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Of Housewarmings and Tulips

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It takes a few weeks of asking before Strange flat out hands him an invitation to his own house-warming. It seems the decision has been taken out of his hands; date set, time chosen, address: his.

He can't imagine who Strange is planning to invite. It'll be a dour party with just the two of them, but beyond that – who is there? Perhaps Thursday, even less likely, Bright – but neither of them are exactly what he thinks of as house party types. Then again, neither is he.

Max might swing by, he supposes. If he's not on call.

He dutifully stocks the pantry anyway, and makes sure to have beers and spirits on hand. All stuff he can eat and drink himself, when it turns out Strange has overestimated his popularity.

 

--

The party is, to his unending surprise, something of a success. It is a reasonably small turnout, but Max is chatting on the sofa with Thursday, and Mrs Thursday and Miss Frazil are giggling in the kitchen, several glasses through a bottle of sherry he'd found kicking about in a cupboard from the previous owners – probably pre-squatters even, they hadn’t seemed the sherry type. Even Shirley has made it down from London, dumping her overnight bag in one of his spare bedrooms before perching on the living room windowsill to catch up with Strange.

It's small, but everyone here, he's pleased to find, he considers a friend. He hadn't known he had so many.

The doorbell rings.

He goes to answer it, and on the other side is a face that stops his heart and his breath in one. The last face he expected to see. Joan. She's looking unsure, and fidgets with an invitation, as if she needs to prove she's allowed to be here – never mind that her parents are inside, never mind that their complicated history includes turning up on each other's doorsteps uninvited more than once. His mind flashes back to their first meeting, positions reversed, and a strange part of him wants to parrot her words back at her – I think it'd be best if you just did what you're told; the undercurrent, come in. He swallows them down. “Miss Thursday,” he steps back. “Please come in.”

He takes her coat, and she hands over a chilled bottle of white wine. He leads them through to the kitchen, unequivocally glad to find it empty of Frazil and Mrs Thursday, and roots around for a suitable drinking vessel. He finds a tumbler, and figures it’s better than a mug. “I heard Jim had to organise your party for you,” she says, flapping the invitation.

“If I'd known the idea was everyone brings me a bottle of booze, I might have given in sooner,” he quips.

“I think the idea is everyone brings something,” Joan responds, taking her first sip and looking like she'd rather a gulp. Maybe he should have offered scotch, but he doesn’t think it’s usually to female tastes. “But you're not really the flowers type.”

He smiles, and looks down into his beer, unsure what to say.

“Give me the tour?” she asks finally, and he breathes a sigh of relief. He opens the door to the garden, as they're right next to it – not that much can be seen in the darkness, but they pace out the size of it and he mutters about how he's going to ask Max for help when they have the time. She suggests tulips and daffodils for the borders, bright, easy-care flowers that will come up year after year, and he wonders how many weekends she's spent out in the garden with Thursday. Whether it was a chore or a pleasure to tackle weeds and neaten hedges.

They head back inside and shed their dew-damp shoes at the door. It feels intimate, even though the house is his own, padding along in his socked feet and seeing her tights. There's a darker patch around the toe, invisible when her shoes are on.

“The living room is through there,” he points, where music and chatter float around the ajar door. Someone – he's guessing Shirley – has found the Wildwood record he brought home years ago and put it on to play.

“What about through here?”

He thinks it was probably a dining room once. He hasn't bothered to tackle it yet, not seeing the rush when he has no one to sit down for dinner with. He lets her look but stops her in the doorway, thinking of her almost bare feet and the rough floorboards.

The stairs creak as she walks up them, and he can't help but follow even as his face flushes red at the insinuation of the action. He'd thought about it. Joan Thursday, in his home, his life. In flashes, that he'd imagined and stopped as soon as he'd realised what he was doing – she's always felt a strange sort of untouchable, no matter what. Thursday's daughter. But he proposed, he thinks, that terrible night when she came to him broken and wouldn't let him fix her. She's fixed herself, since.

She moves on from the bathroom, tries the next door and hovers on the threshold as she realises it’s his bedroom.

“Sorry.”

“It's fine.”

It is. He'd have liked to scoop her up, and carry her over that line where hallway meets bedroom. Her in a white gown, him in a suit. He still would, if she wanted, if she gave him any kind of sign. But it’s too late. He watches her look instead, careful not to set a toe in his space, but he can see her curiosity in the way she leans, slightly, clutching the door frame so she doesn’t overbalance.

“You have a lovely house.”

They were both being so damn careful, but now she's out and out lying, and it makes him laugh. The house is a dump. He'll get it sorted, but for now only the living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are halfway liveable – in dire need of redecoration, but clean enough and free of clutter. It's taken hard hours of work, and a last-minute muck-in from Strange, to get it in shape for the party.

“One day,” he murmurs with a smirk. “When I've gutted the place.”

“One day,” she repeats. “Congratulations.” She raises her glass to his and he clinks it, solemnly, before they both break into smiles. “Home-owner Morse. Who'd have thought it.”

They trail down the rest of the hallway, poking heads behind each closed door, although he's not sure what's so interesting about a range of empty bedrooms, one with a small suitcase set in a corner, let alone the airing cupboard. She makes approving noises though, and he wonders how she'd like it done up. Whether she favours pastels or brights, if she'd replace the carpets or strip back to wooden floors. It makes his fingers twitch, wanting to grab a paintbrush, and he covers it by finishing his beer. Her wine is almost empty too.

“Another?” he offers, as they head down the stairs. She presses the glass into his hand in response, but shakes her head.

“I'm working tomorrow, I should go.”

“One more?”

She leans in, and kisses him feather-light on the cheek. He touches it as she collects her shoes and coat, and lets herself out.

 

-–

A few days later, when the party debris has finally been cleared, the doorbell rings. He answers it just in his vest, wallet at the ready, thinking it must be the milkman wanting payment. But it's Joan, and she's dressed in her communist chic look again, ready for a day in the fields, or a day in the welfare.

“Miss Thursday.” He rubs awkwardly at the beginnings of stubble he hasn't yet shaved away. She holds up a brown paper bag.

“Bulbs,” she announces. “It's getting a bit late in the year, if you don't plant them now you won't have any next Spring.”

He thinks of the paint cans stacked in his living room, the furniture pulled out from the walls and draped already in dust sheets. “How did you know I'd be here?” It's nine in the morning on a Tuesday.

She tucks her hair behind her ear. “I asked dad. Do you want a gardening lesson or not?”

It's easier than he thought it would be to pass a day in her company. She directs him, but otherwise there's not much conversation beyond a little small talk. He'd thought she might talk his ear off – unfair to her, perhaps, but he remembers her sometimes wicked tongue, her sense of humour, and while he misses it, he likes that they can coexist without it as well. He doesn’t think he'd have kept up if it was constant. Perhaps this is more what she's like usually, when she's not dealing with the weight of the world, or caught up in hostage situations, or even flirting with her dad's new bagman.

He pulls together tea and sandwiches for lunch, which they wolf down with mud-stained hands before getting back to it. The work is hard, but it helps to keep them warm. They've cleared the borders, hacking back the big shrubs and making enough space in the ground cover to bury each bulb. As the light starts to drain from the sky, she helps him move all the debris into a pile for burning, showing him how to cover it so it can dry even in the autumn, and allow him to set light without smoking out the neighbours.

He makes another pot of tea while she scrubs dirt from beneath her fingernails. His own are a mess, but she's brought a little brush with her like this was expected, and hands it over when she's done. “I'll pop down to the van and get some chips shall I?”

His stomach grumbles, audible even over the stream of water, and she grins at him. She finds the keys in his coat pocket without his direction, and as the door slams behind her he wonders what, exactly, they're doing here.

They’re not friends. But this hasn’t felt like pity, either, and as of the party a few nights ago he’s realised he does have friends, so that wouldn’t make sense anyway. He’d think it was something else, but they’ve trod that path too many times before and always crashed and burned – besides, this feels comfortable, almost routine, like they do this every weekend. He can practically taste the chips from the van, despite the fact he’s never bought them before.

She comes back when he's finally rid himself of mud, with two battered cods and a portion of chips to share. It's all extra greasy, like it’s been lying around soaking it in rather than served fresh from the oil, but its salty and tart with vinegar in a way that lights up the taste buds. They wolf it down hungrily, splodges of ketchup and copious amounts of tea to help it along.

“You’ve got enough out there for a proper bonfire,” Joan comments, and Morse nods, mouth full. “Should do the whole bonfire night thing.”

“I haven’t got time to build a Guy.”

She shrugs. “Still. Couple of sparklers, some soup.” He wavers, and answers without answering, for which she thwacks him lightly on the arm and changes the subject back to gardening.

But she still kisses him on the cheek when she goes, leaving behind a pile of greasy newspaper and dirty cups.

 

--

“Definitely the green.”

Morse looks up so fast his neck twinges, and he rubs it with a frown. He must have been staring at these paint options for longer than he thought. “You don’t know where it’s for.”

“No but your other option is magnolia, and that’s what my mum would choose.” Strange collects up the little pieces of cardboard, and runs through them like a pack of cards. “Where is it for?”

“Bedroom.”

“Green,” he reiterates, putting the cards down with a decisive slap.

“Is that… a safe choice?”

“Safe?”

“You know…” Morse isn’t quite sure how to put it.

“Oh.” Strange’s eyes widen. “For the ladies, is that it?” Morse nods, but doesn’t look at Strange. He doesn’t need to see the little smirk – he can imagine it quite well enough. Instead, he collects the cards and tucks them away in his inside jacket pocket, before pulling a report towards himself. “You’ve got bigger problems if you bring them home and they’re worried about the colour of your walls.”

“Says the man still living in our bachelor pad.”

“My bachelor pad. You just helped me out with the rent for a while. And you’re lucky I put up with you.”

Morse sighs, and rubs his neck again. Maybe he’s all wrong with the green and the magnolia. Maybe it should be blue. Or pink! Girls like pink, right? He tries to remember if he’s ever seen Joan wear pink – she’s definitely worn green, he thinks, and she had that blue coat…

But it’s not for Joan, he tells himself. He is not painting his bedroom, of all things, with her in mind. Shirley never wore pink either, he recalls. So not pink.

Strange claps him on the shoulder. “The green is fine,” he says, with a touch of pity that makes Morse groan inwardly, and shake him off outwardly. “It’s a nice colour.”

 

--

The nights start drawing in, and Morse still doesn’t make it to the shop for the paint cans. Instead he works on clearing and cleaning in his spare hours, the better to have a primed canvas when he finally bites the bullet. He winces at the expression.

He moves one stack of papers aside and takes a gulp of tea, grimacing when he realises it's cold. It’s not unusual for him to work late at the station, but he must have lost track of time. They’d closed a big case this afternoon, and there’s always an avalanche of work to get through afterwards; reports to be typed, signed and filed – and despite the years he never seems to get any quicker at that.

What is unusual is Joan Thursday appearing at his desk. “Hello,” he says, surprised.

“How long have you been at all that lot?”

He looks around at the messy piles of paper, then at his watch. Nearly eight. “About four hours?”

“Time to give it up for the day, then.”

He’d waved off Thursday when he left, declined Strange’s offer of a drink when he grabbed his coat. He’d wanted to clear it all this evening, come in tomorrow to a fresh start, a new case, something to get his teeth into instead of tedious admin. Another hour would do it. But for some reason Joan is stood in front of him, her eyes expectant, her smile soft.

“You’re right.”

She tucks her arm through his as they leave, and he flicks the lights out. Her coat is chilly to the touch, and the night – when they head out into it, perfectly in step – is the best kind of autumn evening. The air is so cold it freezes breath, a reminder of the coming winter impossible to ignore. But it’s still, and dry, and the sky is clear. A night that turns noses pink and fingers white. A night when it feels like one touch, one step, could tip the balance of the world into a new direction.

“I’ve got a couple of cans of Heinz in here,” Joan says out of nowhere, patting her handbag, and the date slams into his mind front and centre. November the 5th. “And I picked up a pack of sparklers. Nicked one of Dad’s rockets too, he’ll never notice. Tell me you’ve dragged your heels and we still have something to burn.”

Morse has not been dragging his heels. He’s been busy. “If you mean the garden stuff we cleared, yes. It’s still there.”

“Excellent.” She rubs her gloves hands together, and Morse feels a spark of answering excitement. He’s not seen a bonfire in years. A thought occurs to him.

“Do you have any-“

She digs in her handbag and holds up a pack of Swan matches, and his stomach settles.

“So prepared.”

 

--

It’s hard work getting the bonfire lit, but at least he doesn’t have an audience – as soon as they got to his place, Joan had thrown her handbag on the counter and started rooting about in his cupboards for a saucepan. He left her to it – he’s not even sure what he’s got, he’s not exactly a cook – but he knows she’s resourceful.

Now if he could just get the blasted twigs to catch.

“Here,” she hands him last week’s Sunday newspaper, and laughs at him when he pulls out a sheet and pokes it into the pile. “Like this,” she demonstrates, grabbing a few at a time and winding them into a strong twist. “They’ll stay lit longer, give the wood a chance to catch.”

He gives it a go, and they pepper the twists through the gaps in the garden debris, avoiding the thorns as best they can. She ceremoniously hands the matches to him. “Give it another go. Now. Tomato or chicken?”

 

--

He’ll think, later, as they curl up together under a blanket and watch sparks from the bonfire drift on invisible air currents, that he’s not sure how they got here.

Not sure how uncertain invitations and wine from tumblers became chip shop suppers and tulip bulbs. How mud-streaked hands became gloved, and twirled sparklers, spelling out both their names, and the cheeky look on Joan’s face as she burned Endeavour into the sky. How the sound of the Wildwood and party chatter became the bang of a filched rocket – one bright hot gasp of a moment when he turned from the light in the sky to look down, and saw the expression on her face. How he moved, almost without thought, and kissed her, deep and warm, and full of history but full of future too.

He’s not sure how they’ll work this in to everything that went before, but it feels like they’re finally on the same page, and a small bubble in his chest says – this will work out. A life that felt empty, suddenly isn’t. He isn’t sure how they got here.

But it was probably Joan.