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Bluebirds

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Her first instinct on waking was to reach for her mobile. When she put her hand out, though, not only was there no phone; there was no bedside table. And the air smelled different. A cool, sharp, sweet scent crept through the open window, bracing and strange, not at all like the bitter pollutants that clung to her grey London street.

She breathed it in, smiling. The memory of the night before drifted back to her in fragments. The argument with her former client. Her refusal to act against her professional integrity. Meeting Gil in the Euston tap, and, half-dazed, telling him everything. Their mad plan to escape for the weekend. It all had the mist-like quality of a dream.

But her sleep had been dreamless – a deep slumber of emotional and physical exhaustion. She rolled onto her back and stretched. Every limb felt warm, relaxed, refreshed, the way she always remembered feeling on the first day of her summer holidays, with school or university done for a few glorious months. She felt rested – alert but not tense. Even for a weekend, it was an unusual feeling. Her job rarely gave her any let-up, and the cheap bed in her flat was not conducive to a deep and restorative sleep – although it was certainly better than Gil's.

That wasn't a road she wanted her mind travelling. She checked her watch. Eight o'clock on the dot. Plenty of time.

She scraped her hair off her face, showered quickly, and pulled on the clothes she'd bought yesterday – jeans, boots, a soft cotton camisole, and a navy blue rugby shirt. Makeup? It felt startlingly wild to leave her face bare, or near to it. There were still traces of eyeliner around her lashes from last night, and the steam from the shower had brought colour to her cheeks; she added a smudge of lip balm, and let her platinum waves fall back around her shoulders. She twisted a lock around one finger and inspected it critically. For the first time in years, she found herself missing her natural strawberry blonde.

Gil was waiting for her in the little dining room in the main house. He sat in a window alcove, the morning sun gleaming on his bobbed hair, and without warning Claire felt terribly shy. She was afraid that the night just gone would create a boundary between them, that their plan would seem silly, that the easy, relaxed way they had felt with each other would dissipate with the morning sun and the distance from London – but when he lifted his head and smiled, he looked genuinely delighted to see her.

“Hi.” He stood up as she approached, and again she was struck by the fluid grace of his movements. “Sleep well?”

“Amazingly well.” Startled, she realised it was a long time since she'd woken up feeling properly refreshed. She couldn't actually remember the last time. Weekends had always been peppered with calls and extra work, and haunted by the dread of Monday morning. Even part of her holidays had always been given over to work, and then there was the exhausting dance of deflecting questions from her family, who were so proud of her London career. “You?”

“Same. I could have stayed in bed all day.”

As they sat down she remembered the tiny structure he usually slept on – barely more than a cot – and had to force a smile. “I don't think I could. Not after dashing out of London in the dead of night to explore somewhere new.”

“True.” He turned over her cup and gestured at the pots on the table. “Tea or coffee?”

She closed her mouth around her automatic response of “black coffee.” There was no need to force herself awake or count calories. “Tea, please. Two sugars.”

Gil raised his eyebrows. “I thought sugar in tea was, like, heretical for Brits?”

“No.” She smiled again. “Though if you ever open a bottle of iced tea around me, then all bets are off.”

The breakfast was wonderful. They started with fruit, and then Claire ordered smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, while Gil opted for avocado toast with a side of bacon. They finished with tiny, fluffy madeleines, buttery and sweet and still warm from the oven.

“This feels so...indulgent.” Claire arched her back, savouring the delicate winter sunlight.

“I guess being a lawyer didn't leave much time for breakfast.”

She shook her head, pleasure blooming in her chest at his use of the past tense. “It was grab and go – if anything at all. I never ate on court days.”

Gil's eyebrows drew together, looking her over again with fresh concern.

Claire blushed and shrugged. “It was better than throwing up on my robes.” Quickly, she shifted the subject. “And I can't imagine your career leaves you with a lot of spare time.”

“No. It was intense. Is intense,” he corrected himself. “I should technically be in today; we're supposed to do admin work at the school when we're injured, and coach the junior classes. And physio on top.”

“I'm sorry -”

He shook his head. “I needed to get out of the city. We both did.” He grinned. “Anyway, I got up early and did my exercises this morning. There's this amazing tree out in the grounds – an old yew, I have to show you...”

They took a stroll around the gardens while their breakfast settled. The leaves had mostly dropped now; a few clung stubbornly to skeletal branches, shivering as the wind breathed, while the rest were heaped in golden-brown hillocks on the grass. The yew tree stood guard by the far wall, its split trunk like a pair of reaching arms, its bark crackled and furred with age. Light from the fat, pale sun washed over the walls; the grass was still damp, and the taste of warm vanilla wafted from the kitchen vents.

“Mm.” Claire sniffed appreciatively. “God, I miss baking.”

“You bake?”

She folded her arms. “There's no need to sound so surprised.”

“I just thought...you know, professional career girl...you don't seem like the homely type.” He smiled apologetically. “Now I'm sorry. I shouldn't assume.”

She slipped her arm through his. “It's fine. I haven't baked in ages – though I do have a kitchen big enough, now.” If I can afford to keep up the rent on that place. “It just never seems worth it, for one.” Her breath cooled in her throat as she wondered whether Gil would notice the tacit admission that she had no friends in London – but at that moment his phone beeped.

“Hold on.” He dug in his pocket, swiped the screen open, and laughed. “It's for you.” He passed her the handset. “I think I like your cousin.”

The display showed Harrison and Theo standing either side of a large white banner, on which they'd daubed “CONGRATULATIONS” in blue poster paint – probably left over from Raisin Weekend. Rosie and Luc crouched in front of them, grinning. One of their other friends must have taken the photograph, perhaps someone from the cast of their latest show.

Claire laughed out loud, and passed the handset back. “They're so sweet.”

“So who's who? I think I can guess, but...”

“That's Harrison on the left there, with the dark hair and freckles. I know,” she added. “We don't look much alike. And this is Rosie.” She tapped the image of the pretty, slender blonde girl. “She's studying astrophysics; she's basically a genius. Luc's on the other side, here.” She smiled, thinking of how thoroughly her cousin's boyfriend had charmed their grandmother over the summer. “And that's Theo.”

Gil smiled. “It's cute that they made you a banner.”

“They're lovely.” She was very fond of all of them, and not just because they were Harrison's friends. “Well. Theo has his moments, but the others keep him on track these days. Mostly.”

“Mostly?”

She thought of the tearful phonecall last year, her frantic search for train or plane tickets, while her Blackberry overheated with emails from irate clients demanding to know where their work was. By the time she'd got a few days off to visit,Theo had been on the mend – but the recovery had been long and difficult, and she knew the others worried about what would happen to him when they all left university. “Theo's...kind of easily led.”

Gil nodded, and said no more.

They made for the cathedral first, hoping to explore before the tour buses arrived from London. They wandered past the Westgate Towers, squat and benevolent and gently aged, then crossed the river Stour and picked their way through quaint streets lined with pubs and old-fashioned shops. Claire squealed excitedly at a window display stacked with thick slabs of fudge, then blushed as Gil laughed.

“I have a terrible sweet tooth,” she explained.

“I guessed that from the way you take your tea.”

She smiled. “My mother was always telling me off about it when I was a kid. Anything with fudge or caramel is like catnip to me.” She remembered what Gil had told her about his mother, and wondered whether she should have mentioned her own in front of him, but he didn't seem to mind. “Maybe we can come back later. It'll only get squashed if I walk around with it in my handbag.”

The pale light of morning had warmed and sharpened when they emerged onto the precinct in front of the cathedral, dousing the stonework in gold. Spires stretched upwards like fierce spiked crowns, stark against the creamy blue sky. The symmetry of it was startling, its intricacy hypnotic; it was impossible to look at every detail, every carving, every delicate fold and curve in the clothes of the statues that watched them with blank, solemn eyes.

“Wow.” Claire stopped, tipping her head right back to try and take it all in.

Gil gazed at the great wooden door, arms folded. “Didn't you guys murder a priest in here?”

“Mm. Thomas Becket.” She laid a hand on a narrow column, and felt the stone warmed by the sun. She wondered what the city had been like then. Filthy, probably – full of people living scared, short lives, half an eye on the heavens, believing in the divine and fearing the wiles of the devil. “They cut off the top of his head.” The singing of swords...gore in the air...blood and brains glistening on the ground... She shivered, and withdrew her hand.

Inside the air was still. A hush pressed softly against her ears. The fan-vaulted ceiling spread out above them, and stained glass threw jewelled light across the floor. Claire paused in front of the Miracle Windows in the south aisle, staring at the webbed frames, at the colours so rich and deep that her eyes almost ached, at the stories that sore, blistered, long-ago fingers had worked so hard to preserve. Her throat prickled, and she covered her hand with her mouth.

Lightly, Gil touched her arm.

“Sorry.”

“No, it's OK.” He tilted his head. “Are you religious?”

“I don't think so. It's more that...” She turned, gesturing at their surroundings. “The idea that people made all of this – by hand – my God, the effort of it...it must have been terrible, men would have died as they worked, but they did it anyway...”

“They probably thought they'd go to hell if they didn't,” Gil remarked.

“Probably.” She swallowed, and looked around. “But now there wouldn't need to be such a human cost, and yet no-one would ever think to build anything like this. Things just get flung up all over the place, and it's about how fast we can make it, and how flashy it is, and how high...” She stopped. “I sound like a Luddite, don't I?”

“A what?”

“A Luddite. English textile workers in the nineteenth century who went around destroying machinery. They thought automation was undermining their craft and threatening their jobs.”

Gil smiled, a little sadly. “Maybe they had a point.”

“Maybe.” She sighed, and unfolded the little paper map she'd picked up on her way in. “Cloisters next?”

At lunchtime they emerged back into the sunlit streets. On the King's Mile, the buildings leaned against one another like friends sharing secrets. Claire ducked into bookshop with a crooked blue door, and emerged with a collection of French fairy tales, a battered old volume about lost country houses, and a copy of Eliot's Four Quartets.

“I shouldn't really keep buying books,” she smiled, leafing through her purchases and inhaling the sweet papery scent that rose from the pages. They were lounging on the grass in Westgate Gardens, sharing olives and sourdough bread and cheese bought from a deli in a tiny cobbled courtyard. Swans glided up and down the river, the water rippling in silk chevrons behind them. “I have more room than I used to, but it's not exactly Buckingham Palace.” She paused, thinking again of the room Gil was renting near St Pancras, and her stomach knotted.

But if Gil minded her thoughtless remark, it didn't show. “Buckingham Palace is like a studio apartment compared to some of these,” he commented, flicking through the book about country houses – then he looked up with a grin. “Hey, shall we go?”

“To the Palace?”

“Why not? I never do tourist stuff in London.”

“Me neither,” she admitted, closing the fairy tale book. “Except when Harrison comes to visit – and mostly, he just wants to go to the theatre.” She tore the end of the bread into small pieces in her lap, and threw the scraps into the river for the swans. “Have you been in London long?”

“Oh, yes. I started at White Lodge – the prep school for the Royal Ballet, out at Richmond Park – when I was eleven.”

Claire gave a low whistle. “So young?”

He nodded. “My mother flew me out for an audition as soon as I was old enough. I wasn't really trained, not like some of the kids I was up against – but I'd had lessons, and since I could walk I've always moved to music. It was like...like an instinct. Not even that – a compulsion. I could hear the stories under the notes, you know? And for me the only way to explore that, to try and understand it, was to dance.” He pulled up a stem of grass, and flexed the ankle he'd injured when he'd slipped in the rain. “Mamma saw it. She knew. Whatever else has happened since, she at least understood that.

Claire rested the tips of her fingers on the back of his hand. “And your father?”

“What father?” Gil's mouth quirked. “I don't know where he is or even who he is. I doubt he knows I exist.”

“I'm so sorry.” Idiot, she scolded herself. “I shouldn't have...”

“It's OK, Claire.” He turned his palm over and linked their fingers. The cool metal of his rings pressed against her knuckles. “I haven't had a perfect life, but it is what it is. Plenty of people are worse off. I don't mind you asking me things; it's actually kind of nice to be able to say it.”

She nodded and took a deep breath, pushing through her reluctance to seem nosy, her fear of offending him. “You don't have friends at the ballet company?”

“Some. But they're colleagues, and competition.”

“I get that,” she muttered.

“I'll bet you do. And ballet...” He stared thoughtfully out over the river. “I love it. I need it, even; it's in my bones and my blood and my soul. But it swallows you. I think art is like that sometimes. You give your entire self to it, more than you ever suspected you had inside you, and even that isn't always enough.” Slowly, he shook his head. “Without it, though, I don't know what I am.”

After lunch they went to the Roman museum. The solemn atmosphere of their conversation by the river soon dissipated when Gil revealed he'd thought a hypocaust was a Roman lavatory, not a system of underfloor heating; Claire howled with laughter, though Gil got his own back when she mistook a tall glass vase for a phallic sculpture.

“Well, come on,” she objected when they'd both caught their breath. “What does it look like to you?”

“I...don't think I can say with children present,” he replied, glancing over his shoulder at the trio of blonde-haired girls scrabbling about in the mock-up archaeological dig. His eyes gleamed with mischief. “But at least now I know we're as bad as each other.”

“It's the Romans, for crying out loud!” Claire protested, laughter bubbling up again. “There was all sorts of explicit stuff scrawled on the walls in Pompeii, and even up at Eboracum and Vindolanda...how was I meant to know it was a vase? It's not like it's labelled!”

Gil forced his face into a serious, scholarly expression. “It does have a large and obvious hole.”

Claire gaped at him, then snorted, then gave into a spasm of giggles and had to lean against a wall. “God,” she gasped. “You're right. You would get on with my cousin.”

They wandered through exhibitions of pottery, weapons and jewellery, and paused by a vast mosaic that the plaque informed them had only been discovered when the Germans bombed Canterbury in World War Two.

“That's amazing.” Through the glass, Claire's fingers traced the geometric flowers and stars outlined in the tiles. “All that death and destruction...and without it, this would have stayed buried under the earth forever.” She bit her lip. “I don't mean that it was worth it, but -”

Gil laid a hand on her shoulder. “I know what you mean.”

In the second to last room was a collection of silverware, salvaged from the remains of a villa on the outskirts of the city. Claire drifted through the exhibit, marvelling at how clean and new everything looked, how intricately crafted – and then the light flashed on a bright, flat surface in a case in the centre, and she paused.

Resting upright on a light wire stand was a round hand mirror. Its edge was embellished with tiny metal curls like locks of hair. Its reflective surface, though cracked, was gleaming, and it showed her face as clearly as the mirror in her bathroom back at the hotel. Etched onto the reverse side was a picture of a lovely woman, weaving. Claire's breath caught in her throat. For some reason she couldn't quite place, the image made her unbearably sad. She looked back at the mirror's other side – and her breath turned to ice in her throat.

The face looking back at her was not her own.

She stepped back, automatically reaching for something to steady herself. She caught Gil's sleeve; he put an arm around her waist, his strong grip belying his slender shape.

“Claire, what's wrong?”

“I'm fine.” She breathed in. There was nothing in the mirror now, nothing but the two of them and the room they stood in. “Spooking at shadows.”

But the man in the mirror had not been a shadow; he had been sharply, indelibly present, with a face like carved marble and eyes full of fierce, terrible grief.

Violet eyes. Her heart skittered at the memory.

Gil looked like he might press her, then changed his mind and took her hand. “Come on. I've got an idea.”

In the final room was a dressing up box – presumably meant for children, but there were costumes to fit adults too, and despite her shock Claire was soon giggling at the sight of Gil in a plumed helmet.

“Weirdly, it kind of suits you.” She tapped the absurdly short plastic sword he was brandishing. “That thing ruins the effect, though.”

Gil grinned, and threw her a long blue tunic. “Your turn.”

Claire gave an exaggerated sigh, but she obliged anyway, putting it on over her jeans and giving a twirl. “I'm not convinced.” She posed, one hand on her hip. “Maybe it's the hair. I don't think the Romans went around dyeing theirs nearly white.”

“I wondered about that.” Gil looked at her for permission, then brushed a lock of the silky stuff lying in waves over her shoulders. “What colour is it naturally?”

“Strawberry blonde.” She grimaced. “I used to get teased at school for being a ginger. When I was called to the Bar I decided it wasn't professional, so I changed it.”

He nodded. “Well, I can't talk.”

“No.” Claire smiled. “I didn't think you were a natural blue.”

They went back to the bed and breakfast to change, then had dinner in a cosy, casual Indian restaurant with deep blue walls and gold fabric draped from the ceiling. They drank cold fizzy beer, swapped food and jokes and childhood anecdotes, and laughed the whole time. Claire texted Harrison from Gil's phone to share some pictures of the day – the cathedral, Westgate Gardens, the quirky shops along the King's Mile, their dinner, and a snap of the two of them pulling a silly face. The response buzzed through almost straight away.

Looks gorgeous. Glad you're having fun. Love you xx

Seconds later, it was followed by another message.

(Meant for Claire, of course...)

She giggled. “What now?” she asked, passing the phone back. “We could find a pub or a bar – or we could just head back, if you'd prefer an early night?”

“I'm happy to go back, but I'm not ready for bed yet, I don't think.” He smiled at Claire, suddenly almost shy. “How about beers and a film in one of the rooms?”

“Perfect.” Her chest gave a light flutter of relief. She hadn't wanted to pressure Gil, if he'd had enough of being around people, but nor was she ready for their strange, delightful day to end. Even during her school years, the slow creep of Sunday dread had often begun on a Saturday night – and since she started work, that had ratcheted tenfold.

They called at the Sainsbury's opposite their bed and breakfast, acquired beer and whisky, and discovered a mutual taste in films. A jumbled rack labelled “classic cinema” was selling DVDs on a three-for-two offer; they selected Casablanca, Local Hero and Indiana Jones, then went back to their rooms to change into pyjamas, and sprawled out on Gil's bed.

“I'm not sure I can make it through all three,” Claire confessed, smothering a yawn as her food weighed in her stomach and the warmth of the centrally heated air stole over her like a blanket.

“That's OK.” Gil passed her an extra cushion. “You needed to relax. If you're sleepy, that means it's working.”

Claire smiled at him. His hair was tucked back behind his ears, and his lobes were dotted with a row of neat piercing holes. She realised now, seeing him with his face scrubbed clean, that he'd been wearing mascara and eyeliner earlier; without it, and without his jewellery and cowboy boots, he looked even younger.

“So.” He spread the DVD boxes out in a fan. “Which one shall we start with?”

They decided on Local Hero, and it didn't take Claire long to settle into the sleepy bittersweetness of the film. She felt a sharp ache as she watched Mac bumble through his corporate life, and winced as the beeping watch on his wrist constantly reminding him to check in, switch on, stay in character. She sighed and relaxed as he gradually let it all go, swapping his suit for a cosy woollen jumper, developing a taste for whisky and ceilidh dancing and walks along the beach. Eventually he left his watch on the rocks while he collected shells, and the rising tide swallowed it and silenced its beeping forever. She laughed, too, at the character of Danny, far more used to seeing Peter Capaldi playing crotchety old men than innocent, lovelorn boys.

“He's such a dork,” she giggled, sipping her beer.

Gil smiled. “He's sweet.”

“He is,” she agreed. “I think I'd like to be his friend, but...”

“Not your type?”

“Definitely not.”

Gil's smile grew lazy and mischievous. “Do you have a type?”

“Oh, yes.” She blushed. “I'm so predictable it's embarrassing.”

“Tell me.”

The heat in her cheeks deepened. “Don't laugh.”

“I won't, I promise.”

“Tall. Dark-haired. Creative.” She paused, hesitating. “Damaged.”

“Wow.” Gil lifted an eyebrow. “I feel called out.”

Claire buried her face in her hands. “I didn't mean that – I know you're not...”

“It's OK.” He drew her hands down, smiling again. “Claire, I'm teasing you. It's what friends do.”

“God.” Her cheeks burned. “I think I've forgotten how to behave around anyone who isn't a lawyer, a consultant or an investment banker.”

“Then I think it's about time you re-learned.” Gil rolled onto his back, flexing his injured leg. “Actually it's funny.” He looked at her, completely straight-faced. “I always had a thing for redheads.”

She stared at him for a long few moments, and then they both fell about laughing.

After the film ended, Gil turned down the volume so that the aching nostalgia of the end credits music faded into the background. He opened them both another beer, and passed one to Claire. “So...was there ever anyone special?” His eyes were curious and kind without being nosy – just like in the Euston Tap.

“A couple of relationships.” She shrugged. “School, university...nothing I lost sleep over.” A hot dart of pain between her ribs. “There was one guy, though. Just one – and it never went anywhere. I don't even think he'd remember me.”

Gil propped himself up on one elbow.

“I was in Reykjavik.” Claire traced the rim of her beer bottle with her index finger, smiling. “It was for work, really – yet another conference – but I flew out on a Saturday so I had time to explore the city.” Her smile softened as she remembered brown eyes, dark curls, the smoky Icelandic accent. “We actually met in a bar on the Saturday night. I was lonely, and I made some stupid comment about his t-shirt – Joy Division, they were one of my teenage bands – and I was so afraid he'd laugh at me, but we got talking...you know when you just instantly feel comfortable around someone? Like you've known them forever, somehow?”

“Yes.” Gil's eyes sparkled.

Claire nodded an acknowledgement, still smiling. “Well, anyway, before I knew where I was, we were talking about everything – bucket lists, childhood memories, imaginary friends...”

“You had imaginary friends?”

“Just the one, when I was little. A giant tortoise named Copernicus.”

Gil choked.

“You said you wouldn't laugh at me!” Claire protested.

“I'm laughing with you.”

It was true; she was giggling at the same time as scolding him. “I kind of miss him. But things like that don't feel real any more when you grow up.”

“I suppose not.” Gil's smile faded. “Anyway, I can't talk. I had a cockatoo with a crazy name.”

“An imaginary one?”

“No, no, he was real.”

“Wow. I was never allowed a real pet; my parents didn't want the hassle.” She took a sip of beer. “So what was his name?”

“Aeglos.”

Claire frowned and lowered the bottle. The name nudged at her somehow, like the strain of a familiar melody drifting from a busker's guitar on the underground. “Aeglos?”

“Yeah.” Gil shrugged one shoulder. “I don't know where I got it from. Maybe it's Greek.”

“Maybe.”

“Anyway.” He batted his lashes. “Tell me more about your mysterious Icelandic stranger.”

“'Tell me more, tell me more...'” Claire sang, laughing.

Gil laughed too. “'Did you get very far?'” he finished, then tilted his head. “You have a really nice voice.”

“So do you.” She sighed, and wrapped her arms around one of the cushions. “But...no. We didn't get far at all. He showed me around Reykjavik on the Sunday, he put his number in my phone, and then on the way to the conference on Monday, my bag got stolen. In fucking Iceland.”

“That's...horrendous luck.” Gil frowned. “Couldn't you find him on Facebook?”

“I didn't know his last name,” Claire admitted, blushing at her own idiocy. “Well, his patronymic.” She flopped back onto the pillows. “So I never saw him again.”

“Well, let's not make that mistake.” Gil flipped open his Facebook profile on his phone, found Claire, and sent her a friend request. “There. Done.” He sprawled out beside her. “You know, maybe we should go out there and look for him.”

Claire grinned. “We?”

“Why not?” A crease appeared above the blue eyes. “Claire, I don't mean to sound weird – I really hope I don't sound weird – but this...” He gestured vaguely. “Going away for a whole weekend with someone I just met, lying on my bed drinking beer with them...this isn't normal for me. There's something about this. Us. I feel like I already know you – or like I should know you.” His cheeks reddened. “Shit, that does sound weird.”

“No. No, it's the same for me.” Claire squeezed his hand. “The only time I've ever felt anything similar was with Sören – that was different, of course, but that sense of being meant to meet somebody...”

Gil nodded, looking relieved. “I'm glad it isn't just me.”

“Not at all.”

“Sören...” He paused carefully. “That's your Icelandic guy?”

She nodded.

Gil reached down to the side of the bed and passed her another beer. “Was he tall, and dark-haired, and all the rest of it?”

“Very much so. He was definitely creative. He was a doctor, but art was his way of winding down after shifts. He had this little sketchbook that he carried with him all over the city. As for damaged...” She frowned. “He had a rough childhood, I know that much. His parents died when he was very young.” Outside in the garden an owl hooted, the woody edges of its cry wavering in the night air. “He might not even be in Iceland any more; he talked about wanting to get out, see the UK, or the USA. For all I know, he might be living down the street from me back in London.”

“We could go to Reykjavik anyway. Take a long weekend.” Gil glanced back at the television set. “Or Scotland,” he added wistfully.

“Haven't you been to Scotland?”

He shook his head.

“Well, that's easy enough. We can go up and see Harrison for a few days before he graduates; St Andrews is beautiful.” Claire thought of sunsets at the end of the pier, salt water shining on West Sands, the strange music that seeped from the stones. “A couple of years ago I almost packed in the whole legal thing and went up there to join him, but I decided to give my job one more go.” She nibbled the rim of her beer bottle. “Maybe that was stupid. Maybe I should have just quit then.”

“You could still move up there. It's never too late.”

She shrugged, suddenly feeling restless. “Maybe. But I feel like...if I was going to do that, I needed to do it then. It feels like the time for it has gone.” She took a swallow of beer. “I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but there it is.”

“I think I understand.”

They stayed up chatting a little while longer, lying side by side on the bed. Claire wondered about breaking into the whisky, but her eyelids were heavy, and they'd already had a few drinks each. Her head was pleasantly fuzzy, her muscles relaxed, and her brain was drifting downwards into sleep.

And you have to go into work on Monday.

She breathed around the cool, anxious wave that swelled in her chest. She agreed with Gil that they'd get up and check out early the next morning, and catch the train out to Dover.

“I'm excited,” he smiled as they said goodnight by their connecting door. “I can't remember the last time I saw the sea.”

Claire felt a sharp, sad pang. “Maybe we should have gone to Brighton for the weekend instead.”

“Another time, maybe.” He tilted his head again, smile widening. “I like how we've already planned about six more trips.”

On impulse, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. “I like it too.”