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The Steady Running of the Hour

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They were supposed to love her, so why couldn't they just do it without putting conditions on their words, without putting cages around their hearts like she was going to squeeze them until the meat squelched and dripped messily between her fingers? Her brother and her wife, for Christ's sake, tiptoeing around her looking dazed and hurt, plotting, always plotting, like she couldn't see them put their heads together, like she couldn't hear the way their whispers choked on her name.

The lilt in Clara's voice when she said, "John," the tenderness in his when he called back to her - that was just the beginning. They looked good together too, Clara and Jay, dark and fair, the very definition of "striking." But it was the way they looked at each other, always lit up by an extra glow of gladness, that made people pair them together. She wondered sometimes if they had wanted it too, if she'd blundered her way between them, into the middle of what wasn't hers to touch. She wondered if now it was too late for them, if even their desires had been crushed down into nothing more than yearning for comfort, if they would touch and kiss not because it felt good but because it simply felt better than this hollow wandering they were both locked in.

She couldn't remember the last time either one of them had smiled because of her.


It would make things much simpler if she simply headed out straight from work, rather than stopping at home and taking a chance that one or the other of them would see her, look through her, and still not speak. She popped into the ladies' room to get herself ready, fluffing her hair with her fingertips and smoothing down the thin navy wool of her suit. She fished in her handbag for the squeezy tube of coral-coloured lipgloss she'd stolen from Clara's mirrored tray. She squeezed it delicately, one drop of pigment appearing at the opening like a drop of blood welling up after a needle jab, and applied the gloss.

The colour didn't suit her, of course; there was no bronze in her skin tone to complement it, and it looked cheap against her mousy hair and silver jewellery. But it looked fantastic on the rim of her glass, friendly prints overlapping on a third of the rim, proof that at least what was in her glass loved her.

When she slit her eyes against the light of her mobile screen, her eyelashes forming a gossamer veil that clouded her vision most pleasantly, it looked as though Clara had joined her, that they'd celebrated something marvellous on their way to bed. She turned, suddenly sure that her wife would be right there, tall and elegant and so easy to love. But when she put out a hand, she could feel only one squat glass, not the four she saw shimmering in front of her, and the only mouth that had left any traces on it was her own.


Her mobile lit up again. That was her own home number, which meant it could have been either Jay or Clara calling. The piano tuner had been due today, hadn't he? It could have been him, too, she supposed, but then the screen flashed a voicemail notification, and she blinked at it until it faded into darkness.

It wasn't terribly loud at the pub, but there was enough of a buzz in the air that she thought she'd better put off listening to the message until she was safely in a cab, or maybe even once she was tucked up in her own bed, the scent of Clara's vanilla-and-coconut lotion lingering on the sheets, made stronger by Clara herself, drowsy and heavy-lidded, breathing soft and slow, wearing something worn thin, something loose enough that Harry's hands could slip underneath with no problems.

The mobile buzzed, startling her. She turned it over to avoid the bright screen and saw Clara's name emerge from the gloom, rising up into her eyes. She swiped her fingertips over the inscription, over her own name. Harry Watson. It was like holding her own tombstone in her hands, running her fingers over the chiselled grooves in marble. It didn't feel as bad as she'd thought it might.

She flipped it over again and caught just a glimpse of Jay's text. She's really gone. Come home. Love you. Sanctimonious. It was easy to say love without meaning it. Had he tried, during any of the innumerable conversations she knew he'd had with Clara, tried to talk her out of going, out of walking out on a marriage that made them both so happy? Had Clara bothered to tell him what she was actually feeling instead of laying down tiresome ultimatums about sobriety?

The two of them had always been able to talk to each other. She wasn't going to stand in their way any longer; in fact, she'd make it so easy for them. The phone, Clara's three little kisses still attached, would go with Jay when he left, as he was sure to do now that Clara was no longer there. She imagined he'd rather be in bloody Afghanistan again rather than a flat that had her as the only other occupant. She'd give him the mobile without changing the speed-dial settings, so all he'd have to do to talk to her wife was let his thumb linger on the 1.

She nodded, satisfied with her own plan, and swallowed the last of her drink. She had time for one more. There was always time for one more.