Part Two

Chapter Fifteen

I didn't mean to lead her on … didn't mean it to go as far as it did without telling her the truth about me, and the kind of person I was. I'm not proud of what I did to her, or how I acted. All I can say in my defence is that I didn't mean to. Lame, I know. And if I could take it all back and start from the beginning, I would. But I can't. And that's the bit that hurts the most. The fact that I hurt her so bloody much and all I wanted to do was love her.

But I think I am jumping the gun a little here, don't you? I should put everything into some kind of perspective, then maybe you will understand a little better, or better than either Steph or I did. Ok. I'll start from my beginning … start from where it matters.


Born and raised in Ireland. One sister. Two parents. A dog. And a charmed life. To an extent, that is. Most things had been easy for me, and I took everything for granted. Even to getting my book published. The one thing that changed all that happened when I fell in love with Teri. Not that I regret the time we spent together. What I did regret was the fact that although I loved her, she didn't love me back - in fact she decided that being with a woman at all was not what she wanted. She wanted a man in her life. A kick in the teeth, don't you think?

At this time I had just finished writing my first novel - all about Teri and how much I loved her … how much I had relished the time she had given me - how coming out to myself, and my family, had been the most enlightening and frightening time of my life. And for what? I'll tell you … for me to clam up inside my spiteful shell and look at the world with a very warped perspective.

It was about this time, also, that I was working as a freelance journalist. I had to support myself, didn't I? And this was the time I first heard the name Stephanie Stevenson. You guessed it. I knew her before the meeting over the corkscrew - knew her before I had ever spoken a word to her. Actually, I took pride at the time for being the one who broke her apart.

Now you are seeing the real me … well, the real me at the time when my perfect world had gone tits up and I had to take it out on someone else, that is. Stephanie Stevenson was what you might call a bit of a legend in the newspaper world. She wouldn't tell you herself, but she was, and still is, a fantastic reporter. Everyone wanted to be her at one stage or another in his or her life. Beautiful, talented, and always got the story. So, when it came about that some woman had topped herself because of an article she had written, obviously this was the time for people to stick the boot in - as you do, well, as people do when they have pain the size of a third world debt raging inside them.

No one wanted the job of writing the article. Come on … it was 'the SS' we were dealing with. Whatever the person had written, Ms Stevenson would wipe the floor with them and then squeeze the remains into a slop bucket. Rumour had it that she had resigned, but I didn't believe that for a minute. There was no way this woman could just up sticks and give up the best part of her life for something she had no control over. This was just up my street. I needed someone to finish me off. I didn't care about anything or anyone anymore, and what a way to go, eh? I didn't even care that my book was just about to be released … nothing mattered after I saw Teri piling the last bits of her belongings into the car and driving off into the sunset.

Therefore, I turned into some kind of kamikaze pilot, driven to destruct and taking me along with it. I volunteered to write the article on Stevenson, and I believe that was the first time I had smiled for months. I even went to visit Henry Poole, the devastated husband of his dearly departed wife, Lisa. To see this man willing to talk to me after what happened to his wife was nothing short of a miracle. It was a Princess Diana all over again … the media killed my wife, and all that. I know I sound like a bitch, and at the time, I believe I was.

But it wasn't long before I knew the reason why Henry Poole was ok with talking to the media. And as the people hater I had become, I felt myself becoming disappointed. Mr Poole didn't believe the article had tipped his wife over the edge after all. The rape had been the catalyst to that, and whatever anyone had said or done afterwards, it wouldn't have made a jot of difference to the outcome. By all accounts, Lisa had suffered with depression for years … even attempted to kill herself twice before, but he had stopped her on both occasions. This time he hadn't been so lucky. He had only gone to pick the kids up from his mother's, as she said she had a headache and wanted to lie down. That was the last thing she ever said to him. When he got back, he found her. The kids, thankfully, had decided they wanted to see their friends next door for a while before tea, and after all they had been through seeing their mother floating in a pool of red would have finished them off, too.

As I was leaving, he grabbed my arm and looked me squarely in the face before saying, 'Please tell Ms Stevenson it wasn't her fault. Please.' And I agreed. Lyingly agreed, that is. I knew I would not be writing anything that could make the 'Perfect Stevenson' feel better. Why should I, when I felt like crap? Therefore, the article came out vitriolic and spiteful, all the while convincing myself that I was doing the world a justice. How on earth a woman could choose her career over the life of that poor woman sickened me … And looking back, I realised that I was a hundred times worse than a thousand Stephanie Stevenson's. She had reported the news, whereas I had done mine from sheer disillusionment with humanity.

And had it made me feel any better? Nope. Just made me fall deeper into myself and contemplate the reason why I was still breathing at all.


Chapter Sixteen

But life has a weird and wonderful way of informing you that now is not the time to give up on hope. However much I hated myself, there was still my family to think about. Whatever I felt, I would never burden them with it. Nevertheless, I was no way near the happy go lucky girl I had always been. It seemed as if when Teri left, she took the best part of me with her. After the article on Stevenson had been published, I waited with baited breath for her response … and then nothing. The grapevine had it that she had left the area and would not be returning, but I still held onto the hope that she would be the one to tip me over the edge, and plunge me further into the darkness that was enveloping my life.

This was not to be, though. No return article … no reporter's pads drawn at dawn … nothing. Ten months later I got my wake up call … or should I say a phone call from my sister, Sue. Rob had been diagnosed with cancer, and that kind of snapped things into some kind of perspective at last. Hearing the news saved my life, in a way, because before I knew it, I was the one taking charge over everything. Daisy and George were in the dark about why daddy couldn't play ball or take them to the zoo like he used to do, and I willingly took on the role of the pseudo father … and mother, if truth be known. Sue was devastated - more so than Rob. He was everything to her … her reason to smile, as she said. And there he was, wasting away to nothing … chemo and drugs the order of the day, a wife who found it difficult not to crumble every time she visited him in the ward, and kids who looked at him as if they didn't recognise him.

Every day I spent with them. Every waking moment, I thought about how I could make their lives better. If I was thinking about them, I wasn't hurting, and I know you are now thinking that I did it all because I wanted the pain of losing Teri to ease, but you would be wrong. To see someone you love suffer and be impotent … that is worse than anything else in the world. Eventually, Sue learned how to adjust to Rob's illness, but I supported them all as much as I could.

It was after about two months of Rob being ill that I found my muse again. I realised that I had to lay the ghosts of my past to rest somehow or other, and the best way was the way I felt the most comfortable. That is how Rainbows and Shadows was born. It acted as a journal for me in some way … as well as telling the events after Teri left - fictionalised, of course. Into the Light was doing well, and I was beginning to stand on my own two feet financially. When I wasn't with my family, I was writing, and when I wasn't writing I was with my family. A cocoon of sorts, if you will. If I blocked out everything else, then I would be safe, wouldn't I?

Well, when I say I cocooned myself … that would be a lie. It was at this time that I got Brian. He was another reason to get up in the morning. And seeing Daisy and George's faces when I turned up at their house with a wriggling mass of black fun was priceless. I told them they had to help me train him, and that he was as much their dog as he was mine. Amazing to think that Brian not only helped me, but he helped the twins to cope too. Everyday I think I fell in love with that dog a little bit more - and by the way he looked at me when he woke up in the morning, I think he felt the same way.

A year passed and things were getting better. Rob was becoming stronger, and the cancer had gone into some kind of remission, even his blonde hair was growing back, but the doctor didn't give him the all clear until nearly fifteen months later. By this time, he was back to his old self, and grasping onto life with both hands. Being around him just made people feel good, and obviously this was the catapult I needed to get me back into the human race once again. I felt the best I had in so long, and when I thought of Teri, I remembered the good times we had spent together rather than the hurt and pain I had lived through when we had first broken up. I didn't blame her now … the blame didn't lie with either of us, that much I did understand. We just wanted different things - I wanted her, whereas she wanted something else. End of.

One thing that was consistent throughout it all was the memory of what I had written about Stephanie Stevenson. I wanted to apologise to her, and also explain why I had written what I had. I also wanted to tell her the message Henry Poole had asked me to deliver - that it wasn't her fault, but no one knew where she was, or if they did they did an exceptional job of hiding the fact. The only thing I knew was that she was somewhere near the Lakes … and that was all I had to go on.

And go on I did, as six months after Rob was given the all clear, I was looking at property to buy in the Lake District. It was time for me to move on, as what was good for Stephanie Stevenson was good enough for me. And for Brian. Living in the country had always been a dream of mine, and I knew that Brian would love a place where he could run around all day.

I can't tell you how many houses I looked at. At one time I even considered myself qualified to actually become an estate agent. I knew all the blurb and metaphors for 'Quaint and Cosy' that could last anyone a lifetime. Then I saw the cottage at Bassenthwaite, and, to tell you the truth, I wasn't overly impressed. I can still remember standing at the window of the cottage looking out at the lake and yawning, wanting nothing more than to go back to the hotel and climb into bed. The owners were yammering on about something and nothing, and I was trying to be polite and listen, but all I wanted was sleep. Then everything changed. The view became so much more breathtaking.

There, in the garden of the neighbour's house, was a woman who just blew me away. She was trying to get a slipper, or shoe, off a Border terrier, and the dog was having none of it. Although she tried to sound angry, there was a musical quality to the laughter she was releasing in spurts, as the dog gripped more tightly to the object. I could hear her trying to cajole him, trying to reason … beg, order, but the dog gripped harder. Eventually she tripped and fell backwards onto a bush with a yelp, and the dog dropped the shoe and dived on top of her. Muffled laughter came through the open window, and I knew from that moment that I had found my future home. I didn't know anything about the place … anything about her … But I wanted to, and that made all the difference.

'Ah … I see you have spotted Ms Stevenson, our neighbour.'



Chapter Seventeen

Coincidence? I think not. Part of me wanted to run away and never return, but the bigger part of me agreed to pay the full asking price there and then. Two months later I was moving in, and God, was I shitting my pants. I wasn't even exactly sure if she was the Stephanie Stevenson, as all I had was a rumoured location, and then a surname from the people I was buying the house from.

However, I had made a resolution. As soon as I moved in and met my new neighbour, I was going to tell her exactly who I was and what I had done - if she was the right one, of course. It was the only way to move forward. But as you may guess, making a resolution in your head if very different from actually carrying it out. Part of me was hoping and praying that she wasn't the famed reporter, but just a woman who happened to share the same surname.

As soon as the removal van turned up on the Saturday morning, all I kept doing was going over in my head how I was going to break the news to Ms Stevenson that I was the rat bag who had ripped her apart in the paper. It wouldn't be so bad if I had actually used my real name on the article. But no. Teri had influenced me to use a pseudonym, Ellen Michaels, because she thought it would affect my career as a writer if people knew I worked as a reporter. As if that would have made any difference whatsoever - but being in love made me follow her like a lamb.

Back to 'moving in' day. I think that's what you really want to know, and not about the woman before my obsession of Stephanie Stevenson.

All day I kept on looking over at her place, and never saw her. The only evidence I had was the way the curtains kept on twitching every time I went outside. At least she showed some interest in me - or maybe it was Rob who grabbed her attention? I had not even contemplated the fact she might have been straight, as sometimes when you start thinking on one path it is difficult to think outside the boundaries. This thought made me panic a little. What if I had made the decision to buy the cottage, up sticks and move to the middle of nowhere, and find out that I hadn't a chance in hell? And that topped with the fact that as soon as she found out what I had done, the previous worry about her straightness wouldn't come into the equation anyway.

As time went on, I began to panic more and more. It seemed as if I was building mountains out of molehills, anthills even. There was only one thing to do, and that was to take the bull by the horns, bite the bullet, and do the thing that you do when you are in a situation where the only outcome could be shit or bust. But I couldn't think of an excuse to go around to her house, as I had thought of every thing I needed before I set off. Even milk. It was Rob who saved the day when he demanded a glass of wine to help with all the dust he must have swallowed whilst helping me move. I was in the kitchen at the time, and actually had the bloody corkscrew clutched in my grip. The smile that cracked over my face was priceless.

My stomach was in knots as I walked the short distance to her house. I knew she was in, as I would have noticed if the front door had opened anytime in the last five minutes. I had seen her very briefly as she had got back with a very sorrowful looking dog - it looked as if he had rolled in something smelly and extremely sticky, and I thought of Brian, who would be stuffed full of treats by now.

When I pressed the doorbell (should I have told her that I thought her batteries were on their way out?), there was shouting coming from inside. I wasn't too sure if it was aimed at me, or if someone else was there with her. This thought made me panic a little, and I thought the best form of action would be to leave it a little while, if at all. But that didn't stop my hand shooting out and pressing the doorbell once again. And then again. What was wrong with me? Did I have some kind of doorbell tourettes?

She wasn't what I expected. Not by a long shot. I knew she was fiery when it came to getting a story, but the way she spoke when she answered the door surprised even me.

'What the hell do you want?'

And how do you answer that? Especially when in fact you don't really know what you want. Well, you do … and now I'm not making any sense. All I could splutter was 'Erm' and then something about sorry for disturbing her. By the looks of her, I could gather she had been in the middle of hosing something down. Her clothes were soaked, and her hair was sticking out in all directions. In order to avoid laughing, I looked down and saw the most angelic little face looking back at me. The dog was sat at her feet holding something in his mouth that had the resemblance of a shoe at one time of another. Nevertheless, for all her cuteness in appearance, there came the angry vibes that were shooting off her. Therefore, I felt embarrassed, and did the only thing I could think of. I left.

I could hear her shouting for me to wait, but I couldn't. There was no way this woman would ever understand anything, and why was I thinking I would tell her my part in her downfall this early in the game? Because that's what I had promised to do, wasn't it? As soon as she introduced herself, I was going to utter some line about the article and make out they had made me write it. And made me edit the apology … that line of thinking was not a good way to start any form of relationship, even if it with just your neighbour, is it? I can think of that now, but at the time I just wanted to pass the buck. Amazing to think that when I had first written the article, I had wanted her to be angry with me. But now that I had met her … Although I couldn't see the reason why I would want to carry on meeting her, if her reaction just then was anything to go by.

The only thing that stopped me was the dog. Even after I had said hello and tickled his head, he wanted to walk me home. Now, if what I know about dogs is right, there is no way a horrible person could have a pet that was so bloody nice. Not that I'm saying if you own a vicious pet it is because you are horrible person … that's not it at all. It wasn't even her apology that stopped me, although I think she believed it was. I have to admit, she did look a sorrowful sight as she limped towards me; barefoot on gravel - that must have stung like a bitch.

Then she introduced herself. And I didn't say anything. Well, I did, but not the thing I had been practicing saying to her. I came out with something lame like 'I've heard that name before, but for the life of me, I can't place it.' Can't place it my arse. All I had up until that point was the presumption that Ms Stevenson was Stephanie Stevenson, and here she was standing in front of me in the flesh. And there I was lying through my teeth. I think it might have been the feeling that raced up my arm when she grabbed my hand in greeting. To this day, I have never felt anything like it before or since. Have you ever had an electric shock? Not a huge one so it will hospitalise you … no. A sharp shooting pain … tingly … not scary, just weird? That's what it felt like. It raced up my arm, along my chest and expanded until it filled me with energy, almost like I could take on the world. Therefore, rationality and truth telling were out of the window, and I lost the ability to own up my misdeeds. So I did the next best thing. I began to babble on about Rob and the move … and every thing else I could think about, before actually getting to the point where I asked if I could borrow a corkscrew.

Do you know something, though? Nothing had prepared me for how beautiful she was up close. Green eyes that seemed to sparkle when she spoke, blonde shoulder length hair that seemed to reflect the last glimpses of the sun's rays … and I felt a sudden rush of emotion race through me, something I hadn't felt in such a long time.

I didn't even notice that I was still clutching her hand. It seemed so natural for it to be there, somehow. A nervous laugh flew out of my mouth, and I yanked my hand away. I missed it immediately.

A few minutes later we were in her house. It was so cosy … so homelike, that I knew that this woman was very contented with her life and surroundings … secure in herself, if you know what I mean. But it wasn't until I saw her bending over the kitchen drawer did I find my attention drawn to her backside. Such a firm, round, wonderful backside, that I actually forgot myself for a moment. Her voice alerted me that I had been out of it for a while, and when I looked at her face I knew that she had caught me in the act.

I felt like curling up and dying there and then on the spot. How do you get out of a situation like this? But I was saved (told you I led a charmed life, didn't I?). A piece of soap was wedged firmly to the back of her jeans, something I hadn't taken much notice of when I had been licking my lips and longing for her. Something I needed to work on, I think. I mean, I barely knew her - knew of her, but didn't know her, and here I was leering after something I knew that in a million pipe dreams, this woman would never look at me twice. Never mind when she found out I was the one who had written the article …

But something surprised me as I turned to go. She invited me for lunch the next day. Yep. Sunday lunch. Both Rob and me. It's amazing how a first meeting can change your perspective about a person in a few minutes. It also astounds me that what you hear about a person is not necessarily the truth, and what we need to do is assess the situation ourselves. Everything is relative after all. And for all you know I might be feeding you a pack of lies.


Chapter Eighteen

The next day couldn't come quickly enough. I don't think I slept at all the night before, as all I wanted to do was get around to Steph's and see that smile again. Today was going to be the day I would tell her. I had to, or else what we were building, if we were actually building anything, would not withstand anything - shaky foundations, and all that.

But I didn't. I just grinned and grinned and made small talk all the way through dinner. Steph was so entertaining … so at ease with herself and her life, that I felt like a twat, and then I grinned some more. On one hand I was glad that Rob was there with me, but on the other, there was nothing I wanted more than to be with her on my own. All I kept on thinking about was how I could make that happen, and unfortunately that gave Rob the opportunity to do most of the talking. Not that I minded him talking … actually, not that I minded him taking control of the situation and babbling on about the world and everything in it. It was the fact that he told her about his cancer. I know you are thinking 'Why ever not?' I don't mean it in a bad way, but that's not what you do when you just meet someone, is it? Or is it? Maybe it was because I couldn't tell her the things I wanted to tell her as easily as he did. I don't know. But the thing I do know is that she seemed embarrassed for some reason, and I felt the urge to pacify her and make things ok again.

It wasn't long after when it was time to wash up. Rob volunteered to help, and I wanted it to be just her and me in there. That would have been the perfect opportunity, wouldn't it? But no. I was in the hallway playing ball with Reggie … mainly because from there I could still see her. And whilst writing that last statement I realise that I was a stalker. I should get the t-shirt which says 'Stalker Lesbian. We are where you are' in bold letters.

The opportunity arose again when we were having coffee. Rob 'The Gob' asked her what she did for a living, and I felt the room shrink - unfortunately, I grew in size, or so it appeared. Then the gobshite told her I was a reporter too. Fuck and fuckity fuckster. All I could squeeze out was a 'Not really'. But that didn't stop me punching him one. I knew it hurt him, but he tried to make out that it was a playful jab. What I wanted to do was ram my fist down his throat by this stage, but I was worried that Steph might not want to see the dinner she had prepared again so soon. Rob didn't take the hint - and do men ever? He tried to stir it up; purposefully hinting at my sexuality and that I might have a chance with her. If looks could kill, I would definitely be up for murder one right about now.

When she left the room, I turned on him. 'What are you playing at, you git?' He just laughed at me. 'Why don't you just tell her you're related to a lezza?'

'Because it is more fun to watch you squirm.' I wanted to twat him. Really. But then he turned more serious. 'Look, Erin. You need to lighten up … meet someone new.' He leaned forward and whispered close to my face in order to make sure that Steph couldn't hear him. 'You and Teri are a thing of the past,' he nodded towards the door where Steph was preparing another drink, 'And I think you and Steph would make a great couple.'

I leaned back on the chair and let out a sigh. 'It's not that simple, Rob.' He attempted to answer, but I stopped him. 'One, she might not even be gay.'

Then he said something that made me get off my arse and get moving. Something simple. Something a child would say if you asked them. 'Well, you won't find out sitting there, will you? Go and help her.'

So I did. As easy and as straightforward as that. I think it was mainly to get away from my grinning brother-in-law, but I went to help. And also I thought now was the time to tell all, and my stomach was not doing a happy dance - although it did feel as if it was breakdancing to a degree.

However, that was not to be (thankfully). I soon found out that today was not the time to say anything, mainly by what I saw when I went to help. It was the way she reacted when I entered the kitchen. Well, not when I entered the kitchen, more like when I tried to help her actually make the coffee. She had dropped the spoon and seemed a little out of it, so I tried to take it off her. I could feel her shaking, and this stunned me. She had seemed so self-confident, so secure in herself, that to note that she was trembling over something as simple as a dropped teaspoon made me try to establish what I thought I knew about her. Which by this stage I realised I knew nothing.

Green eyes looked into mine, and I believe I fell into them. There was so much sorrow looking back at me … so much vulnerability, that I didn't know what to say or do. All I wanted was for her to be happy … I would have done anything to make her smile again. Before I knew it, I was touching her face. It seemed the space between me noting how upset she was, to the time I actually stroked her, had blended. There was no in between. As I pulled my fingers away, I was surprised not to see tears glistening on them.

Steph just stared into my eyes, as if she was reading my thoughts at that precise moment. I felt totally exposed, and had a taste of how vulnerable she had appeared only minutes before. It was about Rob. That's why. She told me so. Couldn't understand why someone so healthy could be blighted with such an undiscriminating disease. I felt the tears well up inside me, and I believe she thought they were about Rob, but they weren't … well, not all of them. They were all about emotions that were piling up and trying to get out. Maybe it was the realisation that I was a coward, or maybe it was the final cry before I actually said farewell to Teri - who knows, because I sure as hell didn't.

But now was not the time to get all sentimental, was it? I had to be totally British and sniff it all back inside until I could release the pain when I was on my own again. I knew that I had spent too many nights crying over Teri; knew that deep down I didn't love her anymore. In fact, there were times when I actually questioned if I had really loved her at all, or had it been that she was the first and only woman I had ever been with? Talk about the wrong time to start this train of thought. So I did the only thing I could think of. And that was to bring in someone else we could both feel sorry for. Sue. My sister … long term martyr and my best friend.

But on the mention of Sue's name, I could tell that Steph didn't have a clue about whom I was talking about. I had mentioned her before, hadn't I? When we had been talking last night? … Ah no. I had babbled and babbled and babbled on about crap, that I hadn't mentioned anything really significant about me, or my life. But when I told Steph that I had mentioned her, she seemed as if she might have known I had a sister, but didn't know her name. I didn't believe her, mainly because I knew I hadn't mentioned her, but I wasn't going to tell her that, was I? And by the looks of things, there were more pressing matters that I hadn't told her about. Nevertheless, I thought telling her the gory details about Sue and how she handled the news was the best way to go. Got me off the hook anyway. And to add the feeling of competence and reliance on what I was yammering on about, I even made the coffee whilst Steph seemed to just stand there nodding her head and grinning. At least I had made her smile.

And what a smile. Such life in it … such quality and honesty. I felt disappointed when we had to join Rob back in the sitting room, but that was a given. I held the tray aloft and uttered the words, 'Shall we?' And believe you me, they weren't only indicating the steaming cups. To me, they held so much more, and I prayed deep within me, that they held the same message to her. Although I doubted it. Who in their right mind would want someone as socially defunct as me?


Chapter Nineteen

It seemed as if time was not on my side that afternoon, as it seemed to race ahead of me before I could plan a way to see her again. It wasn't until I was leaving that the idea struck. Rob had bounced ahead like Tigger, and I was standing feeling useless in front of her. Sticking my limp hand into her firm one, I realised I definitely needed to work on my handshake a little. I couldn't resist just giving her a hug; it seemed as if I needed to smell her for some reason or another. It is times like these that you realise that you are one step away from a psycho ward. But I had to say something, rather than filling my nostrils with the intoxicating scent of her.

'Thank you for today. Thank you.' And then it hit me. Invite her round for lunch … or dinner … or supper … or anything. I wasn't bad in the kitchen, and I knew that I could read a recipe book if push came to shove. When I asked her, I don't know, she grinned widely, but I still wasn't sure if she wanted to see me so soon. Maybe she actually wanted to see the back of me racing away into the sunset. But that didn't stop me trying to charm her with the corniest of lines, 'My. If I knew the promise of my cooking would've brought such a wonderful smile to your face, I would have invited you sooner.' Fuck me. Talk about cheap! But I couldn't help myself … I was turning into some kind of deluded charmster - a bad one at that. Even I had to swallow the vomit back down, and by the red glow surrounding her, I think she was doing the same.

Rob 'Tigger aka the Gob' shouted something which distracted me for a second, and when I turned back I saw her rebuking her acceptance - well, that's what it looked like. Even when I asked her if she was ok, I wasn't totally convinced that she wanted to see me again, never mind open herself up to botulism. So once again I began to babble. The only thing I could think about was Brian … how he would love it … how I missed him and couldn't wait to get him back. At this point I knew I was rabbiting. There I was, yammering on about my dog, and she must have been bored stupid. My only hope was that she didn't think I was a serial killer. But I doubt if she had thought that she would've looked so uninterested …

And I think you get an impression of how I can rabbit for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Who on earth would want to have me as their girlfriend? Unless the wanted me to enter the Olympics representing the United Kingdom for talking shite. I am worse when I feel cornered or nervous … and the more I feel either of those ways, the worse I get.

It wasn't until she said, 'It would be my pleasure,' did I stop to think about what I had asked. Fuck. I asked her to take me out! Shit and fuck. Even for me, although I didn't have much practice, that was quick. God. That was the thing I had asked her first, too. What was the matter with me? Now I could distinctly remember stammering over the words … clearing my throat and stammering over the words 'Ccccooould … you … show …' Jesus! But I think you get the message. Anyone would think I had asked her out on a date. But it wasn't a date.

Or was it? More importantly, she had said yes …

I couldn't help the beaming smile that flew across my face. 'Great. I'll call around tomorrow, ok?' Whatever happened to playing it cool? Fuck knows. Next thing I knew, I was racing after Rob like a teenager. I wanted to skip, but even in my high state of elation I was aware that she might see me. One thing even worse that talking like a twat is skipping like one.

When I got back to my place, I was in a sense of panic. The house still looked as if a bomb had bounced in, exploded, and promptly exploded again. I had to get things sorted before I saw her again. I couldn't wait until the next day, although when I looked around at all the boxes, it would've been better if I had asked her for another day. But that was the problem … I couldn't wait. And the next problem on the agenda was why I wanted to see her as much as what I did. Then another one: a bigger one. I still hadn't told her about the article, and this was getting beyond stupid. If I left it any longer, there would no way I could tell her, was there? There is nothing worse than someone keeping something back from you, especially something as big as this. I should've just told her in the first place, and then maybe we could have climbed over the great big mountain that would have come between us. If she found out another way, that would be like a kick in the teeth. There was no way she would believe it if I told her that I didn't know who she was - I had written the article after all. And I knew that she was reporter … from Manchester … who had lived here for four years …

Talk about putting a dampener on things.

I seemed to slow down in my movements, and the boxes were emptying extremely slowly. From the corner of my eye, I could see Rob bouncing around like a pinball, and all I wanted to do was drug him. I felt low by this stage. I had consciously tricked Steph into thinking I was a nice, trustworthy person, and here I was lying through my gritted teeth. Well, not exactly lying, but not telling the truth, if you know what I mean? To avoid the truth … is it lying? Can we honestly classify omitting details a lie? Yes. Plain and simple. If we mindfully edit what we say in order to get out of a spot, then yes … it can be classified as a lie. And this train of thought was getting me nowhere fast. The boxes were staying full as my insides were seeming to empty.

It was Rob who came to my rescue, and I think you believe he came in, gave me a huge hug, followed by a giant box of chocolates, and then sat me down to make every thing all right. Nope. He swanked in, his face showing how pleased he was with himself, and slapped a cookery book down in front of me.

'If you don't ask her to come to dinner, I will do it for you.' He leaned closer. 'And I will tell her you only want to shag her senseless then drop her like a brick.'

All I could muster was 'You wouldn't dare.' But the smile he gave me back indicated he would. 'But you are leaving soon.' I honestly thought I had him on that one, but he smugly pulled out a piece of paper with something written on it. 'What's that?' I felt my heart sink, as I had a sneaky feeling I knew what he had done.

'Whilst you and Rupert Murdoch were making coffee, I kind of wrote down her phone number.' Before I had the chance to ask why on earth he would do something so utterly twattish, he stopped me by dramatically holding his hand up. 'Please, dear lady. You don't have to thank me. It was my pleasure.'

I shot to my feet and towered over him. 'Thank you?' The words spat out of my mouth along with some wet stuff. 'Thank you?' More wet stuff, and more anger.

'I said there was no need to th …'

'You are by far the most annoying git I have ever met, Rob Wyatt.'

He laughed. Bloody laughed at me. The same want to shove my fist down his throat came back with vengeance. This time he didn't have the security net of barfing over Steph's living room carpet to fall back on. I even had my arm raised to complete the momentum, but stopped. There was one thing I wasn't, and that was violent, although in this situation I was more than willing to give up a habit of a lifetime for just one thwack.

But I didn't crack him one. Not because I didn't want to - no. It was because he got in the next line of his defence. 'She likes you.' And there it was. Three little words that made all the difference from wanting to punch his lights out, to sitting with a thud on the sofa. He continued. 'She does, Erin. I could tell.'

'How? You never knew I was gay until Sue told you. Even after you had read my book.'

Rob shrugged his shoulders as if agreeing that he knew nothing about lesbians and their ability to blend into the wallpaper. 'Dunno really.' I attempted to stand again, as I believed he had only said the first bit to stop my cracking him one. 'Just the way she kept on looking at you. Especially when we were washing up.'

Ding dong. The bell inside my head was loud and clear. If Rob thought she liked me, even noticed that she had been looking at me, could there possibly be a chance of it being true? The answer to that is … I don't know, but it wouldn't hurt to at least try, would it?

'You're too late.' He looked at me in a puzzled way. 'I've already asked her over for dinner, and to take me on a tour.'

Rob's laugh was loud and hearty. 'That's my girl!' And for the first time since I began beating myself up about not telling her what I needed to tell her, I felt good again. It was also a reason to pick up the cookery book and flick through.

Now. What would I serve on a 'would be', or even 'could be', date?


Chapter Twenty

I didn't see her the next day. I spent most of it looking out of the window. It amazed me how long the day seemed when I was left to my own devices and wanting nothing more than to see her car turn into the driveway. Therefore, it gave me the opportunity to get my house to resemble something like a home, something I wouldn't have done if she had been ambling around close to me.

When it came to her actually coming back, I missed her as I was taking a shower to get rid of all the cobwebby spidery things that delighted in sticking all over me and dangling from my hair. One thing that did disappoint me, though, was that I had slipped a note under her door and she hadn't called. But then again I had told her to call if she couldn't make it. Bollocks. I couldn't believe that I had written that. I should have written, 'Call either way.' I had on the first two notes I had written, but decided they were too long and windy and ripped them up. I even deliberated just popping around to her house to see if she was still up for it. But by the time I had argued with myself about 'Am I a stalker - Am I not a stalker', the lights all went off and I knew she was in bed.

Sleep was a bugger. Didn't want to come at all. All that kept on racing through my head was would she come or not. Eventually I gave up the ghost and climbed out of bed at the ungodly hour of five forty five. If Brian was here already, at least I could've taken him for a walk. But he wasn't due down until the weekend, and at this early stage in the week, it seemed that I wouldn't last until then without pulling my hair out at the roots. Living in the countryside was not what it was cracked up to be, I can tell you that. Owls hoot at the strangest times, and if I heard my bushes rustle once in the night, I heard them rustle twenty times. Coming from the city into what people call the edge of insanity, was no picnic, I can tell you.

After three cups of tea, toast, and a flick through the tv channels, I thought about my neighbour once again. Was she up? Should I call? Should I be locked up for my own sanity and everyone else's safety? I had to laugh at that. I knew deep down I wasn't a stalker, I was just lonely, I guess. And the fact that my next door neighbour was similar in age, and we got on … well, that would make me want to spend time with her, wouldn't it?

Therefore I decided I would just bob round and see if she was up for dinner later that evening. It wouldn't hurt, would it? Maybe if I strolled out into the garden I might see her getting into her car … or walking Reggie.

I was right. Well, about the car thing that is. Just as I got outside of my front door, I saw her pulling out of the driveway and on her way to work. Grimacing, I turned to go back inside, and then turned back. Should I make the meal for the evening, or not? She would have told me if she wasn't coming, wouldn't she? Yes. Of course she would. She was a decent human being, and she had said she would come previously, hadn't she?

Decision made, I went back inside. All I needed to do was to go and get the supplies I needed for later. Maybe even pick up some batteries for her doorbell.


Supplies bought and brought home, Captain. And I felt good, apart from forgetting the batteries. Shopping in Keswick was so pleasant, and I found everything I was looking for. For most of the day I pushed to the back of my mind the fact she might not turn up, and that if she did, I would tell her what I needed to tell her. And when the thoughts did pop into my head, I just popped them straight out again. The meal I was going to prepare didn't take very long to do, and if she didn't turn up, I could just make less. Therefore I had plenty of time when I got back to sit down and have a read of the local paper. It surprised me to see her name on the front page accompanying the article 'Spend a Penny for Your Thoughts.' But what didn't surprise me was the beautiful crisp style she had. All the humour was there for the taking, but it still delivered the news. I bet she would have a few complaints about that today, if what I had discovered about the locals so far were true. Not that they didn't have a sense of humour … not that at all. It was that they took vandalism of their beautiful town very much to heart. Don't blame them really.

After I had read the paper from cover to cover, I folded it up neatly and slipped it into the bottom drawer of the coffee table. Maybe I would read it again later, who knows. I like to look at the style of writing someone uses - tells me so much about the person. And what her style had told me already was that she was very talented, extremely witty, and excellent with words. Maybe on closer inspection I would find more.

Before I had chance to deliberate any more, there was a huge banging sound coming from my front door. It honestly sounded as if someone was trying to get in because a mad axe man was chasing them. There was no way I would ever have thought it could have been Steph … it sounded demented.

But it was. And I found myself saying the only thing I could say, and I knew it was lame as soon as the 'You're early' slipped through my lips. I tried to make it up with garbled words about how pleased I was that she was willing to come, even though for a moment I thought she had come to give me the knock back. I even tried to get her inside at one point, tempting her with the offer of seafood. As if! I honestly believe at that moment in time I was not at my most rational, but then she did something even I wasn't expecting. She lifted her arm and sniffed her armpit. Unusual, if I may say so, and almost hypnotic. I felt the need to do exactly the same thing, but felt my arms pinning themselves to my sides in defiance. There was no way they were going to let me make an even bigger fool out of myself … well, even more than I already had. So, I did the next best thing. Yep - you guessed it. I laughed like a maniac.

Her face was priceless. When I say priceless, I obviously mean adorable. She was like the proverbial kid with her hand stuck inside the cookie jar … or nose up her pit, in this case. So, off I went into gabble mode again and blurted out that I had read her article. What a fucking stalker I was turning out to be. That's what she must have been thinking at any rate, as her expression showed one of shock, then embarrassment. Did I stop? Did I buggery. I went on … and on … and churned up phrases about writing style, as if that was going to get my stalker impression off the hook. Eventually, I think she took pity on me and started to laugh, and for the life of me I can't tell you what about. If I knew, I would have done it again, as she had the most addictive laugh I have ever heard.

Before I knew it, she was climbing back in her car and driving the short distance to her house, and I was left standing on the doorstep like a prize one nugget, grinning and waving as if I wouldn't see her again for at least five years. Then she disappeared inside the house without a backwards glance. There was no way that this woman would ever look at me than anything more than a neighbour. And why on earth did I feel so bloody disappointed?


I worked like a mad woman. Honestly. Its amazing how time consuming it can be when you want everything to be perfect. Even Reggie's food … bless. I couldn't wait for him to meet Brian - they would get along so well. Hopefully just as well as both their mammas. Another bit of wishful thinking there, I believe. But you can't blame a girl for trying, can you?

When everything was nearly ready, I decided that it was time for me to get myself sorted. I didn't want her to come around and find me stinking of seafood … imagine the embarrassment? After turning everything down, or off, I slipped up to shower and choose something to wear. I had all day to find the right outfit, but oh no … I had to wait until I didn't have the time to get all bloody picky and hate every item of clothing I owned. When I look back at how long it took me to choose a white shirt and a pair of jeans as my ensemble, I can still cringe. I must have tried every single piece of clothing I owned on before settling for near enough the very first thing I pulled out of my wardrobes. I wanted to look good, but not the cocktail dress and tiara good. Even I knew that was going over the top a tad, although I did try on a few dresses, but dismissed them as slutty.

When she arrived, I didn't feel ready. I wanted to run upstairs again and change, as I still didn't like the outfit I was wearing. But that all went into the dust as I saw her standing on my doorstep smiling at me. For a minute I felt a little stunned, and when Reggie made a noise it kind of broke the spell. Looking down at him I felt so much love well up inside and flow out into a gaggle of smooch. He was sporting a red bow tie that made him look absolutely adorable … even more than usual, if that was at all possible. Steph stood there looking as pleased as punch because I had noticed her son and heir, and that made it seem even more like a family gathering. Strange, I know, as in reality I wasn't a part of their family.

Before I had the chance to think of anything else, Reggie was off at a pace and into my kitchen. I had put everything back onto to finish cooking, and it smelled wonderful, if I do say so myself. When Steph walked through, her perfume wafted underneath my nostrils, dispelling the scents from the kitchen and filling me full of her. Wham. I felt my legs give just a little bit, and had to lean on the door to make sure I didn't fall over and lie at her feet in a puddle of stupidness. What was this all about? I barely knew the woman, but she seemed to have an effect on me that I had never experienced before. My heart was banging so loudly, I was definite she could hear it. And when I saw her staring at my chest, I was convinced she could see the excessive rise and fall of it from where she was standing.

It wasn't until I saw her lick her lips that I knew that she wasn't thinking about the brass band I could hear coming from inside my rib cage. Deep down I wanted her to be licking those precious lips because she was looking at me, but in reality I knew it was because she was hungry … but that didn't stop me licking mine back. It was as if I was licking hers, if you know what I mean? And if you do, can you explain it to me, because at this rate I was becoming more and more fucked up. I even started to rattle on about what the evening would consist of … talk about being a twat. If I would have given her a printed out version, I doubt I would have batted an eyelid. I was becoming obsessed in more ways than one. I think by this stage she was becoming a tad uncomfortable and was seriously regretting accepting an evening with a maitre de, because as soon as I had spluttered the last of my 'To do' list, she made an excuse about seeing what Reggie was up to.

When she had disappeared through the kitchen door, I just stood there and allowed the feeling of being a complete waste of space (slash stalker and letch) wash over me. What was I doing? All I seemed to allow to happen was for me to show her that I wasn't worthy of her wiping her boots up and down my back … hobnailed boots … hobnailed boots covered in cow shit, to be more precise. If I carried on like this she would begin to avoid me, and that was the last thing I wanted to happen. The thing I couldn't quite grasp was the reason I was acting like this in the first place. I had never gone to pieces over anyone else before … even when Teri left. So why now? And why her?

Then I remembered something even more important than my gradual decline into mental illness. Tonight was going to be the night where I sat her down and told her about the part I had played in her downfall. I had to. This was getting beyond the proverbial joke. If I told her after feeding her full to the brim with good food … maybe plied her with wine … then maybe she would find it in her heart to forgive the fact I was a total shit who had the means to stop her feeling the guilt she must have been carrying around with her for the last four years. There was one thing I knew for definite, and that was that Stephanie Stevenson wasn't the cold hearted bitch everyone had said she was. She was good at her job, and delivered a very good story, but there was no way she would ever hurt another living creature if she could avoid it.

My instincts were right. As soon as I entered the kitchen I saw her on her hands and knees trying to gather together the rubbish from my bin. Reggie had done something that Brian loved to do … and that was to discover treasure that he believed I had lost. In the shape of the vegetable peelings, that is. The look on Steph's face was an absolute picture. Green eyes looked up in shame as she offered the peelings out for me to see. Twinkling brown ones stared at her then me, and then back to her again, making it obvious that Reggie, the bow tied gentleman, wasn't going to take the can for the mess on the floor. For some strange reason, I think she thought I would go mad. But as any dog owner, and lover, knows, they are worse than kids. If they can find a reason or an opportunity to embarrass you, they will. There was only one thing to do … help. Oh … and take the piss. Well, given the circumstances, that's all I could think about doing.

As I was getting up from my knees, my eyes went to hers again. She looked at me with such tenderness and thanks that I couldn't help my next action. Before I knew it, my traitorous hand had shot out, and I was nipping the end of her nose between my thumb and forefinger. Such a natural thing to do, well, as I was doing it, but as soon as I had contact I realised it wasn't the 'done thing'. Steph's face blazed crimson, and I knew for definite I had overstepped the mark. Trust me and my ability to screw up the tiniest of gestures. I was just thankful I was now standing straight. It made it easier to scuttle off to the other side of the room and pretend I was inundated with chores, when in fact everything was done.

It was at that moment that I knew for sure. Tonight was not going to be easy.


Chapter Twenty-One

She liked the food. Thankfully. I could tell she was a seafood lover, and I had certainly made the right decision when it came to Reggie … the way he wolfed the beef down brought a tear to my eye. But not as much as his farts did a while later. It was just a shame that when he decided that it was time to show his delight in his food, it was through the guise of an air biscuit. Unfortunately, I was in mid sentence; therefore, I had my mouth open and got a decent sized taster of the effects of my cooking.

You can imagine how difficult it was to ask the simple question 'Did he just break one off?' when you were trying, desperately, to keep the contents of your stomach down. Reggie didn't look fazed in the slightest. A couple of sniffs to his backside, and he was set to go again. After a while of inner prayer, I adjusted myself to the fact that there was no way this boy was ever going to ease up … and the only way I could cope with the crackle, pop, and stun man was to pretend it wasn't happening. Steph seemed embarrassed at first, but then got to the stage where she began to feel more comfortable sharing a room with the smallest toxic waste container this side of the Lakes.

I can't tell you what the conversations consisted of … they just were, if you get my drift. Whatever we spoke about was lively and entertaining, but nothing too in depth. Therefore, I didn't get the opportunity to spill my guilt, not that I tried very hard, that is. Whenever the words popped into my head, I metaphorically pushed them out again. Why spoil such a good evening? I could tell her tomorrow, couldn't I? And it would be better in the long run, wouldn't it? There was more of a chance of her forgiving me if she got to know me first, wouldn't there? I know … I know … a cop out. But by this stage I was too far gone. You would have been too if you could have seen her. She was totally engaging … breathtaking (and that wasn't because of Reggie, although he did have the ability to take your breath away, but not in the same way - obviously). The more time I spent chatting, the more I could feel myself falling under her spell. I do believe that woman has the greenest eyes I have ever seen … the most perfect mouth … a smile to make my insides jiggle and dance in time with my rapidly banging heart.

So. I kept my big fat mouth truly and tightly shut. For once. Pity I hadn't done that four years ago.

Sitting at the table does have its delights, but I wanted to make things a little more comfortable. Therefore, I suggested moving into the sitting area. Steph wanted to help me clear the table, but I wanted to clear my head … and if truth be known, just to get a little fresh air.

I left her to play with Reggie and slipped into the kitchen to load the dishwasher. I could have done it all in five minutes, but I took this opportunity to have a really good think about what I was allowing myself to get in to. And the very first thing I thought of was 'Get in to what? She comes round for dinner and you are here making wedding plans.' I had to laugh at myself, but like all truthful realisations, the laugh came out bitter and tinged with sadness. It wasn't as if I wanted to get hitched to her, but I would have liked the chance to allow myself the comfort of believing she liked me more than a neighbour likes another neighbour. Friends? Were we? Or was it for convenience she came around? I was the only other single woman of her age in the area … maybe it was out of necessity that she was here.

And I'm getting on my own nerves, never mind getting on yours. Why I had to stand in the kitchen watching the kettle that, supposedly, never boils, I'll never know. I needed to get out … you know … meet other people … mix … socialise more. After Teri, I hadn't given myself the opportunity to get over what had happened. I had submerged myself inside the cocoon of my family, swallowing everything they had … being their rock, when in reality I needed the rock for myself.

It was then it truly hit home. They were my rock in a way. Through Rob's illness I had become a different person to the one Teri had left behind. In my own way, I had grieved over the failings of a relationship that was one sided through the love and support of a family in crisis. Watching people pull together … being a part of that scenario actually helped me cope with what life was throwing at me. And even though I believed that I was on the mend, it was times like this that I realised that in fact I needed to do more. I had to allow myself to become a friend to Steph, rather than just jump her bones. I made a decision there and then to go back into the room and tell her everything she needed to know.

Of course I didn't. I'm a definitely too much of a wimp for that, as I found out.

When I entered the room I saw her looking at the picture of Brian. She looked startled for some reason or another, guilty even. But what was there to feel guilty about? It was only a picture. If I had been in her position, I would have had a really good rummage around whilst she was out of the room. However, I doubted Steph was the kind of person who would interfere with other people's belongings … unlike me.

Therefore, I felt myself trying to give comfort to her, for some strange reason, and began to talk about something she was interested in. Dogs. My dog, for that matter. He was a gorgeous fella, if I do say so myself. As I was waxing on about him, I noticed that Reggie had rolled over onto his back and was begging to be tickled. Please. If you learn anything at all whilst reading this story, let it be this. Never … ever … fall for the cute card, when you know for definite that the perpetrator has spent the best part of an hour turning the air in your house a toxic green. The minute my hand touched his hairy belly - crack. It was like Chinese New Year. The worst part was that the smell immediately flew up both my nostrils and into my mouth. God only knows how I didn't vomit there and then.

When Steph decided it was time to allow Reggie to alleviate his 'wind problem', I must admit I felt relieved. Then guilty, as I believed the relief must have shown on my face - if the expression of eating death had disappeared, that is. I didn't want her to go … in fact, I didn't want Reggie to go either … I only wanted the beef to leave, preferably in the form of him popping outside, killing the grass, and then coming back to sleep contentedly at our feet. But I understood.

Whilst she was getting herself sorted I thought of the uneaten dessert. It would have been a waste to let it sit there all night, only to be thrown away the next morning. So … into the kitchen I went to make up a doggy bag. I looked at the dish of beef that I had prepared for Reggie in case the first bowl wasn't enough, but decided it wouldn't be in mine, Steph's, and even Reggie's best interest if I poisoned him on the very first evening I had cooked for them both.

Standing at the door, I pushed out the biggest smile I could muster, and the weirdest thing happened. I was sure that Steph sighed. You know, one of those sighs that kind of says 'I have too much going on inside me right now to actually formulate a sentence.' Or was it my imagination? Did she actually sigh, or did she push it down? And why sigh in the first place? It was only left over dessert.

The minute she turned her back on me and started on her way home, I missed her. I know I'm fucked up - you don't have to tell me. But it felt as if we had known each other for longer than we actually had. Inside, my brain was in overdrive. It was battling to find a reason to see her as soon as possible, but it kept on coming up blank … well, until my gut had a stroke of genius.

'Any chance of that tour when you are free? I'd love to see the place through your eyes.' Then held my breath. My brain was thinking 'Why didn't I think of that?'

'It would be my pleasure.'

No. Definitely mine.

However, my gut didn't know where to stop. It had received the correct response from her, and now thought it was omnipotent.

'What? Not even a hug goodnight?' Why oh why was I born at all? Why couldn't I just have said goodnight, like a normal human being. But no. I had to push the boundaries and expect more, didn't I? The reason why I am waffling on is because I saw Steph's whole body freeze after the words had escaped. Even my gut was thinking 'Oh shit', whilst my brain was complaining that he was in fact in charge, and if it had been left up to him, I wouldn't be dying right about now.

The next minute I was in her arms. God. In her arms. Her face in my neck and being allowed to smell her hair was the ultimate in contentment. I didn't want to let her go … even though I could feel her pulling away; I wanted to just hold her. I wish I could say it was nothing sexual, but I would be lying. But it was more than just sex … much more. It felt as if I should always be in her arms … that I have been missing this part of my life for too long. Now, I know you are thinking 'She's like a teenage lad', and usually I would agree with you, but it - I - wasn't like that. I hadn't felt the urge to be intimate with anyone for the last four years and then BAM … here I was becoming all hormonal. And bugger me that the next thing I did was plant one on her cheek. I felt a burning sensation and wasn't sure if it came from her or me … but by the looks of her embarrassed face, I think I had overstepped the mark. Again. So … back into babble mode.

Words flew out in all directions, and the long and the short of it came out with me admitting I liked her as a friend. A friend, for fuck's sake! Why did I have to say anything? Why couldn't I just let the kiss say that, because it sure as hell said the opposite when I firmly ground home the fact I thought of her as a friend? I should have spluttered 'I fancy the arse off you, Steph. You ok with that?' As what I had said was near enough the same thing, except that the line I had uttered added 'but I'm embarrassed about fancying you.'

See? Total babble. I can't even write about it without it all coming out tits up. As you can tell, this woman had made me behave in a way that I hadn't behaved since I was in High School and arsing about in class, something I'm sure most of us can relate to.

When I entered the house, I allowed myself the pleasure of just stroking my fingers along my lips. They had been on her cheek … although I wished they had the momentum to actually get a grip on her lips. See? Never satisfied. One minute beating myself up about becoming too friendly, the next I was doing ten rounds with guilt, and then back to day dreaming again. Why couldn't I just be satisfied with having her in my life?

Then it hit me. The reason … the reason why I wanted to be satisfied with just having her in my life is this … When Steph found out that I had written the article, I would be yesterday's news … and tomorrow's chip wrappings.

Feeling drained, I made a move towards the stairs. I wasn't tired; just beat, in the 'feeling beat 'cos I am beat' kind of way. I just prayed that I could have a sleep without dreaming.

No such luck, as it turned out.


Chapter Twenty-Two

I said that I didn't want to dream, and in a way, I wish I could say with all honesty that is what I truly wanted. But the dreams I had didn't hold any malice. Not by a long stretch of the imagination. They were very pleasant dreams, in fact. So why did I say 'No such luck' then? To explain more fully … they were just dreams, and I knew in the light of day that I had no chance of making them real.

I'm not making any sense … like usual. It would probably be best if I were to explain them more fully.

Picture the scene … very similar to the one I had shared with Steph earlier that evening, actually. But there was something ethereal about the set up. Candlelight, as candlelight tends to do, made the room seem misty - but it was even more misty than actual candlelight. I know! I can't explain it better than that. Maybe because my focus was on her eyes … so green … so delectably green, and devouring me whole. Lights danced behind them, just as if the candles were in fact there instead of around the room.

Breaking away before I actually fell into her, I looked down and at my hand. There sat an innocent oyster, so perfect and round, and the imagery of the treasure found between her legs became all too real. Or was it between my legs? I'm not sure, but what I do know is that when she placed her perfect lips around the delicacy, I felt the whole of my groin contract with pleasure. It was the way she sucked it inside her mouth, the way she deliberately consumed me whole as well as the oyster that made me moan with abject want and need. Green eyes fluttered closed, only to reopen with a carnal need apparent and fighting to restrain itself. I didn't want that need to be restrained, so I lifted another oyster, slipped the knife inside the shell and eased the lid off. All the while, Steph was watching my every move.

Two … three … four oysters, all delivered in the same way … all eliciting more promise from the woman who engaged all my attention. After each oyster, I couldn't help but trail my fingers over her lips, praying each time that she would make a move and break the stalemate. I wanted her so much … so fucking much. Inside I was dying for want of her. One touch and I knew it would spell a trip down the road I would never return from.

And then it happened. Her mouth opened slightly as I was stroking her lips, and she sucked my finger inside, her eyes fluttering closed briefly, before opening up to confirm that at that moment in time, she wanted me as much as I wanted her. Gripping my wrist, she pulled my hand closer, brushing her lips along the skin and bringing the hairs on my neck and arms to full attention. One by one, she sucked and loved each digit in turn. I was enraptured by her, by the action, by the sensation of being totally at her mercy. Pulling her closer, I knew I would have to take those lips for my own, taste those lips, own those lips even for a moment, or else I would fizzle and fade.

Just before I got there, just before contact, she stopped and held my gaze. I couldn't break eye contact, even if someone had smashed inside my house at that precise moment. Breathing was laboured, demanding and rapid, but we just stared into each other - not at, but into. It seemed as if at that moment, I could read her … and I allowed myself to fully open up just for her. I wanted her to know the true me, the person who wanted her so much, needed her so much, that the mere thought of not having her in my life was enough to make my heart weep.

To put into words the feeling as she closed the gap between us have not yet been invented. The emotion I felt welling and pouring from me into her, and then back again, I doubt has ever been rivalled. Nothing could match this … nothing. Everything faded into blackness, and all that existed were her and me … me and her. That's all that mattered. The feeling of her fingers in my hair completed something I didn't know was missing. I know this all sounds like something you would read from a trashy romantic novel, and before this dream I would have said exactly the same thing as you, but now … now was different. Now was now … and as different as I never ever believed I could ever achieve, or, in fact, ever achieve again.

Steph's body moved more into me, and I accepted all she had to give. I wanted to pull her into my arms, lift and carry her upstairs, and make love to her for as long as she wanted me. Instead I allowed my hands the freedom they craved. Carefully, and gently, I slipped one underneath her top, the awareness of naked skin all too much.

'I … want … you.' I could barely breathe I wanted her so much. 'I want … you.' I could feel tears throbbing at the back of my throat, as the emotion of the moment was becoming too much. Inside I was alive … on fire … demanding and ready to become the heavyweight champion of anything for just one chance … one chance to show her that I would never hurt her … never leave her … never take what was offered and not treasure and cherish each molecule that came from her to me.

I didn't wait … couldn't wait. My hands were slipping further south to their final destination. I needed to know that she wanted me as much as I wanted her … needed to feel the wetness between her legs and see if it matched the flood of desire pooling between mine. Soft, downy hair greeted my eager fingers. Perfect, but not enough. Down further. Yielding folds parted at my appearance, breaking apart like a ripe fig …

'God.' The first word she had uttered for so long, and one I had been praying for. If she had said no …

But there was something not quite right. Another noise came into the fray, and I could feel Steph becoming distracted. I wanted to scream at her to ignore the incessant ringing … to disregard the blatant intrusion into our moment, but she was no longer fully with me. She was going, fading, and so was the scene …

Opening my eyes, I realised I was alone in my bed. The aching between my legs was agony. So close, yet …

She wasn't here … hadn't been here. The torture of knowing that it was unlikely she would ever be here hit me, and I released a sob into the air. I needed her so much … needed her to be here with me and allow my dreams to, for once, become true. Even if it were only for one night, at that moment I believed that would last me a lifetime.

I should have gone to sleep. Should have shaken my head and laughed at the situation, but I couldn't. Here I was, lying in bed and wanting a woman I barely knew. But I couldn't laugh … couldn't shake off the wanting and yearning and needing I felt for Steph. It was all too real … too new and real. It seemed as if I had been waiting for her my whole life, as if she were the reason I had been born at all.

How stupid. How fucking ludicrously stupid. All I needed was a good shag - that was it. No soul mate reunion … no 'I've waited a lifetime for you.' I needed sex. A good fuck. Full stop. The reality of it only being me in that oversized bed didn't deter me … one of the reasons why God gave us hands, don't you think?

Slipping my hand below the covers, I could feel the waistband of my shorts acting as a barrier. Slowly, I inched my way inside, fingertips playing with the hair, and wanting nothing more than to push down further and rid myself of this ache. My other hand had decided to come into the action, and silently slinked along my stomach, making circles on the tightening flesh. One hand higher - the other lower, and both of them party to the gasp that left my lips. I wanted to rush and claim my prize, but there was another part of me that wanted to take time in eking out this action I felt had been denied me in my dream.

Separating my folds, I was greeted by wetness I hadn't experienced in such a long time. A smile crept along my face, which opened up as my fingers dipped even lower. My other hand was teasing an erect nipple by this stage, and the joint sensations were taking this want even further than I thought possible.

When I reached the core of this desire, I stopped … just the one finger begging entrance … then began to circle luxuriously, as if I had all the time in the world. Hips began to lift and push, wanting to assert authority and take what I believed was owed to me. Funny expression, to say the least. But if you have ever dreamed a dream of someone you just couldn't have, wanted something you just couldn't have, then I guess you will understand.

Momentarily, the urge to satisfy left me. Maybe it was because I knew it was just me… maybe it was because I realised that the need I had could not be satisfied by these two hands after all. It was then I wanted it even more than I had previously. Strange, but true. I wanted to show myself, for some Godforsaken reason, that I could be contented … satiated … satisfied, without the help of the green-eyed beauty who eluded me.

Green eyes … gorgeous green eyes … green eyes that swiftly appeared before me like a hologram. The room seemed to become brighter, as if an ethereal light had been turned on. But I couldn't see past those green eyes … they hovered … they danced and sparkled. They spoke to me about love and want and desire. They promised me fulfilment and contentment. And that was it …

Inside. One stroke. Deep. It wasn't me and my meagre two hands … or even one finger, anymore. It was her. Her and me. She was inside and filling me with just one finger. It wasn't just the finger … it was so much more … so much more. Then it was out … and I was left wanting again … Then back in … and out … and in. I wanted more … I needed more … I wanted her. The rhythm was speeding up, and I could feel my breathing becoming more and more ragged. One finger was joined by another … and then another, and I was pushing and pulling … my left hand nipping my nipple between agitated fingers, forcing me to grit my teeth and grind them together.

Shocks were splattering and dispersing throughout my body, and I could feel the sweat seeping through my pores. Lifting my legs higher, and opening them wider, I could push even more deeply inside. Then again … more deeply … then deeper … and the three fingers I was thrusting in and out were also scraping along the contracting walls.

Faster and faster … deeper and deeper, I knew the time I could flip over into the sense of wonder I needed was near. It was Steph … her and me … Steph … the one I wanted … she was here, she had to be … It was Steph … the green-eyed woman who was above me and taking me with everything she had. And I was frantic … my movements were uncontrolled and delirious … I was thrusting upwards onto her fingers … thrusting forwards and into her … thrusting … thrusting … thrusting …

I am definite I heard her voice … quietly, almost not really there. One word. Just the one.


Unmistakeably elusive, but as real as I could ever imagine it to be. And it was enough to send me tipping and tripping and flying into ecstasy, her name gripped between defiant lips and refusing to become airborne. It was as if a firework had exploded inside me … the colours magnificent and vibrant, the booming of nerves colliding together to make a triumphant rainbow of blue … yellow … orange … and green. Most of all … green. Just like her eyes … her eyes … those eyes which were with me still, and looking at me with understanding and compassion, so much so, I wanted to cry with both joy and despair.

Wet fingers slipped from inside me, and I sensed that if they stayed there I could experience this wonder all over again. But I couldn't do it. It was the fractured feeling of joy and despair that stopped me.

Turning over onto my side, I looked out from my bedroom window. My breathing still heavy and uneven. From this position, I could see her house. The place I wanted to be. The place I needed to be. But I wasn't there … as you well know. I was lying in my oversized bed, alone, and understanding that having two hands didn't compare to sharing what I was feeling inside me with the woman only a short distance away. It was the knowledge we were a million miles apart that made the tears begin to flow.

And as I lay there in the early morning, I allowed these tears their freedom. Allowed the emotion of what was, and could be, come into the real world at last.

Click. I watched as a light pinged on in the upstairs of her house. She was up. And like all the best stalkers, I continued to watch her shadow pass to and from the window until the lights came on downstairs. I knew it wouldn't be long before she would be taking Reggie out for his walk, and I also knew I had to at least speak to her before she went. I could lie at this point and say it was because I wanted to tell her how I was feeling - not about just wanting her, Jesus … no. About what I had done to her in the past - the article - the omitting the truth from what I had written … tell her all and see where our relationship went from then on.

Decision made, I was up and racing towards the bathroom. I didn't want to see her and smell of sex, did I? Or did I? I think at the moment a refreshing shower was the order of the day.


Not long after, I was outside. Why I thought standing about in the garden and waiting for her was a good idea, I'll never know. How fucked up would that look? The only thing I could think about doing was some gardening, and to tell you the truth, I didn't have a clue where to begin. I had spent the whole of my life in the city, even when I lived in Ireland. Plants were an alien concept to me. But that didn't stop me yanking anything out of the ground that bore a semblance to something of the weed ilk.

It wasn't long before I was getting stuck into it, and to tell you the truth, the labour actually made me feel better - can't say the same about my armpits though. The shower was definitely a waste of time, as it wasn't long before I was covered in dirt and sweating like a horse.

The worst of it was that because I had decided to join the team of the tv show Ground Force, I didn't see her coming back from her walk. And when Reggie decided to launch himself at me I was happy I didn't scream or shout out an eff word. A curt, yet tame, 'Buggeration!' was the only thing that appeared - well, followed by a laugh, which was mainly brought on by nerves at actually standing there in front of the woman who had been the centre of my imagination only mere hours before.

'He frightened the crap out me.' What else to say? He did. But not as much as my need to spill all in one foul swoop did. I do believe at that moment in time, I was the closest to having a panic attack as I have ever been. My chest was heaving, and I knew everything about my body language screamed guilty. I could even see Steph looking at my chest as if she were expecting my heart to fly out and slap her in the face alongside my confession. 'Good morning, fella.' I had to speak to Reggie first … had to, as I thought if I directed the first bout of waffle right at Steph, I wouldn't have the sense to know when to stop. It was the look on her face that stopped me making a total arse out myself. She seemed so rested and relaxed … celestial, in a way. I leaned over and started to fuss over the excited dog.

As quick as the panic had been there, it disappeared, 'And good morning, Steph.' Normal. In control … and followed by a smile I had conjured up from somewhere in the coffers inside me.

'Good morning, neighbour. Sleep well?' Fuck. And then FUCK. She knew. She had to. Why was she blushing? Why was I faltering? And why was I walking closer to her when she would see how fucking red I had become? I don't know how she knew that I had taken myself with her image in front of me last night - or early hours of the morning, but she did. The expression, and colour, on her face paid claim to that.

There was only one thing to do … be stupid. Although I had no difficulty at all of pulling that act off the way I had been behaving lately. The weird part about acting stupid is that it really takes hard work … and stamina. All I could think of doing was repeating what she had said - you know - ask her how she slept. I think that in all the 'Look at me. I'm an idiot' competitions, I would be a winner hands down. But it was the increasing colour of her face that alerted me that all was not well … to be more specific … her not being well. I honestly believed she was about the keel over and die right in front of me. She was purple. A luminous purple, to be exact.

'Honestly. I'm fine.' This was my chance to take the focus of how bloody uncomfortable I had been feeling. All the while I was playing Florence Nightingale, she was stammering out a response that she didn't need assistance. It wasn't until I realised I was becoming obsessed that I let her be. She was stumbling over excuses by this stage - something about winter wear, which for a minute I didn't believe, but hey. As soon as she mentioned Friday, and wanting to be with the village idiot/stalker (me, if you were wondering), I felt my whole body relax. It wasn't just the thought of spending the day with her either … it was the thought that Brian was coming on that day too. And Sue, Rob and the kids … and yes … that was an after thought. I missed my man - you don't blame me, do you?

Funny thing was the expression on Steph's face changed as soon as I mentioned my dog. She seemed to close up in front of my very eyes. Then when she said she was going away on the Friday, I … well, let's just say, I didn't believe her. Was it because she felt uncomfortable about Rob? Or was she shy about meeting Sue? It couldn't be because of Brian, because there was one thing I knew for definite about this woman was that she was a dog lover. Did she think that my dog wouldn't like her dog? That they'd fight?

It was at this moment I let my guard down. Didn't realise it, but I did. And the next thing I remember doing before I went to the land of purple again was admitting to Steph I had told every one and their mother about her. What the fuck? Why would anyone tell everyone about their neighbour? Why? Other than they fancied them … or if they suspected them of being a serial killer … What to do …. What to …

Reggie. The poor little fella. He was contentedly itching his ear, and didn't understand that he was the key to me getting myself out of one of the numerous sticky situations I seemed to land in whenever I was around his mamma. 'And they can't wait to meet you either. Especially Brian.'

There it was again. That look that said everything, yet nothing. And the silence was too loud.

'Anyway. I'd better get to work.' She seemed colder than she had been. Distant. And she was becoming more distant as she was moving away from me. 'See you Friday morning, then? About nine thirty?' I didn't want to wait until Friday to see her again. That was two days away. Two days! And I still hadn't said the thing I wanted to say … you know … Article, although even to me, the mere mention of that by now was beginning to bore the tits off me - never mind your tits, if you don't mind me bringing in your ladies at this point in order to drum the point home.

But like the ultimate wuss, I didn't say anything. Didn't rabbit on. Didn't spill the beans. Just took it on the chin. I do believe I kept my disappointment well and truly hidden.

'Nine thirty sounds great.' Although it would have been better if it had been sooner.

She left a couple of minutes after, vowing to walk my legs off me and for me to grab an early night. And as the words, 'Consider me in bed at seven,' popped out from my lips, I knew I was going to blush like an idiotic bolisha beacon again. Therefore, the only thing I could think of doing was messing about with my bush.

Funnily enough, it was near enough the same thought that made me want to light up like a Christmas tree in the first place.


Those two days went too slowly. TOO slowly. It seemed that being in a rural place, time had adopted a new role. Or … should I say it took on new meaning? Whatever it was, time was definitely longer in the Lakes than I could ever remember it being. Weirdly, though, when I had spent time with Steph, it had reacted in the opposite way. A whole evening with her seemed to pass in a blink of an eye, whereas when she wasn't in the picture … God. Talk about dragging out. Every action, chore, or thought made me appear as if I was the only fast moving figure in a freeze frame. It was almost comedy. Almost. If you weren't living it, that is.

By the time Friday arrived, I was more than ready to spend time with Steph. I would even have considered having lunch with a ninety-year-old politician. Anything to break the monotony of the days. I think it was mainly my fault that I found everything dull and lifeless. I hadn't given the area a chance - not even gone out for a wander by myself. I was saving that for when I was with her. I wanted to see things how she saw them. And yes. I am a sad fucker.

Sue was my salvation, in a way. I can't remember how many times I called her in those couple of days, but I do remember becoming more and more obsessed with the woman next door. Even Sue noticed, and that took a lot. Countless times, she asked what the deal was, you know, with Steph and me, but in reality, there was no 'deal', as she put it. I liked my neighbour, true. But there was nothing going on. Unfortunately.

By the time Thursday evening came around, I was talking myself out of just 'popping' in to say hello. Therefore, the only thing I could do was to take her advice and grab an early night.

Lying there in the dark, the excitement about being with her again came upon me full force, and the rest of the night was spent in disturbed and restless sleep. Dreams bombarded me … dreams of what could come about the next day. Images of Steph telling me that we should spend more time together were my favourites, but nasty little sparks of her realising I was a liar always interrupted them - not forgetting to add I was beginning to believe I was a bastard.

By the time morning sauntered around, I was ready and waiting to get up and across to her, even though it was only six-thirty. Too early for anyone to be calling and demanding a full tour of the area, don't you think? Therefore, it was a case of trying to have a luxurious, and calming, shower that obviously didn't work. Then followed by me trying to swallow pancakes - a feat I do not envy anyone.

All this time still left me with well over an hour before I was supposed to be ready to see her. I had read yesterday's paper - again. Washed up. Tidied up. Even vacuumed. But there it was. The evidence. It hung on the wall tick tocking away and announcing that I was before my time.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I wracked my befuddled brain for an excuse just to go and break the emptiness I was feeling inside. It must have been only the matter of five minutes before I noticed Brian's bowl sitting on the counter ready to be filled for his arrival later that the idea came to me.

Reggie. Reggie would be coming with us today. He had to be. There was no way she would leave him on his own all day - unless … unless … it was only a quick tour about the place.

Ah fuck. What if she just spent a couple of hours with me? She was going to Manchester tonight, wasn't she? That would mean she wouldn't want to be dragging a woman around all day if she had to drive and still feel refreshed enough to see her family.

Bollocks. I hadn't thought of that before. All I had concentrated on was how boring my life had been until I could see her again. Even that thought worried me. I was never a person who relied solely on someone else to find happiness and pleasure in life. I had so much to do. I hadn't even started my new book yet - and it wouldn't be long before my publisher would be giving me the calls that stressed I had to get my arse into gear to meet the deadline. Even when I wasn't under a deadline … I enjoyed looking at the world around me. Didn't understand what I was looking at, but I enjoyed it anyway.

However, that is beside the point, and not what I want to tell you at this precise moment. There will be enough time for you to know who I am and what I like in life, although I think you are getting a big enough picture as it is.

Back to the dog bowl. Back to Reggie, and how he could be a key in me getting to see Steph a little bit earlier … and him too, of course.

Even if it was going to be a quick tour, I wanted to know beforehand. Therefore, I could find a way to hide my disappointment by coming back here for a while before going out. And on a brighter side, if it was going to be for longer, I would have the opportunity to come back and have a dance about the house until it was time to leave.

It was simple. Food. Did we need a picnic? Being a dog owner, I knew it was a rare occurrence that places allowed dogs inside. Therefore, if we were going out for longer than a couple of hours, we needed to get some food ready.

It wasn't until I was half way over the divide between her and my house that I realised Steph might not be too happy about me knocking on her door at eight-thirty in the morning.

Standing there on the porch, I was the picture of idiocy. Three times I lifted my hand to knock, and three times I lowered it again. I even turned at one point and made a move to walk away. The memory of the very first time I had seen Steph raged inside my head. The 'What the hell do you want?' followed by the look of total outrage when I had made my presence known to her less than a week ago. And that was in the early evening, never mind first thing in the morning. But all that paled in comparison to the delightful and enchanting face she had when she was apologising straight after. The way she tried to make up for her rude behaviour … and the way her hand felt in mine when she took it in hers …

Before I knew it, my hand raised for the fourth time. It was at this point that the door seemed to open without me actually announcing I was there, but that was not the reason why I stood there gob smacked. The smile on her face was enough to melt away any inhibitions I had, and replace them with a feeling of total contentment. I was mesmerised. Steph was a vision of everything I ever wanted in life. It wasn't just her beauty … no. It was so much more than that. I can't explain it … it was just a feeling I had that started somewhere deep inside my chest and seeped around to every nook and cranny of my body. Even when she greeted me, I couldn't answer. She had, in effect, taken my breath away. It wasn't until I saw her concern, accompanied by the 'You ok?' that I realised I had to speak. Had to utter the few words I needed to utter in order to stop her losing that smile I loved so much.

But they wouldn't come. They started and they stopped. They played with my tongue and tormented my lips, until I said the most stupid thing I could say. Why did I have to say I didn't expect to see her smiling, I'll never know. Because in my head, that is all I really ever saw her do. Such a captivating smile … such an honest and heart-warming smile. A smile that was disappearing right in front of my eyes. Panic set in, and I did what I knew best. I waffled and babbled … then waffled and babbled some more, until the smile I needed was back. An open-mouthed one that ran alongside the most musical sound I have ever heard. Her laughter.

The sensation that had been racing around my body suddenly shot back to the place in my chest to grip and hold the pumping organ. I felt like my whole world had culminated into this one perfect moment, and I had to stop myself falling onto my knees and crying for some strange reason. It was as if I could see things so clearly now, that I frightened myself into total insightfulness. This couldn't be love. This couldn't be. I barely knew her. I was lonely, that was it. I needed something in my life, and had latched myself onto her hoping she would be my salvation.

I could see her waiting. Feel her waiting for me to speak, but I was finding it so hard. I wanted to ask her why I was feeling like this - ask her why I felt so right with her, but even in my demented state I knew that would sound surreal. I had to get a grip. Just ask about the picnic, but time was speeding and slowing and making me into a twat … a mute, confused, and psychotic twat.

It wasn't until I saw her open her mouth that the word 'Food' shot from mine. I had to stop her telling me to go and crawl under a rock and die. This was not the time to fall apart. It was supposed to be a good day - a nice day - a day where I could get to know my neighbour … get to know the place I had willingly chosen to live for the rest of my life. This was not the time to confess feelings I didn't have. I couldn't love her … couldn't. Things like this do not happen. Do not. This was just a reaction to cooping myself up in my house for a couple of days … of missing Brian and my family. This was not a reuniting of soul mates. That was a myth. Something that was spread around to make us want to never give up hope of feeling whole again.

Eventually I managed to splutter something about having a picnic … then held my breath. This would be the moment when I would find out whether I was to be a quickie, or a more in-depth tourist.

'That would be great. What a lovely idea.' I couldn't help the smile. It was there and beaming. Then so was hers, and I couldn't help the next sentence that slipped uncensored from my mouth.

'You have a beautiful smile, you know?' It would have been better if I hadn't delivered it in the way someone would if he or she were telling you the meaning of our existence. But that was the way it was. And the way I stared at her lips because I was too scared to look into her eyes … the way my voice couldn't rise up as I repeated 'So beautiful …', they were all delivered by a side of me I couldn't control.

I had to shake this off before it got out of hand, if it hadn't already. Physically I mimicked what I should do, hoping that the movement of shaking my head would refocus me on what I had to do. And that was to move one foot in front of the other and back to my house to make a picnic. 'I'll be waiting at home for you, ok?'

Then I was gone. Didn't even turn around. I had to leave there and then, as I didn't trust myself to continue any form of conversation.

I had only an hour to get myself sorted. Amazing to think that before my visit to Steph's, I would have thought an hour was an eternity. Now that I had so much to mull over, I was beginning to panic. I needed longer. I needed to get through everything I had experienced in the last fifteen minutes. Maybe that was what Andy Warhol meant when he said that everybody got their fifteen minutes, even though he meant of fame rather than the realisation of why we were placed on this earth. Part of me wanted that to be true. That the feelings I had just had were over and done with. But a larger, more insistent part of me wanted those fifteen minutes to multiply and expand into something so much bigger … something that wasn't one sided.

Therefore, you can understand why an hour wasn't nearly enough time, can't you?


I tried to blank it out as soon as I closed the door behind me. Tried to erase and eradicate those feelings and pretend they were the result of relief in speaking to another human being face to face after forty-eight hours. Tremors still chuckled around my body, and if you looked hard enough, my hands were still shaking slightly. I knew that in less than an hour, Steph would be knocking on my door with Reggie, and ready to give me the full nickel tour. There was no way I wanted a dampener to settle on something I had looked forward to. I would have plenty of time later … well, after my visitors had gone to bed, that is. Maybe I could talk to Sue about it all.

And say what? You have finally cracked up and are stalking your neighbour. The same neighbour who, upon seeing, you bought the house in the first place? The same neighbour whom four years ago you had wanted to crush because your girlfriend had admitted that you weren't enough for her? I could see that going down as well as a pork pie in a synagogue.

It's in these kinds of situations that you deliver one of those laughs … the ones that are sharp and derogatory and aimed straight back at you. The ones that make you stand back and look at yourself with a hint of contempt, yet appear to be omniscient.

Turning, I could see my reflection in the window … slightly out of focus, but still there, almost spectral. I leaned closer, and stared deeply into my eyes, taking in all I could see. At these points in your life, I think you believe you see the true you. But in fact, you actually see your representation of what you want to see. And what I saw was me. Exposed and vulnerable. Two things I didn't want to be. I wanted to be full. Wanted to be whole. Wanted something that was definitely lacking in my life. And that something seemed further from my grasp at that precise moment than it had ever been.

Swallowing deeply, I turned away from myself, literally as well as metaphorically. This was not the time, as I said before … not the time to open myself up to me … or Steph … or anyone. I had to stay focused and in control. Had to be stronger than I believed I could be.

The feeling I had experienced whilst standing in front of Steph swept through me again, as a reminder that this was far from over. This feeling … this can of worms I had willingly opened myself up to was telling me that this time I had to see the whole thing through, whatever that meant. I couldn't run … couldn't hide forever. And if I let my guard down for a split second it would be there to conquer. Funnily enough, this kind of thought should have been enough to scare the living crap out of me, but in reality I readied myself. When the time was right, I would be prepared for whatever life would throw at me. I know it sounds jumbled and confused, and to tell you the truth, I didn't understand it completely myself. I just knew that something bigger than me was happening here, whatever that was.

Walking over to the radio, I switched it on. I had to have something to occupy my thoughts rather than my own delusional meanderings. It wasn't until I was singing away whilst chopping salad did I take note of the words to the song I was shaking my hips to. Bloody Hot Chocolate was pumping seventies vibes through into my kitchen and I surprised myself by knowing it near enough word perfect. You Sexy Thing, for God's sake. Believing in miracles was something I never did, although I had seen my fair share … one in fact. Rob. But my attention did not stay with the fight my brother-in-law had had with cancer … not by a long stretch of the imagination. I think it was the words about where had she come from … the likening to an angel … praying for her … and the fact that when this woman had entered his life he had started to believe in miracles.

'Yesterday … I was one of the lonely people …'

'So was I, Errol. So was I.' And why was I talking to the lead singer? The smile split my face, followed by a laugh of relief. At that moment I knew that part of my faith in life had been restored … not by Steph, not by moving here, and not even by Hot Chocolate. It had been restored by me … the woman who couldn't string a sentence together when nervous … the woman who had taken what life had thrown at her without a fight … the woman who knew that there was actually something to smile about, fight back for, live for. And in a way, I think that was miracle number two.

Today was going to be a good day. A new day. A day where I could start again, live again, accept who I was and am again. No more hiding behind brick walls, or my family. Today I would become Erin Mason. The woman who wanted more than her fifteen minutes.


Chapter Twenty-Three

It wasn't long after that Steph knocked on my door, and before I knew it, we were all bundled in her car, Reggie secure behind bars. Conversation wasn't really needed, and I happily allowed the miles to slip away into nothingness, as we drove along in silence. Steph decided that Keswick should be our first port of call, and I was happy to just sit and let her take me anywhere.

Upon arriving, I was flabbergasted by the view in front of me. I wasn't a complete stranger to the Lakes, but to see Derwentwater at this time of year … wow. Then wow again. England was raising her head once more, as spring was showing herself against the backdrop of hills and green. Steph began to explain all about the area, like a true guide, even going as far as if to say there was such a thing as a floating island, something to this day I don't believe. And I told her so …

It wasn't until I nudged her and nearly had her falling over in a pile of what appeared to be goose poop, that I grabbed hold of her. The reason I am saying this is that I had wanted to link my arm through hers ever since we had left the car. I know there is nothing wrong with two friends linking arms, but I still felt the need to pull back a little … didn't really trust myself to behave, if the truth be known. Nevertheless, it wasn't a 'linking of the arms' moment. I had actually pulled her hard enough so she slammed straight into me. The feel of her in my arms was what I would like to call a heavenly moment; I even felt my eyes flutter closed for a second.

Shit. There I was, trying to make out that I was a normal human being who was enjoying being shown the area by a very kind neighbour, when the next thing on my stalker agenda was to try and shove her into crap, drag her back to me, and then stand there fluttering my eyelashes. I just hoped she hadn't seen me do it. The fluttering, I mean.

'You ok?' Well. What else could I say? 'I enjoyed that. Fancy a shag?' Didn't think so.

Straightening my back, I dropped my arms to my sides. It took so much strength to pin them there, I must have looked like a tin soldier. However, the reality was I didn't trust them not try to get a grip of her again. The air around us was weird. Eerie, if you know what I mean. No noise tried to break through … nothing. Just me and her - and a very mute dog, who silently sniffed the crap scattered all over the ground, and if I'm not mistaken, actually licked at some.

Steph was facing the lake again, and I allowed myself to let out the breath I had been holding. I followed her gaze, and it took me to the other side of the lake. Maybe she wanted to see it from that side instead.

'Fancy walking around it?' Where the fuck did that come from? It must have been miles to the other side, and whatever you may think, I am not a big walker. 'I would love to see it from the other side.' Why is it when the atmosphere tells you it is perfectly ok not to say a word that you insist on saying the biggest pile shit possible? Is it human nature? My nature?

'Yap!' I should have guessed that Reggie would love the idea, and I was hoping that his mamma disagreed with both our suggestions …

When I heard the words, 'quite a trek', I felt the relief flood through me; although I tried my hardest to make out I was disappointed. I felt even more relieved, if possible, when she agreed to let me choose the lake I wanted to walk around. I made a mental note that I would be going through that guidebook to find the smallest one; although I would definitely make out that I was a walking type. Reason being, I thought that's what she might want to hear. Simple. We all do things that we feel will impress the person we wanted to impress … and by the look of Steph, she took extremely good care of her physical shape. Don't get me wrong, I am by no means a salad dodger, or scared of exercise, but I find there are other ways to get fit rather than walking. Brian was the kind of dog that near enough walked himself. All I had to do was to give him the opportunity to race around like a maniac.

The ok I gave her sounded muffled, maybe because I was trying desperately not to cheer. And when she continued to make excuses why it would be for the best that we didn't trek nearly seven miles … I wanted to laugh. She looked so cute standing there all bundled up against the cold … standing there trying to make me feel better, and better I was feeling. Especially when she said we could go in the car. That way she would be able to see the view from the other side of the lake, and we could even get the opportunity to visit the Pencil Museum. I had read about that in the local paper and had wanted to go, but by the look on her face, I don't think that was her idea of having a great day out.

Thankfully, I didn't have to worry about her not going into the museum, as both of us had forgotten that Reggie would be stuck in the car all the time we were gone. I agreed totally with her explanation - there was no way I would have ever left Brian in the car when I went in somewhere … and not just because of the heat. Dogs are sitting targets now to thieves and kidnappers, and my boy meant too much to me to let him become another way for some bastard to make easy money.

Turning in my seat, I looked Reggie right in the eyes. Brown and twinkling … so full of love and fun, that the same sentiment I had felt previously for Brian went for him too. I couldn't imagine how Steph would feel if something was to happen to him … and the way I would feel too. Strangely enough, Reggie was taking a place inside my chest right alongside his mamma, and for once that day I did not struggle with the idea of letting someone in.

Ten minutes later, we were at the other side of Derwentwater. The view, although similar to the previous one, was in fact better. Everything was perfect. The scene ... the company … the weather … everything. We didn't have to talk … didn't feel the need - again. It was weird that half the time I felt so at ease with this woman, and the other half on pins.

Steph moved forward towards the edge of the water, and I could see her concentrating on a couple of swans that were building a nest. They were so engaged in what they were doing they never noticed we were there. It was fascinating to see … such dedication … such a bond. And by the look on Steph's face, she felt the same way as I did.

Before I knew it, the words, 'I love swans' burst from my mouth and disturbed the solitude. By this time I was looking at Steph and trying to gauge what was going through her mind. 'Imagine spending every day with the person you love most in the world. Wouldn't that be perfect?' I wanted that. God … I wanted that, and I think my tone exposed this want inside me. But I doubted Steph felt the same, as she nodded curtly and turned away as if she were dismissing my words. But it was the hunch of her shoulders that told me she might have felt differently. I can't explain it better than by what I saw. I could see the side of her face and her expression kept shifting from happy to sad so quickly, it was as if she couldn't make up her mind what she wanted. Amazing to think that this woman was more like me than I had thought before this moment.

A gust of wind swept past her as I was watching, and I saw her blonde hair dance in the current. She was so beautiful standing there. Regal, in a way. Her cheeks were rosy and healthy, and she had a look that tamed the fear inside of me. Why fear, you ask? Fear because I was scared that she would turn around and see me for whom I truly was. A nothing and a nobody, in that order. A nothing and a nobody who was finding it more and more difficult not to fall more and more for this incredible woman.

At this point, I didn't seem to care whether she liked me or not. It was just a privilege to be near her, something I would just have to get used to. Look, but not touch, so to speak.

Stuffing my hands into my pockets, I turned my attention again on to the swans. Thoughts raced around my head about what life could be like if I were someone else. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Imagine being able to select qualities about yourself that you could call upon when wanting to impress someone who usually you wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance of ever being with. I would be able to get rid of all the things that I despised about myself and replace them with perfection.

But would that make us truly happy? Perfection, I mean. Aren't the little foibles we bear the things that make us unique? The crooked smiles … the moles and freckles … the little fingers that are not aligned to the rest of the bigger, stronger fingers. Why would we think it would change us and make us more alluring if we were constantly upbeat, if we never grew angry, or said something out of turn? What if you were supposed to be the kind of person who is a waffler … a babbler … an indecisive, vulnerable woman who was scared the world wouldn't, or couldn't, accept who she was?

Teri's decision to be with someone else came into my head, obviously because of what I was thinking. Maybe this was the reason why I felt a little off kilter … it wasn't the fact she had decided I wasn't enough, it was because she had told me that being with a woman wasn't what she wanted. Furthermore, was it enough for me? Or, more to the point, did I accept who, and what, I was? A gay woman, I mean? I know I had written two novels about coming to terms with my sexuality, but had I really 'come to terms' with it? Was this the reason why I was so bloody scared of falling for someone else … falling for the woman who was standing mere feet away from me? Did all women who had relationships with women feel this way? Was I living a phase that I would eventually discover to not be enough?

Looking at Steph I thought about how she would react to me asking her this. Would she agree and say that the 'phase' we are always told we are going through is in fact true? Or would she put me in my place, tell me to grow up and accept that Teri had made her own choices in life, and one of them did not include me. Maybe, just maybe, Teri hadn't been the one for me after all … and maybe she was the one who had lived her phase and moved on, just like I should be doing …

'Steph?' I wanted to ask her … wanted her to tell me everything would be all right. She didn't turn straight away, and it seemed as if she had been going through her own demons by the look on her face. At that moment, I lost my nerve and just prompted her to move away from the water. 'Or would you rather stay here all day?'

The next part of the sequence went so slowly, as if you have all the time in the world to stop it happening, but you, too, are stuck in the slow motion and can't speed up. Steph was going backwards, then forwards, then bang. She had landed face first in the gooey mess that was around her feet, and by the smell of things when I eventually found my momentum to move, it wasn't mud. Reggie got there first. Unfortunately. He decided that mummy wanted to play and jumped onto her back, thus pushing Steph's face further into the swan crap.

I know I shouldn't have … I knew I should have been serious and showed concern, rather than what I did do. I laughed - muffled, but a laugh all the same. It wasn't just the fact she had fallen in a pile of stuff you wouldn't wish of your worst enemy; it was everything else besides. Less than a minute ago, I was feeling so bloody sorry for myself, believing the world was conspiring against me, and then … splat. It was as if someone up there had made this moment just for me … something to make me smile … something to break the blackness that was all too willing to consume me.

Eventually, I actually got Reggie off her back, and this enabled her to look up at me. For all the world, she was a vision. Not by any stretch of the imagination a bad one. She may have been covered in shit, but she still looked beautiful. It was so difficult to ask the simple question, 'You … ok?', as I knew by the looks of her that she wasn't. Who would be after such an experience? But it wasn't just because of that why I felt it difficult to speak … it was more … as the feeling inside my chest could prove. However, this was not the time to have epiphanies. This was the time to take the situation for what it was - a chance to lighten the mood and offer my friendship.

Grinning widely, I lowered my hand to hers, knowing that she would take this opportunity to get me back. I did think she would pull me down with her, but as she slammed her hand into mine and proceeded to rub as much of the excrement as possible onto my flesh, I didn't care. This load of shit between us sealed our friendship in a way, and I would have plenty of time to deliberate over what had happened this morning and before this moment later.

Yanking her to her feet, I noticed the smile radiating from her. This woman was amazing. She was completely covered in swan's doings and she still grinned at me, her beautiful green eyes sparkling with happiness. I wanted to wipe away all the mess from her face, to clean it all up so she could just stand there and look at me in the same way for as long as possible, but that would mean having to let go of her hand.

Then, like the socially inept person I am, I said the words any woman would love to hear.

'You stink.' See? I couldn't just keep my mouth shut, I had to show that I am in fact a moron. 'Have you got a wet one?' As soon as that sentence popped out, I wanted to blush. Therefore, me being me, had to get myself out of the ambiguous situation. 'Or we could go somewhere so you could wipe … wash it off.' At least I'm practical. There was no way she would be able to just get a tissue and gently wipe it away. This was more like a situation where a hosepipe and jet wash come into mind.

Not long after I was standing guard outside the nearest public convenience, Reggie sitting patiently by my side, waiting for the woman who made my days to get cleaned up.

What a wonderful start to the day.


Buttermere was wonderful. We walked partly around the lake, and then sat and had lunch. Reggie was more interested in what was coming out of the small plastic containers, rather than chasing ducks. I believe he was hoping for more beef, but I can assure you, that was not going to be on my bill of fare for him for a long time to come.

Conversation with Steph was so easy, and I found myself telling her about my childhood and moving from Ireland. At nine years old, the move was daunting, exhilarating, and frightening to say the least. Having an accent, I found that other kids could be quite cruel, and they had fun taking the piss out of me at every chance they could. Not that I told Steph that … no way. I just rattled on about what it was like in Ireland, and then added a little about being brought up in a different country.

Afterwards, Steph decided to take me to Ambleside. Now there's a place … If you ever get the opportunity to visit the Lakes, make sure you stop there. Especially Bridge House. That was one fucked up building, if you'll pardon the break into the obscene. It was as if it had stepped, if buildings could actually step, from the pages of a Grimm's' fairytale. Illustrated of course.

Standing in front of it, I found I had to tilt my head to the side in order to make it appear almost normal. Steph proceeded to tell me how a family had once lived in it. As if! I doubted I would have been able to stand up straight if I had gone inside.

'Is that the same as the floating island?' I couldn't resist teasing her, even though I knew deep down that she was telling me the truth. She was grinning now, and I understood the feeling she was going through. When you tell someone something that sounds unbelievable, and of course they don't believe you, it is difficult not to grin and laugh when trying to convince them. I wanted to have a little fun.

'Trust me.' I do, Steph. It's me I don't trust very much. 'Check out the local history.' I don't need to … I had her.

'Under gullible?'

'Ok. Don't.' The way she responded didn't make me think I had overstepped the mark. Being with her made me feel safe and happy, and I knew she was playing along with me.

We stood there for a while longer, taking in the view, although if truth be known, I spent more time surreptitiously looking at her as she digested the building brick by brick. Without warning, I watched the smile slide from her face. I couldn't understand what had brought that on, as previously her face seemed contented, but when it changed … it was as if she had seen a ghost. Looking about, I realised there was no one around that could have made her react that way. Although people were passing, no one had caught either of our attention - though I had not been looking at anyone else but her before that point.

Panic seeped in, and I thought for a split second she was on the verge of passing out, as the colour in her face had disappeared.

Stepping closer, I asked if she was ok. Nothing. She didn't even turn to face me. I could see her throat pumping up and down as if she was trying to swallow a huge object, so I didn't repeat my question. I waited. And then I waited some more. Then a little longer just to be on the safe side. When I placed my hand upon her arm, I could feel the tension running through her. It was the matter of a split second before I squeezed the muscle and felt the tension begin to ebb away. Nothing was said … it wasn't needed. So, we stood there a little longer, until I saw her shake her head before turning to face me.

Her expression was so open and honest, and I believe if I had looked deeply enough I could have read what was bothering her in her eyes. But that isn't the right thing to do, is it? Take advantage of a woman when she was the most vulnerable? No … So, I watched her swallow a few times before she stumbled out a suggestion about going to Wordsworth's Cottage, a smile appearing as if on command. I knew she wasn't up to going there, I could tell, but I still didn't understand why she had reacted the way she had. Even when I explained that we couldn't because of Reggie, she looked startled, as if she had forgotten she had a dog. This wasn't right. She wasn't right. And all I wanted to do was to make every thing right … Therefore, when I stated it would be a good excuse to get her on her own again, I was even more surprised by the way she reacted.

Startled. Like a rabbit in the headlights, that's it. Did she know I was gay? Was she gay? Fuck! Did she think I was coming onto her? Even though I wanted to, I hadn't meant it the way it had come out. I had avoided the fact of telling her I was gay, and even though I had heard some stories when I lived in Manchester … that's all they might have been … stories. All this time I had spent deliberating about how I wanted my life to pan out, how I fancied my next-door neighbour, how I had felt something ping deep inside my chest this morning, and at no point did I question if she was a lesbian. Talk about being even more stupid than I thought I was.

'How about we go to Windermere?' She looked at me with such innocence after asking, I became speechless. I think it was the guilt racing around me that stopped my brain functioning properly. I had to say something, anything, but thankfully she stopped me. 'Or …' Then she stopped as well. Could she see my guilt? Is that why she stopped? Or had she just realised I was not all I was pretending to be? 'Or … we could …' Then she stopped again, and I was left hanging onto the unsaid sentence. 'Do you like sugar?'

I can't remember the exact feeling in perfect detail, maybe because I believe I was numb from the forehead down. I can vaguely recollect the effort it took me to repeat the word, 'Sugar?' I just didn't get the link. How could sugar be connected to me being exposed as a dyke?

Steph took my hand in hers with the promise of making the next part of the day memorable. I wanted to respond by saying it was ok … I think I would remember me being a twat for a long time, but I didn't. I just followed her like a lamb to the slaughter. I couldn't even warn her that I shouldn't have too much sugar, as it made me a little wired, if you know what I mean. I was ok with a bit …

With hindsight, I should have told her. Not just because I didn't like the feeling of being as high as a kite … or out of control, but more about the fact that I could become even more annoying than I was already.


Kendal Mint Cake. If anyone ever offers you a piece, do one of these two things. Firstly, refuse. Trust me. REFUSE. It has the ability to pump so much adrenaline around your body that I feel you could keel over with a heart attack at any given time. Secondly, if you feel you can't help but try a piece, make sure it is just that. A piece. Don't be all macho and think, 'Hey. I can handle this. It's just a little bit of sugar.' It is not. It is a lethal weapon in the wrong hands.

But no. I had to be overly friendly, didn't I. I had to take a piece … then another … and then too many, until I felt all the nerve endings in my body stand to attention and scream, 'I NEED TO RUN!' It wasn't that it that scared me though. It was the wanting to shout out random words and phrases, which, I would like to add, would have told her exactly everything I didn't want to her to know about. All the wanting I had for her was there crying out at the surface, not to mention the article, but the only thing I allowed to come out was fucking Shakespeare. Yes. You read that right. Shakespeare. So you can see I was in a pickle.

I tried to tear myself away from gazing into her eyes and then quoting some more of the Bard at her, but that just made me appear deranged. I was finding it difficult to control my movements, even my knee started shaking and quaking and edging towards freedom and safety. If I could have got up and ran, I would have. But I have to admit that the next hour was a bit of a blur. All I remember was seeing her face hover in front of mine before I found myself in the car watching images crawl by. Thoughts of getting out of the car and running alongside it were in the forefront of my mind, and the internal struggle I had to not just open the door and leap out, was exhausting.

Then everything went black. I either passed out or feel asleep, my final thought being, I want to climb Everest.

Arriving at Lake Coniston came as a surprise, and it was only the sound of the handbrake being put on that made my eyes snap open and wonder where I was. Steph was looking at me, and she asked if I was ok so softly, at first I thought I was still dreaming. Instead of pinching myself, I stretched, thinking this would help me shake of the shackles of sleep that seemed to envelope me. The last vestiges of the sugar had long since depleted from my system - thankfully, and all I felt now was the urge to just curl up and fall back to sleep again.

When I found myself focusing, it was to the weirdest sight I think I had seen for a long time. Steph had her hand out stretched towards me and was intently focused on my lower abdomen.

I couldn't, in my half-asleep state, understand what she was doing. When my eyes met hers, the look that greeted me said nothing - it was as if she had closed off.

It was the next thing she did say that sent the fear of God racing through me. 'Thought you had a bug on you. Was going to flick it off.' I think it was at that moment in time that I felt a little bit of pee escape into my underwear. But the icing on the cake was when I looked down and saw something black moving up my belly. Like the coward I truly was, I showed my colours … in the form of having the screaming Mary's and demanding she take the invader away and destroy it, or words to that effect. What was the matter with her? She looked at me as if I was an idiot, or something just as intellectually challenged. Then I saw her face cloud over slightly, before a look of absolute terror replaced it. I wanted to slap myself, slap the spider, slap her … Instead she began to slap at me … and scream … and slap … and scream louder. Reggie was going crackers by this stage, and I wanted to scream at him to help me, because his mamma was doing a shite job of it.

'Stop!' Was I back at school? Whatever the reasoning, or memory, I stopped. I had to, or else I would have keeled over and snuffed it right there and then. I didn't think my heart could stand much more. Steph was deliberating touching me, and if this were at any other time, I would have been relishing the experience. However, it seemed I was already being touched … by eight legs, which were multiplying and becoming an army of spiders and bugs and all varieties of the insect world.

My breathing matched someone who had just run the marathon … maybe run it twice over. After all that sugar, and the depletion of all that adrenaline, I wouldn't have been surprised if my blood pressure was at danger level. Steph wasn't helping at all. She was taking in the situation as if she had all the time in the world. Good job the thousands of creepy crawlies weren't dancing on her skin, wasn't it? Maybe then she might have acted a little faster …

At this point, I was frozen to the spot. If I moved, the bug master would take me as his prisoner and I would be enslaved into the world of creatures with more than two legs for eternity. It wasn't until I looked back at Steph's face that I felt a surge of safety flash, disappear, reappear, and then settle over me. Previously, I had imagined that I was at that point of no return, but the look on her face informed me that everything would be ok …

Bollocks to ok. Bollocks to her saving the day. I trusted her to capture the alien and dispose of it, but no … she got it, then dropped the fucker back onto me. At least I had known where my enemy was when it was on my naval, now I didn't have a clue … It might have been entering any of my orifices … some of which I am quite selective about who, or what, goes in and out of. This revelation made me scream even louder than I had before, but the absolute star turn was when I kicked her in the head.

Erm. That doesn't sound right … and in reality, wasn't exactly what happened. I didn't purposefully set out to thwack her at the side of the head with my knee until she flew back and cracked into the window. It was an accident. Honestly. My leg just jerked of its own volition, and bam … there she was, splattered against the driver's side window. Strangely enough, the fear I held onto previously dissipated, and I forgot about the bug. Steph looked dazed and little out of it. The only thing she had spluttered was a pained 'Jesus,' and I found myself on her side of the car.

Amazing to know that at times like this the ability to be gentle comes automatically. I can't even remember lifting my hands and cupping her face, holding them there as if she was made of porcelain. My face was mere inches from hers, as I felt the need to check her pupils … they did look rather dilated. What if I had given her concussion, when all she was trying to do was save me from my irrational fear of something that was probably more scared of me than I was of it? Then I spotted the blood. Not much, but enough to scare the living crap out me all over again. I tried to show her, but she seemed dazed, unfocused … all because of me.

Her eyes were opening and closing and she hadn't spoken, although I had tried to get her to respond. This didn't look good. As you might guess, this situation was going from bad to worse. All she had done was to try and show me the area … put herself out for my benefit. And what had she received in return? A maniac on a sugar rush, followed by someone who was shit feared of spiders, and happily kneed her guide in the head until she blacked out. I think Steph might have drawn the duff card when she had me move in next door to her.

Then she smiled. Such an uncontrolled and fuzzy smile, that I began to worry even more. A cracking sound came from somewhere in her direction, but I am uncertain from where. The 'Fuck' that shot from her mouth alerted me to something I didn't even know I was doing. I, like an idiot and an opportunist, was stroking her mouth … well I was, until she slapped my hand away. Crappity crap. Did she think I was coming on to her when she was in a weakened state? Could things get any worse? At this rate, I would put money on it.

Slowly, Steph wiped her hand over her mouth and jaw, all the while with me watching intently. Lifting her hand away, she examined the blood now on her fingers, and I was holding my breath. This was the moment where she told me to get out of her fucking car and make my own way home … not that I would've blamed her. This was not the case, though. She kind of looked proud of the fact that she was bleeding, almost as if she had won the first battle, in a way. Obviously, I was losing the fear of her hating me, but replacing it with the fear of what she was going to do to me …

The next bit surprised me even more. I had expected her to whip out a tissue from her pocket and wipe the blood away, but no … she wiped it down the side of her leg, an act I watched in rapt fascination.

'Ready?' God. Did I smack her in the throat too? Her voice was gruff and sounded like her windpipe had been damaged. And more to the point, ready for what? 'Want to see the lake?' Was she going to throw me in? Give me the concrete slipper treatment so I couldn't harass the ass off her in the future? Therefore, with these thoughts racing around my head, I couldn't formulate a response. Could I out run her? Maybe … but the main question should be 'For how long?' And that's what worried me the most.

Her sigh alerted me that I had been gone into the land of stupidity for too long, and now was the time I should say something to try and rectify the situation, but for the life of me I couldn't think of anything to say.

It was so quiet inside the car. Even Reggie had decided to lie down and wait for us to get our acts together. The sound of the clock on the dashboard began to get louder and louder and … Then she sat up … started to fiddle with her clothes, as if she was readying herself for something.

Looking out of the window, I spotted signs that informed visitors of the direction of the lake, as if the huge mass of water wouldn't be enough to give them a clue. Words popped into my head, and then straight out of my mouth without the usual process of censorship.

'Fancy a quick one?' Ah fuck. And then to cover up my social faux pas … 'Not all the way though.' I could feel the heat travelling up my neck and around my ears. I needed to say more before I felt the impact of a smack in the choppers. 'I think the sugar has worn off.' Einstein. That's my new name from now on. Albert to my friends. I couldn't bear to look at her reaction, well, until I heard a cracking sound coming from the quick movement she made, followed by a groan. As usual, I was on the case with my ultra fast medical diagnosis. 'Look. You're in pain.' No shit, Sherlock. But even though I tried not to lurch out and grab her again, I once again failed miserably. Before I knew it, her hand was in mine, and I was stroking her fingers, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. To be truthful, it felt perfect, and I didn't want the sensation to end.

However, I was alone on that one, as after what felt like seconds, Steph snatched her hand away as if she had been burned, a disgusted sigh meeting the air. This was the moment when I knew I had pushed this too far. If Steph hadn't known I was a lezza before the spider incident, she sure as hell knew now. It wasn't just the fondling and the hand holding that had given me away, it was everything. The way I acted, you know, like a love sick pup, the way I looked at her with apparent adoration written all over me, the way I stumbled over words, saying the most ludicrous thing at the most inopportune moment. The way I blushed, and faltered and fell over myself all of the time. Even the way I found myself just saying random things at random times just so I could hear her voice again … oh … that was a new one, by the way, as you might be able to tell by the next thing I said.

'Is this where Donald Campbell broke the water speed record?' And who gives a fuck? Steph didn't. At that moment, I wasn't too sure she had even heard of him. 'He died here, didn't he?' Just like I am, too. A big fat case of social suicide. I could teach classes titled: How to get your neighbour to hate you in less than a week. Or five easy steps to become ostracised from your community.

All I wanted was everything to be how it was this morning. Well, a little better than this morning, if truth be known, as this morning I was feeling insecure. A voice inside my head asked, 'So … what, exactly are you feeling now?'

Nevertheless, I didn't get the chance to answer, as Steph had started to give me the answer to the Donald Campbell question I had posed a couple of minutes previously. Obviously, by this point, I had forgotten I had asked about him. This was mainly due to the fact that she was getting out of the car, and I was sitting there like a lemon. Reggie was waiting for us to free him from his doggy prison, and like a fool, I was beginning to relax.

Big mistake. No. Bigger than that. I'll give you a clue. Think about everything I have done this far. Thought about it? Realised what a git I had been? Right. Now double that … no … treble it. Because I found that although I can be a twat sometimes, at other, more special times, I can be a fucking huge twat. I think it was because I led myself into a false sense of security, although I do believe Steph had helped me let down my defences when she had answered my question. I know I'm trying to shift the blame here - don't even understand why. I know I'm a dipshit, as you will find out.

It was innocent at first. Yes, innocent. I simply praised her … told her that I thought she was intelligent. Inside I was thinking 'Nice move, Mason', but it was a move that I didn't know would lead me into checkmate. The next thing I said was pretty complimentary too … saying I thought she had a real interest in the world around her. Not bad … not brilliant, but not bad. Then it went tits up. Without my knowledge, a part of me must have pulled out the invisible dunce cap and placed it onto my head, because the next thing I said was as far removed to what I wanted to say it's untrue. I mean, why would I mention about reporters and digging up dirt to a woman who quit her job for believing she had made someone commit suicide because of her actions? Can you explain? Because I certainly couldn't.

If I had wanted to get her attention, that was certainly the way to do it. The look she gave me as her head snapped up was enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Not to mention her voice. Jesus … when I think about that tone … God … it could've sliced through titanium with ease, and was even more threatening because I had never heard her use that tenor before. All she said was, 'What do you mean by that?' but believe me, that was enough. I didn't even get the chance to respond to her properly, as she turned and dragged Reggie away, her short legs marching away with speed.

I couldn't let her just leave like this. I had to explain that I meant no malice … they were just words … and … and …

Yes. Words. The same words that carry hatred and deliver fear. Words that can build or destroy. Words that are used to defend, retaliate, or maim. Words are never 'just words', and should never be used to fill in time, or silence. Whether these chosen, or spluttered scribblings that become airborne are there to show affection, love, or used to pacify, they should be reckoned with. Words are powerful … words are deadly and cruel and can also elicit joy. But what we should always remember is that we should use them with care. We should select with our hearts before our brains the right word, the right phrase, the right sentence to accompany our sentiment. If we are out to shock or hurt, think more deeply about the words you use. Is this a simple placing together of letters to create hurt or shock in others, or are we wanting them to come back and hurt and shock us in return? On the other hand, think about saying, 'I love you.' Why are you saying it? Is it to feel your emotion rattle through the air and bring happiness and elation to the party it is meant for? Or, is it to hear those three little words come back to you?

Therefore, the word I selected at that time was not up to standard. I had the whole of my vocabulary to choose from, and which word did I choose?


See? Completely useless. Just like my legs were feeling at that point. It appeared that all I could do was watch as she marched away, and metaphorically kick myself. Why had I mentioned her job? Why? There were so many other interesting things I could have said, but I had to say the one thing I didn't want to mention. Especially because I knew deep down that I was a major factor in the way she was feeling.

By the time I had got myself moving, she was slowing down. Standing outside a museum, she turned to me, the anger almost gone from her face. 'Another day?' and a nod towards the entrance. 'We could do it after we visit Dove Cottage - the Wordsworth place, if you want?' I was stunned to say the least. Initially, I thought she had stopped to have a go at me … but this? She was inviting me out for another day out, after all I had said and done. Those rascal words failed me for a moment, but when I saw the trace of a smile glance across her mouth, I couldn't help the relief flooding through me, followed by the smile of the exonerated.

'I would love that.' God. I would. I would.


Chapter Twenty-Four

It wasn't long after that we decided to call it a day. I didn't want to, but I understood that she had a long drive after she left me. I tried to get her to stay just a little longer so she could meet Brian, but all I saw was her beginning to withdraw from the situation, becoming more and more silent. The more she began to withdraw, the more I started to try to convince her that Brian was one special kind of pooch, resulting in her barely speaking a word for the remainder of the journey. Like before, now was no different. I thought if I spoke quickly enough, and made no sense whatsoever, then the silence in the car wouldn't become an issue. Unfortunately, the more I spoke, the more of an issue it became. It was with relief that I saw the lane where we lived appear like a mirage in front of us.

After parking her car, she walked me over to my patch. Then she was about to leave me standing in the front part of my garden, I couldn't resist hugging her. A friendly hug, obviously, as I knew she was still a little distant, but I had to accompany my thanks for a wonderful day somehow.

At one point I am sure I felt her relax into it, but as soon as I mentioned about going out again, she seemed to tense. In retrospect, I wasn't too sure whether it was because of mentioning going out, or that Reggie and Brian could keep each other company whilst we were out. The thing that confused me was that she said 'He would love that,' straight after. I was becoming more and more confused with what she was thinking in relation to her actions. Although, I am not one to point the finger, because as soon as I had thought that she couldn't seem to control her actions, I kissed her on the cheek and then fled for safety. Pot calling the kettle black, I think.

As I stepped, or skidded, inside my house and shut the door, I scurried over to the side window to look over at her house. But she was still standing where I had left her, one hand raised to her cheek. For a moment, I thought she might be wiping off any vestiges of spittle I had left behind, but no … she seemed … although I could be hugely mistaken here … she seemed as if she was stroking her cheek. No … she couldn't have been doing that, could she?

However, the sight soon left, or should I say she dropped her hand to her side, turned, and went inside her own house. I still watched, as if I was waiting for her to change her mind and come back over.

Entering the kitchen, I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Even though I had loved being with Steph all day, there was a feeling of having to work so bloody hard at being normal when I was around her. I wasn't usually as fucked up as this, honestly. The majority of the time saw me as an average woman, who took life as it came. No amateur dramatics, no acting out of turn. So why now? And why with Steph? Don't worry. I'm not asking you to guide me through my idiosyncrasies … I was becoming all too aware of my eccentricities in the last six days, that I was trying to adapt to them, as living next door to Steph assured me that I would get lots of practice. Practice I needed to pull off the 'Idiot of the Year' title without much effort, that is.

Plonking down at the kitchen table, I flopped my head into my hands and groaned. What a day. What a bloody illuminating day. I had raced through a gamut of emotions in the last nine hours, and I had not had the opportunity to digest them … any of them. All I knew for certain was that I was totally smitten with my next door neighbour. Not a bad assessment, if I do say so myself. But although I was quick to find the prognosis, I was having difficulty finding a cure for the unrequited longing I was feeling. Maybe it was true that I felt something other than neighbourly affection for Steph, although it still felt too soon for me, it didn't mean that anything would come from it.

There was one thing I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, and that was that I needed to get out more. Living in the sticks was not an excuse to close up and away from the world around me. That wasn't the reason why I had moved here in the first place. The reason, or one of them, was that I just wanted to make a fresh start - come here and clear my head, write, and just begin to live again.

A sigh slipped out. I didn't mean it to. It was if it was commenting on my reasons for moving away from my family, and deciding that my reasons were not good enough. If I was a practical person, I would have sat down and made a list of the things I should do to make my life better, you know, give focus and all that.

Next thing I remembered doing was opening the dresser drawer and claiming a note book and pen. I couldn't believe I was doing it. Even when I was laughing at my own ability to be anal, I was writing a heading. To Live List. Quite catchy … and the thought of using it as a new title for a piece of fiction popped into my head.

The pen hovered over the paper. What on earth would I write?

1. Get a life first?

Or should I start off a little less obvious? Maybe mention buying a few new houseplants … or decorating my office in colours that would help my muse. Alternatively, I could write … Widen your social circle. Meet new people and mingle.

However, when I looked again at the paper, I found I had already written something in the number one slot already.

1. Tell Steph about the article you wrote about her.

There was a start, and maybe the reason why I was acting all off kilter. It was guilt. Guilt that I had not told her the one thing I had been meaning to tell her since the very first time we had become acquainted. I knew I wasn't really a psycho … or a stalker …I was just guilty.

Now the realisation of being guilty of a deed would usually fill someone with dread, but not me. I felt relieved. I wasn't cracking up after all. I know that you might not think the crime I was guilty of was such a big deal, but it was to me. I didn't like hiding things from people, because when that happens, people get hurt. I liked to be upfront … I don't mean completely tactless, but not behind in coming forward.

There was only one thing for it. I would go over now and explain. Tell her what I did, and then she would have the whole weekend to calm down, or not calm down. It was her choice how she reacted. But sitting at the table like a right big lemon was not going to get me anywhere.

Decision made, I stood up quickly, the chair tipping over and slamming onto the floor behind me. Glancing up at the clock, I knew it wouldn't be long before she left for Manchester, and my chance would be lost. I had to catch her before she left. Time had sped by since I had been sitting at the table with a pad and a pen and a philosophy on life, and now was the time for action.

However, I was too late. I saw the back of her car disappearing around the corner. Shit. It had been the perfect time to tell her … and now … and now … another car was heading in my direction.

Initially I didn't know who it was, and it wasn't until the car nearly reversed into my car that I realised it had to be James Cullam, my publisher. I felt the grin start to spread across my face. Not just because I liked James, and that he was a good friend - that wasn't the main reason. The main reason came in the shape of a black Labrador that was howling with happiness from the back of the car.

'Brian!' I couldn't contain my excitement. It had been over a week since I had patted him on the head and moved here. To say I had missed him would be redundant.

'Thanks a lot, Erin. Nice to see you, too.' James gave me a mock pout, and slumped his shoulders like a ten-year-old schoolboy. However, I grinned at him and then tried to open the boot to release my man into the wild again.

Locked. But that didn't stop me. I tugged at the handle again, the logistics of the simple key, twist and turn an alien concept at that precise moment,

A voice behind me said quietly, 'Until I get a proper hello and a hug, I won't give you the key.'

I knew I had no other choice but to act sociable. 'Hey there, Priscilla. Good run?' As I was saying this, I was moving away from the boot of the car and towards the man who was grinning like an idiot, his arms opening to receive the hug he knew I was going to give him. It felt good being held by someone, even though it wasn't the person whom I wanted to be holding me.

'Not bad. Not bad. Traffic was pretty clear.' His voice was muffled as his face was at the side of my neck. Now, don't jump to conclusions. There was no way that James, or Priscilla, as I loved to call him, was after more than just a hug. He was of the same ilk as me … gay, if you were still at a loss. 'How was the move? How's the time been since you've been here?'

Pulling away, I looked directly into his face. I had missed him, even though I had only seen him the week before when I had dropped Brian off at his place.

'Long.' And it had been. His face showed confusion at the one word answer I had given him, so I decided to elaborate a little. 'Very long.' I know it still wasn't an autobiography, but I didn't want to spend time telling him of how the days seem to drag on forever when all I wanted to do was to get a grip on my furry pal, who was by this stage scrabbling at the glass of the back window.

Looking over my shoulder, Brian's eyes sparkled back and he let out a woof that indicated 'I want out.'

'I get the message,' James sighed. 'But on one condition.' I tilted my head as if to show I was all ears, and he continued. 'If I let out Brian so he can be reunited with his mamma again …' I leaned forward, 'you will have to give me the dirt on the elusive Stephanie Stevenson.'

'Why I …' didn't know how to continue that sentence.

'Come on, Mason. If there's one thing I know about you, its that you would have been over there like a shot to see if the Goddess of news reporting was all that she was cracked up to be.' True. He did know me well, by the looks of things. 'And is she really the cold hearted bitch they say she is?'

It must have been the look on my face that alerted him of my discomfort, as I didn't say a word. 'What's up, love?' James tried to look into my eyes, but I avoided his scrutiny, yes … scrutiny, as I knew at that precise moment if he were to look deeply enough he would have had the answer to all his questions. 'I didn't mean anything by it.' I tried to smile, but even I knew it was weak.

'Woof!' Thank you, Brian.

'Ok.' James let go of me and walked past towards the boot. 'But don't think this is over, lady.' I wasn't too sure of what he meant by that. Was he going to interrogate me about Steph, or the fact I had become a walking clam with a crap smile?

The boot had barely opened a fraction before Brian pushed the rest of it up with his head. Next thing I knew I was splattered on the floor being treated to an intense doggy wash. Laughter gurgled and burst from me, and the more I laughed, the more excited my fella became. It felt good … so good … to just let the laughter break free, as it had seemed that for too long I had been a miserable, and psychotic, little fu …

'Could we go in? All this fresh air is making me turn butch.' James' voice came from above me, and I pushed Brian's overexcited face away from mine and looked at my friend. He was standing there with his hands on his hips, trying to keep a look of mock impatience in place. 'Then maybe you will spill the beans about why you thought moving to this Godforsaken area would incite your muse.' He finished by batting a gnat away from his face, making him seem as camp as Christmas, thus making me laugh even more. Obviously, Brian thought my laughter was because of him, and decided that his previous wash might not have been enough.

Ten minutes later, we were inside and I was giving James a tour of my house. Oohs and ahhs … and ahhs and oohs accompanied us, as I think I convinced him just by the inside of my house why this was a perfect place to write. When we got to my office, I saw his face cloud over a little.

Turning to me, he asked the question I had been expecting ever since his arrival. 'Written anything?' I could have lied and said I had a few minor things going on … bit of setting and stuff like that down, but following his gaze to my computer, I knew it would be pointless. Mainly because my computer was still in the box I had put it in when I packed it the previous week.

'Erm …'

'Any notes? Ideas? Thoughts, even?'

'Erm …'

'I see.' Walking away from me, I allowed him the space of the room. One thing I knew about my publisher was that he loved the melodramatic … loved to be melodramatic, I should say. Stopping at my desk, he slid his hand across the empty surface, lifted his hand to check for dust, and then looked over at where I was guiltily standing in the doorway. 'I see.' Then next thing on his agenda was to crouch down by the side of the computer box, peek inside, and then slowly close the lid again, as if finalising his assessment. 'I see.'

'I've been busy.' Did my voice always sound so weak and feeble? And why was I trying to get out of a situation that I shouldn't really be in? I had been busy … I had been unpacking … As this thought flitted inside my head, I took in the rest of the room. I had done nothing in here. In reality, all I had done was the kitchen, the living room, dining room, and my bedroom. On my sweep of the room, my eyes met James'. His expression informed me that he didn't believe a word of it.

'I see.'

'And will you stop with the patronising, James. I will get around to starting a new book when I'm good and ready.' I didn't mean the tone of my voice to be as sharp as it was. Even Brian stopped sniffing the boxes and looked over. Therefore, I had two pairs of inquisitive eyes looking at me, thus making me feel like a git. 'Sorry … I … you know how it is?' No response, from either of them, although I wasn't really expecting Brian to say anything … 'I have been getting to know the area, you know, taking in the sights … getting a feel of the lay of the land …' I had been. Today, that is. But, what had I been doing for a week? I'd played with my bush …

The grin shot to my face in a flash, and James looked even more perturbed than if I had continued to use the devil voice I had before. Thankfully, I didn't have to explain the reason why I had grinned like a maniac, because at that precise moment, Brian went crackers. His booming bark rattled around the empty room, before he shot out of the door and through the hallway. Somewhere deep inside I hoped it was Steph coming back … although I did have a flash of the heebie jeebies too. If she had come back, I would have to tell her about the article … like I had promised myself I would do as soon as I saw her again. And in front of James … or with him in the vicinity. There was one thing I knew about my publisher … he was like an old woman when it came to gossip … especially if I was talking to the infamous Stephanie Stevenson. To use an old saying, he would stick to me like shit sticks to a blanket.

With all this internal monologue, James had the opportunity to beat me out of the room and to follow in the footsteps of my faithful canine, who was by this stage, pawing frantically at the front door. Maybe he could smell Reggie. That was it. It must be her …

However, it wasn't. And I hoped beyond hope that my sister, Rob and the kids were not aware of the look of disappointment on my face as I raced onto the porch. James was there already, hugging Sue, and gripping onto Rob in the next instance. George and Daisy were happily tormenting the crap out of the overexcited Brian, whilst I stood there trying to get my emotions under control.

'Erin!' Sue's jubilant shout in my direction made the tears well up behind my eyelids. I was happy to see them all here … all my family together again, but there was a part of me that believed there was someone missing from the gathering. Two, in fact. Can't leave out Reggie. And that's where the tears came in. They should have been happy tears, but I knew they weren't. I knew that these tears were tears of regret, tears of loneliness, and the tears of wanting something that I just couldn't have. But now was not the time to get all maudlin over something I couldn't control. Now was the time where I greeted my family and showed them how very special they were to me.

Before I knew what was happening, Sue's arms were about me, pulling me into those kinds of embraces that only sisters can pull off. 'I've missed you so much, sis.' Whether she or I spoke it, it didn't matter. I had missed her. Missed the closeness we had always shared. Missed the way she would always find the right words … and also have the strength to give me the much needed kick up the arse that I more than deserved on occasion. 'Where's Steph?' Shit. Trust her to mention Steph at this point. I had finally swallowed down the sadness and replaced it with sisterly affection, only to have it slapped back into my face.

'Steph who?' Trust James to stop trying to get a grip of my brother-in-law and listen in at that precise moment. 'Stephanie Stevenson?' I didn't answer. Sue did. 'You are joking, right? You and Ms Stevenson … You and the bit …'

'Bite your tongue, James. You have an audience.'

Sue knew what James was going to say, although I think we all did to a degree. Turning, I saw the angelic faces of my nephew and niece looking on with interest. 'Careful what you say, James. Walls have ears.'

George seemed a little freaked by the expression and looked about in earnest. When he turned to us, his face the picture of innocence and asked, 'Which one, Aunty Erin?' I wanted to laugh aloud.

'Don't be stupid, George.' Daisy, like the madam she was, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to her. 'The walls don't have ears … they mean us.' George lifted his hand and touched his ears as if they were going to sprout wings and fly away. 'They didn't want us to hear Uncle Jimmy say that woman was a bit …'

'Daisy!' The sound of four adults shouting her name, accompanied by a Labrador barking, made Daisy clam up. Thank the Lord. George, however, still looked mystified.

'I think it's about time I gave you the tour of the house, don't you?'

After all the adults trundled in the house, I turned to tell the kids to check out the garden, and what I saw made me smile. Daisy was whispering conspiratorially to George, obviously telling him the word that we hadn't wanted her to say. I should have been mad, but the look on George's face was definitely a Kodak moment. His mouth was open and I swear I could hear the air being sucked in.

Daisy let go of her brother and looked me straight in the face. 'What? Someone had to teach him.' Next thing, she was walking into the house like the prima donna she was. Bless kids, and their inability to show tact.

Wonder where she gets that from?

Not really much to wonder about. I was one of the least tactful people I think I have ever met, if that makes any sense whatsoever. But this, again, was not the time to stand about looking like a dumbshit. I had to get inside and give my family the tour. I just hoped that they would be more impressed with my efforts than James had.


'You've not done a lot since last weekend, have you?' Trust Rob to be a git. 'Too busy trying to get to grips with the gorgeous blonde next door, I bet?' A huge git. A double git … maybe even a platinum one for good measure. Sue was grinning supportively behind him, and nodding her head in agreement, as if she knew Rob was right. Her blue eyes twinkled and I knew that she couldn't wait to get me on her own so she could give me the Spanish Inquisition.

I wanted to say I had been writing, but James was standing in the doorway, and there was no way I would get away with that. So, the only thing I could do at that moment was to blush furiously and deny everything and everyone. Rob just laughed his pseudo manly laugh and left the room, taking James with him. I knew why he had done that - and although I sometimes thought Rob was a can short of a six pack, he left his faith in his wife to get out all the gory, yet tantalisingly juicy, details out of me.

For the first time in my life, I felt uncomfortable being alone with my sister. Exposed, even. Warily, I watched her walk around the room, the air of the 'interested in dιcor' about her. However, I was ready for anything she was planning.

'Nice view.' Sue was standing at the window, her back to me. 'Although it's pretty dark out there now.' Was she leading me into a false sense of security? You betcha. I hadn't spent the whole of my life with this woman not to recognise her techniques. 'Do you think the kids will be ok out there in the dark?' She turned at looked at me with such innocence, that for a split second my guard went down, and like all good sisters, she spotted it. 'Steph seems like a really good neighbour … reliable.' Just the mention of her name in this vulnerable state made the blood rush to my face as an instant declaration of embarrassment. Therefore, the only thing I could do was to turn away, even reach for a box I had no intention of unpacking for at least a year, and swiftly rummaged through the contents. 'Come on, Erin. Time to 'fess up, old girl.'

'Huh?' At this point, I really didn't understand what she wanted me to confess to. Therefore, the look of total confusion on my face was genuine.

'You know …' Sue began to walk toward me, and the closer she came, the faster my heart raced. Maybe that little pumping organ inside my chest had an idea what she meant, because my brain was on sick leave by this stage. 'All I've heard this past week is Steph this … Steph that. You can't tell me that all the yammering on you've been doing is just about your new neighbour.' She harrumphed at this, and I wasn't feeling too good about my chances of coming out of this conversation in one piece. All my life Sue had the ability to get me to crumble and spill the beans, and this was no exception. I did want to tell her - you know - ask her why I was feeling like this. But I felt like I would seem to be quite shallow, as if it was common practice for me to fall for the first piece of skirt to show me any interest in the slightest.

'Aunty Erin?' George was standing in the doorway as if he knew he was interrupting something. At that moment I wanted to kiss the life out of him, and my response seemed a little over the top.

'Hello there, honey … Come in … come in ….' The circus master. That's what I sounded like. If I had continued with, 'Come one, come all … See the finest line up of acts this side of the Peak District' I doubt anyone in the room would have been surprised.

Tentatively, looking at his mother and then to me in alternation, and procrastination if the speed of his walking was any indication, George came begrudgingly into the room. I was expecting him to ask either of us what a bitch actually was, as to say he was the most innocent of the twins would be spot on.

'What is it, soldier?' Sue's voice didn't reflect the look of 'Oh for fuck's sake' she had given when he first suspended our one sided parley. Now it was gentle, as I think she thought he was going to ask the same thing as I did.

Blue eyes looked at us a little nervously, and if I had been in his situation, I would have looked on with a bulge in the back of my knickers too. 'Where … erm … where are we all going to sleep?'

Fuck! And doubledy fuckity buggery fuck! I hadn't made up the spare rooms! I knew they were coming tonight - all five of them, and I hadn't even made up the beds. What on earth had got into me lately? By the look on Sue's face she was thinking the same as me. Usually I was very organised … and more than likely the beds would have been made up the day after I arrived. I had changed the sheets and duvet on Rob's after he left the weekend before, so why hadn't I remade it?

But that was ok … because now I had a perfect excuse to leave the room and get stuck into all those hostessy things you are supposed to do when you had guests. I don't know how I didn't laugh aloud … and as for the grin that wanted to bounce onto my face … ahh … that was a given. I was just about to say that he shouldn't worry about that, as I would go and do them straight away, when my sister butted in.

'Don't worry, George. Aunty Erin and I were just about to go and do them.' She began to walk past me, purposefully nudging into my shoulder so I would look straight into her face. 'And that will give me and your Aunty the perfect opportunity to have time to catch up on all the latest gossip.' A pause. 'On our own.' Bugger. Unlike George, by this time I was the one feeling nervous now, as I knew there was no way anyone would come to disturb us in case they were roped into helping. I also knew there would be no getting away from Sue until I had given her all the details of my infatuation with a woman I just couldn't have … the same woman who would run a mile if she found out what I was like. Just to clarify for you: a stalker who couldn't find her arse with both hand, and a liar too. A shit stirring, article writing, career and life destroying stalker. 'You coming, sis?' Then a smile crept on to her face, you know like the ones cats tend to give just before they pounce on a mouse. 'Can't wait to get stuck in.'

I bet you can't. But I certainly could, and I was going to delay again by asking George if he wanted me to get him some ice cream … It would've worked too if Madame Sue, the mind reader and medium hadn't butted in as I turned to George. 'Get gone, you. And make sure your sister isn't drawing around the picture frames again.' Huh? 'A new phase … don't worry. She usually uses non permanent markers.' Then her face beamed at me, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if there was one person who I could talk to about this crazy week and all the surprises, jolts, return to the living feelings I thought were long since dead, guilt, all surrounded by a sense of wonder, that person was Sue.

'Ok.' My voice indicated that I was ready to tell her what she wanted to hear. All in that one little word. And with that admission, she trundled off, with me following like a lamb to the slaughter. Again.


She didn't ask me straight away. No. She made me wait … and wait … and then wait some more. We had gathered all of the spare sheets and duvets, even piled them outside the rooms, before she decided it was time.

'Do you want to just tell me, or are you going to make me work for it?' Sue's voice was light, friendly even, and I knew whatever I told her she wouldn't judge me. All the things I had done in the past had never fazed her, so why should now be any different? Even when I had finally admitted that I was more into the female of the species rather than the rugged manly type, she had just hugged me close before whispering, 'You're my sister, Erin. And even though I've always loved you, today I love you even more.' I know! Very touching, but true.

So why was I finding it difficult to spill?

'Looks as if I have to work for it then.' She sighed an overly dramatic sigh, stopped puffing and punching the pillow, before flopping onto the bed.

'No.' My voice cracked over the word, so I cleared my throat and tried again. 'No … I … need to tell you something.'

Sue's eyes twinkled, but not in merriment, or because she thought she had one over on me. It was just her way, you know … just her way of opening herself up. I knew the look from old. It was the same look she had given me just before I had told her about me and Teri … both times. The first when I told her that Teri and I were lovers, the second when I told her we weren't.

'Sit here.' She patted the bed in the space next to her. 'Next to me, Erin.' Reluctantly, I sat at the corner of the bed, and she patted the space again as if to indicate she wanted me closer still. I moved my butt over the sheet, not looking at her the whole time. All I seemed to be able to concentrate on were her hands. Such capable, motherly hands, so unlike my own, which seemed empty for some strange reason. 'Whatever it is, it is better shared, honey.' That voice. So soft. So caring. So Sue. 'I'll just listen, and if you don't want me to say anything I won't.' Tentatively I peeked upwards to look into her eyes, and to my surprise, they were so much closer than I thought they would be. She had tilted her head to peer up at me, and I knew she was trying to do what people do to frightened animals - make themselves seem smaller so the injured creature wouldn't feel so threatened.

It worked too. Before I knew it, I was regaling all the events leading up to my move to the Lakes. Not the Teri thing … nope … the article, and knowing Stephanie Stevenson before I had actually met her. Sue didn't, or couldn't, see the problem.

'But that was four years ago, Erin. God. I doubt she'll even remember what it said, never mind that you wrote it.' She tried to smile to make me feel better, taking my hand in hers and giving it a gentle squeeze.

'But that's what makes it worse.' It seemed as if at that moment all the puff left my sails, and my head fell forward into my hands. I knew Sue was waiting for me to continue, but I just wanted to think everything through one more time. Lifting my face, I looked back at her. 'She doesn't know it was me.' I could tell by her confused expression that she wasn't too sure what I was talking about. 'Steph. She doesn't know I wrote the article.' Sue went to speak again, but I cut her off. 'And I have never mentioned that I tried with all my might to make her hurt as much as I was hurting.'

'I don't understand … why did you want to hurt her?' I shrugged my shoulders. 'There must have been a reason. Think.' But there was no reason … no magical solution to why I had decided to vent my spleen on someone who seemed to have everything whilst I had nothing … turn my anger onto someone who seemed invincible, who had made someone suffer and got away with it. Someone, who until this moment, encapsulated everything in life that I lacked. Shit. It wasn't jealously, was it? I wouldn't have done all that because Stephanie Stevenson was popular, good at her job, seemed to have everything going for her whilst I was still reeling from a failed relationship, would I? Nah. I had been, or still was, screwed up, but I doubt even I would have stooped that low. But I had. And there was no hiding from it.

'Why didn't you say in the article that the husband admitted it wasn't her fault?' If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't be feeling as shitty as I was feeling right at that moment. So, I did the thing I found myself doing over and over again. I shrugged. Then began to cry. I think they were the tears I had tried valiantly to hold back when I had first seen everyone standing in the place I thought Steph was going to be. And with that thought, I began to cry harder. I tried to speak, but my throat wasn't having any of it. Its main purpose at this moment in time was to allow the sobbing noises to escape. Sue just slipped those capable motherly hands around me and pulled me into her. More tears. More attempts to speak. I wasn't used to crying, never had been one to let all my emotions tumble out unaccounted for, but at this rate I would be able to hire myself out for funerals. If I hadn't been so tied up in the 'poor me' act, I would have laughed at the last statement.

'Erin.' Sue's voice was comforting, yet not, if you know what I mean. I was content to finally allow myself the freedom to feel all the things I had bottled up for so long, but it just hurt, you know? The realisation that however hard you try to forget some things, eventually they will always come back to haunt you until you deal with them fully and finally. All the time I had known Steph, all seven days worth, I had promised I would tell her. That could have been my first step to redemption in a way. But like the ultimate coward I had avoided the issue - avoided the 'By the way ...' that I knew was inevitable. 'Erin.' The sobs were easing now. Tears were drying and crusting up on my face, and the pitiful sobs were turning into hiccoughs. The first wave was ebbing, and I was allowing some composure to grip onto me. Cautiously, I lifted my face to look into the caring blueness exuding from my sister's eyes. Patiently, she waited until I murmured a response before she continued what she wanted to say. 'All is not lost, you know?' I didn't understand what she was saying, and I think my expression told her so, either that or the huge sniff I mustered up from somewhere. 'Tell her.'

Fresh tears poked behind my eyes, but I think Sue spotted them before they were released into the free world once again. 'I know that sounds so simple. That's because … because …' I waited for her to continue, '… because …' A grin shot across her face, 'it is.'

'Maybe for you, Sue. But it's not. She'll hate me.' The whine in my voice made me stop and take stock of the person I was dangerously becoming. Was I a whiner? A whinger? A five year old? It was beginning to look like it. No wonder no one would look at me twice … well, maybe twice, just to make sure they were in fact looking at a six foot whinging five year old in the first place.

Sue breathed deeply, hugging me again before pulling away. I missed the comfort she had given me, and it felt as if I was once again left there to defend myself from something unknown. 'Well … when I say "simple", I mean, there is no other way.' Her face clouded slightly before she continued. 'You have something you need to get off your chest before anything can develop. That much is obvious.' I know. But it's the getting the stuff off my chest bit that was proving to be the problem in the first place. 'Do you love her?' And where on earth had that come from? I hadn't said anything about loving her … just liking her … lying to her … writing vindictive articles about her … nothing about love. All that besides, Sue knew I had only become acquainted with Steph for a week, so where did she get off with all this 'love' thing? 'It's just that you seem so much more involved with your next door neighbour than just fancying her.'

At this point I decided that standing up seemed the best thing to do. So I did it. And walked away, making sure that I wasn't facing her before I answered.

'No.' The lie slipped easily from my lips, as if I had coated them with butter. 'I like her, that's all.' My heart was beating inside my chest with the rhythm of the blood pounding through my ears. If Sue were to look at my expression now she would know that I was lying. I was surprised she hadn't detected it from the pitch of my voice. But then again, she hadn't answered me yet. She hadn't said all the things I had expected her to say when I had denied my feelings for Steph, you know, like 'That's ok then … if it all goes tits up, it's no biggy.' And she still hadn't answered me. So, like the twat I am, I turned around. There she sat, the look of utter disbelief etched onto her face, a half smile playing along her mouth. But still silent. 'What?' The smile broadened. 'Why are you smiling like that?

'Like what?' I could hear the glee singing in the tone of her question. I half closed my eyes and looked at her searchingly, and she mimicked my action, her eyes closing in mock imitation.

'Like a cat who has not only got the cream, caught the mouse, but got the dog kicked out of the house as well, that's what.'

Sue threw her head back and laughed, slapping her hands on her thighs before standing up sharply. I took a step back as she walked towards me, but eventually, and quickly, I found myself up against the wall. Talk about a rock and a hard place. My sister approached me surely and carefully, the grin still firmly in place. As she reached the space in front of me, her height mirroring my own, she made sure she had my full attention before cocking her head to one side and purring, 'You might be able to hide it from yourself, lady, but remember one thing.' I think I gulped a reply. 'I know you better than you know yourself, ok?' And then she was past me, out of the door, and into the next bedroom before I had a chance to squawk out a response.

Funnily enough, I didn't follow. Usually, well especially when we were kids, we would taunt the other with sayings like that and spend the rest of the day trying to outsmart each other. However, maturity has taught me at least one thing. Never try to outsmart the person who actually does know you better than you think they do ... or better still, better than you know yourself. Therefore, I found the only thing left to do was to make the bloody bed. On my own.


All the bedrooms were finished in less than an hour, and in all that time I had seen Sue a handful of times. Each time she gave me a smug grin, and I blushed stupidly. There was no point denying my feelings for Steph, and that's the other point … why was I denying them in the first place? Was it because I didn't want my sister to think I had gone crazy? Or admit that I was in fact crazy to love so quickly? Maybe it was one of those defence mechanisms that suddenly shoot up in front of you like the screens in a bank when someone was trying to rob it. That sounds feasible … well … kind of … if you took away the fact that I wasn't made of metal, or was an inanimate piece of material. I was flesh and blood, and flesh and blood cannot keep those walls erected indefinitely. Unfortunately.

The rest of the evening was spent playing games with the kids, stupid games, but enough to keep the heat off me for a little bit. It was good to forget for a while … fun, even though Rob couldn't resist Gone With the Wind when playing charades. I think that was the time everyone decided the night had come to a natural end, although the lingering smell in living room said more like unnatural. I am definite I saw Brian gag, and if any of you know what dogs love to sniff, you'll understand how rancid the odour must have been. Sue didn't mention anything else about our talk from earlier; even though I had come to the conclusion I would not deny how I felt about Steph if she asked again. I was tempted to just tell her at one point, but by that time we were all tired. I promised I would tell her the next day, and before Steph returned.

After we had all said goodnight and gone our separate ways, I felt the pangs of loneliness hit me once again. I was in a house with five other people, and even had Brian in the room with me, but I still felt alone. I know it sounds weird, and it was, but that's the only way I can describe it to you.

Showered, teeth and hair brushed (obviously with different brushes - just thought I would clarify), pyjamas on … and I was in bed. Lying there in the dark I felt so awake. So many thoughts and feelings raced inside me that I was having difficulty concentrating on just the one. Everything I had been thinking about in the last forty-eight hours was jiggling and juggling for my undivided attention, but I just couldn't give it. Finally, and freakily, I had the most illuminating image of Steph flash up in front of me. It seemed like the same kind of one I had when I … erm … you know … cough …investigated the southern part of my anatomy, but not, if you get my drift. However, it didn't evoke the same kind of carnal longing it had previously. It was so much more than that. For some reason, as soon as the image appeared, the feeling of distress and disorientation left me, and I didn't feel alone anymore. This image was calming, delicate and bright. The light exuding from the shape of her felt warm and comforting, and although I didn't want it to happen, my eyes began to close. Valiantly, I struggled with sleep, even though mere minutes before I had been wide awake. There was one thing I had to check before I let the grip of the dream world take me, and that was if Brian could see what I could. I know I am beginning to sound more and more like a grade A nutter, but at the time, I was starting to believe my marbles were well and truly on a one way trip as far away from me as they could get.

Lifting my head, I turned to the direction of where Brian's bed was, all the while hoping that the wraithlike image of Steph wouldn't disappear. He was lying on his side, his head turned in my direction, and looking at me questioningly. Thought so. I was cracking up. I could see the image as strongly as if she were in the room with me, but Brian appeared to be looking through it. Strangely enough, I should have felt one of two things. Firstly, I should have been shitting my pants at the thought of a ghostlike image hovering over my bed, but how could I be? Steph was so beautiful … so bloody beautiful … hovering there with her hair flowing outwards, her green eyes appearing to be the greenest they have ever been, her smile slightly crooked and emanating a sense of peace and joy. Therefore, the first thought should have triggered the second. I was a fucking head case. Lying there, in the dark, or light, which ever you believe, I was cracking up big time. Even my dog couldn't sense anything, and they were programmed by God to know if something is not quite right.

Flopping backwards and onto my pillows, I closed my eyes, believing that when I opened them I would face blackness once again. But no. When I flicked them open once again, there she was … still smiling. Bugger. I was tired. That was it. Stressed and tired. Stressed, tired and cracking up … no biggy … just an excuse to go and see a shrink in the very near future. But you know the funny thing … even funnier than imagining a beautiful woman in my bedroom? I'll tell you. The funnier thing than becoming an all out window licker was that just as I turned away from the image to try to dispel it, I heard my name being spoken. Quietly … almost musically, and I wasn't sure I wasn't imaging it just like the figure. However, this may be the case, but when I turned over again the image had gone, but Brian was standing next to my bed looking at the space where Steph had just been, panting, his tail wagging in greeting.

Instead of feeling spooked, I felt justified. Is this the voice of the insane? Guilty? Or, more to the point, the voice of someone who was lonely enough to trigger out of body experiences from absent neighbours in a bid to feel some semblance of normality again?

'It's ok, fella. All gone now.' I stretched out my hand to pat Brian's nose and allowed him to lick my fingers. 'You'll meet her properly tomorrow.' Before mummy goes into the mental hospital, I promise. I couldn't help the laugh that gurgled up. And even though I wasn't sure whether I was a crackpot or not, I still felt the sense of peace I had when the hallucination had appeared. Gripping my pillow, I brought it close to my face and snuggled my head deeply into it.

Moments later I was away in a dreamless sleep, I think it was the best night's sleep I had had in over four years.


Morning yawned her way through the crack in my curtains well before I was ready to deal with the day. However, even though I could easily turn over and catch another hour of sleep, there was no way the other members of my house were thinking the same thing. Well, when I say other members, I actually mean the spawns of Satan themselves - Daisy and George. When they burst through the door I felt the groan surge up from my throat and splat out into the air. Funny how kids don't seem to notice that actually you don't want to get up … you don't want to talk, or play with the dog. In fact, you don't want to do anything but go back to sleep. The worse thing was they seemed set on pissing me off as much as possible, and that was just the line 'Quality time!' squealed at a volume loud enough to wake the dead, and get the already excited Brian to the 'I'm gonna piss on your floor' stage. Who on earth ever thought that those two words, quality and time that is, could ever make the recipient feel anything but an urge to throttle the life out of the person responsible uttering it is beyond me.

Nevertheless, it wasn't just the kids, who were now bouncing on my bed, or the woofing lab that made me get up. It was the evil plan I hatched as I was trying to get my bearings on the now spinning room that made the smile sneak up and a sense of retribution take effect.

'Why don't you go and wake Uncle Jim up?' That stopped them in mid flight. 'He would love to be woken up as specially as this.' All three looked at one another and then back at me, then at each other again. 'And if we can get him up and dressed quickly, we can all walk Brian around the lake.' I could tell I needed to convince them more. 'And then I'll take you to see the weirdest house you will ever see …' I was winning them over, but I needed more. 'And get you sugar … lots of it …' That did it. They didn't answer, as they were all scrambling for the door. Even Brian, who loved sugar, and knew the word like he knew 'Walkies', was scrambling his paws over stripped wooden floors. I could hear their voices screaming out for James to get up - now - and God did that make me feel good. Stretching my legs and arms, I smiled a glorious smile. Today was going to be fun. For me, at least. The chuckle left my mouth like I had just planned to burn down and orphanage on Christmas Eve. And even though I should have felt some sense of pity for James, I couldn't quite muster it.

'"I see", my arse.' The laugh was long and hearty, and it wasn't until I thought I couldn't breathe that I stopped and got my backside into gear. Steph was coming home today, and I wanted to be ready, whatever 'ready' meant.

Breakfast, dressed, and Brian walked. All of the actions completed with a chuckle begging to be released every time I saw James' face. One thing I knew about James was he liked to sleep … and liked to get up when he felt ready to. He spent the first part of the morning sporting sunglasses, and anyone who saw him would have suspected he had a hangover. Truth was, he was extremely vain, and like most people, he woke up with baggy flaps under their eyes when sleep was robbed from them. I felt good, in an evil kind of way, when I remembered it was me that made him look like that. I know. Small things amuse small minds.

Next on the agenda was to pack everyone into Sue's car. Thankfully, she had a people carrier … you know, one of those cars that resemble a mini bus and usually driven by women taking their one child to school. Brian's cage was loaded into the back of the super van, and before long, we were on our way to Ambleside. The kids were singing travel songs, much to James' displeasure, and I couldn't help singing along. 'One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow' became louder and louder, and eventually James joined in too. It must have been a case of 'If you can't beat them, join them' - even Brian started howling from the back, but I think that was more from fear than jubilation.

When we had parked and looked around the tiny village of Ambleside, we ended up all standing outside the crooked Bridge House that stood pride of place right in the centre. Memories of days before rocketed into my head, and I believed if I turned my head I would see Steph standing there holding a patient Reggie on his lead, explaining to me all the history of the building. A mix of emotions rushed through me, and I am still uncertain which was the most prominent. Sadness, happiness, joy, regret, all of them tumbling around and vying for top of the bill. But no. Still undecided. Sadness and regret were, obviously, because when I did turn, Steph wasn't there … but the feelings of joy and happiness were because I had the people I loved around me, although not all of them …

'Why'st over the water, Aunty Erin?' George was beside me, and when I looked down at him I could see innocence written all over his face. Eyes open in wonder and belief that every word that would spew forth from my lips would be the ultimate truth - pity that wasn't always the way. But before I could begin to feel sorry for myself, I felt a small hand slip into my own and tiny fingers squeeze in reassurance. 'S'ok if you don't know.' I was just about to tell him I did, when he continued. 'Because there is a leaflet here that explains it.' A leaflet with a picture of the house was thrust up at me, and I had to juggle with Brian's lead in order to take it.

Opening the green coloured pamphlet, I spotted a section titled 'History of Bridge House', and all the words Steph had told me flooded out in a the style of a classy font. 'Straddling Stock Beck, this once apple store used to be the home of a family of six …' I remembered the banter I had shared with Steph … remembered how I answered her when she told me to check out the local history, and the smile slipped onto my face with ease. There was a connection between us, however hard I tried to deny it. Two people couldn't act that way with each other and not have that something, could they? Deep down I wanted it to be true … wanted the chance to actually get to know Steph … become something more to her than a woman who she had taken around for the day once.

George was still looking at me, his face exhibiting the look only a child could give … you know, the one that says 'Well?'

'Did you know that this house used to have a family of …' And I was off. I explained, or regaled, however you want to define it, the history of the structure standing in front of us. Daisy sidled over … then Sue … Rob … and I think you get the picture. The only one who wasn't interested was Brian, as he found a patch of grass that seemed more his style. 'And if you're good, I might even take you to see the floating island.' Even the kids looked at me as if I had either lost my marbles or was pulling their legs.

'Right. And then what?' Sue's voice indicated that she thought I was taking the piss, exactly the same tone as I must've used when I had first heard it. 'Flying pigs?'

I grinned fully at her before replying, 'Well, my dear sister. That depends.'

Initially, she looked confused at my response, but just like Sue, she took on the challenge. 'On what?'

'Easy.' I made sure the kids were paying attention before I spoke clearly and carefully. 'It depends on … how much sugar you have.' Both George and Daisy cheered at this, even Brian woofed, as the grass was never going to top the feeling of the delight sugar gave him. The rest of the adults looked at me as if I were on the edge of sanity, but it wasn't long before they were aware that Daisy, George, and I had a secret. And that secret was once carried to the summit of Mount Everest, just before they raced down to put the wrapper in the bin at the base. At least it would perk James up.


It would be too easy to say at this point that the kids loved Kendal Mint Cake, and even easier to write that they acted like fleas on a rice pudding after they had demolished a whole bar each. Sue, Rob, James, and Brian only had a piece, and after the events earlier in the week, I limited myself to just the one too. There's always something fulfilling about introducing someone to something new … especially if it is a good thing. You have a sense of knowledge about the effects of it, and hope they like it too - almost like an expectation. I wonder if Steph felt that way when she was watching me make a total tit out of myself. Probably at first, but when the whole shebang of the high was flowing and flooding out of me, I doubt she had that feeling of elation that comes about with the understanding you have pioneered the onset of a sugar rush single-handed.

Before long, it was time to leave. Sue had mentioned that it would be a good idea if we had a barbeque for the evening meal, as it would save us spacking about trying to decide what everyone either wanted to eat, or where to go and eat out. There was no way I wanted to eat out anyway, as Steph was coming back sometime soon, and I wanted to be there when she did. Can't be a stalker if you don't plan ahead, can you?

We stopped at the local supermarket, the one in Keswick, and it was decided that Rob, James and the kids should go and look around Derwentwater. That way, Brian wouldn't be left alone in the car, and I wouldn't have the chants of 'Can I have … gimme gimme … I want' following me around each aisle. And that was from James. The kids were usually all right.

Once inside, Sue didn't waste any time. Straight away, she decided she wanted to continue where we had left off the previous evening, and in retrospect, I should have been ready for it. But as I said before, I promised myself the next time she mentioned Steph's name I would tell her the whole deal. Easier said than done, though.

I hadn't even got one foot in the door with the trolley (that had the wonky wheel of course) when she placed her hand on the bar and said 'So … will you tell me now about the gorgeously absent Ms Stevenson?'

'Huh?' As you do.

'You know what I mean. And now's the time to tell.' She took control of the trolley, lifting it and slamming it down to align the wheels again before turning back to me. 'She'll be back soon, and you wouldn't want me to interrogate her, would you?' My face showed disbelief, and a little bit of panic if truth be known. 'Because you know I will.' Sue softened the last bit with a smile, and I felt a prickle of safety slip along my skin.

'Ok … but not here.' Sue went to open her mouth again, but I stopped her. 'In the cafι … over a coffee.' The grin she gave me was huge; almost like she knew she had won in a way. That sounds callous, doesn't it? It makes out that my sister wasn't a very nice woman, when in fact she was one of the best. The reason why she acted this way was because she knew me … knew that I was a bugger when it came to spilling my inner self. Knew that if I didn't spill my inner self I would become unbearable - just like the last time.

Tagging the trolley with us, as Sue said she had fixed it now so it was hers, we made our way to the cafι at the end of the store. After putting it into the compartment for safe keeping, although we didn't have anything to safeguard to start with, Sue went to fetch coffees and I got us a table. Considering it was a Saturday, the cafι was quiet, and I picked a small table out of the way. Sitting there, I allowed the things I wanted to tell Sue to make some kind of order in my head … figuratively bullet pointing. As they say, 'Once a writer, always a writer', even in my private life. Because I was so intent with my own mental meanderings, I didn't hear her come back. Therefore the sound of her voice close to my ear made me jump and nearly knock the cups out of her hand.

'Easy, sis.' Plonk. Plonk. Two cups of steaming coffee sat on the table. And that's where my attention stayed for a minute. 'So. Are you going to answer my question, or what?' I looked up at her, and she was leaning over the plastic covered surface, as if she was trying to block out the rest of the customers. 'Ok. I'll make it easier for you.' I didn't like the sound of that, but then again, I wasn't feeling on top form anyway. 'Do you love Stephanie Stevenson?' Talk about getting to the point in record time. 'Or should I say, why do you love Stephanie Stevenson, because it's obvious that you do.'

The words I wanted to say were no use to me, and all that spewed out were one worders, 'How … why … erm … what …'

'No need to deny it, Erin. I know you. You know I know you. And in this knowing you, I also know the way you act when you don't know what to say or do.' Yes … too many 'knows' in that sentence, but you can blame Sue … it was her saying it after all. 'Look.' Sue caught my hand and pulled it to her, and anybody watching would have thought we were a pair of lezzas - a pair of clam smackers who were either incestuous or liked their mirror image. Either way, we were getting a few looks. 'Ignore them. Look at me. Tell me what's so bad about being in love, Erin.' I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times - I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but this was ridiculous. 'Is it because she doesn't know about your secret?' I nodded, then shook my head, then nodded again, before expelling air from inside my lungs into the steamy room. 'Whatever. Look at me for Christ's sakes. If they want to look, let them.' True. Let them. I would rather have the people in the cafι staring at me in disgust than have Sue pissed off with me. 'You shouldn't waste your time on the past … that's where it should stay - in the past. You have the perfect opportunity to set the record straight, and all you seem to be doing is beating yourself up about something that happened four years ago.' It was as simple as she had said it would be, but that wasn't the only reason why I was reticent about telling Steph how I was feeling, but before I had chance to beat myself up about falling too quickly for someone, Sue was there again. 'The very first time I met Rob, I knew he was the man for me. No if, buts, or maybes … just the one. As soon as he introduced himself and I shook his hand … bam. The connection was unmistakeable … like electricity racing up my arm and through my body.'

Instantly, my mind was back to the very first time I had met Steph … the shock … the tingling … the weirdness that I just couldn't place. At the time I had thought it was just me, that no one else would, or could, ever feel the same thing. Was that connection? The same kind of connection Sue had felt when she had shaken hands with Rob? Slowly, I looked down at my hand, even turned it over to peer at the back of it. It was just an ordinary hand ... nothing special. So, why had it induced such feelings? Sue was still talking, and I came back to the present just as she said, 'There was no doubt about it. I knew from that moment that he was the only person I would ever want in my life.'

Did I want the same thing? From Steph, I mean, not Rob. Was it something out of my control ... like karma, or other forms of crap? I know I shouldn't talk about karma in that way, but when you don't understand it … and yes … I am going off the point.

'So, you see, Erin. You either know or you don't.' She leaned forward, conspiratorially. 'And the thing that we both know is …' I leaned closer to her, expecting some form of revelation … some form of advice that until this moment I never knew existed. 'You have to tell her.' Fuck. Why does it always come back to that? It was a like a stuck record, repeating over and over again 'Tell her. Tell her. Tell …' You get the message. And when you are told enough times, encouraged enough times to do something, a part of your brain seems to explode and release a part of you that says 'I can do that. No problem.' Then what follows is a kind of physical jubilation … a surge of positive energy that gushes throughout and pants 'I can do it! I am invincible!'

Without warning, to either Sue, or me, I stood up, the coffee cups rattled and shook on the table as if they too had been touched by the higher being.

'You ok?'

I couldn't speak … the feeling of wanting to shout aloud how exalted I was feeling was on one hand exhilarating, yet on the other down right frightening. All the doubts seemed to have cleared from my mind. I was going to tell Steph … tell her everything … and I mean everything. Well … apart from the fiddling with my lady garden whilst thinking of her … erm … well, not right away at least.

'Let's go.' And I was off at a near run, collecting the trolley on the way. It was like a fucked up version of supermarket sweep, except at the end I had to pay for it.

By the time we had loaded the car, me throwing everything inside until a definite crunching sound was heard, I had babbled my way through a full confession. Sue was now definitely in the know about my feelings for the woman who she had yet to meet. At first she seemed a little freaked out by my behaviour, but when I turned around to look her in the face after launching a bag of hot dog rolls into the car instead of the boot and announced, 'I love her, Sue. Love her,' her face broke into a grin.

'I know you do, Erin.' That's when she grabbed my arm to stop my javelin throwing, maybe because I was holding two bottles of wine, and made me concentrate on her for the minute. 'Now all you have to do is tell her as soon as possible.' I nodded. 'Invite her to the barbeque as soon as you see her. Don't take no for an answer.'

'Nope … I mean yes. I'll invite her as soon as I see her, and I won't take no for an answer.' At that exact moment in time I felt so alive. Even alive. It had been so long since I had felt so uplifted about something in my life, and deep down I knew everything was going to work out for the best.

It still amazes me how stupid I can be sometimes.


Chapter Twenty-Five

Half past three. That's what time I spotted her car turn into the lane leading to our houses. As soon as the tyres crunched on the gravel, Sue was beside me whispering, 'Now … go ask her now. We'll wait here.' Audibly, I gulped, as the determination I had valiantly displayed outside the supermarket was packed away with the battered rolls and squashed meat.

James was resting at the side of the house, as he was still griping that he felt drained because of his lack of sleep. However, that didn't stop him nearly leaping up and running to get to Steph before I did. Wanker. I wanted her to see me before him, so my voice box took control. 'STEPH!' Jesus. I wouldn't be out of place at a rugby match. Then I was off at a pace that would make a sprinter cheer. One thing I knew I had was longer legs, and more determination, than James. I had also had a good night's sleep. And if Brian would stop sniffing the compost heap, then maybe I would have had my faithful companion slowing him down by jumping up and thinking it was a game.

When I saw Steph climb out of the car, I nearly stopped. How could she become even more beautiful in the matter of twenty-four hours? The smile she gave me was radiant, and then she looked at James and it momentarily slipped from her face. Reggie was howling in the back, and when I saw him come whizzing towards me my heart lifted up and rejoiced. Why? I'll tell you. Because if her dog loved me, then I had a chance, get it? If her dog growled and went to bite me whenever he got the opportunity, then there would be no way in hell she would give me the time of day. However, although I thought the darling boy would want to spend time helping out his old pal Erin, he had, in fact, caught the scent of Brian … or the compost rotting delicately in the back garden. That made a laugh gurgle up from somewhere deep inside, and for a moment, I forgot that I was nervous.

'Going to get to her before you, Mason.'

'You git!' Both of us spoke quietly, although James said his with glee, mine was definitely threatening. He laughed loudly at my response, and tried to get past me. There was no way I wanted him to get to her before me … I loved James, don't get me wrong, but he did have a knack of embarrassing me whenever he got the opening.

Therefore, when I got to Steph, I didn't think twice about my actions. I just grabbed her into a tight hug and brought her as close as I possibly could. The 'I missed you, Steph,' didn't just come from my heart; it came from deep inside me … a place I thought was ruined and empty. A small laugh came bubbling out, it was one of those delighted laughs that appear from nowhere but make you so damned sure you are alive. 'Weird, I know.' And I know it sounds weird to you, too. I barely knew her, as she didn't know me, but I did know her, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Remembering my manners, and my situation, I pulled away. The feel of her had been so wonderfully perfect, and I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life in her arms.

'This is …' But she didn't give me time to introduce my publisher, best friend, and git.

'Brian. I know.' Huh? Brian? Had she just completely ignored the person standing in front of her, or had Brian turned up? Just before I turned to see if my canine crap sniffer had eventually made an appearance, Steph stuck out her hand in greeting. 'Good to meet you at last.' What the fuck? She thought James was Brian. James … was … Brian? Eventually, my brain decided this was funny, as brains tend to do, and I started to laugh. James seemed to wait for my lead before he started to laugh too. I can't tell you how many times James and I repeated the name Brian, before I realised Steph wasn't laughing along with us. In fact she looked pissed off. Big style. Talk about digging your own grave. Here I was, on the verge of spilling my all to her, when all I could muster was humiliating her instead of humiliating myself, as I had expected. The hand she had stuck out was firmly at her side by now, and if I wasn't mistaken, I'm sure it was balling itself into a fist.

Therefore, it was with great effort that I spluttered out 'I'm sorry, Steph.' Her face indicated that she thought I was lying, and she was becoming more and more flushed. Bugger. 'This isn't Brian.' I know that, you know that, but she, on the other hand, was still unconvinced. 'This is James Cullam. My publisher.' And side kick, by the looks of it. James had found his manners at last, and offered his hand in greeting. Steph looked at him and then at the both of us. Doubt flitted across her face, as she must have thought we were a pair of head cases, and she didn't take his welcoming hand - a bit like the way James hadn't taken hers.

Thankfully, Brian decided it was time to come to my rescue. Unfortunately, not in a gentle way. His greeting was more of a 'Let me jump up at you and nearly send you arse over tit … and whilst I'm here, you need a wash.' I had barely introduced him before he had welcomed Steph, in the way dogs know how to welcome, and was off again chasing the now overexcited Reggie into the distance. James was still standing there with his hand outstretched - bless - and Steph seemed numb, for some reason or another. Maybe Brian had winded her, do you think?

When she finally came back to the land of the living, Steph grabbed hold of James' hand and pumped it up and down. I honestly don't know why she looked so relieved? Could it have been that she had felt out of synch with the events? Whatever the reason, I was reassured that she had started to smile again, and this issued a thankful laugh from me, shortly followed by the sticky bob, James. She looked so beautiful … so bloody goddamn beautiful, that I felt my heart crawl from the confines of my chest to absorb the woman standing in front of me. A sigh came out … a soft sigh … a wanting sigh … and the most wonderful thing was she seemed to be looking at me in the same way. It could have been my imagination, who knows, but for that moment it appeared that we were the only two people in existence. But we weren't. One reason being, James was right next to me. I could feel his presence so strongly now I had remembered he was there. I wondered if he had either seen, or felt, the electricity I was sure passed from her to me, and back to her again.

For a split second, Steph turned to look at where the dogs had disappeared, and this gave me the opportunity to mouth 'Don't' to James. All I wanted was him to understand that I didn't want him to start his interrogation with this woman … not now, actually, not ever. A curt nod was all he gave in reply, and I knew he had understood me. Thank the Lord.

Next on the agenda was to invite her over for a barbeque. And really, do you know how difficult that simple invite was to say? I think I had more connectives and chain words than actual lexicon, and if it hadn't been for James, I honestly believe we would still be standing there today.

'For God's sake, Erin.' Go on, James … shout it. 'What she is trying to ask you … badly …' I couldn't resist it. I gave him a thump on the shoulder, and he tried to laugh it off and pretend it hadn't hurt him, but I knew he would be trying to show me a red mark as soon as he got the opportunity. Steph watched us both with fascination … and I hoped she didn't think I always thumped the people I was close to all of the time. By the time the question was asked, it appeared to hover in the air right above her face for a while. Time seemed to stand still, and for the first time in a while I actually thought 'What if she says no? Sue'll kill me.'

'Another time, maybe.' She would. Sue would give me an ear bashing the likes of which I had never experienced before. Her exact words 'Don't take no for an answer' came back to echo through my vacuous brain. And even with all my mental windings, she still just looked at me. 'No worries.'

'I'd love to, Erin … erm … and James.'

Hal -le - lu -jah! Hal -le - lu -jah! Hal -le - lu -jah! Halle - lu -jah! Hal -le - lu -jaaaaaaah! Overexcited? Me? Briefly. As even though my whole body was singing hymns, my brain was whispering, 'You've got to tell her everything now. You promised.' But I didn't let it ruin the moment, because for some strange reason, I knew everything would be all right in the end.

'Reggie is more than welcome too.' And as if on command, the man himself came racing around the corner being chased by Brian. The look of total rapture etched on both of their faces, well, until they both disappeared again. 'I say that Reggie's welcome, although I doubt we'll see much of those little buggers tonight.' No. By the looks of the two new pals, they would be inseparable - and probably spend all of their time with either the kids, or bombing around like they had eaten too much sugar. Again. Or was that just me?

In less than five minutes, Steph was gone. I watched as she walked away, unloaded her over night bag from her car, and went inside her house. Reggie was still playing with Brian, but when he saw his mamma leaving, he yapped at Brian and ran off to be with her. Inside my stomach there were an army of butterflies, all wearing hob nailed boots, and river dancing. It wasn't painful, just different. All I hoped was that the constant movement from my gut didn't make me feel nauseous when I saw her later. Was it a date? I know I changed from performing butterflies to asking whether it was a date or not, but I just wondered. Would you think it was a date? Did you notice anything I missed? The reason I am asking is, I wasn't too sure. It wasn't, as she hadn't really given me any indication that she thought it was a date. And secondly, I hadn't really given her the impression that it was a date. But if neither of us thought it, then why did I feel deep inside my chest that it was?

Maybe because I am a knob.


Sue had been itching to get over and finally meet Steph, and the look on her face when I got back to the rest of the group was something that usually would have easily wiped the idiotic grin off my face. James had been trying to rib me all the way back, jibing me to let something slip, but I kept my big mouth shut. And as expected, he tried to show me the inkling of redness that was on the top of his arm. Being me, I ignored him … but that didn't stop his whining.

As I walked past Sue, she grabbed my upper arm, and released one word. 'Well?' I grinned my reply, making Sue pull me to her, and anyone listening, or watching, would have thought it was a gesture one sister would do to another. But it was the whispered 'You'd better not cock it up,' that made my grin spread wider, especially because no one around had a clue. 'And next time, bloody introduce me, you git.'

'Might do.' Was that my voice? That happy sound that appeared to be floating up and up and up? Even the kids stopped hitting each other with sticks and looked over at me. 'And if you want anything to eat today, you'd better get washed and changed.' I saw both of them look at Sue as if to say, 'But mum … we are eating outside. Why do we have to wash?' However it was the sense that everything had to be perfect … you know, even down to washing my sister's kids who would be playing outside again by the time Steph came over. I think at that point, I would have bathed Brian too if I could have actually got my hands on him.

'Do as your Aunty Erin says, kids. Don't want you embarrassing her in front of her new girlfriend.' Rob. As if you couldn't guess, although you might have thought it would be James, but my grinning brother-in-law beat my publisher to it. He was too busy inspecting the non-existent bruise on his arm, until he realised that Rob had embarrassed me. Therefore, I had to stand there and watch them high five each other. Naturally, I just gave them the two-fingered salute, obviously on the sly as I didn't want to add to my nephew and niece's education … I think George finding out about 'bitches' was enough for one weekend.

'She is not my girlfriend.' A little voice from nowhere popped into my head and whispered 'yet', and unexpectedly, or expectedly, I flushed. Visibly, the redness across my face indicated to the rest of them that what I had said was a lie. Sometimes families can be more trouble than they are worth … although I don't mean a word of it.

Turning, I made my way into the house. If they weren't willing to scrub up to meet Steph, then that was their problem. I, on the other hand, wanted everything to be perfect.


Why does choosing an outfit always take so bloody long? It was not as if I had wardrobes and wardrobes of gear to select from, but all of them seemed wrong somehow. It was like her coming for dinner all over again. Maybe because she was coming for dinner. Yes. Rambling, in this case, could be considered a delaying tactic used by the socially inept. Me. But that didn't stop the truth about her coming over for dinner, and at this rate, I would still be in my Extreme Makeover stage whilst the other members of my family (yes - consider James family) were outside with baby photographs of me without a nappy, or showing her the worst haircut ones …

That made me put a spark to my gait, and before I had the opportunity to conjure up any more images of embarrassing situations, I was downstairs preparing salad. I needn't have bothered, as the rest of the clan were still getting ready. But at least this gave me the opportunity to think about what I needed to say.

Firstly, I would tell her about the article.

No! I couldn't do that! Not in front of everybody … What if she went into one and told me exactly what a waste of space she thought I was? Without a doubt … that would definitely be the case, and definitely not the first thing I admitted to her.

Ok. Try again.

Firstly, I would tell her how I felt about her. Not too heavy … just eno …

Fuck no! If I hadn't told her about the article, there was no point in telling her I thought she was the epitome of all that was exquisite and wonderful.

This wasn't as easy as I am telling you it was. And yes … I am being sarcastic. Why had I been so convinced that inviting her over to tell her everything was such a good idea? It was Sue's fault. She had made me believe I could do it … and I could, but just not tonight. I would have to tell her tomorrow, or when I was walking her home. That sounded like a good plan. I would walk her home, and maybe ask to chat to her … yes … that would work, wouldn't it? Then I could get her on her own, and reveal all.

So. Let's have another crack at it.

Firstly, I would … well, I couldn't ignore her all night, could I? And why am I making a list when I should just let everything come naturally?

'Because you're anal.' I even turned around at this point, expecting Sue to be standing there and grinning at me. It wasn't until I saw I was alone that I realised it was my inner voice. Sometimes I even creep myself out.

'I'll show you who's anal?' Pity that by this stage I wasn't in fact talking to myself.

'What does anal mean?' George was standing in the doorway, his hair sticking up in all directions.

As well as being caught talking to myself, I had left myself wide open for even more embarrassment.

'You see, George …' Sue's voice came from right behind him, although I couldn't see her. 'Anal is an adjective.' George turned to the space behind him, and I stood and waited for more of the conversation to come from what appeared to be the shadows. 'And what is an adjective?'

'An adjective describes a noun.' His face was innocent and clear. 'And a noun is an object or subject.' If I wasn't dying right about now, I would have been so proud.

'Good boy.' I could hear the amusement in her voice, and I wanted to throttle her. 'And the words "Aunty Erin" are nouns, did you know that?' I watched him nod. 'So … anal is describing what?'

'Aunty Erin.'

'Fantastic, George. You are so clever.' But not quite clever enough, as he turned and rushed out of the room to tell his father that he was a child genius without actually finding out what anal meant.

Sue's face was beaming with mischief as she appeared in the kitchen, but I did see the smile waver a little as she spotted the huge knife in my hand. 'Don't worry, sis. He won't remember a thing later.' I went to say otherwise, but she leaned over me and grabbed a piece of red pepper. 'We need to get the barbeque started. Do you know how to light one, because none of the rest of us do?'

I'm sure she knew that would stop me. She knew damned well I had as much experience with a barbeque as I had with flying a rocket to the moon. I thought Rob would have been one of those manly types who knew how to make fire. But no … by all accounts, they had a gas one at home, and they had never started one of the 'crap ones', as she so delicately phrased it, like mine. There was no point even contemplating James for the job. The nearest he would ever come to lighting a barbecue would be chatting up the person who was doing it.

But. It was worth a try. And that's when she came.

We were all deciding on what to do … should we Google it? I know - saddos, or what? When her voice drifted over … I think my blood actually stopped flowing for a split second. Whether this was because I had been caught with a cold barbeque and no chance to light it, or the fact her voice was like honey. 'Need any help?' That's all she said. And I wanted to list the ways she could help me, but I greeted her in that schoolboy-embarrassed way that screams 'I fancy you.' Then Sue took over. As expected. There was no way my sister was going to rely solely on my ability to introduce her, and in all honesty, I don't blame her.

What did surprise me though, was the way Sue threw her arms around Steph as if she had known her her whole life. My sister was friendly, but she never usually hugged someone when she was first introduced. I remember when she had first met James. It had taken her a good six months to hug him … and when I looked over to where he was standing, I could understand why. The person who had told him pink was his colour needed shooting. However, that wasn't the reason why I found myself, once again, blushing. Sue had intimated that I talked about her all of the time. As if! And if I did, this was not the time or the place to make that revelation … 'Steph this … Steph that …' that did it. I was personally going to strangle her when I got her on her own for a minute. What is the rap now for murder? Was it worth it? But it was when Sue asked about her job that I forgot my embarrassment. The defensive look Steph donned was enough to alert me that talking about her job was not a very good idea. Like the woman she was, Steph tried to answer her, but even an idiot could guess that she wasn't happy about it. The words came out clumsy and ill phrased, and by what I knew of her, this wasn't the confident woman I met a week ago. I had to do something, anything to get her away from feeling uncomfortable.

'Come on then, Zeus … get the fire bolts thrown, and let's get cooking.' The look she gave me was nothing short of relief, then it seemed as if the humour came back in a flash.

'Me make fire for woman.' This woman made me feel so bloody good, and she relaxed even more when everyone laughed. I wanted to say something equally as witty, but like usual, my humorous side was on vacation.

Rob had decided, after the barbeque was lit, that he would now take control. Funny how he seemed to know everything else about having one, but lighting one escaped him. Therefore, we had some time on our hands … about an hour and a half's worth, to be exact. I could tell her now … mention it in passing about what I used to do … laugh it off … say I was forced to write the article … blame James. But remembering the look of fear on her face when Sue had asked what she did for a living … nah. I would rather pull my nails out.

George and Daisy were racing around trying to catch the dogs. I didn't want to be the one to tell them then didn't have a cat in hell's chance. The only time those fellas would come near us was when food was on the table. So, I did the only thing a good hostess could do. I asked her if she wanted a game of football. Her face showed surprise, alongside mine, I think. Looking at Rob and James, I knew they would be up for it … the kids would too … and Sue wouldn't want to be left out … and at least we would all be doing something rather than sitting on our hands and waiting for the burnt offerings that would be coming our way all too soon. 'I think the blokes have everything under control.' As I said this I spotted James farting about with the slice, trying to waft the smoke away and coughing like a silent film star (but not so silently, just trying to get you to envisage the melodrama). 'He's such a girl, don't you think?' I meant it in the nicest possible way of course, and watching him there, flaying his arms and gripping his chest before deciding that Rob bending over to get more charcoal was enough to make him stop all his amateur dramatics, I felt the warm sense of belonging that I always felt with him. He wasn't just my publisher … wasn't just my friend … he was like the brother I had never had. For years he had been my support … was the one who made me realise that being gay was not a disease, not something to be scared of. He was even the one to tell me that all women were not like Teri.

When I turned to face Steph, she was looking at James too. Her face was relaxed, and the events from earlier were nowhere to be seen. Those green eyes were wide and sparkling in the sunlight, and I had an urge to just lean over and kiss her. I know! Imagine that? Barely home from her parents, sitting here surrounded by my family, and me trying to kiss her. At least it would be something to write in my journal … if I owned a journal that is.

I had to stop thinking like this … had to stop the urge to just kiss her and be damned with it. 'Well?' I could tell by her expression I had interrupted her viewing of James, and his amateur dramatics, and for a fleeting moment I felt a pang of jealousy.

'Well what?' Had she been listening to me? Or she more involved with watching James fanny around with the coals?

'Footie? You, me, Sue, Rob and the kids.' I turned back to James at this point. Wanting to let Steph know that however beautiful she was, she didn't stand a chance with him. 'You're not up to playing footie are you, Priscilla?' James said no, and continued to be James in all his glory. That done, I plonked myself down next to Steph and started changing into trainers. You can't kick a ball as well if you are in shoes, can you?

It wasn't until I'd finished tying my lace into a safe double bow, did I look back at Steph. She looked green. Was she … fuck. All the time I had been lusting after her, I hadn't really seriously considered that she might in fact be straight … might be a little disgusted by the thought of people of the same sex doing things with each other that they shouldn't, in a homophobe's opinion, be doing with each other. That was classed as a free one-way ticket to hell in their book. Or was she offended that I had called him Priscilla? Maybe I shouldn't have used the moniker without putting her in the picture first. Hopefully, that was the case, rather than … the unmentionable. So, with that nearly well thought through, I decided to tell her why I called him Priscilla.

When I had finished, she didn't speak straight away. Was she thinking I was a lesbian? Part of me hoped she was, and the other was shitting my pants. I looked down at my bare foot, and wanted nothing more than to put the trainer on, mainly as something to do whilst she was weighing up the situation. Eventually, I couldn't stand it any longer.

'I should have told you, shouldn't I?' Did I say this as an opportunity for her to say yes or no? And why should it be an issue? If she didn't like the thought of two people … and am I rambling? Again? Too right, I am. Because when I think about people not understanding that we are all different … that love comes in many shapes and sizes and doesn't always conform to what society deems to be 'fitting', then I'm allowed to ramble out my thoughts in any way I choose to. But the real question should be 'Am I over dramatising?' or 'Am I jumping the gun a little?' there was only one way to find out.

'You're not … how can I say this?' Quickly. Her face was motionless. 'You're not a … please don't take offence by this will you?' Please don't. Because if you do, I am fucked. And if you are … then I am metaphorically fucked. 'You're not a … a … homophobe, are you?'

To say the expression on her face was priceless would be redundant. It was as if she had been slapped, repeatedly, by a wet fish. 'Huh?' That's all she could muster, until I saw the colour rage into her cheeks. It was the way she delivered the next line that sealed her sexuality … there was no way in hell that anyone who is straight can say 'Homophobe! Me?!' in that way without having the tendency to be interested in the topic. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to see her reaction, because at that precise moment, Brian decided to say hello.

When I hit the floor all the air left my lungs in a huge puff. Brian wanted to lick me clean whilst getting me dirtier and dirtier. Trust my dog to come and love me at that precise moment. All the shouting in the world was not going to shift him, and it was a good job that Steph took the initiative and dragged him from me. I felt a mess, so God knows what I looked like. From the corner of my eye, I was sure I could see Brian laughing - little bleeder.

I looked down my frame, and all I could see were huge paws prints. All the effort of choosing the right outfit flashed in my head. What was the point when you had a dog? However much you tried, cleanliness was definitely not next to dogliness. For a split second I wanted to cry, but that doesn't make me look like I had any kind of control, does it? Therefore I swallowed my pride, and the huge lump that was forming in my throat, and looked over at the woman who had saved me for even more doggy breath than even I could cope with. Thankfully, she wasn't laughing … that was a bonus. In fact, she looked concerned about my welfare, which was a bigger bonus.

A hand came slowly out, and she offered me help getting back to my feet. What a wonderful woman. If it had been her on the floor, after being greeted by Brian, I doubt I would have been so charming. Thinking about it, I would have laughed … because sometimes I am even more of a twat than usual. But it wasn't just the way she looked at me with concern, it was more than that. As soon as I took her hand, I felt the all too familiar jolt race along my arm, but this time I wasn't freaked out by it. I was expecting it - or, to tell the truth, hoping it would happen. Steph didn't flinch. Did she feel it too? She must have, as there was no way the vibrations running down my arm, into my chest and all over my body by this stage, could be limited to just me.

Then … God … then … she said something that I think I will remember for the rest of my life. 'No. Erin. I am very far removed from a homophobe. Believe me.' I know you are thinking, 'What the fuck is she going on about?', but it wasn't what she said, or how she said it … it was the feeling inside me that proclaimed 'She's GAY!' that makes it memorable. It was the first real indication that she was of the same ilk as me … trust me … you had to be there. And if you had been there, you might have warned both Steph and I that a very excited black lab was on his way back to finish what he had started.

BAM! I think I heard her lungs collapse, even from my position on the ground. But like all situations where you have no control of falling, or watching someone else falling, everything seemed to slow down. I could see the look on her face change from control to 'Oh fuck!' so bloody slowly, and even Brian seemed as if he was suspended in the air whilst grinning wildly. Her hand gripped mine so tightly, I'm sure the blood stopped flowing to the nether regions of my fingers. As for the other one, I could see it making its way to somewhere over my chest … like my tit … and a pervy part of me wanted nothing better than to feel her hand there. Steph's face showed shock, horror, resolution, shock and then back to horror again, just in the same way a scratched DVD would. Jerky movements, the missing sections of the show were apparent, and when she did land, she did so without grabbing an essential part of my anatomy. I should have felt disappointed, but I couldn't muster it. Her face was so close to mine, and the slowness had dissipated, taking us back to normal speed. When I saw 'normal speed', does the sensation of a freeze frame qualify for that? I know that seems to juxtapose what I was trying to get you to imagine, but that's how it seemed … normal, yet … not.

Let me explain. I know you want me to. Put it this way, everything else around us was moving at the normal speed of life, whereas as soon as I looked into those green eyes … stop. Nothing else mattered. All there seemed to be was her … and me. Me and … her. Her mouth was close … so close … too close … close enough for me to take those beautiful lips with my own … close enough to sample the delights of Stephanie Stevenson. Close enough to …

'You playing?' Bloody kids. Why couldn't they go and draw around the picture frames like I had caught them doing last night? I turned my head to give the spawns a glare, but on the way, my cheek brushed against Steph's. Momentarily, my eyes closed, and when I opened them I was greeted by two pairs of excited blue eyes staring at us with anticipation. 'We're all waiting for you two to stop kissing.'

'But …' It was a toss up whose shout was the loudest, but the sentence was unfinished. I know the reason why mine wasn't … and I was hoping that Steph's was the same. We were thinking about kissing … both of us … therefore, how could we deny it? With that thought, I laughed, and unlike James, Steph didn't wait for my lead, as she began to laugh at exactly the same time I did.

'And they call us kids.' Daisy's voice sounded peeved, and I knew I would pay for it later when she put her parts on. But it was her brother's comment that got my attention the most.

'Do you think Steph is anal like Aunty Erin?' The laughter stopped in my throat, and the noise coming out sounded more like a strangled turkey. Daisy turned and looked at the both of us, collected in a heap on the ground, and with me watching her like a mother who knows her child is just about to misbehave.

A shrug … followed by, 'Dunno. Looking at them now I would say no,' before running off to get the ball.

Now … the thing is … I was on the floor with Steph sprawled out on top of me … my face burning with the thought that Steph heard what my sister's kids discussed, and the only thought raging through my head was, how did she know what anal meant?

One of these days, I would have to have a long talk with that sister of mine. And this time, it would not be about my inability to speak my mind to the woman who was using me as a mattress.

Although I quite like that image. Comforting, if you know what I mean.


It's always the way, isn't it? The way that time races when you want it to drag out so you can make the most of every minute, I mean. It seems as if you spend your time trying to savour each precious moment, and try to stretch it out, when something else comes up and you forget what you were trying to savour and start all over again with the next morsel.

What I am trying to say … extremely badly … is that the evening was wonderful, with too many 'precious morsels' to digest. Before I knew it, Steph was saying that she had to get going. Here was my chance to walk her back and tell her every thing I wanted to tell her. Part of me wanted to unburden my guilt, whilst the stronger part just wanted to snog the face off her and put the past firmly aside. All evening, I had taken sly looks at her … and with every one of those images I savoured, she just became more and more beautiful … more and more wonderful … and finally, more and more unobtainable. But that wouldn't stop me from relishing every minute I had left in her company, because if my spine actually became strong enough, tonight would be the time I would finally let her know just what kind of woman I was. And that would probably be the last time she spoke to me.

So … with a heavy, yet excited heart (I know - I couldn't even decide what my heart was going through), I asked Steph if I could walk her home. Well … if you can call 'Hey! Wait up,' whilst grabbing her before continuing with, 'I'll walk you back. Don't want you getting kidnapped do we?' asking, then yes.

Ok. I'll confess. It wasn't really like that. I did want to walk her home, and was going to ask her, but it was Sue who grabbed me and loudly whispered in my ear, 'If you don't walk her home, I'll swing for you.' Talk about motivation.

Anyway … Steph seemed pleased, but I knew it wouldn't be long before the smile she was giving me would turn into something a little less inviting. Sucking in a breath, I made my way towards her cottage, Reggie finally leaving the confines of Brian's legs to trot happily at our side.

The rest of the group was shouting their goodbyes, until I heard Sue tell them to leave us alone to chat. Quickly, I turned to see if Steph had heard what she had said, and in all truth, even if she had, she wouldn't have understood the implication. I have never known Steph's house appear so quickly, and I knew it was time. Pity my voice box didn't think the same way.

I just stood there. She just stood there. It was like the end of a first date, where you are contemplating a kiss, but don't know if it will be accepted or not. However, that wasn't the case. I was trying to build up the courage to just say what I had planned to say. As I was standing there, I could see different expressions flit across her face, until she stuck her hand out as a farewell. This was it. This … was it … I had to grab that hand and pull her to me, and tell her. And I tried - God knows I did. The words were there … there on the tip of my tongue, and if she had opened my mouth and looked inside, she would have seen the word 'Guilty' written in blood.

However, I took her hand. Had to. Just to feel the blood racing around this living breathing woman, even for an instant, would calm me … and then I could say what I had come to say.

'Thank you for coming over.' Fuck! Where on earth … 'Would … erm … would you like to come over tomorrow?' I coughed and started again. 'We are all going out for the day, and I'm sure they would love it if you could come along too.' Where had the 'I'm sorry for fucking up your life' gone? Where had the 'Henry Poole told me to tell …' buggered off to? Therefore, upon the realization I hadn't said or done the things I wanted to say or do, I began the Erin babble I believe I have become famous for. Steph was grinning at me, and I babbled even more. I think a part of me was babbling in the hopes that in the midst of it all I would spill out my confession in my own confusion and lack of verbal control.

'I'd love to.'

'Really?' Relief flooding through me. Maybe because I believed I had got off the hook once again, or maybe because she liked me for just that little bit longer. The next part was totally unplanned, and I guess you know that my planning skills are shite by now, so I needn't have said the last part. I kissed her. On the cheek, of course, and I think it was either because I had to do something, or because I was so bloody happy that at that moment, I was free from confession. My lips stayed on her cheek for longer than the usual social peck. Maybe deep down my brain knew that if they were occupied in doing something more fulfilling, they wouldn't be able to get me into trouble. That thought out, I moved them … closer to her ear … 'I'll give you a knock in the morning, then. Ok?' The words seemed to shout out, and I'm surprised she didn't hold her hand against her ear and rub valiantly to stop the pain.

Steph pulled away and looked at me, her eyes seemed to be searching deep within, and once again I began to panic. Had she sensed I had something I needed to tell her. Her shoulders were rising and falling, like they do when you get anxious, or angry, and for a fleeting moment, I wondered whether my peck had been welcomed after all. I leaned closer, expecting her to say something … expecting her to bawl me out … expecting something that I knew I deserved but still wasn't expecting.

Well. Until she kissed me, that is.

Did you hear that?

She. Kissed. Me. Well, I think she kissed me, because at that precise moment I wasn't too sure if it had been her or me … but I knew I was falling into her … falling deeper into her mouth, her body, her soul with every second my mouth was pressed up to hers. In all my dreaming, I never knew it would feel as perfect as this. It was as if I physically felt myself lock into her, lock against her mouth, and her do the same. Part of me was stunned, the other unsure, when all I wanted was to keep on kissing her for the rest of my life. There was nothing I wanted more than to open my mouth and taste her, but part of me instructed I should be content with this … this perfection in my arms. Have you ever kissed someone and just knew that she, or he, were the one? That every thing you had ever hoped and dreamed of was there, in front of you, kissing you right back? I hope so. I truly do. Because, you see, it is the most elevating feeling you will probably have. Even better than sex … better than the yearned for climax … this was so much more. So much more. It was the epitome of coming home at last. And I, dear reader, believed for those few seconds that Stephanie Stevenson was the home I had been searching for all of my life.

Until she decided she had made a mistake that is. I felt it so strongly - this anger - this pain that was thrown at me, bringing with it all the love I had tried to show her in that kiss. Some people would be angry … demand why they had been led on … demand to know what they had done that was so bad, but I couldn't. Not because I am the kind of person who accepts, or is hardened to rebuff - no. It was the look of fear in her eyes … the tears flooding down her face … the look of desperation written all over her that stopped me trying to get her to explain why she had decided she didn't want me after all.

Opening my arms was involuntary. I only wanted to comfort her - tell her I understood … tell her I was here if she needed someone to confide in … no strings. All the blood had seeped from my face and was gurgling around in my stomach, and I was trying valiantly to keep it in there and not to spew it out of my mouth in confession, or even as a reminder of what I had previously eaten - eaten at the time when all I had to worry about was baring my guilt.

'No. Don't. Touch. Me.' Her voice was a mixture of anger and pain, and I knew it was my fault, but I couldn't quite grasp the reason why. I kissed her. She kissed me. But was it just the kiss that made her react in such a way? Although I can understand that some people would be abhorred by a kiss from someone they didn't want to kiss … this was over the top, wasn't it? At this time, I was certain she had wanted the same thing I had … hadn't she almost admitted she was in fact gay? There had been rumours about her in Manchester, but by the looks of her now, they were completely unfounded.

Then she was gone. The sound of the door reverberating through the emptiness of both the idyllic setting and my heaving chest echoed the emptiness I was feeling. I couldn't move, and like a twat I just stood there staring at the green door solidly closed in front of me, wondering what I should do. Should I knock? Make sure she was ok? Or should I fuck off back to my own side of the universe and forget every thing that had happened in the last few minutes? I turned to go, but the sound of crying held my feet in place. Should I apologise? Say it was a spur of the moment thing and it wouldn't happen again? But how could I? That would mean looking her in the face and lying to her - again.

It seemed like forever before I found the momentum to move, but in reality it was only the matter of minutes. The walk back to Sue and the gang was acted as if in slow motion, each footstep on the gravel racing up inside my body like an aftershock. My brain was completely fucked, and all the strength I had seemed to dissipate with every step. At least I didn't have to tell her anything now. Funny thing to think, isn't it? Almost like giving up on something that could have been so wonderful. The reason being, I didn't stand a cat in hell's chance with her. Something I knew all along, but was just too stupid to conceive.


'So. What happened?' It wasn't just Sue waiting to speak to me when I walked through the door; it was Sue, James, and Rob. Thankfully the kids were already upstairs and getting washed ready for bed. That way, they didn't have to witness a grown woman cry. Me, if you were wondering. It still surprises me how I abstained from crying all the way back from Steph's, but as soon as someone asked me what happened … bam. On came the waterworks. This was getting disturbing, not only for me, but for the rest of them too, as they had rarely seen me cry, which by now you are finding hard to believe.

Sue's arms were about me, and I felt her pulling me close, her soothing touch hurting my heart more instead of the expected feeling of safety. James and Rob left, I didn't see them, just heard them scuffling out of the door. I knew they weren't doing it because they were men, and men don't do 'crying'. They were doing it for me … therefore … more tears … big fat juicy ones that collect at the corners of your eyes and then plop down onto your cheek before racing for freedom.

Next thing I knew I was seated. Couldn't remember getting there, but the sofa was underneath me, whilst Sue's arms were still about me. Aches raced across my chest and flowed mercilessly down my arms to the tips of my fingers. Each sob brought on a new pain … a new ache … a new reason to continue crying for the rest of my life. But although you always believe that the tears will never cease - they do. Thankfully, I had someone who cared about me to catch me when I think I was at the lowest point in my life. Why now? Why now as the lowest point? Why not when I split from Teri? Or Rob's illness … Or any other reason or obstacle I had been faced with in my life? Because now was now …and the present always hurts more, doesn't it?

Hiccoughing sobs indicated that the crying was on the wane, and before I had completely stopped, Sue asked me the one thing I didn't want to answer. 'Did you tell her?' Ah. She thought I had spilled my guts to Steph and then got a whack and sent home. I wish I had. I wish that's all it was, because at least I would know why she had acted the way she had, instead, or surmising that she hated me and everything I stood for. A lesbian who had forced herself into a place where she was not welcome, that is. 'Come on, honey. She'll come round.' My eyes hurt … burned, even, and when I looked at the concerned face of my sister, the pain didn't just stay there. I wanted to smile, even sardonically and blurt out that Steph would never come round to the fact I was gay … would never come round to the idea of being with someone whom she despised. But I didn't say a word. Just sat there and waited for my sister to either leave or ask me again what had happened. I was hoping she would just leave, but the latter was part and parcel of the sister I knew and loved. She would never just let me be … it must have been because she was that few minutes older - something about always being the older one that made her try to defend, care, and protect me at all times. But you see, that is not always feasible, is it? No one can stop you getting hurt, especially if the person doing the hurting is yourself. 'It will be a shock at first, but she'll come round, I promise. Do you want me to have a word with her?'

'NO!' The word shot out of my mouth with the power and tone of defiance a child would force upon a parent. 'No …' More gently now, as I knew I had to explain what had happened when I had taken the bull by the horns and kissed the woman next door. 'You see, Sue … it wasn't her, it was me.' See? Lame. 'What I'm trying to say is … I kissed her.' Sue looked at me with that spark of hope that comes with a revelation. 'She's not gay … I … I … made a mistake.' Now what I expected Sue to do was to say something along the lines of 'Oh Erin, I'm so sorry', but she didn't. What she did say made the expectant tears I had welling up at the wings slip back inside my head.

'Fuck that for a game of soldiers.' Huh? Where's my pity? Where's the 'There there there' I needed? 'If she's not gay then I'm a pig's nipple.' Funny turn of phrase, granted, but what made her so adamant? 'She's gay … that much I know for certain.' On one hand I wanted to ask how she knew, whilst on the other my mind was saying 'If she is gay, then why did she react the way she did when I kissed her?' 'I clocked her staring at your backside enough times tonight to know she is definitely not straight.' And that makes me feel better … how? 'It must have been something else. Think. What makes you think she's not gay? What did she say?' Should I tell? Should I use the pitch and tone of the 'No. Don't. Touch. Me.' Steph had used? No. Because it was so much more than pitch and tone - it was the whole package that illustrated that Stephanie Stevenson didn't think the way Sue believed she felt. The anger … pain … desperation. All of it.

Slowly, I turned to look deeply into my sister's eyes. 'Sue. She doesn't like me that way. Trust me; I know a knock back when I see one.'


'No buts. Let's leave it, ok?' Standing up, I looked back to where she was sitting on the sofa. 'Thank you, sis.' Then I turned and made my way up to my room, where Brian was already waiting for me. There was nothing else to think about … nothing else to do … it was over. Why drag it out?'


Dreams don't understand you don't want to think about things anymore, do they? They believe they have the right to invade, conquer and unnerve, and they do. Usually, I couldn't remember the details of my dream, and I won't bore you with the details of this one. Let's just say, I woke up feeling even worse than I had the night before. My face seemed bloated, as I knew I had been crying on and off all the way through the night … problem was, I wasn't too sure why. The dreams I had were not nice … not nice at all. One of the images that stood out the most, the one I tried my hardest to dispel, was one where I was begging Steph to reconsider … to give me a chance, but she just laughed at me and turned away.

As you may gather, motivating myself to a day as tour guide and hostess didn't fill my heart with joy. All I wanted to do was to hide away in my room until everyone had left, but that wasn't the done thing, was it? A whimper from the foot of my bed alerted me to the fact Brian was awake. I could see the twinkling of his eyes from the scrap of light that had sneaked into the room from the window. It was early, and maybe too early to wake everyone up to go for a walk, so I would just take him by myself.

I was half way around the lake when I spotted her and Reggie on the other side. Even from a distance I knew that Steph had probably slept as badly as I had. It was the slowness in her gait, the way her shoulders slumped, and what made it worse was the speeding figure of a little black and tan body whizzing all around her that told me so. Made her seem slower somehow. There was one thing I was not ready for, and that was catching up with her and having to deal with last night. I could've, I suppose, but I just couldn't muster the energy to discuss something that I already thought I knew the answer to. To make matters worse, I noticed that Brian had stopped walking and was sniffing the air. I'm sure he could smell Reggie somewhere in the distance. Click. Lead on, and under control. No way was I going to allow my dog to alert Steph I was there. Brian wasn't a happy boy, but then again, his mother wasn't a happy girl either.

Back home, Sue was up and dressed, and so were Rob and the kids. I knew this as soon as I approached because I could see Daisy and George already out playing in the garden, and Sue was waiting anxiously at the back door. Rob's face briefly came to her shoulder, and I saw her turn to him, say something, and then swiftly kiss him before turning back to me. This was not the time to become all melodramatic. I had to suck it in, as they say, and forget that I was feeling worse than shit, if feeling worse than shit is possible.

Lifting my hand up, I waved wildly, and anyone watching would think I was a long lost relative returning home after years of active duty. Even Brian turned to look at me, as if to say 'Yeah. Cheer up now.' But it wasn't just my dog that I stunned, I stunned my sister too. She didn't know how to respond to the gesture, as I'm sure she thought I would come in almost suicidal. Click. Brian back off the lead, and now running with abandon towards Steph's house, probably in the off chance he would at least catch his pal before it was too late.

Sue was by this time walking towards me, her face twisted into enquiry. 'Morning, sis! Sleep well?' That threw her. She stopped. Started, and then stopped again. 'I hope you've got the breakfast going. I'm starving.' I should get an award … a BAFTA, or something just as prestigious. Reason being, I actually got past Sue, got to the door in fact, before she came back into the land of the living and raced to catch me up.

'You ok?'

'Never better. You up for another day out?' I couldn't look at her … couldn't. I knew if I stopped fannying around and turned to face her, she would know I was lying. I did all I could to stop myself … looked in the fridge for the eggs and bacon … clicked the kettle on to boil … even started to sort out the plates. It never occurred to me that getting the plates out in anticipation to dishing out the breakfast was something a person would normally do after the breakfast was cooking.

'It's ok you know.' And that's where my resolve slipped. Call it distraction, but I turned to look at the place where my sister's voice had been only to find her standing right behind me. 'You look it, Erin. Ok, I mean.' Did I? That was a bles … 'If you call puffy eyes and a face that could curdle milk ok, that is.' Her hand came and gently landed on my shoulder. 'If you want to talk, I can get rid of the kids for a while.' Mute. That's how I stayed. Completely devoid of words. 'Why don't you go and speak to her …' I shook my head. 'At least try. It could be completely different this morning, but you won't know until you ask, will you?'

Placing the plates carefully onto the side, I half turned back to her. Slowly, I began to shake my head. 'No use, Sue.' A weak smile raised itself onto my lips. 'There's nothing to ask. I already know the answer.'

'But …'

'To be honest, I would rather forget it for now.' As if I could. There would be no forgetting for me, not now, and I wasn't too sure about the future either. Swallowing the lump that had decided to sneak up my throat, I lifted up the spatula. 'Want to help me make breakfast?'

Thankfully, Sue nodded, knowing that once I had made up my mind about something, it was unusual for me to change it. Well, something big, that is. So, without another word, we cooked, and it wasn't until we had the brood around us that we decided conversation was ok to start again. There wouldn't be any mention of Steph, not then anyway. Although she did have another go as we were getting into the car. But, like the martyr I was, I dug my heels in and opted for abstinence. You can't be a martyr without suffering, can you?


The day seemed to fly by as we took in the beauty of the Lake District. George and Daisy were as good as gold, even after pestering the life out of us all to give them more Kendal Mint Cake. Just watching them eat it evoked this feeling of missing out on something again. Yesterday, I had been so happy to watch them consume the sugary treat … watching in expectation of the joy it would bring, whereas today …

Was it only twenty four hours ago I had felt such a positive rush … a need to spill all to Steph? Yes. A lot can happen in a day … too much … and unfortunately, it wasn't always a good thing.

Before I knew it, they were all getting sorted to drive back to Disley, and I knew I would finally be allowed some semblance of quiet to mourn. Strange choice of words, don't you think? Mourn. That's something you do at a funeral.

'I'll give you two rings when we get back, ok? Just to let you know we arrived safely.'

And they did. Both Sue and James. And the sound of the phone shrilling out 'You are officially on your own' allowed me to sit on the sofa and cry away all the emotion I had been welling up since breakfast. To be perfectly honest, it felt good.


You must be bored stupid by now. All you've had is me whining on and on about things that you probably don't give a rat's arse about. And you are probably wondering why it was such a big deal in the first place. If you are, then I'm sorry - if you're not, then I'll continue.

Two weeks. That's how long I avoided her for. Call me spineless, I did on many occasions, but I just couldn't go and ask her why she had reacted the way she had. Even if she wasn't gay, there was a way to tell someone to back off, wasn't there? And part of me wanted to think that somewhere along the line I wasn't totally out of order. If I had kissed her, and she wasn't up for it, then maybe she could have reacted the way she had, but obviously, it shouldn't last for two weeks. Should it?

When I say avoided her, that's exactly what I did. Considering we both lived in the back of beyond, but right on top of each other, it wasn't an easy feat. I would wait to see if she would come out of her house to take Reggie for his walk, and I would then wait until she was back and on her way to work before taking Brian for his. There were a few times when I was nearly caught out, as she would return home before I had the opportunity to get back in the house, and just as many times when I found myself hiding behind a tree thinking 'Erin Mason. You are a fucking idiot' as I watched her and Reggie start off on their evening walk. It would have been so easy to just casually walk past her and say 'Good evening' before carrying on. It would have been her decision to ignore me, thus tossing the ball in her court. But like me, I clutched onto the ball, as in a fucked up way it gave me something to hold on to. No wonder I was single.

Then it happened. The opportunity for me to speak to her again without pulling down any barriers either she or I had erected. It was something that could've happened at any time, I suppose, especially to someone who owns a pet.

It was first thing in the morning, and as usual I had watched her take Reggie for a walk. This time, when she returned, I was still wet from my shower so didn't go out straight away. But when I did, I found something I knew that Stephanie Stevenson would be looking for. Reggie. Bless him. I found him near the fallen down tree about a quarter of the way around the lake, and I knew straight away that he wasn't all right. He was sitting on the ground, his paw nearly rammed into his mouth and gnawing at it as if he had something wedged in there. When he spotted me, or should I say Brian, I believe that dog actually sighed with relief. Hobbling over, he sat at my feet and held his paw up for me to inspect. It was wet and sticky, and I wasn't able to diagnose the problem, because it seemed as if all the hair had clustered around the pad. There seemed to be something different about it, but for the life of me I couldn't place it.

Scooping him up into my arms, I decided that it was time to go and speak to Steph … and not just about Reggie either. This had come too far … I had let things get way out of hand, and I knew she had too, but that was irrelevant, wasn't it? The ball needed to be tossed, and I was ready for her to either bat it back or keep it. I was fed up living my life waiting, mourning, anticipating, and sneaking around. I lived here too, and if we didn't get on … we didn't get on.

Big words from a woman who was literally shitting her pants as she made her way back to the clearing, back to the place where a certain Ms Stevenson was soon to get a piece of my mind. By the time I arrived, I was livid. Amazing to think that one moment fear can grip you around the bowels, when the next you were ready to take on the world. I was going to pound on that door and tell her exactly what I thought of her and her knock back … tell her I thought she had acted despicably … and I liked that word too, as it was making good use of my idiot brain. I hadn't forgotten the wiggly mass of black fur in my hand though, and I would say that first … of course I would … I am an animal lover after all. And after I had sorted out Reggie's paw … by the God, she was going to get it. And no, I wasn't procrastinating. Much.

She was out. Can you believe it? Fucking out! And I had all this energy to spill over her … all these words that needed saying … and she was out. I knew this as I hammered and hammered on her door. Her car was there … so she must've been in. So bang bang bang again. Nothing. Except a little boy who had started to whimper and wriggle and want to get down and see his mamma.

After placing him on the ground, I spotted something red on my arm. Blood. Not my blood. Reggie's. I couldn't hang about here all day waiting to see if she could be arsed to answer the door or not, I had to get him to the vets … that would show her. If you're going to have a pet, you should at least have an idea that maybe he or she might get out and get hurt. Reggie decided to inspect his foot again, and Brian wanted to have a look too, licking along with his pal in the hope he could heal it.

After telling both of the dogs to stay, I raced back to the house to write a quick note. 'I have found Reggie and am taking him to the vets.' That would get her attention. I could have started by telling her not to panic, but what the hell … Grabbing my car keys, I then ran back to where the boys were sitting on the porch, and before long we were all on our way to the vets.


Hopefully, you haven't just eaten, as what I am about to tell you made my stomach do cart wheels. Remember when I said there was something different about Reggie's foot? Well, the reason for that was because he had ripped the nail out at the root, and it was hanging off. Poor little chap, eh? The vet said he probably did it by scrabbling on the ground and caught it on something, but after that … fuck knows what she said. My brain had screamed 'Too much information!' and closed off.

But. He was ok. He would live. Thankfully. However much I was now angry at the woman who lived next door to me, the mother of this poor little mite, I didn't want her to hurt or worry about his welfare. But to tell you the truth, even though I was angry, I was still nervous about seeing her. Of course I would be … it had been two weeks without as much as a nod in recognition when passing.

Therefore, when I was driving back, I didn't put a spark to it. It was more like a Sunday drive, if truth be known. Make her wait. That's what I thought … although in reality, it was more like 'Oh shit.'

When I turned into the drive I saw her looking through the doorway. Her face was a greenish colour, and the anger I had been hanging onto rapidly escaped through the open window. What did I do now I had been deserted by my good old pal anger … the one who had been sitting on my shoulder for the best part of two hours, but now decided I would be better off dealing with this on my own? Did I mention anything about the kiss? Did I plainly ask her why she had gone into one that night? Or did I concentrate on just telling her about Reggie? However, I hadn't foreseen the other scenario. The one where Steph appeared at the side of the car and was trying to yank it open. The joy of having anti hijacker locks …I felt a little more in control … pity my hands didn't agree. They were shaking like a shitting dog, and I was finding it so bloody difficult to unclip my seatbelt. When I turned and spotted Steph grinning at me, honestly, my fingers were as much use as a chocolate tea stirrer.

'Hey.' God. That voice. So soft … so beautifully soft and warm. Inside, my stomach and heart were waltzing, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I tried breathing slowly, but in fact that incited the little buggers … oxygen doesn't go well with over active organs - yes … I know the stomach isn't an organ, but why split hairs? Or is it an organ? And who gives a flying fuck? 'Is he ok … erm … everything … ok?' I couldn't answer. My heart had split from my stomach and performed the salsa all the way up my throat. My brain was growling, 'Get back down, you son of a bitch.' Bless. Good to know one part of me was holding firm. But it was because I was feeling smug that my brain had bollocked my heart (yep - totally screwed up), I didn't realise the strength I put behind my arm as I thrust the door open. Erm … until I heard a squawk … a squawk coming from Steph.

'Shit, Steph! God. I'm so sorry!' And I was too. Jesus. That must have stung like a bitch, and that's why I didn't think the next bit through. Before I knew it, I was holding her hand in mine - well, her wrist, and I was rubbing it, almost like I was wanking it off. I know I can be crude sometimes, but I just wanted you to get a picture in your head. All the while I performing 'wrist masturbation', Steph was releasing pockets of pain into the air and I was apologising with abandon. Pity I didn't pay more attention. I knew she had spoken my name, but I had the rhythm going now, and if I stopped, I would actually have to confront her about everything. So, onwards and upwards, as they say. That is until she tugged her hand away, waved it, and then promptly smacked me in the face. Looking back, I probably deserved it, but that didn't stop me yelling out, 'Shit!' at the exactly the same time as she did. Talk about nearly having your teeth shoved down your throat … I thought for an instant she had knocked my front two out, and quickly slipped my tongue over the place where they should be just to check. Thankfully, they were still there - throbbing, but still there.

'Fucking hell fire! Erin! Fucking hell fire!' Nice turn of phrase, and one I would have used if I could have moved my mouth. - I was too busy rubbing it to speak. But it was when her hand touched my cheek … when those fingers caressed me so tenderly; I think that was the key reason why words were redundant. I actually felt my whole body open up to her … let my face, my eyes, my everything open up for her to see. Fingers curled around my jaw, and as if by some law of physics I wasn't aware of, my face began to move closer to hers. I could have stopped it, I'm sure I could. But you see … I didn't want to. Her other hand was also cupping my jaw, and the look in her eyes was something I doubt I would ever forget. This wasn't a woman who didn't feel something for me … no one could imitate that expression. A part of me whispered 'What if you are reading it wrong again?' But I couldn't be … no way … she wanted this as much as …

And then everything was forgotten. A kiss …so perfect, had taken away any vestige of doubt. A kiss … so encapsulating, that whatever happened after this moment wouldn't matter. The pain in my mouth was forgotten, even though I could taste the irony taste of the blood from my lip. I didn't care. Nothing mattered. Past or future, this was now - the here and now, and I was living instead of existing for once in far too long. My hands decided they needed to join in, and I felt them trickle along her arms until I reached her hands which were still on my face, and then I moved them over to cup her cheeks, as if this movement could bring her closer into me.

Then it all began to slow down … slow down … drown … and slow down … and then cool air separated us, and I realised I had my eyes closed. It seemed as if it was a great effort for me to open them, and I think part of me was a little scared, too, just in case I discovered she was standing there like she had been the first time I had kissed her.

But no. She was smiling. 'God.' Was it relief or the feeling of exultation that made me speak to the man in the sky? I don't know, but one thing I did know was I wanted her to look at me the way she was looking at me for the rest of my life. 'God.' I had to tell her … now was the time … tell her how I felt … 'Steph?' … before I bottled it again. 'Do you know how much I like you?' Should I have said love? I still don't know, but the thought escaped as soon as she nodded at me … and I mimicked her action. Don't know why, but I did. Everything else could wait. All that mattered was the here and now.

'Yap!' Bugger. Reggie. I hadn't thought about him sitting there all injured in the back of my car … but then again, do you blame me? Yes, I hear you say.

'He's ok. Just a pulled nail.' A flash of the vets entered and exited my brain, and momentarily I felt the urge to vomit again, but I didn't want to worry her. 'Although I think he wants to see his mamma.' Nice touch. We, all of us who have pets, love to think that our pets need us, when in fact we need them.

Pulling away, I missed her immediately. So, to stop myself from gripping hold of her again, I went around to the back of the car and opened the boot. Reggie and Brian just sat there, and I believe the injured waif had been practising his 'I'm injured. Love me' face all the time I had been … erm … otherwise engaged. I have to admit, his foot looked fucking huge - I hadn't really noticed when I had trundled him into the car after coming out of the vets - must have been all the anger I was toying with. So when I spluttered, 'Don't let that worry you … it's not as bad as it looks. Believe me', I don't know who I was trying to convince. However, I doubted Steph heard what I had said, as she let out a little whimper and scooped the little chap into her arms. If dogs could smile whilst still looking pitiful, Reggie pulled it off - although I think I could have too if I was going to receive the amount of kissing and crooning he was by the totally engaging woman standing in front of me. Also, I knew that she wanted to check him over … that's what any mother would do in that situation. So, why was she still standing there? Why was she holding Reggie close and looking at me quizzically.

'Are you coming in?' Thank God she said that … as I don't know what I would have done if she would have said thanks, and then presently trundled inside the house, slamming the door in my face.

'Do you mind if Brian comes in too?' Couldn't I think of something a little more original? Something like, 'Try and stop me, baby.' But, you see, I'm not the 'oh baby' kind of woman - I'm the more, 'Would it be ok …' - totally British to the core. An element of charm value, I think, and by the way Steph was staring at my mouth, I believed she was thinking the same thing.

Lifting her hand, she gently stroked my lip. I wanted to smile … wanted to charm her some more, and also purse my lips to tempt her to kiss them again. She was looking at me with such softness, my heart was contracting and expanding within my chest.

'Come on. I'll get you some ice for that.' Bugger. She was checking out my lip to see the damage her back hander had caused me. And there I was believing I was the answer to all her prayers. Serves me right for running before I could walk … one kiss doth not a relationship make. I know. It does sound like Shakespeare, and I honestly believe if he had thought of it, I would be quoting him, instead of basking in the knowledge I was in fact turning into a poet.

Collecting Brian was easy, as he wanted to see what was happening to Reggie. Steph had already gone inside, and she had left the door open in invite.

Now was the time to deal with my overwhelming urge to spill all.


Chapter Twenty-Six

All the time it took us to sort out the boys had been spent with me taking sly looks in her direction. The urge to just grab and kiss her was synonymous with the feeling of apprehension racing through me. This would be an ideal time to tell her about all the things I wanted to tell her. Mainly, the article, but also how I wanted to be with her … wanted this to be the beginning of something special.

It happened, the kissing I mean, after all was done. I was sitting on the sofa, playing with the swollen part of my lip, when she came in sporting two steaming mugs of something that turned out to be hot chocolate. It was a delaying tactic, wasn't it? Hot drink - mouth occupied - not being able to speak, although I believe she thought the smile I gave her was for the drink, it was in fact for my stay of execution. My face was aching, but it was nothing in comparison to the aching I was feeling in other parts of my body. I mean my chest, if you were wondering, or had taken the other route of aching bits. However, I noted that she didn't seem as comfortable now as she had about five minutes ago. Therefore it was up to me to do something about it. Plonking my cup on the side, I opened my arms in invitation. In my head I was frantically trying to bullet point all the things I needed to tell her whilst I had some semblance of bravery lurking within me. Steph slammed her cup down in haste, and I saw a wave of it shoot out and splatter on the table. The laugh I let out was one of those ones that are not really laughing at the situation, but make the most of the situation to allow a laugh to pop out. And we all know that laughter is a way to show fear, or nervousness, don't we? And of course, this is the time where I was going to go off the point, but decided not to in case you swung for me.

Let me continue …

Steph slipped effortlessly onto the couch, and even more so into my arms. I am surprised I didn't hear an audible click as we connected. Nothing else was needed. Nothing. Here we were, snuggled and connected together on the sofa, both our men on the floor in front of the fire, all warm and cosy on a cold April day. Perfect. But when I say perfect, can I add more to that statement? You see, just as I was feeling that everything was wonderfully faultless, I kissed her. Yes. I took the initiative and kissed her … and I think that was what surprised her most - not that I kissed her … that I took the initiative. Although the action wasn't completely altruistic … as well as being divine, it stopped the freedom of conversation. However, the need to discuss anything evaporated as soon as she started kissing me back.

Then … bam. I was on my back and she was above me, her lips not leaving mine for a second. It was wonderful. The feeling of her on top of me was more than I ever dreamed it would be. Her body was firm and toned, and I had a flash of what it would feel like to be underneath this woman when she made love to me. My kisses became more ardent, more demanding, and there was a point where I tried to stop things developing. Not because I didn't want them to, it was more that I needed to clear the air between us before I could allow things to go to the level where the rest of my body was racing to. Hands were wrapping in hair, stroking curves, familiarising themselves with the coveted skin of desire. Nothing else mattered but this … nothing else came close to this feeling … nothing … anything … nothing …

Until her hands slipped, tentatively underneath my top, that is. A gasp left my mouth, and was caught inside hers, whilst fingertips danced on my flesh. A line of fire collected around each tip and the sensation was driving me to ditch the need to tell her anything, let alone tell her to stop. All this was accompanied by the connection of two women who had a need so powerful, nothing could halt the inevitable. Opening my legs wider, I wrapped them around her and pulled her body closer, her lips on my neck making my hips surge upwards to allow this growing agony of want to find its asylum. At this rate I knew I would cum even before she touched me where I needed to be touched, and I felt the vestiges of rationality slipping away from me, slipping into the place where admissions of guilt didn't exist, and where everything was exactly the way it should be.

But that wasn't how I wanted our relationship to start … even though, in reality, it had. I had to clear things up … explain to her the person I was then in comparison to who I was now. Tell her that it wasn't her I was trying to hurt four years ago; it was me. Her hand was holding my breast so tightly, so completely, her mouth was suckling my throat, devouring me, and here I was underneath this wonderful woman contemplating ending everything before it started. Nevertheless, it had to be done.

'Steph.' The pitch of her name was low, and I believe that there was something inside me that didn't want her to hear. So, I tried again. 'Steph.' She still didn't hear me, and the little voice inside me whispered 'Good. Now forget it.' But how could I? 'Steph.' For God's sake, conscience - shut the fuck up. Steph was making little mewling noises, as if she had heard me, but had decided that this was not the time to stop and make conversation. I wish the angel who was on my shoulder thought the same thing. 'Steph … we need to …' I felt her freeze, as if she had been caught doing something she shouldn't. However, that was me, as it happens. I shouldn't have let things get as far as this without telling her. I know you're thinking, 'What's the big deal?', but it was to me … it meant that we could start again … start afresh … be the thing that I believed both of us needed. And to get that, all cards must be on the table.

It wasn't her freezing that surprised me, no. It was the way she threw herself backwards as if she had been burned that made my eyes shoot open and my hands shoot out to catch her. Pulling her towards me, I realised I had used a little too much force, as when she landed I felt the air explode from both our mouths in a whoosh. My heart was racing so much, and not just from all the kissing we had been doing. I was scared - so bloody scared that this would be the last time I would hold her in my arms. The sensation of having her there was the most perfect sensation I believe I have ever had, even more so than all the other ones I had experienced in the last half an hour. I had to say something … anything … something that would start the downward spiral of her attraction for me.

'Steph … I … really like you.' Way to go, Mason. All the one liners since the creation of man, and you repeat one you have already said. But I did feel some semblance of peace when I heard her sigh and then begin to nuzzle her face deeper into my chest. 'I have done since I first saw you.' Another fantastic one liner from the queen of romantic one liners, I believe. Slowly, Steph's head turned to look up to mine, and the expression on her face made the breath I had valiantly been trying to regulate go stupid once again. Green eyes were full of something bordering on hunger, yet they were dreamy at the same time, almost an after sex look, if you understand. But that didn't stop me worrying that she hadn't answered me yet. The time between me admitting my attraction from the first instance, to her actually responding seemed like an eternity. If this was so difficult, God only knows what it would be like to say the bad stuff.

'Same here.' Kick start. Well, that's what it feels like when you honestly believe your heart has stopped beating, although in fact it has been racing ahead of the game without you noticing. Funnily enough, I still believe that me waffling on to you could actually stop the next part I had to play in the saga that was increasingly becoming part and parcel of my life. Told you I am as thick as shit, didn't I? Or did you work it out for yourself? 'This isn't just a fling for me, Erin. Believe me.' Part of me wanted to whoop with joy, as here was the woman who had become to mean so much to me in such a short time (most of which we hadn't even been speaking - and ok … I'll stop with the delaying tactics) admitting she felt the same way I did. Or similar, I should say, as she hadn't said she loved me. But, alas, the other part of me knew that because she did feel something more than friendship, the next part I had to deliver was going to hurt her.

'Good.' I was readying myself for disaster. I couldn't even manage a smile, and Steph's eyebrows drew together briefly, as she had been expecting a different response than the one I had given. An urge to hold her as closely as I could took over, and I felt her bones move under my grip. I had to say something to soften my admission, anything. ''I don't want to rush us … rush into this. You mean too much to me, Steph.' I wanted to continue, but I am sure I saw green eyes glisten with unshed tears. Was this happiness? Of course it was - I hadn't told her anything bad … yet.

Steph leaned up on one hand and looked deeply into my eyes, as if she was making sure she had my undivided attention. As if it could ever be anywhere else but looking at her, looking back at her with all I could muster. I wanted her to see the real me, the one I chose to hide, the one who would never hurt her intentionally … or should I say, hurt her intentionally again?

'And you mean more than the world to me, Erin Mason.' I couldn't look away. She had me caught, hooked, entranced, anyway you want to say it, I was hers. My hand moved on its own volition, and before I knew it, my fingers were tightening in her hair, her face mere inches from mine. I was so in love with her … so absolutely, positively in love with this woman, all thoughts of admission froze inside my head. Just one more day, they whispered, one more day of her believing you are a nice person. One more day of having her in your arms … showing you the one thing that you will never ever get again for the rest of your life. Her.

So once again, I kept mute. One more day of being a liar. What harm could come from that? If we didn't do anything more, then she couldn't say I took advantage of her, could she? Well, physically at least. The emotional part was something I would deal with tomorrow. I would invite her around for dinner … go back to the start and try again. Begin at the beginning, even though the beginning is in fact a little too late to stop the damage of omitting the truth from the start.

Confused? You and me both. And when I finally tried to tell her, told her we needed to talk, I knew I had left it too late, as the sound of her breathing had dropped an octave, and I knew she was asleep. Tomorrow it would be. And this time, no amount of back peddling would stop me from being honest with her. I owed her so much more than that.

Lying there in the darkening room, I planned what I would say. Not for one minute did I ever think of telling her when she woke up, that never came on the cards. I needed time to get my explanation straight, as if four years hadn't been long enough.

Looking back, it's a pity I didn't shake her awake and tell her then and there. Maybe it would have stopped everything that happened. But that is another story. Hers, to be exact.


Continued in Part 3…

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