Chapter Fifteen

Later that day saw me leaving Sarah and making my way home. My heart was heavy, but I was definitely sore in certain places … a nice kind of sore, if you get my drift.

Jo was waiting for me as I entered the bedroom, and hardly gave me moment to catch my bearings before she bombarded me with questions. Mainly, where had I spent the night.

It was too much. The heaviness in my chest split open and seeped throughout the rest of my body seeking release. I stumbled towards the bed, bag dropping to the floor, and fell into a heap, barely catching myself.

The sob wracked through my body and broke out into the stunned room. A distinct wail … a howl of agony … a definite realisation of what I had done. I had had sex with someone for the wrong reasons … used someone to satiate my own longings. And I was ashamed.

Ashamed.

Ashamed of my own inability to say no. Ashamed because I used that sweet girl. Ashamed because I enjoyed it.

But mainly I was ashamed because I was gay … and I had held it inside, bottling it all away to fester and become something sordid and freakish. I knew it wasn’t … how can two people loving each other be wrong, whatever sex they are.

The thought of telling anyone made me nauseous … collected in my throat and physically choked me. Tears rained down my face, and I could feel the heaving sobs rattle and spill onto and into the covers of my bed. Jo was behind me, her smooth comforting hand on my shoulder softly rubbing along the heaving muscles trying to soothe me.

Which, obviously, made things ten times worse and my sobbing increased. I could hear her trying to shush me … calm me … comfort me … words jumbling over each other in an attempt to redeem themselves … in order to redeem me for some stupid reason.

I felt her lift me, turn me, capture me in her comforting embrace and I buried my face into the safety of her, believing this would be the last time it would happen.

I cried … and cried … and cried some more. Jo stroked my face, removing the tears with loving fingers, planting soft sisterly kisses on my head, gently rocking me into a disturbing sense of oblivion.

‘Come on, Lou … it can’t be all that bad.’ And I was off again, turning my face into her and burying deep, trying to hide my shame. ‘If you are crying for what I think you’re crying for, then don’t. It doesn’t bother me who you sleep with.’

I stopped mid sob … it kind of jammed in my throat in surprise, until I trickled it out, all the power from it evaporating.

I lay there. And …

… waited.

All I could hear was our breathing (mine definitely more ragged), and the sound of my heart chasing the blood back into the shocked veins in a dire attempt to bring all my senses back to life.

‘What do you mean?’ It came out small, distant, accusatory.

Jo sucked in a breath. Deep and full. ‘I mean … I don’t care who you sleep with … I’ll still love you no matter what.’

I lifted myself up and stared into her face. She couldn’t mean what I thought she meant. How on earth would she know about whom I slept with, or whom I wanted to sleep with for that matter?

Hiccupping sobs broke free, sobs of the child who has cried too long and too hard, and I met her eyes full on.

Clear and focused. Truthful. Caring. Open.

Just Jo. My Jo. My sister, Jo.

I felt exposed. All the experiences from the night before came back and played themselves out in my head. I felt my head shake itself from side to side, trying to dispel the image of Sarah between my legs … my hand on her wet …

‘Lou?’

Reality snapped back and I just stared at her in awe. Once again Jo had shown she loved me … whatever. And at his moment I needed all the love I could get. But did she really know what, or should I say whom, I was crying about? How would she feel when she realised I had used Sarah? Would she be as forgiving then?

‘Tell me … whatever it is, I will still love you. I’m your sister … you should know me by now.’

Images of Jo comforting me when my life crashed ten years ago. Sounds of her voice comforting me after bad dreams … words of advice … caring messages over the years. The feel of her hugs when I felt low … the pat on the back when I had done anything good … the ear I moaned to when I felt like a moan. Her laughter when I told her a funny story … the tears when I explained why animal testing was cruel … the jokes … the friendship … the always knowing she would be there …

… no matter what.

And she had been.

Always there … always there … for me. In every way, shape or form, she had always been there.

So why would now be any different? She loved me. And I loved her.

The breath I sucked in seemed ice cold in my throat … like the winds of change. This was it … I had to tell her what had happened. I had to let her know who I really was … what I had done.

I sat up, leaned over to my bedside cabinet and snatched a tissue from the box. Jo watched intently as I wiped my eyes, and then blew my nose vigorously. I was shaking inside … quaking with fear, but I knew this was the right thing to do. I had to come clean … had to share this secret with someone before it burst from me.

I fiddled about with my top, smoothing the wrinkles to no avail … wasting time.

Jo still sat there. Silent. Waiting. And I pratted about … nervous, swallowing rapidly.

I could tell she was just about to say something, but I beat her to it.

‘I’m gay.’ Short and to the point.

Jo’s face didn’t change at all. She just stared at me and allowed the simple sentence to be fully digested. I thought I had done the wrong thing, as images of her slapping me ran rampant through my head.

And then she made her move, and I physically shrunk backwards as her hand stretched out towards me.

Her eyes clouded with dismay as she realised what I thought she was going to do, and she gentled her movements before pushing a stray lock of hair behind my ear… cocking her head to the side to stare into my eyes again. Such green eyes … a little lighter than my own, but filled with … understanding.

‘I know.’

Huh? How did she know? I only found out I had feelings for women a few months back.

‘How?’

‘Just call it sisterly instinct. Sometimes I know you better than you know yourself.’ Relief formed and swirled inside me, but I didn’t feel I had control over my feelings yet.

Jo knew. Jo didn’t care. Jo still loved me.

It all seemed too much to accept, and I had to quickly swallow the tears back down again as she took my hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘It’s not the end of the world you know?’ I looked up at her, head held in submission. She smiled at me, a soft sweet smile in the hopes to reassure me. Tentatively, she sucked in a breath, bit her lip and asked the million-dollar question.

‘Did you stay at Ash’s last night?’

‘Why would I do that?’ At least I think that is what I said.

‘Well … erm…’ Cough. ‘I thought you … her … erm … well … you know?’

‘Me and Ash! Together!’

Jo leaned backwards, probably to escape the volume of my voice. Her face showed surprise at my shrill tone and look of total disbelief. I drew in a sharp breath and tried to mentally fiddle with the volume settings of my voice box before repeating my previous statements, but now as questions. ‘Me and Ash? Together?’

‘I thought … well … there has always been … oh never mind.’ She looked nervous to say the least, but not as nervous as I felt. I was sitting here, in my bedroom, telling my sister I was gay, and her response was to think I was shagging my childhood friend.

If only.

Yes … if only.

Sadness welled up inside and began to squirm its way upwards and outwards. I wanted to be with Ash … God, did I? And what would Jo make of me sleeping with Sarah knowing she wasn’t the one I wanted to be sleeping with?

‘It’s Sarah.’

I could tell Jo didn’t know whom I was talking about, as Sarah had never come into the house, she had always met me outside … and the closest she had been was the front door.

‘Sarah … who I work with …’ A spark of recognition hit home, but then she smiled the smile of someone who is completely without a clue. ‘We started seeing each other about three months ago, but …’ Could I actually say it? ‘We only … erm … slept … together … forthefirsttimelastnight.’ The last bit was a bit rushed, but at least I got it out, although my face was near incandescent by this stage.

So was Jo’s. But there was something else underlying the red glow.

Confusion.

And this made me confused … even more than I already was.

Seconds turned into minutes, and minutes felt like hours. The air in the room was becoming smothering and I could feel the heat travelling up my body in waves, achingly aware I should say something … anything.

Expressions such as ‘What about United then?’ didn’t seem the right way to go for some reason.

A little bit more time elapsed, until I put my blonde brain into gear and came out with a well-thought through question.

‘What’s the matter?’ Pure genius, if I say so myself. Short. To the point. Succinct, yet oddly full of possibility. I watched her squirm on the bed, looking at Cliff on the walls as some kind of support. ‘For God’s sake, Jo, ask me … or tell me … just say something.’

Her lips pursed, readying themselves for action and then … nothing. I stared at her; the nerves rustling around my stomach had mogged off, fed up with the wait to flutter and be all-dramatic. So, I poked her in the ribs, which did bring a much-needed smile to her face, and I felt her physically relax.

‘What is it, Jo? Have I disappointed you?’

‘Why on earth should you say that?’

‘By not being what you wanted me to be … you know … straight?’

The next bit surprised even me, and I had known this girl as long as I could remember.

She laughed … head back laughing … laughed … yep … laughed. I know … I’m repeating myself, but she …l-a-u-g-h-e-d.

Not happy.

Not in the slightest.

Here I was, pouring out my innermost secret to the one person who I respected and loved, and she sat here laughing AFTER telling me she already knew.

Not a happy camper, by any stretch of the imagination.

Ire niggled inside me, and I wanted to stand up and stamp my foot, in the most adult way possible, obviously. But I didn’t. I just sat there and glowered, waiting for her to stop, which she eventually did when she noticed my straight thin lips and firm jaw.

‘Sorry … I’m sorry, Lou. It’s just … just …’

‘What? Just what?’ I glared, and she tried to stop the spluttering laugh escaping from her mouth. So, like the injured party, I glared some more.

‘You.’ Well that made me feel better, that’s for sure. ‘How on earth could you feel I could ever be disappointed in you, whatever you did.’ She put her arm around my shoulder and pulled my stiff body into her arms. ‘Maybe we don’t always agree on things, or I don’t like the things that you do …’ I made a move to interrupt. ‘No … hear me out.’ With that she shoved my head firmly underneath her arm, as if holding it in place.

‘As I was saying …’ I could feel the words rattling around her chest, echoey, thudding. ‘I could never be disappointed in you … ever. It is all about acceptance … accepting we are not infallible. Accepting there are times in our life where we say and do things we are not proud of, but accepting we made a mistake and move on.’

Her grip loosened around me and I took the opportunity to look into her face. A weird angle, though, as I could see her face from the chin up, but she was still perfect in my eyes. She was staring straight ahead, totally focused on what she was saying.

‘So, Lou. Accept yourself … accept who and what you are … what you have done, and what you will do … faults and all. And if people love you …’ a soft kiss on my forehead, ‘whatever it is … they will eventually accept you. Disappointment is a brief emotion, something we look back and learn from, not something we build our lives upon.’

Wow. What a speech. Now, you already know how much I love my sister, but this took the biscuit. I felt my chest swell with pride for even knowing someone like this.

It was so true. We spend our lives in fear of disappointing others, but we fail to think that within this time we are disappointing ourselves. Something to chew over … definitely.

We sat there, snuggled up on my bed and just listened to the sounds of each other’s breathing. I felt so calm, so at peace, so … well … serene in a way, although I knew the feeling wouldn’t last.

Then Jo broke the serenity.

‘I honestly thought you were shagging Ash … you go on enough about how bloody fantastic she is.’

I shot up, peace … tranquillity … calmness shot to pieces, and my response came out so quickly; I think I nearly gave the game away. ‘You must be joking, right? Me and Ash … as if?’ Maybe not the response, but the speed and the fake tone of incredulity made up the guilty parties.

And then she laughed again. A knowing laugh. A cocky laugh that made me wriggle with teenage anger.

‘Right. I believe you, but thousands wouldn’t.’ And then she laughed again.

Bugger.

                        **************************************************************

Chapter Sixteen

Christmas was just a week away, and college was coming to the end of term. Flyers announced a ‘Chrimbo Get Together’ at the Students’ Union, and promises of cheap drinks, music and ‘Lots Lots More’, whatever that entailed.

It was to be hosted on the same night as Sarah’s Christmas get together at Uni, and she had asked me to go.

But …

Ash had asked me to go to the one at college.

Decisions … Decisions … no decision … Ash won out.

Sarah was gutted I wouldn’t be going with her, as she had planned something ‘special’ for afterwards. The worst part was I didn’t even feel guilty, well … I did a little … erm … okay … I did feel guilty … She looked so lost when I told her I had already made arrangements, and even offered to skip her own shindig and come to mine.

My heart stopped in my chest. No. She couldn’t come to my do – Ash would be there, and … and … and …

And what? It’s not as if you two are sleeping together is it? Well … I am sleeping with Sarah. But not Ash … so where’s the harm?

What if Sarah suspects I like Ash?

What if Ash suspects my relationship with Sarah? And is disgusted?

No. I couldn’t let that happen. The more distance I could put between those two the better.

Don’t get me wrong, they both knew the other existed, but they didn’t know what I thought about the other, or what I did with one that I wanted to do with the other.

Yes … definitely confusing. Imagine how I felt?

Friday night came and I was a bag of nerves for some reason or another. I was to meet Ash, and the rest of them, at 7.30, and my stomach actually got there before I did.

Wizard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday’ greeted me as I entered the smoky bar. Students packed the place to the rafters, and all I could see were a sea of red Santa hats.

But I couldn’t concentrate on anything but looking for Ash. Santa hats be damned.

It took me fifteen minutes to actually find her, well … for her to find me.

I had nearly given up hope and just gone to the bar and to grab a drink, when I felt her behind me. When I say felt her, I mean felt her … felt her presence. It was like an electric charge scooted up from the base of my spine and into my hairline … shuddering shocks. Obviously, I didn’t know it was her until she touched me.

And it was then I nearly swooned. The charges, or sparks, intensified dramatically, and raced around me looking for appeasement. She had placed her hands on my hips and pulled me backwards towards her … nothing sexual … but God … it felt it to me. Especially when I felt her breasts in my back.

Stranger still, I didn’t even know it was her at this stage.

My body was reacting in a way that was beyond my control, and I tensed in her embrace. Ash felt this, and instead of releasing me to fall to my knees, she did the worst thing possible.

She put those beautiful lips close to my ear and whispered ‘It’s okay, Lou. It’s only me.’ Her breath brushed against my skin and made every single hormone in my body sit up and beg. I don’t know what got into me. I still can’t believe the next thing I did.

It was like I had no control at all left in me to stop myself … to stop my hands, that covered her own … to stop my head turning to face her … to stop my eyes fluttering closed … lips parting in expectation … to stop me reaching upwards to meet her divine lips … to …

‘There you two are!’ Stephen. Bugger. Or should I say lifesaver.

My eyes shot open to meet the intense blue stare of Ash, who I think looked even more startled than I did. Funny thing was, I know I had leaned upwards to kiss her, but I don’t think I could have actually got that close to her … she was so close I could feel the tip of my nose touch her cheek. And although our faces were on an angle, it would have been the matter of an inch and a half before my lips would have covered hers.

A paltry inch and a half … an inch and a half and I could have tasted heaven. An inch and a half and I could have experienced the sensation I had only dreamed about.

An inch and a half and I would have a lot of explaining to do.

Moving away from her seemed like it was performed in slow motion. Our heads moved backwards but the gaze stayed intact, albeit confused. I lifted my hands from hers to release her, but they still lingered on my hips for a few moments more, as if they were stunned and had to have time to recover.

Or was that wishful thinking?

In all this time, Stephen had stood next to us, waiting. He looked slightly self-conscious, and I think if he could have escaped, he would have … willingly.

I rapidly swallowed, although the dryness in my throat made this task seem like one of the twelve labours of Hercules. But I was trying to kick-start my mouth into action, before the situation became even tenser than it already was.

‘Hi, Stephen … there you are. I was looking for you.’ No I wasn’t. But what did you expect me to say? That I was looking for your gorgeous sister? Or, why did you interrupt me trying to lay one on Ash? What about … Thank you for stopping me make a total dick head out of myself? Now that’s a good one.

‘We’re over here.’ And with that, he turned and nearly tripped over himself to get away.

Both Ash and I stared after him, fully expecting to actually see Cerberus chasing him.

‘Come on. I’ll take you back to the table and then get the drinks in.’ Her voice wasn’t as self-assured as usual, and a seed of worry planted itself in my gut. What if she had realised what I was going to do?

Buggeration.

Double buggeration.

I nearly made my excuses and left … nearly. But how could I go home and know I could have spent the evening with Ash? There was no way I could have done that … no way. I just had to be more careful with what I let show … tighten the reigns on my feelings … even more tightly than I already was holding them.

And up to five minutes ago, I had held them pretty tightly.

But … as you can see … I wasn’t very good at reigning these emotions in.

But … I would have to learn. And quickly.

                        *******************************************************

The evening was fun. It was loud and garish in a Christmas party kind of way.

You can imagine what it was like. A room full of teenagers, alcohol, and the freedom to act in the way they had not allowed themselves to act for the first few months of term.

We were all relaxed, well to a degree. I was still reeling from the near social faux pas from earlier to allow myself the freedom of going anywhere near the object of my desire. It would have been too tempting to just make a lunge at her, but … I couldn’t do that. She was my friend, and however much I longed for her … yearned for her … craved for her touch … her mouth … her lips … However much I needed to feel her in my arms, I couldn’t, no … wouldn’t do anything that would jeopardise our friendship.

All evening I kept on taking sly looks at her, devouring her with my eyes. She was so beautiful … so absolutely beautiful. I loved the way she really looked at people when she talked. The way her hands moved when she was chatting … the way she held a finger up to people when she wanted their attention … the way she tilted her head to the side … or threw it back in laughter.

One of the things I found breathtaking was the way she licked her lips, soft caresses from the wet muscle around lips that had been carved from rose petals. And the way she would bite her bottom lip when she was acting coy, or thinking.

I could sit here all night and list everything I loved about her. Could spend eternity spouting her beauty, like Shakespeare’s sonnet:

                        And yet by heav’n I think my love as rare

                        As any she belied with false compare

Nothing compared to her … nothing could match the blueness of her eyes, the rose hue of her lips and cheek, the sound of her voice … her voice … her voice. I don’t believe I actually listened to the words … I just got lost in it … allowed it to swirl over me and consume me.

All this from a few surreptitious looks.

Imagine what I could say if I was allowed to fully digest her?

It was strange, though. Many of the times I stole a look, she would already be looking in my direction. One time, her face was completely lost in thought, her eyes fixed firmly on my face. The previous times I had looked at her and she was looking at me, she had quickly turned away.

But not this time.

This time she just … stared. Her eyes seemed preoccupied, with what I don’t know. They seemed to be looking at my mouth, but I think it was just wishful thinking on my part. Funny how self-conscious you become when someone is looking at your mouth, it is nearly impossible not to lick your lips.

So I did.

And so did she.

It was like she was mimicking the action, those perfect lips were stroked by that perfect tongue, then the bottom lip, once again, was caught between her perfect teeth.

I felt the groan leave my mouth before I had chance to stop it.

I don’t know if it was that that made her jump back, as if she had been slapped, the confusion evident on her face. Or maybe it was the reality of the situation.

But I know for definite, for that split second she kept my gaze when she was focused, she must have seen everything I had tried so hard to keep hidden. There is no way she could have missed it. It was there for the taking. All the love that had been so carefully hidden had drifted to the surface for that brief moment … the brief moment she had looked straight in my face.

I felt exposed … betrayed by my own inability to hide.

And as well as feeling exposed, I felt ashamed.

After a few minutes, I made my excuses and went to the Ladies … or pretended to.

Within ten minutes, I was sat in the back of a taxi on my way home.

How could I stay when I knew she knew? How could I face her? How could I?

Exactly.

How could I?

                        ***********************************************************

Chapter Seventeen

I arrived home a little after eleven. Both my parents were surprised to see me back so early, but I rested their questions with a mumbled excuse about having to get up early for work the next day.

As if I cared about work. Or anything for that matter, except the look on Ash’s face when she had seen all there was inside me.

I felt dirty.

Unnatural.

I felt like I should be kept away from anyone half-decent. I should have known being gay wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I had accepted the fact I was different, and foolishly thought the rest of the world didn’t matter … mainly because they didn’t have to know. Really, I thought I could keep this huge, dark secret tucked up inside myself and never tell a soul.

The innocence, or should I say, the stupidity of youth, eh?

Blackness enveloped me as I trudged up the stairs, into the bathroom, into the shower to scrub this ‘filth’ from me. But it didn’t cleanse me like I hoped it would.

How could I have been so stupid? So fucking stupid? So ignorantly fucking ass-wiping dick scraping stupid?

The despair I had been feeling turned into anger … anger at myself for being who I was … for being different.

My bedroom was dark when I entered and I couldn’t be arsed to turn the light on, just threw myself onto the bed, and screamed into the pillow.

‘What’s up with you, lezza?’ Jo’s new nickname for me rang through the air like a punch waiting to happen. I stiffened on top of the bed, the pillow half in my open mouth … and waited.

The reason I waited is because I knew if I had said anything at that precise moment, I would regret it. ‘Oi, Lou! What’s the matter?’ The jesting had left her voice and I could hear concern coming from her. I could also hear her getting up from her bed and shuffle over to mine.

I could barely see the outline of her as she leaned over me, silhouetted by the light coming through the crack in the curtain. I wanted to tell her to fuck off and let me rot in peace, but I couldn’t … just couldn’t.

A warm hand landed in the centre of my back and waited … no movement, except for my breathing, which was becoming laboured because of the pillow half suffocating me.

Time elapsed. I don’t know how much, but it seemed an age. I could feel myself drifting off into a fog filled haze, my long wet hair sticking to my face, arms and neck. Her voice came in through the mist and seemed like a dream of some description, a fantasy …

‘Tell me, Lou. Tell me …’

I was open to telling her, mainly because I didn’t have the capability to stop myself. The words fell from my lips like a confession, maybe because they were.

‘I’m in love with Ash.’

Total silence. It actually felt like I had just spoken into the empty air, and I was beginning to believe the sensation of Jo’s hand was just that … a sensation, until she spoke.

‘Does she know how you feel?’

‘I think so … I think she’s guessed.’ A calmness was in my voice I didn’t expect; dreamlike once again. It is funny how you can experience one emotion and then juxtapose this with its opposite in the matter of an instant.

‘What does she think about it?’

‘How the fuck should I know? I didn’t stick around to get my face slapped, did I?’ I turned sharply, releasing the pillow … releasing the anger that had been welling up unbeknownst to me in the last five minutes…releasing the frustration and hurt and agony and despair that comes with being in love with someone you just … can’t … have.

‘How do you know she would slap your face? You may have been surprised.’

That was it. I was boiling now. How dare she surmise how and what Ash would be feeling. How dare she try to make … try to make … try … to … make …

… me feel better.

I was sat upright now, my body invading her space, the stance threatening, but she didn’t flinch. Just stared me in the eyes. ‘I said, how can you possibly know how Ash would have reacted if you didn’t stay around long enough to find out.’

I didn’t move: I was stock still, staring.

‘I never took you for a coward, Lou.’

Could I possibly answer that? Could I be angry at what she had said, considering it was the truth? I was a coward. Plain and simple. A girl without a spine. And I felt even more ashamed of myself than I already was. I felt the life seep from me once again and I sat back against the headboard and closed my eyes.

‘You have to tell her … let her know how you feel.’

A whispered ‘I can’t’ wisped itself from half closed lips.

‘What have you got to lose? You can’t go on like this Lou … I’ve noticed for a while you weren’t happy, …’ I made a half-hearted move to interrupt, but she shushed me. ‘No … this is not about you and Sarah. Even after you told me about you two, you still seemed sad for some reason.’

I shrugged, and muttered ‘I’ll get over it’.

‘But why should you have to get over anything? Why can’t you just put your cards on the table and level with the girl … you may be surprised.’

That was the second time she had said that … that I’d be surprised. I looked at her, the question evident.

‘I don’t know … it’s just you two … well … even when we were kids there was something I couldn’t put my finger on.’ She looked sheepish at this. And I looked intrigued.

‘Go on.’

‘Erm … you two just … erm … well seemed to fit, if you know what I mean?’ I shook my head and waited for her to go on. She released a deep breath, shook herself and then looked at me. I knew she felt uncomfortable, but I needed her to say it … say what my heart wanted to hear.

She coughed, and then coughed again.

‘I always felt like a spare part when I was with you two … always felt like I wasn’t needed … shush Lou, let me speak. I felt you had a connection, something none of us could understand at the time. Didn’t you wonder why I didn’t hang about with you two?’ I nodded. ‘It wasn’t because I disliked Ash, although I know you thought I did. I just felt … erm … out of place somehow.’

The proverbial penny clunked into my head like a two-ton weight. No wonder Jo always said for Ash and me to do our own thing, but always gave the option to join her if I wanted to. Not Ash … just me. I kind of drifted off for a minute in an attempt to recollect anything that could have given Jo the impression she wasn’t wanted … well … needed is more the word.

I have to admit I could see her point of view. Even as a kid I had always felt complete with Ash … like we fitted together in some strange way … like we were meant to be friends.

Friends.

Friends.

Not lovers … but friends.

That word stuck in my throat and choked my future. Friends. How could I expect her to want anything more than we had already? I had waited ten years for her to come back into my life and there was no way I was going to bugger it up by making a pass at her.

If all I ever got from her was her friendship, than I would be happy with that, as I couldn’t bear not having her again.

But I loved her so much … so much … so much… How could I be around her all of the time and not lean forward to capture that perfect mouth with my own? How could I sit close to her and not drown in her eyes?

How could I face her again after tonight?

‘Lou?’ Jo’s voice broke through my reverie in an attempt to bring me back to earth. I faced her with a sad smile and the threat of tears at the back of my eyes. ‘You are going to tell her, aren’t you?’ Slowly and carefully I shook my head in the negative. She frowned at me, pushing her bottom lip out like a child in an attempt to make me laugh. But that was the last emotion I felt like having.

She sighed, shook her head whilst expelling a stream of breath. ‘You are a fool, Lou. Tell her … for fuck’s sake … what have you got to lose?’

I didn’t miss a beat with my answer. What was there to consider?

‘Everything, Jo. Everything.’

With that I turned onto my side, dismissing her with my back. There was no way I could tell Ash how I felt. In her eyes we were just friends … friends who barely knew each other after ten years. Imagine what she would do … say … if I was to proclaim my undying love for her? She would think I was an idiot … or a pervert … or both.

The pain in my chest was clawing at the inside of my rib cage, the heart was attempting to rip out of its nest and scream its agony into the air. But to anyone watching I was still …rigid.

‘Just think about it, okay? Life’s too bloody short to hide behind fear. We’ll speak tomorrow, right?’ I didn’t answer … couldn’t. ‘I said … we’ll speak tomorrow, all right?’ Her voice was firm and brooked no argument. I nodded, as I didn’t trust my voice to be in charge of what I was feeling. ‘Okay. Now get some sleep.’

A light kiss landed on my head, and I pushed my face in the pillow once again.

A very good way to muffle the sobs that were breaking out. And it saved me wiping the tears that were pouring freely down my cheeks.

Life is a bitch, isn’t it?

                        **************************************************************

Saturday saw me trying to hold down the contents of my stomach once again, as the smells of the indoor market nearly strangled me. That was a mean smell … Jesus … everything smelled off. It wasn’t just the fact of the market, but the lack of sleep I had had the night before.

Jo’s words had danced around my head and made me re evaluate my situation, both with Sarah and with Ash. I had cried on and off all night, especially when I kept envisioning Ash’s face the last time I had seen her. The blue eyes … the startled expression … her lips wet after she licked them. Emotions inside me were an oxymoron, as they both contributed to the agony of love … of my love for her.

Funny thing was Sarah looked ten times worse than I did.

I could see she was fighting the smell of the cheeses … a definite sign of a mega hangover. Her eyes looked dull and lifeless, and her skin had a pallor associated with the dead.

Even when I said hello, all she could muster was a watery smile, but she still gripped my hand as she passed behind the extremely small counter and whispered ‘Missed you last night.’

And of course I felt bad, because I had barely given her a thought. I conjured a smile from deep inside and she gazed into my face before saying, ‘Jesus, Lou. You look like I feel. Did you drink too much?’

I just nodded. What was I supposed to say? ‘Well actually, Sarah. No. I didn’t touch a drop. I just spent all night crying about how I love Ashley Richards.’ The words ‘lead balloon’ and ‘going down like one’ sprang to mind.

The morning passed in its usual blur of activity. Customers queued and queued and queued for what seemed like eternity. I couldn’t wait for lunchtime … the quicker it arrived the better.

Five minutes before I was to go off duty, I felt a sensation creep up my spine and travel through my body like a shock of electricity. I had my back to the counter, but I knew if I turned around I would see the reason why my legs had lost their ability to hold my weight up. I gripped the side, my knuckles going white, and Sarah sidled next to me her face full of concern.

‘Are you all right, Lou? You look like shit.’ I didn’t feel all right. Not by a long stretch of the imagination. A couple of deep breaths … a couple more … then a couple more for good measure.

I turned, the action nearly my undoing. And there she was … like a vision.

She was leaning back on the end of the counter opposite ours, her arms crossed over her chest, her eyes fixed on me, although she couldn’t quite see my face. There was no smile … just the look. Stern and commanding. I was trapped in her gaze like a rabbit in the headlights of a car.

‘Who’s that?’ Sarah’s voice sounded distant, and I had difficulty answering her.

‘That’s Ash.’

‘Ash! As in your Ash?’

I wish.

‘Yes. My Ash.’ My voice sounded dead, lifeless … defenceless. I watched Ash rearrange herself, pushing her hips forward and trying to get some amount of comfort from the glass cabinet.

‘What’s she doing here, then?’

I wanted to snap ‘How the fuck should I know?’ But I didn’t. For two reasons. One … it wouldn’t have been fair to take out my frustration on Sarah.

Two … I knew.

I knew she had come to have a go about last night … and I was hoping it was just for deserting her and not saying goodnight. Not for catching me drooling over her. Please. If there is a God … please don’t let her know how I feel … please.

‘Right you two. Are you going to lunch now or what?’

Crap.

Double crap.

Crap times infinity.

I always had lunch with Sarah … always. And there was no way I could face having them both together, not after last night … not with feeling as rough as what I did. I couldn’t cope with Ash having a go at me … especially if she came right out and said … you know … about what I had showed her so clearly last night. What would Sarah do? Would she ‘out’ me, say that we were sleeping together?

Fuck.

I felt sick to my stomach. My stomach felt sick to my teeth. My teeth had gone numb … so had my brain, which had broken all ties with my mouth, leaving me mute and stupid.

‘Come on, Lou … it’s our turn.’

I followed Sarah down the counter, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Ash push herself away from the counter and start to follow us.

Not good.

‘Lou! Lou! Wait up!’ I could hear Ash behind me, and it took all the gumption I had to turn and face her, plastering a smile there for the initial contact … pretending nothing was the matter.

She was racing up to me, pushing people out of the way in an attempt to get there quickly.

‘Hey, Ash. I was going to call you later.’

That stopped her in her tracks … for about two seconds.

‘Didn’t you see me? I was waiting opposite your stall.’

I could feel Sarah next to me, waiting to be introduced. Ash’s eyes flicked to her in acknowledgement, and then came back to rest on mine. ‘No … I didn’t see you … we’ve been busy.’

Sarah was nearly pushing into the back of me by now, and I could feel my nerves shredding. I could tell Ash didn’t believe me, but what else could I do? I couldn’t tell her I what had been going through my mind … I just did the ‘running away’ thing that I did so well.

‘We need to talk,’ she looked over my shoulder at Sarah. ‘Alone.’

What to do? What to do? It all seems so small and harmless now when I look back, but at the time I was terrified.

I nervously looked at Sarah, my eyes adopting a beseeching look. She looked pissed off, which I didn’t blame her for. So I gave her the puppy dog eyes once more, adding a smile into the kitty. I saw the resolve leave her, and she nodded her head in assent, albeit begrudgingly. ‘I’ll see you later, Sarah, okay?’

She just nodded, turned and walked downstairs to the locker room. I turned back to Ash ‘I have to get out of this apron; I’ll meet you at St Mary’s … at the back of the churchyard, okay?’ I didn’t even wait for a reply, just scooted down the steps and into the changing room.

Sarah was brushing her hair and glaring at me in the mirror. I smiled at her reflection, but she just lowered her eyes.

Saying I felt like a prize shit would be redundant at this stage … I think it is obvious. I walked up behind her and put my hands around her waist, lowering my lips to her tied up hair. ‘Sorry, honey … I … well … Ash and I had a bit of an argument last night.’ Why was I lying … again? But I couldn’t stop myself. ‘I think she wants to talk about it.’ Sarah was still tense, so I went one-step further and started to kiss the back of her neck.

Soft, tender kisses, breathy kisses, kisses filled with promise, kisses that said ‘I want you.’ Her body visibly relaxed, and I could hear her breathing becoming heavy and expectant. She turned in my arms and covered my mouth with her own. A hot kiss … a wet kiss … a tongue begging entrance to my mouth, which I allowed. I could feel myself getting lost in her, and the sensations her lips … her hands … her fingers were doing to me.

I could feel a pooling forming between my legs … an ache building … but they weren’t for Sarah. They were for a certain woman who was now waiting for me in the churchyard … and if things went badly, at least I was in the right place. They could just bury me.

I pulled away from Sarah, a little too quickly, because she gave me a dazed look. ‘Got to go … see you when I get back, yeah?’ She nodded, and tried to summon a smile from deep within.

I took off my apron and washed my hands, surreptitiously watching her in the mirror. Her gaze never left mine … I don’t think she even blinked.

‘Laters, then.’

‘Can I see you tonight? My parents are out if you want to come round?’

I was going to say no … honestly. But her face … she looked like she would crumble if I turned her down. I couldn’t …

‘Okay … great. We’ll sort it out when I get back, yeah?’ Her smile swallowed me, and she grabbed me by the hips and planted a kiss on my mouth.

It’s such a pity I couldn’t return the affection.

With a weak smile, I turned and left her there.

Alone.

                        **********************************************************

Ash was pacing in the churchyard, and I had only twenty minutes of my lunchtime left. I had tried to think of a plausible explanation about what she ‘thought’ she had seen written on my face last night. But they all came out lame or an obvious lie.

I had convinced myself that whatever she said I would just deny it. There was no point admitting it … I needed a spine to do that, and I didn’t have one. So I would go for the ‘deny’ or ‘no comment’ rule.

She had her back to me, but as I got nearer she turned abruptly … startled, her face showing confusion for some unaccountable reason.

I smiled at her, hoping to stop the accusations before they even got started. Then once again another lie popped out of my mouth. And I didn’t even expect it.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t say goodnight last night … I felt really ill … and I just had to get home.’ Well … it could have been the truth, I did feel ill – but not in a poorly sick and can’t eat custard kind of way. The sickness was how I felt about myself, about what I had done; the fact I had shown the one person whom I didn’t want to know, exactly how I felt about them.

Ash just looked at me with the same startled expression on her face, her poise was slightly askew, as her shoulders twisted round. She didn’t move … just stood there and waited until I was right up close to her.

I stood and waited for her to answer, or even remark on what I had just said, and I finally realised I didn’t think she had heard me so I repeated it.

‘Did you feel it?’ Huh? ‘Did you feel that … that something?’ My face informed her that I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. ‘That tingling sensation …’

I stared at her … I knew exactly was she was talking about; I had felt it when she had been watching me at work. It was a weird feeling … almost electrical.

But, me being me, I just shook my head, and I still believe I saw disappointment flash across her face. She lifted her hand and brushed it through her long raven locks, completing its journey with a waggle of her fingers. ‘What did you say?’

I had to swallow before I could answer her. ‘Erm … just that I was sorry about last night … I didn’t feel well so just went home.’

Concern flooded onto her face. ‘Are you okay now? Should you be at work?’ She came towards me and put her hands on my shoulders, her body close to mine, her face closer. ‘You look all pale and blotchy all of a sudden … come … sit down.’ I did feel pale and blotchy, but it wasn’t because I felt ill … more like the sensation she evoked in me. I think all of the blood raced from my face to a more demanding region, but it had left some stragglers behind.

I let her lead me over to the bench and lowered me down to the seat, her arm completely around me. I was in guilty heaven … I could smell her perfume, so light … so addictive … so her. I was entranced.

So entranced I realised I had shut off the listening part of my brain, and tuned in to hear the last part of what she was saying ‘… and then I came looking for you. It was the doorman who told us you had left in a taxi ten minutes earlier.’ She was rubbing my hands between her own, as to get the blood back I think, but take it from me … the blood was staying exactly where it had shot to minutes before. The hand rubbing guaranteed that.

But it was her eyes that captivated me … those deep pools that looked into my face with absolute concern about my welfare; I was so lost in them I didn’t even feel bad about staring. All I wanted to do was to lean forward and just … catch … those … perfect lips in my own and drown into her. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I loved this woman who was half kneeling half sitting before me. The woman who was holding my hands in hers … holding my heart in her hands.

I just wanted to take those hands of hers and place them on either side of my face, just to show her … to show her … I was hers … always hers. To show her I would be forever lost in her … my heart was forever lost.

‘… and then I remembered you worked on the market today. So here I am.’

Yes. Here you are.

‘Sorry about leaving and not telling anyone.’ My voice sounded like my head was under water … muffled and distorted, but Ash didn’t seem to notice. She just flashed me one of those brilliant smiles that lit up the world … slightly crooked and filled with promise.

‘Forget about it. We were just worried about you.’ She patted my knee. ‘Anyway … what are your plans for tonight. Fancy you –me – the pictures – there’s a good film on. The Terminator with Arnold Schwarzenegger.’

I physically felt my face light up, and my heart screamed out ‘YES!’ but then I remembered. Sarah. I had promised Sarah I would see her tonight.

Fuck.

And then … fuck … again.

‘I can’t …’ Ash’s face fell. I saw the expression literally go from ecstatic to depressed in the blink of an eye. ‘I’ve already made plans with … erm … Sarah.’ She tilted her face to the side, the expression questioning. ‘The girl I work with … we … erm … we … are going to … erm …’ I couldn’t say go to the pictures as Ash would have asked to come along. ‘Erm … going to her friend’s eighteenth in Stalybridge.’

All the time I was deliberating with my tale, she watched me. It felt as if she knew I was lying but didn’t like to say anything. That made me feel more like the giant shit I had felt earlier. ‘But I am free tomorrow … or Monday … Tuesday …’ Was I throwing myself at her? Most certainly. All the ideas of avoiding her crumbled into dust and flew into the wind, swirling its way around the stone structure of St Mary’s church taking my inhibitions with it.

The smile I so loved about her, trickled its way back onto her chiselled face, spreading like sunshine and making me feel giddy just to be in its presence.

‘How about all three?’ She cocked her head to the side and waited for my response, which was to allow my jaw to drop and for me to sit there catching flies. A laugh came from deep within her making me snap my mouth closed once again. ‘Look … I miss you. Is that a crime now? Just thought we should see more of each other.’ She grinned. ‘And by seeing you for three nights on the trot … well … let’s just say … it would be my pleasure.’

And mine … God … and mine.

‘And … next time I ask you out on a Saturday night, maybe you wouldn’t have already made arrangements with someone else. You’d be all mine.’

God … I wish … I wish … I so wish I was all yours Ashley Richards. From the bottom of my ba booming heart.

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part 6

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