Friday, August 8, 2014

GH Draft 02: CH04

GH Monday: Day 02 Scene 04

Max Beaumont (m) & Wooster

The next morning, after only a little more than four hours of sleep, I woke up a man. I’d have been exhausted anyway, on so little sleep, but the gender change only made my tiredness worse. I sat up, running my hand over the newly formed stubble on my jaw. The temptation to go back to bed was overwhelming and but I knew that if I didn’t show up for work by ten, I’d lose my job and probably any chance of working as a mage in this city ever again. I struggled to my feet, dislodging Wooster, who’d spent the night as always, pressed firmly against my side with his chin resting on my stomach. I didn’t fancy my chances at cadjin work. As a qualified mage, what would I be good for? Flipping burgers, serving fancy coffees? I didn’t think my people skills would even stretch to a job at McDonalds. All mages are reasonably antisocial, but even by their standards, I was a loner.

It was nine o’clock and I had time to take Wooster for a quick walk before breakfast. Frankly, a walk was the only thing that was going to keep me from falling back on that bed and falling back into a stunned sleep. I quickly dressed in thermals. My style is necessarily tomboy, the only way I can avoid buying two wardrobes full of clothes, and winter imposed its own style limits. I wrapped a scarf around my neck, put on my coat and hat, pulled on my boots and headed outside, Wooster eager at my heels.

It was freezing, my legs immediately chilled by the wind. Wooster seemed oblivious, happily skittering through the snow like a lamb, his ears flopping as he leaped. I followed him as best I could, picking my way cautiously through icy sidewalks not yet cleared. The storm had come on a Sunday night and only know where shopkeepers getting round to shovelling and salted. The ones I cursed where those who’d partially cleared, but not salted, leaving a thin slick of ice across the red brick for me to skate across. The completely unshovelled walks were fine, my boots protecting me as I trudged knee deep through them.

The roads had been cleared overnight and salted and the usual Monday morning rush had Harvard Square clogged. Commuters were heading into the T station, bundled up in quilted coats and waterproof boots. It was hard to tell male from female, we were all so rounded by our layers, only our noses and eyes visible. Wooster amused himself by sticking his head in every snowbank, burying himself up to the neck. He retreated from one with a gelatine worm, three inches long, which he proceeded to wolf down, looking up at me with guilty eyes as though he expected me to take it from him. I ignored him, what harm was a sweet going to do him?

I found the undertaker’s ghost, and my first task of the day, on the corner of the Coop bookstore. He was a tall, lean man with a long face and a warm smile, dressed formally in black and a top hat. The city paid me to keep his haunting going; they’re proud of their ghosts, or some of them at least. Proud that the city is old enough to have ghosts and, in the same way that the older European cities do, they keep several as tourist attractions.

My job was to make sure the ghost had enough magic about him to maintain his haunting. I unslung my backpack and retrieved a small tube of magic, its contents glistening green and gold. I’d been able to replenish my supply during the previous night’s storm, before the blizzard and the ghosts had grown too thick for me to focus on anything else. I took the ghost’s daiman, a piece of his knuckle bone slung on a leather cord around his neck, and used tweezers to coax strands of the magic from my tube into the sigils. The magic crackled beneath my fingers. The sigils weren’t mine, of course, this was an old spell, first cast over a hundred years ago. It occurred to me that the spell and the spell-maker were as much a part of the city’s history as the undertaker, but there you go. Mages make terrible ghosts, they’re too powerful and too often become demonic. I returned the daiman to the undertaker, the spell recharged by the new magic, and he gave me a polite bow, and handed me one of his calling cards, black-edged, adorned with grinning skulls and emblazoned with the reassuring words, Memento Mori. At least it wasn’t an invitation to a funeral, which he sometimes hands out. I never know which is sadder, the invitations to real funerals to be held that day, or those of funerals long past, the mourners long since mourned themselves.

The commuters pushed past us, intent only of getting to work as fast as possible, climbing over the snow banks to cross the road. I left the undertaker and made my way through Harvard Yard, where Wooster could run around, free of the cars and crowds. The Out of Town newsstand had been turned into an igloo in last night’s storm, its magazines and signs hidden beneath thick walls of ice bricks. A trio of grey-uniformed storm-fighters were sweating over it, trying to melt the ice with sung chants, but the igloo walls were strong with magic and it clearly wasn’t going to be an easy job.

They’d cordoned it off with yellow police caution tape and we had to cross the road further up,  a police officer guiding us.

“What I want to know,” a man with a slight accent was angrily demanding of the policeman, “Is when they melt the f***ing igloo am I going to end up with just a puddle of ice? Or is my shop still in there, somewhere?”

“You’ll have to ask a storm-fighter, sir,” the policeman said, distantly, waving me on to cross. Harvard Yard was an oasis of quiet. The only students who were up were building snowmen and snowforts. One enterprising lot where attempting a snow castle. The paths, of course, were immaculately cleared, white with salt. Wooster frolicked happily, before stopping to poop. I sighed, picked it up with a doggie bag and deposited it in a nearby bin.

“Come on,” I told him. “I want some breakfast before I have to start work again.”

We headed back through the Square. There was a small group of homeless men and women clustered outside the T station and I wondered where they’d spent the night, remembering the homeless man’s corpse and ghost I’d chanced upon on the Common. I headed into Starbucks for a coffee, Wooster and I dripping wet snow onto the already slick floor. I asked for a tall Americano, clarified that I’d said tall, not two, then also ordered a venti latte and a blueberry muffin. The place was busy, as always, but the baristas were efficient and I was soon heading back out again.

I passed by the homeless woman who sat on a low wall near the coffee shop every day, unless it was raining or snowing, when she would take shelter in the entrance to the Coop bookshop. As always, she had her embroidery out, the silks carefully stored in plastic carrier bags, so they couldn’t get wet from the snow. She was filthy, her hair a matted mess, dressed in thick, layers of dull-coloured clothes, but her embroidery was pristine, the colours bright against the white cloth. As was my habit I placed the venti latte, with several packets of sugar, and the blueberry muffin on the wall next to her. She didn’t look up, she never did look up, not even when someone placed money in the empty Starbucks cup beside her, in which resided a handful of loose change.

It was what I liked about her, her determination to get on with her embroidery, her clear dislike for any attention. Around her, the other homeless people were getting ready for the day, writing out their signs on clean pieces of cardboard, jokes and sob stories equally split amongst them. As I carried on my way, I turned back to see that she had picked up the coffee, opening the lid to add the sugar. I returned to the gloom of my basement flat. It was a good location, but I hated living underground and was determined to move when my twelve month lease was up.

My stubble was irritating me, so I shaved, then made porridge for breakfast; at least, I made oatmeal which was the closest thing to porridge I could find in America, thicker cut, but if you bought the quick cook kind, it was not too coarse. I sweetened it liberally with honey and fed Wooster his kibble - an extravagant illusion, but it makes him happy. It was too late for any TV news, so I contented myself with the newspapers I had delivered every day to my iPad. Wooster sat at my feet, hoping that porridge was something I would share with him (it wasn’t). In the Times, I read the story of a four year old boy whose mummified corpse had been found in his cot, almost two years after he starved to death. He was dressed in baby clothes that still fit him, so stunted was his growth by malnutrition.

In the Boston Globe, the news was all of the storm, including photos of cars buried, only their windscreen wipers poking through the drifts, of children sledging in Danehy Park, of weary snowplough drivers who’d worked through the night. A few thousand homes were without power, the snow bringing down lines, but mostly in more rural areas. To the disappointment of many children, it wasn’t a snow day, though many schools were opening later to accommodate any delays there may be on the roads. In the same spirit, the state government was opening at ten. Which reminded me, I was going to be late to work, if I didn’t get going. I checked my phone, but there was already a text there from the Chief.

- Don’t report to HQ. Go straight to Harvard Square T. Ghost there.

Well, in that case, I had time to brush my teeth, reading some more of the Times as I did so.

“Nazis bred giant rabbits to make troops’ fluffy uniforms,” the headline ran. Well, it made a change from starving children and snow.

© Essie Gilbey, 2014

Thursday, August 7, 2014

GH Draft 02: CH03

GH Sunday: Day 01 Scene 03

Max Beaumont (f) & Wooster

A few minutes later, the grey wolf returned, bounding through the snow with Wooster snapping at his heels and I was ready this time with my spell, practically hurling my sigils at him, snarling out the sung chant and, mid-leap, he disappeared. I could still feel his hot breath on my face.

“Where’s the girl?” I asked Wooster, who looked up at me with warm brown eyes and wagged his tail eagerly. “The girl he was chasing? Where is she? Go find her. Quick, find her!”

Wooster obeyed my commands and headed back into the storm, but, though he brought me many more ghosts that night as the storm blew on, there was no more sign of the girl and by the time the storm had finally blown itself out, the spirits of the cemetery all settled back into their graves, I was so exhausted that I barely remembered she had ever even existed. It was too dark and I was too tired to search the cemetery for her. I dug into my pockets for the daiman that I had brought with me, already charged with magic, their sigils sparking under my fingers from the charge. These were the cemetery’s chains, with two large brass padlocks to secure the gates and I used them now, shutting myself out of the cemetery, hopefully shutting any remaining ghosts inside. The spells there were not enough to hold back a storm, but if there was a ghost or two still lurking in the cemetery, it shouldn’t be able to get out again until I was rested enough to come back and exorcise it. My phone vibrated in my chest pocket and I checked its screen; with his usual good timing, it was a text from Chief Newman, telling me to come in from the cold.

It was past four in the morning, painfully cold; between the cloudy sky and the glow of the streetlights, the stars were near invisible, only a couple of the brighter ones, shining overhead. The  snow crunched and squeaked loudly under my boots as Wooster and I made our weary way back to HQ. Wooster, ever tireless, amused himself by chasing the occasional flurry of late-falling snowflakes. As we crossed the Common, we came across a man crouching over a huddled shape, covered in snow on a bench. The man stank of urine, his hair a wild, ragged mess, his face encrusted with dirt. He was frenziedly shovelling snow off the huddled shape with his hands, revealing beneath its cold embrace a dead man with a face identical to his own. Wooster, trained to spot ghosts, barked sharply at him, startling the nearby ghost of a cow so much that the cow spontaneously exorcised herself and disappeared. But the homeless man’s ghost only looked at me with resentful eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to raise another single exorcism spell and not just because I was so tired. What had he done, that he deserved to die in the storm, alone and cold? Who was I to rid him of the one last hold he had on this world? Who was I to get rid of him, so that others didn’t have to see, didn’t have to be confronted with the twin realities of death and poverty?

We saw yet more storm damage caused by an excess of magic as we crossed Massachusetts Avenue. The rubbish bins there had sprouted iridescent wings and were now hovering above the street, their flight ungainly and uncertain as they struggled to stay aloft, wings buzzing like saws. As we walked past them, two crashed, plopping into deep drifts and flapping their wings furiously as they tried to lift themselves into the air again.

By the time we got to the SDA headquarters, Wooster looked like a coke addict, his nose white from all the snow banks he’d been sticking his head into. Headquarters was a modern building just above Harvard Square, on Oxford Street, built mostly of glass and wood. To get in at this time of night meant knowing and casting the right spell at the daiman on the door. I did so and headed immediately for the bathrooms on the ground floor. I’d been fighting the storm non-stop for over five hours and I needed badly to pee. It took a while, my fingers fumbling and stupid from the cold. I ran them under tepid water in the sink to slowly wake them back up. I walked up the stairs to the first floor (second floor in American terminology) where I found the storm-fighters in the large open-plan briefing room. The room spanned much of that floor, with tall windows on either side of the room. The glass was dark, of course and with the overhead bright lights, all I could see was a ghostly impression of the city lights and the reflections of my fellow storm-fighters, dressed in their grey and black uniforms, their reflective yellow jackets slung over the backs of chairs, or piled onto the floor.

They were mostly sitting, many clutching a cup of coffee. I found the hot drinks at the back of the room - no tea, of course. I helped myself to a hot chocolate and found myself a seat near the back of the room. My work as ghost hunter for neighbourhood ten was solitary, so it wasn’t often I sat in a room with my colleagues and I was self conscious in front of them, but no one had paid any attention to my entrance. Their attention was on the map on the wall in front of us and Chief Newman. He was a big man, with a New Englander’s brusque manner.

“I know you’re all damn tired, so I’ll keep this short,” he said. “We’ve got the magic contained well enough for now. I want the B teams for neighbourhoods 1 through 6 to stay here the night. You’re on call for the whole of f***ing Cambridge, but you’ll only go out if there’s an emergency. You can use the bunks upstairs to get some shut eye, if things stay quiet. The B teams for neighbourhoods 7 through 13 will report for work tomorrow at 9am and you will do a half shift until 1pm. There’s room for you to bunk down here, if you don’t want to waste time going home. All A teams are to report to work at 1pm tomorrow and you will work through until 7pm. You will stay focused on your own neighbourhood. I’m anticipating that we will not have to work through the damn night again, however, at 7pm, the B teams for neighbourhoods 1 through 6 will take a full night shift of being on call. You can stay at home, you don’t have to damn well bunk here, but you’d better be in f***ing contact and if you’re called in you’d better get here f***ing straight away. I don’t want to hear any excuses about how your damn car wouldn’t start or you needed to f***ing dig it out or wait for your damn babysitter. On Tuesday, we’ll go back to the normal shift pattern and you will all be working your usual neighbourhoods. That’s A teams taking the first shift, B teams taking the second and a rotation with one mage per neighbourhood on call at night. Now, we’re going to have a lot of f***ing clean-up to do over the next few days. There’s a lot of random magic out there…”

My chair was made of hard plastic, uncomfortable, but I was still finding myself falling asleep, bolt upright, with my cup clasped firmly in my fist. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I was warm. I struggled to keep my attention on the Chief as he talked of the hot spots for the magic and where he wanted the storm-fighters to concentrate their attention within their neighbourhoods. He didn’t mean me, of course, nor any of the twelve other ghost hunters scattered about the room. Our work was far more lowly, less important and less urgent. There would be no night shifts for us. I finished my hot chocolate, put the cup on the floor and tried to blink myself awake. Wooster was snuggled in my lap, curled up into a tight ball, fast asleep. I smiled down at him, stroking him, my head nodding...

“Max,” I lifted my head at Chief Newman’s sharp tone.


I was aware of the amused looks I was being given by some of the other mages. One of my fellow ghost hunters, Dan Haslett from neighbourhood twelve, was given me a disapproving stare.

“You falling asleep there Max?” the chief asked, his voice amused.

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s the warmth.”

There were a few chuckles near me, which made me blush.

“Well, if you could stay awake for a few minutes more, Max,” the chief said with deceptive gentleness. “I’ve got work for you in the morning.”

“Right you are.”

A storm-fighter sitting near me snorted again. Clearly everything I said was amusing.

“This is for all the ghost hunters,” the chief said. “You’re not expected to take any night shifts, but I want all of you reporting to your neighbourhood at ten am. You’ll do a full day’s work, I don’t want anyone knocking off before six.” He frowned at a preppy looking blond man, who was the ghost hunter for neighbourhood one and known to have ambitions to move on quickly from such a lowly position. Like the rest of us ghost hunters, he didn’t wear the storm fighter’s uniform, and had only a yellow reflective vest to be work over his coat, with the letters SDA on the front and back, to identify him.

“I’m expecting you to do clear-up in addition to your main duties. I’ll be giving you assignments via text, so keep your phones on you and not on silent and don’t take on any work that I haven’t specifically given you. I don’t want you chasing after benign haunting when there’s a poltergeist that needs addressing. Yes?”

The preppy ghost hunter, Rob was his name, had his hand in the air. “Are we going to be able to take some time back, in lieu? I mean given we’ve just worked a Sunday and Sunday night and now you’re wanting us to do a full week’s work.”

There were some sniggers and sardonic glances exchanged amongst the storm-fighters.

“No you’re not getting any f***ing time off in f***ing lieu,” the chief snarled. “This is your f***ing job, so f***ing get on with it.”

Rob shrugged, seemingly unabashed. I raised my own hand.

“Max?” the chief snarled.

“I had a ghost escape me from the cemetery,” I told him. Dan from neighbourhood twelve tutted loudly. I glared at him. He hadn’t any cemetery to patrol, his night would have been an easy one.

“She’ll need chasing down,” I continued.

“Right, any sign that she’s harmful?”

“No,” I shrugged. “She’s a young girl, probably died around the turn of the last century. Of course, there’s no real way of knowing.”

“I’ll make sure she’s assigned to you, but there’ll be other priorities,” the chief warned me. “You’ve got probably the busiest neighbourhood…”

“I’ve got the city hospital!” neighbourhood six protested.

“And I’ve got police headquarters, the jail and the city court,” Rob from neighbourhood one pointed out.

“Yeah, but Max has a cemetery and a hospital, which none of you f**kers have, so shut it,” the chief snarled. “Max, I’ll bear your ghost in mind.”

“Thank you,” I said.

The meeting broke up shortly after that, everyone picking up their coats. The grey carpet was damp from the snow melting off our boots. I kicked Wooster off my lap and he stretched luxuriously, before looking up at me with a wagging tail and eager brown eyes.

“Still got that dog, then?” Dan from neighbourhood twelve asked. He’d once asked me, with a smug smile, if I thought it was appropriate for me, as a ghost hunter, to keep Wooster with me.


“You know, you might want to think about the impression that makes on others…”

“Hello Wooster,” Chief Newman came over to greet him. Wooster’s tailed blurred it was wagging so fast and he jumped up.

“He wouldn’t do that if you didn’t feed him treats,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?” the chief replied, digging into his pocket and retrieving a dog biscuit. Wooster sat obediently, gazing up at him with what you would swear was love. “Good boy.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Dan muttered, stalking off.

I shrugged on my jacket and headed for the door myself. I was exhausted and only wanted to go home. Wooster, having eaten his biscuit in one gulp, followed at my heels.

“Hey, what was with that British accent?” the storm-fighter who’d been sitting near me, snorting at everything I said, asked. “That a private joke between you and the chief?”

“No,” I said. “I’m British. This is how I talk.”

“Oh,” he grinned. “I thought you were just taking the piss.”

I shrugged. There seemed to be little to say in response to that. I ignored the lift and took the stairs back down to the ground floor. As I opened the door and stepped outside, a blast of cold air hit me like an icy fist. Even in the short time I’d been inside, I’d lost my tolerance for the cold. I jammed my hat low down over my ears, shrugged on my gloves and trudged home.

© Essie Gilbey, 2014

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

GH Draft 02: CH02

GH Sunday: Day 01 Scene 02

Indigo Snow

She’d turned the lights off so that she could see the storm more clearly. The snow was piling up on the windowsill and phone lines outside, at least a foot of the stuff. The power was out a few streets over, creating a small pocket of darkness against the sodium glow of the city. The wind was blowing hard, the tree outside her window bowing before its ferocity. There was a familiar cold sense of dread in her stomach. It was hard to make anything out in the swirling shapes outside her window, but there seemed to be a darkness outside that wasn’t natural, blacker than black, a shape of something that should be, but wasn’t. Then the wind gusted, the snow blew hard against the window, splattering against the screen and she couldn’t see the darkness anymore, only blobs of white against the orange and black night.

That didn’t mean the darkness had gone, of course, just because she couldn’t see it. It had been haunting her, on and off, for as long as she could remember. She frowned, trying to shake off the anxiety still gnawing at her entrails. She couldn’t wait to go back to work tomorrow, it was time. It was past time. She’d been idle too long, her thoughts too free, she was becoming too vulnerable again to her ghosts. Time to rebuild her armour and get on with her life.

“Indigo,” a soft voice called to her from the bed.

She wondered if her aunt was awake downstairs. Should she go and check on her? She checked her phone. No texts and it was only a couple of hours since she’d left her aunt sleeping soundly in her bed.

“Hey,” Kate said, sidling up behind her, pressing her naked front against Indigo’s naked back. She was shorter than Indigo, herself not all that tall, and far more petite. Her body was warm from the bed. She slid her arms around Indigo’s waist. “You’ll catch a cold standing out here with nothing on, come back to bed.”

Indigo tossed her phone onto the couch, turned to face Kate. The other woman had a feline grace, green eyes, a mop of brown curls and pale skin. Indigo drew her in close.

“You’re warm,” she murmured.

“And you’re not,” Kate protested drowsily. “Come on back to bed before you catch your death, honestly…”

She stopped and gave a little shriek as Indigo slid her arms under Kate’s shoulders and knees and picked her up in her arms.

“Oh my,” Kate said, blushing furiously, pressing her face into the crook of Indigo’s shoulder and neck. “I didn’t realise you were strong enough to do that.”

“Lots of things you don’t know about me,” Indigo grinned as she carried Kate over to the bed with a steady stride. She might not be all that tall, but she was stocky and she worked out. She stood beside the bed, relishing the warmth of the smaller woman in her arms, Kate’s trust in her, to allow her to carry her.

“That’s true,” Kate said, her mouth smiling against Indigo’s skin. “Why don’t you teach me some more of what you can do?”

Indigo lowered her carefully onto the bed, covering her with her own body, their legs and arms soon entwined as they kissed, hungrily. She paused, her hand stroking Kate’s smooth skin, following the slight curves of her breasts, waist and hips. Her skin was so pale compared to Indigo’s, Indigo relished the sight of their legs twisted together.

“Indigo,” Kate whispered as her lover’s hand went lower, stroking her gently. Kate flung her head back, arched her back. “Indigo.”

Indigo removed her fingers, licked them, then lowered her head to Kate’s crotch, Kate’s legs crossing behind her shoulders, holding her in place.

“Indigo, please, I want…”

Indigo lifted her head. “Yes?” she grinned.

“You too,” Kate protested. “I don’t want this to be all about me, you know.”

“You’re so unselfish,” Indigo teased, moving back up the bed, her skin smooth against Kate’s skin, her fingers seeking out Kate’s labia once more.

“No,” Kate whispered, her fingers deftly mirroring Indigo’s. “No, trust me. This isn’t…” She gave a little gasp and swallowed.

“I agree,” Indigo murmured, lowering her head for another deep, searching kiss. “You’re pleasure is my pleasure.”

“And yours is mine,” Kate murmured back. They were silent for a long time after that, mouths and bodies pressed together, fingers deftly stroking each to a climax that left them breathless. All thoughts of her aunt and her ghosts had left Indigo’s mind completely.

Her phone buzzed like an angry bee trapped in the soft cushions of the couch.

“Shit,” Indigo sat up, disentangling herself from Kate’s embrace.

“Don’t answer it.”

“It might be my aunt.” Naked, Indigo padded over to the couch to pick up the phone. It wasn’t her aunt, it was her cousin, Mary.

- Have you checked on Mum recently? Worried the storm will frighten her.

Indigo sighed. She didn’t need Mary telling her how to care for Aunt Sophie. But then, Mary was ten years older than her and always thought of herself as a second mother to her cousin, no matter what Indigo thought.

- Checked on her two hours ago, she was sleeping. Will check again in a bit.

She sent the text then looked back at Kate. Some women looked ridiculous when they sulked, but Kate looked adorable.

“I need to go downstairs for a moment,” she told her.

“This isn’t what I had in mind when you invited me over for a sleepover,” Kate said, yawning. “You’ve been up and down those stairs like a yo-yo.”

“It’s my aunt,” Indigo replied. “She lives on the second floor. I need to check on her.”

“Is she ill?”

Indigo hesitated. How to explain Aunt Sophie? “It’s complicated.”

“You’ll be back.”

“Of course,” Indigo pulled on a sweatshirt and sweatpants, thrust her feet into her nikes and leaned down to kiss Kate on her pouting mouth. “Won’t be long, I promise. Don’t start anything without me.”

“I won’t,” Kate said, her sleepiness making her sound like a young girl. “Promise.”

Indigo shut the door on her studio apartment, went swiftly down the stairs and let herself into her aunt’s apartment with her key. She didn’t call out or switch on any lights, for fear of waking her aunt. This unit was bigger than her own. Hers was in the attic space, a studio with a tiny kitchen and bathroom. Aunt Sophie’s was a two-bedroom, with an open plan living room and kitchen. Indigo was familiar enough with the layout that she could have walked through the living room into the back bedroom with her eyes closed, but as it was, the streetlights let in plenty of light for her to see where she was going. The kitchen, as she passed it, was immaculate, not so much as a cup out of place, the granite countertop scrubbed clean as always.

She paused at her aunt’s bedroom door, her hand on the handle, her ear pressed against the white painted wood. She could muffled sounds and so she eased the door open slowly, quietly.

“Gwen,” she heard her aunt cry, a huddled shape beneath the blankets. “Oh Gwen, I’m frightened.”

“All right, Aunt Sophie,” Indigo said softly, crossing the room with a swift stride. “It’s Indigo. I’m here. There’s no need to be afraid.”

“Indigo?” Aunt Sophie’s voice was querulous. “What are you doing here?”

“You were having a nightmare,” Indigo sat on the side of the bed and reached out a reassuring hand to her aunt’s bulk under the covers. “You were crying.”

“I was?” Aunt Sophie sat up, sniffing a little, her fingers patting at her cheeks. “Oh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Oh dear, yes. I dreamed of your mother, honey. She was lost in the storm and I couldn’t find her. Or was I lost in the storm and she was looking for me.”

Indigo had no patience for talk of her mother, who was only a face in a few old photographs, after all.

“Come on, get up,” she urged. “I’ll make you cocoa. Unless you want to go back to sleep?”

“Oh no. No, I don’t think I could go back to sleep, not just yet.”

“Come on then.”

Indigo switched on the bedside light, found her aunt’s dressing gown and slippers and helped her into them. Her aunt was shorter than her, plump with brown curly hair that showed surprisingly few grey strands. Her pyjamas were navy blue with turquoise polka dots, her dressing gown was bright blue and her slippers had rabbit ears.

“You don’t have company?” her aunt asked anxiously as she trotted at Indigo’s heels out into the kitchen and living room. “I don’t want to ruin your last night before you go back to work.”

“It’s all right,” Indigo switched on the lights that ran under the kitchen cupboards. At this time of night she didn’t want too bright a light, and the soft glow was enough to make cocoa by. “She’s sleeping.”

“She?” her aunt’s face creased into a smile. She took a mischievous pleasure in Indigo’s love life that was only increased by Mary’s equal disapproval. “Have I met her or is this one new?”

“New,” Indigo said, digging out a pan from one of the cupboards and placing it on the stove. “I met her at physio. Her name’s Kate.”

“Is it serious?” Aunt Sophie opened the fridge to get the milk.

“I’m never serious, you know that.”

“You’re twenty seven,” Aunt Sophie scolded, pouring milk into the pan and lighting the gas. “You should think about settling down. You can’t be single forever, you know.”

“Why not?” Indigo was serious. She found the cocoa in a cupboard, behind the coffee, and handed it to her aunt. “Marriage isn’t for everyone and I know I don’t want children. I’ve got friends, family, work. What more can I ask for?”

“You might change your mind,” Aunt Sophie suggested tentatively, stirring the milk. “About children. Or just when you’re older you might not want to be alone.”

Indigo knew it would be cruel to point out that Aunt Sophie had married and had a child, but here she was in her sixties, living alone.

“I can’t get serious about someone on the basis that I might want to be with them later on,” she pointed out.

“No,” her aunt agreed. She took the milk off the heat and added the cocoa, whisking it briskly. “But I just don’t like to see you alone, that’s all.”

“I’m never alone,” Indigo grinned. “And I’m having fun.”

“Well, just so long as you’re happy,” her aunt poured the cocoa into two mugs with a steady hand. Funny, no matter how good or bad a day she was having otherwise, she could always cook. “And there’s no harm in getting these things out of your system first.”

“These things?” Indigo took her mug of cocoa. Her aunt’s was red, with Number One Aunt painted on it in white in an unsteady hand - one of Indigo’s infrequent childhood efforts. There was a Number One Mum mug somewhere, far more neatly done, but Aunt Sophie never seemed to use it.

“You know, sleeping with girls.”

“A minute ago, you were asking me if I was serious about her.”

“And it would be completely all right if you were,” Aunt Sophie hastened to assure her. “I mean I just want you to be happy. But you have some of your mother in you…”

Indigo winced at the unintentional insult, often repeated.

… and I think maybe you’re just enjoying being a little bit naughty?”

Indigo snorted into her cocoa. She could never be angry at her delightful, childish aunt, who loved her so completely and used words like ‘naughty’. She couldn’t imagine anyone else in her life who would describe her like that. But then no one else in her life, except Mary, had ever changed her diapers or helped her take her first steps, or wiped away her tears on her first day of ‘big school’.

They sipped their drinks in silence for a while and Indigo wondered if she could get her aunt to go back to bed and to sleep before Kate got completely pissed off with how long she’d been left alone. Unless Kate was already asleep herself. It was late, after all.

“Why don’t you bring her down here?” her aunt said. Indigo looked up, startled. “You’re checking the time,” Aunt Sophie added with a smile. “I know you’re worried about leaving her alone for too long. Why don’t you bring her down? I’d like to meet her and I promise I won’t embarrass you.”

The thought that Aunt Sophie would think Indigo was embarrassed by her if she didn’t bring Kate down was enough to make up Indigo’s mind.

“All right,” she said, giving her aunt’s cheek a peck. “I’ll just go and see. If she’s asleep, I’ll leave her…”

But Kate wasn’t asleep. She sat bolt upright in bed the minute Indigo came through the door and met Indigo’s suggestion that she come downstairs eagerly.

“You don’t mind?” she asked.

“Why would I mind?” Indigo retorted. “Why would I be even asking you if I mind? But you don’t have to…”

“No, I’d love to,” Kate assured her, throwing on her underwear, leggings and oversized sweatshirt. She looked around for her Adidas sneakers, pulled them on. “Do I look okay.”

“Sexylicious,” Indigo smiled.

“I mean,” Kate flushed. “I mean, do I look okay for your aunt? I don’t want to shock her or anything.”

“Don’t worry,” Indigo led the way down the stairs. “She knows we’re lovers.”

“She does, I mean… Wow, she’s okay about all that?”

“Sure,” Indigo shrugged, pausing at her aunt’s door.

“I’ve never told my parents I’m gay,” Kate said. “I’m too afraid of what they’ll say.”

“I’m not gay,” Indigo said. “You know that, right?”

“Bisexual then, but isn’t it the same thing? I mean, people still disapprove.”

“Aunt Sophie is not the disapproving type,” Indigo said, opening the door to the apartment. Her aunt had lit a few more side lamps, lighting the living room with its soft couches and armchairs, the walls covered in family photos in a variety of frames. She was sitting in on the blue couch, sipping her cocoa and looking through a red leather-bound book. More books were scattered on the dark wood coffee table.

“Oh no,” Indigo groaned. “Not the photo albums.”

“Oh yes,” Aunt Sophie looked up with an impish grin. “And I’ve made more cocoa for Kate. Hello Kate, come on in.”

“Oh. Hello,” Kate blushed, seeming a little surprised by her. Indigo let them make their introductions while she fetched the two mugs of cocoa - hers topped up, she noticed and both topped with marshmallows.

“It’s going to be a long night,” she grimaced, settling herself on the blue and cream rug, looking over the photo albums her aunt had pulled down from the bookshelves. “You don’t have to do this Kate, honestly, it’ll be torture for you.”

“No, I want to,” Kate replied, settling on the couch next to Aunt Sophie.

“Now this is the first album,” Aunt Sophie said, leaning over so Kate could see. “This is from when Indigo first came to us, when she was thirteen months old…”

© Essie Gilbey, 2014