes fanning the curve of his cheeks. “That sounds crazy, I know.”

“It doesn't. Not at all.” The thought of leaving intoxicated her – the idea of company, of doing something so mad and spontaneous, even more so. She smiled mischievously. “So would you like to?”

“Like to what?”

“Go on an adventure.”

Gil opened his mouth, and then a slow grin spread over his features. “I was hoping you might say that.”

They paid their bill, with Gil leaving a generous tip (“I've waited tables, it's not a living wage”), and walked the short distance to St. Pancras, stopping at Gil's flat on Chalton Street so that Claire could leave her work things.

“Not that it's really mine,” he said as he unlocked the door, almost apologetic. “I just rent a room. But the trunk under my bed locks; your laptop and papers will be safe in there.”

Claire was soon spared the need to ask why he had a trunk under his bed. Gil's room was tiny – so narrow that there was barely space for a small single bed. There was no bookshelf, no wardrobe, no desk; the only furniture, apart from the plain metal bedstead, was a generic IKEA standing lamp in the corner. It was clean, with plain white walls and bare floorboards, but it felt empty, lifeless, cold.

“I know it's small.” Gil gave her a brief smile. “But it's cheap, for central London. I couldn't afford anything nearer Covent Garden.”

“Tell me about it; prices are crazy down near the river.” Her own flat was in Holborn, just a few minutes from Temple and a couple of tube stops from her current office near London Bridge. Wait, Covent Garden... Her brain caught up with what Gil had just said. “Hold on, you're with the Royal Ballet?

He smiled modestly. “Yes. If I come back from this injury.”

“...oh. Wow.”

He slid the trunk out – it fitted into the space between the foot of the bed and the door, though barely – and undid the padlock. Inside there were piles of folded clothes in shades of black and grey, with the odd flash of beatnik stripes. “Here.” Gil climbed over the trunk and onto the bed to get out of her way. “You can leave anything valuable or confidential in there. I don't think your suitcase will fit under the bed as well as the trunk, but you can leave it on the mattress if you don't want to take the whole thing with you. I don't know my housemates well but I doubt they'd steal your stuff.”

Claire put a hand to her head as she realised something. “I don't think I actually have anything with me that isn't...you know...workwear. Well, pyjamas, but I can't go wandering around wherever we're going in polka dot cotton shorts.”

Gil checked the time on his phone. “It's not late. The shops at St Pancras will still be open – unless you want to go back to your place too?”

“No, it's fine. I can pick up a few bits and pieces before the train; I won't need much, not for two nights.”

Claire unpacked her work things and stacked them carefully so they weren't squashing Gil's clothes. As she worked, she couldn't help noticing how very small the bed looked, and the way Gil had to fold his long legs under his chin to fit onto it. She bit her lip. “How can you sleep on that thing?” Her first flat in London had been tiny, with a fold-down bed and a portable cooker, but even so she'd at least had space for her things and a little room left to move around.

Gil shrugged. “I curl up.”

“That can't be doing you any good.” She thought of his leg injury, and the extreme care dancers needed to take of their bodies.

“It isn't perfect.” He smiled. “But what in the world is?”

When she was done, Gil threw a few clean tops into a roll-up rucksack; they checked train times as they walked to the station, and settled on Canterbury as their base, with a day trip out to Dover on Sunday to see the cliffs and the sea. Frost bit through the November air, and Claire's heart hammered as Gil flicked through images on his phone, searching for a bed and breakfast.

This is completely insane.

“You like books, right?” Gil flipped his screen around. “What about this place? The rooms look nice, and apparently it was in David Copperfield.

Claire took in the whitewashed walls, the dark, slanting beams, the uneven gabling, the mullioned windows. The old inn was crooked with age, but the red tiles and the soft lights in the window smiled a welcome. “Perfect.”

St. Pancras was quiet now – almost empty, except for a few harried office workers waiting for late trains home, and flurries of ragged-looking pigeons. The air inside smelled of perfume and diesel and coffee and books and damp dead leaves. Claire felt the same curl of anticipation in her stomach that she used to feel as a child before Christmas morning, together with an acute sense of stillness. The breath before diving underwater. The drop in the wind before a summer storm.

Her heels clicked along the pale, glossed floor. She selected a shop stocking practical, reasonably priced clothes – the sort of thing she'd need for a quiet weekend away – and ducked inside. Gil browsed as she picked out an armful of basics – loose fitting jeans, brown ankle boots, a few tops for layering, and a long-sleeved jersey dress in case they went out for a meal.

“Claire? What do you think?”

She turned – and grinned as Gil held up a lightweight, draped trench coat against his front. “Nice!”

“You think?” His cheeks coloured. “It's from the women's section...”

“So what?”

When he tried it on, it hit just above his knee instead of skimming the floor as it would have on her. Its fluid shape skimmed his dancer's form, effortless and impossibly elegant.

“Now we match,” she grinned, twirling in her own belted mac.

After settling up, they still had twenty minutes until their train. As they sat on their platform, waiting for the telltale metallic singing of the track, Gil pressed his phone into her hands. “Call someone,” he told her.

“What?”

“Tell them where you're going, if nothing else.”

It had occurred to her that going away for the weekend with a man she'd only just met was not exactly sensible, at least on the surface. She considered. It wasn't that late, not by student standards; Harrison was likely still at home.

He picked up almost straight away. “Hello, Harrison speaking.”

“Hey, you.”

“Claire!” Surprise and pleasure shot through his voice. “Sorry; I didn't recognise the number.”

“No, you wouldn't...Harrison, I've done something completely insane.”

She heard the others in the background – Rosie, Theo, Luc, all clamouring to say hi. Harrison shushed them. “Claire, is something wrong?”

“No, not exactly.” She swallowed. “I quit my job.”

What? When?”

“Today.”

“Quit, as in, you're done? You aren't going back?”

“Well, I'll need to work my notice, but...” She paused, grinning as the others worked out what the conversation was about and began to whoop and cheer. “Yes, I'm done.”

“Claire...” She heard him swallow, a tremor of genuine emotion in his voice. “I'm so proud of you.”

“Put her on speaker!” came Theo's well-spoken, clipped tones.

“One sec.” She heard Harrison mess with the settings, and then his voice echoed through again, tinnier and more distant. “Alright, Miss James, you have the room.”

Claire held the phone away from her ear as the others yelled and clapped. Gil quirked an eyebrow.

“Fucking finally!” she heard Theo say, swiftly followed by a yelp of “Ow!” as someone – probably Rosie – swatted or elbowed him.

“Congratulations, Claire.” A warm smile shone through Luc's French lilt.

“When are you coming to stay?” Rosie asked.

Claire laughed. “I'll get back to you. I need to start sorting my life out.”

“Sounds to me like you're already doing that,” Harrison laughed – then, with curiosity sharpened by concern, he added, “Why are you using a different phone?”

She blushed to admit it, with the others all able to hear – but Luc, Theo and Rosie had all seen the fallout of her high-pressured career, and hadn't she told Gil the truth only moments after meeting him? “I don't want to use mine. I don't want to pick up emails, or see whether anyone's rung me.”

“I get that.” Harrison's voice softened. “What did you do, buy a new one?”

“No. It belongs to a friend.” She paused. “Actually that's partly why I'm ringing. If you need me for anything, use this number; we're having a spontaneous weekend away.”

“We?” She could practically hear the mischievous grin. “You and this mysterious friend?”

Claire rolled her eyes. In the background Rosie squealed, and Theo and Luc cracked up laughing over some comment she hadn't heard. “His name's Gil. And no, it's nothing like that.” She gave them the name of the bed and breakfast they'd booked – partly so her cousin and his friends could look it up later for their own amusement, and partly for safety. Gil seemed lovely; she'd felt instantly comfortable around him, and even had a nagging sense in her gut that she ought to know him, but that was no reason to be silly. “Guys, I need to go; we're on the nine-fifteen out of St. Pancras.” Another precaution. Gil knew it, and smiled an acknowledgement.

“Have a wonderful time,” Rosie called. “Take pictures!”

“And look after yourself, yeah?” Harrison added.

“Yeah. You too.”

Luc and Theo called exuberant goodbyes into the handset. Claire giggled. “Have a good weekend, guys.”

She hung up and gave the phone back to Gil.

“Thanks.” He slid the handset back into his pocket. “They seem nice.”

“My cousin Harrison, his boyfriend Luc, and their housemates, Rosie and Theo.” She smiled fondly. “Harrison and I have always been close – more like siblings than cousins – and Luc, Theo and Rosie have always been very sweet when I've gone up and stayed in St Andrews.”

“Are they studying there?”

“It's their final year, but yes. Well, Luc's doing a Masters degree; he's a year ahead of the others.”

Gil nodded, and gave an exaggerated sigh. “Ah, the carefree student life.”

Not quite, Claire thought, but held her peace. It was one thing to tell Gil about her own problems; sharing Luc's complicated family history, or Theo's long road to recovery, seemed a step too far.

As they boarded the train, excitement stirred in her belly again. The pale strip lighting in the carriage untethered the sense of reality she had briefly regained in the Tap. There was a fault in the window sealant; the cool November air hissed in as the train picked up speed, rattling, clattering. A few last speckles of light marked the edge of London, and then all of a sudden they were in the country, rushing east towards the coast.

Claire fell into a kind of trance watching the houses change from place to place. Big, detached new builds with conservatories gave way to industrial townhouses, then shifted to pretty little mewses, then opened up into fields again. Orange street lighting glowed against a navy horizon. Occasionally something jarred – the tall tangle of grasses and weeds at the side of the track gave the impression that the train line was flush to ground level, and then a bare spot in the vegetation revealed that the field on her left was a good twenty feet below. Her stomach somersaulted as her mind processed this and reassured itself that the train wasn't actually flying. When they stopped outside a village, one of the houses was so perfectly reflected in the opposite window that she felt giddy trying to work out which side it was on. Sometimes a thin, metallic version of some rap or bubblegum pop song would issue from someone's phone, and the trance would break, just for a moment.

“You OK?”

She jumped, then smiled at Gil and nodded. “Sorry. Miles away.”

“Me too. I love trains, even old ones like this. They kind of...send my mind somewhere else.” His mouth tightened. “I feel like in London, there's no space to think.”

“I get that.”

He linked their fingers together; hesitantly, shyly, she laid her cheek on his shoulder, and leaned against him until they pulled up next to their platform.

Canterbury was hardly small, but compared to the capital it felt eerily quiet. Their bed and breakfast was in the city centre, just a short walk from the station, and Claire grinned as they approached. The buildings on either side of it were modern – but even in the tangerine glow of the streetlamps, it was as lovely as the website's artful pictures, its Tudor beams stark against the leaning white walls. “Wow.”

“Beautiful, right?” Gil held the door open for her. “After you.”

They'd booked rooms in the stable block – not as old as the rest of the building, with its gently aged scantlings, exposed brickwork and uneven floors, but comfortable and warm, with a pretty private terrace and views into the garden.

“This is heaven,” Claire sighed, sinking into her pillows. “What's yours like?”

“Similar,” Gil smiled, lounging against the frame of their connecting doors.

“Jesus.” The adrenaline of her decision, and the excitement of their mad dash out of London, suddenly drained away as though someone had pulled a plug on her energy reserves. “I'm exhausted.” Belatedly she realised that might sound rude. “Sorry, I don't mean to be antisocial...”

“Not at all. It is getting late.” Gil slipped his phone out and looked at the time. “Breakfast at half eight?”

“Mm.” Her eyes were already prickling, her limbs dissolving into the mattress's warm embrace. “Sounds good.”

He laughed. “Sleep well, Claire.”

She managed to drag herself off the bed to remove her skirt suit and change into pyjamas, but it was a relief to return to the nest of thick, clean-smelling sheets. She pressed her cheek into the pillows and curled up on her side.

As she slid into sleep, her breathing slowed, and her chest relaxed with a feeling of deep, deep relief.