Charlie halted like a stubborn little donkey when she realised that her friends had taken her to a gay bar just outside Summer Bay.
"Why are we here?" she asked, feeling small and vulnerable.
She attempted to turn around and get back into the car to go home but Martha, Leah and Rachel held her in place.
"We're here to have fun," Martha told her.
"And make you gay," Leah added.
Charlie glared at her. She didn't want to be hanging out in gay bars. She wanted to be curled up, sobbing into her pillow over her destroyed relationship with Joey.
"Seriously guys, taking me here, won't help," Charlie protested.
"It will!" Martha insisted. "Plus, we're here now so stop whinging and get inside."
Charlie looked at each of her friend's faces and sighed, knowing she wasn't going to win. Grateful not to be the one driving, she decided to get very drunk instead.
The small group tried not to look conspicuous as they sat in the corner of the busy bar.
"Seen anyone you like?" Leah asked.
Charlie glared at her.
"Too soon," Leah said, holding up her hands in mock defence. "We're not over Joey yet. Too soon. But there's no harm in looking."
"I don't want to look," Charlie said firmly. "I have things to do at home."
"Charlie, staring at Joey's picture and wailing, does not count as 'things to do'," Martha pointed out.
Charlie looked affronted.
"How did you even know…?"
"I live with you," Leah reminded her. "And I'm not blind. Or deaf."
Charlie swigged her beer. She looked around the room. Men were dancing with men, girls were kissing girls. Had she been here with Joey, she was sure she would be having a fantastic time. But she wasn't here with Joey. She'd never be anywhere with Joey again. She was here with three misguided friends who thought dragging her to a gay bar was the answer to her problems.
"Look, seriously, what was the point of bringing me here?" Charlie asked, turning back to her friends.
"Well, we thought if you could try and figure out who you are," Rachel began. "Then you'd be able to win Joey back."
"It's going to take more than drinking beer with a bunch of lesbians to get Joey back," Charlie frowned. "After what I did, she never wants to see me again and I don't blame her."
She'd made a lot of mistakes in her life but sleeping with Hugo behind Joey's back during a freak out about her sexuality, and then hiding it, was the single worst thing she had ever done. She accepted with a heavy heart that she'd be living to regret it for the rest of her life.
"Or," Leah said brightly. "We thought if we dragged you to where she works and you could manage to look a tiny bit comfortable in a gay venue, you might even be able to make up and make out."
Martha pointed at the unmistakable figure of Joey Collins walking round the venue collecting glasses, in a world of her own. Charlie's heart threatened a bid for freedom from her chest.
"Joey works here now?" she asked, turning back to her friends.
"Yes," Leah said. "Go! Talk!"
"And smile!" Rachel hollered.
Charlie was up on her feet before she'd even thought of what she'd say when she reached Joey, who had been making a pointed effort to ignore her for a fortnight. If Charlie walked in, Joey walked out. If Charlie tried to talk to her, Joey ran away. But she couldn't run away at work, could she? She could get Charlie thrown out of the bar for harassment, of course, but that was a risk she had to take.
"Joey!" she called when she was close.
Joey spun round and nearly dropped her large collection of glasses.
"Charlie! What are you doing here?" Joey asked nervously.
"Honestly? I don't know."
"You do realise this is a gay bar, right? You know, full of those big scary lesbians that you don't want to be associated with? I'm sure there are some straight or bi guys here for you though. Want me to ask around?"
Joey was cold. Her surprise had lifted and her defences were now tightly closed around her. She had to stay angry with Charlie or she'd end up forgiving her and pretending that what had happened with Hugo didn't matter. It did matter. And Joey wasn't prepared to let either of them forget it.
"Joey, please can we talk?" Charlie asked, as Joey began to walk away.
"It was a mistake. You're sorry. You were hurting. It was stupid. I've heard it, Charlie. And I still don't forgive you. So please, leave me alone," Joey said.
She headed back behind the bar, leaving Charlie feeling defeated. She watched Joey busy herself with stacking the dishwasher. She hurried over.
"Joey, is there nothing I can do to make this right?" she asked.
"You can leave me alone," Joey said firmly.
She returned to her work. Charlie hurried back to her friends, told them they were leaving and then marched out of the door.
Charlie was in a foul mood the following morning and Leah felt guilty about her bright idea. She, Martha and Rachel had hoped that if Joey could see Charlie making an effort to accept her sexuality and if Charlie could say the right words, Joey would begin to allow herself to talk to her. But somewhere along the way, the plan had failed. The car journey home had been horrific. Charlie had sat in the back, staring out of the window, not allowing herself to express any kind of emotion. She'd gone straight to bed and now she was banging coffee mugs around like she was purposely trying to break them.
"We were trying to help," Leah said meekly.
"I know," Charlie replied.
Her voice was hollow. She turned to face her and attempted to smile. She failed.
"I just… it doesn't matter how much you guys interfere. It doesn't matter how many times I tell her that I'm sorry. She doesn't want to hear it," Charlie said.
"But she loved you so much."
"And I threw it back in her face."
"I just wish…"
"Me too. All I want is a chance to speak to her properly. Even if the result was that she still hated me beyond the telling of it, if I could only talk to her, really talk to her, explain and apologise and tell her exactly what she means to me... But she won't give me the space to do that. She just shuts me down as soon as she sees me."
She felt tearful. She fought it.
"Well, if you want my opinion, that says to me that she still loves you," Leah said. "She needs to stay angry because she's afraid of letting you in again. She's afraid of getting hurt."
"If I could just sit down with her…"
"Maybe you should keep trying?" Leah suggested.
"She keeps begging me to leave her alone and I feel so bad invading her space," Charlie said. "But maybe one more time. I could try one more time. And maybe I could really make her listen to me."
"I hear she's opening up the bar tomorrow morning," Leah told her.
Outside the bar she'd been to the other night, Charlie took a breath. They were closed but she knocked anyway. Nobody answered so she knocked louder and finally she heard someone unbolt the doors. She smiled when she saw Joey standing there, looking sufficiently unimpressed.
"We're closed," she said coldly, attempting to close the door in Charlie's face.
Charlie shoved her foot in the door, keeping it open, reminding herself of one of the first times they had ever spoken. She had been desperate to get Joey to open up about what happened to her with Robbo and forced her to talk. Joey looked at Charlie's foot and then up at her face.
"You know this counts as harassment?" she checked.
"Please, let me explain," Charlie begged.
"How the hell do you think you can explain what you did?"
"I know I can never make it right, Joey, but please give me a chance to try."
"If you already know you can't make amends, why bother trying?" Joey asked.
Joey sighed impatiently and stepped aside. Perhaps if they had this oh-so-special talk that Charlie seemed so desperate for, then she'd finally give up and leave her alone. Charlie smiled gratefully and followed Joey into the bar. They sat down at one of the tables.
"So, explain," Joey said.
She didn't really want to hear it.
"I'm so sorry about what happened," Charlie began.
"Yeah, you already said that a million times. But it doesn't change the fact that you slept with a prick behind my back."
"I know. But I truly am sorry. I need you to know that," Charlie said earnestly.
"I do know that. But I don't care," Joey snapped.
It was so hard to stay angry when Charlie was giving up all her pride and begging her forgiveness. Despite the betrayal, Joey was still desperately in love with her and that didn't look like it was going to change any time soon.
"Look, if that's all you've got to say then can you please leave?" Joey asked, standing up. "I've heard it all before."
Charlie stood up too, furious with herself for ruining her last chance. Joey headed through a staff door. Instinctively, Charlie followed, calling her name. Joey whirled around angrily.
"Charlie, you're not supposed to be back here," she snapped.
She gestured for Charlie to leave and then headed through another door. Charlie ignored her gestures and followed, finding herself in a stock room that was no bigger than a large closet.
"Charlie! Would you just go? I've got a tonne of things to do before we open!" Joey protested.
Charlie flatly refused and stepped further into the closet, approaching Joey. Feeling backed into a corner, physically and emotionally, Joey pushed past her, ready to flee the room but Charlie was too quick for her. They both gripped the door knob, fighting with it, Joey wanting to be free and Charlie wanted to keep her there. Finally Charlie managed to shut the door and turned the lock. Joey grabbed the key and twisted it but Charlie clung on desperately. They both gasped when the key snapped in their hands.
"Now look what you've done!" Joey accused angrily.
"If you hadn't fought with me this wouldn't have happened!" Charlie shouted back, anxious at being locked in.
"If you hadn't tried to lock us in, I wouldn't have had to fight with you!"
Charlie frowned with nothing to say. Joey began kicking the door and yelling for help, even though she knew nobody else would be in for an hour. She was the only one on set up duty. Charlie watched. She'd never seen so much frustration and anger come from the woman she loved so much. Growling furiously, Joey kicked the door one more time and then flung herself onto a crate with her head in her hands. Charlie stood helplessly in front of her. She tried the door, wedging her finger in the lock but there was no way they would get the key out from this side. It needed to be poked out from the outside. She sat down on the crate beside Joey and looked at her sorrowfully.
"Maybe we could use this time to talk," she suggested nervously.
Joey looked up sharply.
"I don't want to hear anything you have to say," she told her firmly, staring back plaintively at the door again.
Ten minutes later, Charlie couldn't cope with the silence. They waited but didn't quite know what for. Joey's colleagues weren't due and even when they were, the girls would have to make a vast amount of noise to get their attention.
"You mean the world to me, Joey," Charlie said.
She dared to glance at Joey, whose eyes were boring into hers.
"I'd hate to see how you'd treat me if I didn't," she replied.
"I messed up, Joey. I made a mistake. And it's cost me the best thing that's ever happened to me. But I love you so much. Please, please give me another chance to show you how I feel."
"I gave you chances, Charlie!" Joey said, her voice cracking. "I gave you so many chances. We nearly kissed and you ran away, blaming the whole thing on me. You went on a date with - surprise, surprise - Hugo to avoid your feelings for me. Then we really did kiss and you ran away and left me - when I was trying to recover from what Robbo did to me! But I loved you so damn much that I waited around for you, hoping and praying that you were brave enough to come out. And you didn't! You told me you had feelings for me and then you rejected me. And now, finally when we had our chance, when we did the hard part, when we got together, you threw it away for some messy-haired guy and his penis!"
All the emotions she had been bottling up were exploding out of her. She didn't even give Charlie a chance to respond.
"I have loved you for as long as I've known you," she continued. "There is nothing I wouldn't have done for you, Charlie but forgiving you for what you did, for sleeping with someone behind my back and then lying to me about it all week. It's too much. I can't do it."
"But… But…" Charlie faltered.
"But what?" Joey challenged,
"But I love you."
Her voice sounded pitiful.
"You keep saying it, but I don't believe it. I loved you and I know I would never do something like that. So if you're capable of cheating, how can you possibly love me?"
"I made a mistake," Charlie said.
"You keep saying that but it's not an excuse. How many times will I have to forgive you for this kind of thing? How many mistakes are you going to make?"
"I won't do anything like this again, Joey, I swear."
"You should never have done it in the first place!"
"I know! I know that, Joey. But losing you, it's taught me more than anything else could have."
"What has it taught you?" Joey asked curiously, the volume of her voice lowering slightly.
"That my life isn't worth living unless you're in it," Charlie said honestly. "That I'm nothing without you."
Silence fell between them. Charlie was desperate to win Joey round and Joey was furious with herself for letting her emotions get the better of her. She had focussed hard on being angry. Spending time with Charlie was the worst thing she could have done. She had an awful feeling that with time and tears, Charlie would get into her head, like she always did. There was something overwhelmingly beautiful about Charlie. It wasn't just physical. Joey was in love with Charlie's soul. Even cheating on her couldn't take away the wonderful things they had done together and the way Charlie had saved her life. Twice. She turned away, not wanting to see Charlie's face anymore. She looked at her watch. They had approximately forty-five minutes left of this hell.
"So, are you enjoying your job?" Charlie ventured feeling awkward.
"I don't want to make small talk, Charlie!" Joey snapped. "I just want to get out of this damn closet!"
She leapt to her feet and began rattling the door violently. She hit and kicked it until Charlie was sure she must be in pain. Instinctively protective, Charlie rushed over and gently pulled her away. Joey broke away from her grip.
"I've told you before not to touch me," she said darkly.
Charlie felt suitable abashed.
"I don't want your hands on me Charlie, knowing where they've been! And goodness knows where they've been since then!"
She sat back down on her crate.
"They haven't been anywhere," Charlie promised. "Joey, all I've done since we split up is miss you."
Joey looked up at her, curiously checking whether her earnest voice matched her face. It did. She swallowed, silently admitting that the single reason she couldn't have Charlie touch her now was because she so desperately wanted it to turn into something deeper. She hated herself for wanting Charlie so much, for loving her and needing her; for feeling incomplete without her. She watched Charlie sink down onto her own crate and then she looked away again. Too much looking at Charlie provoked the same reaction as touching her. She glanced at her watch: thirty-nine minutes to go.
"I'm completely wasting my time, aren't I?" Charlie finally said sadly.
"We're stuck in a closet, Charlie. That's never a productive place to be."
"I mean I'm wasting my time thinking you might ever give me another chance."
Inside, Joey screamed 'no'. Out loud she said yes. Charlie struggled not to cry and noticed that Joey refused to look at her. She commented on it. Joey struggled not to admit why. Silence descended on them again.
Charlie stared at the door, struggling to keep hold of her feelings. She knew she had made a terrible mistake but she and Joey still fit together so perfectly. She didn't understand why they couldn't just connect the way they had before. It was frustrating and painful. She looked at Joey who was facing away from her, glaring at the wall.
"How long till your colleagues show up and rescue you?" Charlie asked.
Joey glanced at her watch.
"Thirty-five minutes," she replied, not looking at Charlie.
Charlie nodded and played with her fingers anxiously.
"Hey, wait," Joey said, turning round. "Don't you mean rescue us?"
"I'm guessing this is the last time I'm going to get to be near you so even though you hate me, I'm pretty much happy to spend any time with you that I can," Charlie admitted.
Joey blinked in surprise. Did Charlie really feel that way about her? Was she really so desperate to be loved that she would happily sit in a store cupboard with her?
"I don't hate you," she said finally.
Charlie felt her heart flutter slightly. She smiled but her lips trembled. Her hands were shaking slightly.
"I don't want things to be this way, Charlie."
"Nor do I."
"You shouldn't have slept with that little shit then!"
"I know!" Charlie said desperately. "Don't you think I know that? Don't you think I spend every single night wishing I could go back in time and change it? Don't you think I fucking hate myself for what I've done? I'm at the point where I wish I was dead!"
She rubbed furiously at her eyes and turned away. She willed Joey's colleague to come in early. She couldn't cope with being here anymore. The closet was utterly stifling. Joey watched her, feeling suddenly broken. Maybe she had been too hard on her. She didn't want Charlie to feel that bad. Once upon a time, she would have been glad to know that but now it just hurt both of them.
"I don't want you to hate yourself," she said quietly.
This time it was Charlie's turn to sound cold. She'd had enough.
"And I don't hate you. I really don't. I love..."
She stopped. This was not where the conversation needed to go. But it was too late. Charlie whipped back round, looking hopeful and tearful all at the same time.
"You love me?" she asked.
Joey considered deny it but she was a firm believer in honesty being the best policy.
"Of course I love you," she said. "Why would I be so hurt and angry if I didn't love you? Two weeks ago you were my soul mate. I was giddy with my feelings for you. I stupidly had it in my head that we'd have holidays, a house, maybe a dog. Hell, perhaps we'd even have kids at some point. And I'd eventually save enough to buy a boat and you and I could take off whenever and wherever we wanted. We'd have romantic trips, just the two of us. And the dog. But you messed it all up. You wrecked all my dreams. One stupid night when all you had to do was cope alone temporarily and then come back to me. But instead you ended up in bed with some guy."
"I don't know how many times I can apologise," Charlie said.
She sank to her knees in front of Joey, surprisingly them both. Her tears flowed freely.
"If I could change it, I would. If I could do something, anything to make it better, I would. Just to be with you again, to touch you..."
She ran her hands through Joey's hair, leaning closer. Joey permitted the contact.
"To hold you, spend my life with you..."
She moved closer. Joey allowed her to wedge herself between her knees and wrap her arms around her. Her own pain began to roll down her cheeks. She involuntarily rested her hands on Charlie's shoulders, buckling under the power of her gaze. Charlie felt her breath coming out heavily as she focussed on Joey's eyes and feel of her hands. She savoured the texture of Joey's hair falling through her fingers and the close proximity she had managed to get to Joey, settled between her legs, feeling her thighs against her sides.
"All those things you said, I want them too. I know I panicked. I know I was afraid of loving you, of letting people find out about us. I know I did everything wrong, pretty much from start to finish. But I need you. And I know what I want now," Charlie said. "I want the house, the holidays, the dog, the boat, the family. I want all of that with you. I'd marry you tomorrow if it was legal. I'll do anything to be close to you again, to give you a reason to love me and to trust me."
"Charlie..." Joey faltered, feeling dizzy.
"I can't bear the thought of never being able to kiss you again, of never being able to make love to you."
"You had sex with someone else," Joey said, feeling hollow, desperately trying to cling onto an argument that was increasingly feeling pointless.
"I know. I had awful, painful, soul-destroying sex with someone else. It was horrible. I hated it. I should have stopped it. I wish to God I'd stopped it. And it's not even on the scale of what we have, Joey. What we have is incredible."
"Why was it painful?" Joey asked uncertainly.
Charlie sighed. She didn't want to talk about it.
"Because I knew I was ripping my heart out by doing it. And I was so tense and fragile that it... hurt."
Joey tried not to feel sorry for her. They continued to hold each other. Charlie ignored the pain in her knees that were her only connection to the floor.
"Please, Joey, is there any way we can make this work? Any way at all?"
"I don't know," she said. "Everything feels so crazy, Charlie, like it's spinning out of control. I just want to put a pin in it and try and figure out the way forward without all this background noise."
Charlie impulsively leant forward, capturing Joey's lips with her own. She kissed her tenderly, thrilled that Joey was responding and clinging tighter to her. Charlie's hands moved from Joey's hair down to her back, pulling them as close as possible. After several minutes, they pulled away, breathless, making eye contact again. The kiss had succeeded in temporarily drowning out Joey's confusion.
"See, it's still there," Charlie said. "Please don't let that be the last time, Joey."
"How can I trust you again?" Joey asked.
"It won't be easy. I know it won't. But I'll do everything I can to prove that you can trust me. I'll never talk to Hugo again if that's what you want. I'll never talk to anyone again if that would help! We could have a blessing. We could move in together by ourselves. I don't care what you need; I'll do it if you'll only love me again."
"You don't need to do all that, except maybe the not talking to Hugo thing."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to come out," Joey said. "I want you to be proud of loving me."
"I will. I am!"
"And I want you to kiss me again."
Feeling like her heart was soaring, Charlie followed orders immediately. Joey's hands caught themselves up in Charlie's hair, smoothing themselves down her back and holding onto her backside. Charlie shuffled closer, letting her mouth leave Joey's lips to trace their way across her face, along her jaw and down her neck. She couldn't stop kissing her hard and fast, her hands roaming all over every surface of her body she could find. She returned to Joey's mouth, slipping her tongue inside, thrilled by the taste of Joey, drawn in by the essence of her. Joey wound her hands to the hem of Charlie's t-shirt, lifting it up and over her head. She bent her head to place delicate kisses over Charlie's exposed flesh while reaching round to expose more of it by unhooking her bra. Charlie couldn't stem the flow of tears. She was overwhelmed by having Joey back with her. She clawed at Joey's clothes, desperate to break any barriers between them. She wanted to be inside her, to creep under the surface of her skin, unite with her, fuse their souls.
Half an hour later, Charlie and Joey lay on the floor on an old sheet they'd found, curled up in each others arms. Joey traced her fingertips along Charlie's arms. She leant closer and kissed Charlie's shoulder.
"I love you," she said.
"I love you too."
Charlie's voice was dreamy. She was in a state of bliss.
"Are we really doing this?" she asked, a hint of worry in her voice.
"We really are," Joey confirmed. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy but... I can't live without you. I need you."
"Well, you've got me for as long as you want me," Charlie said.
Joey shifted in her arms and kissed her.
"I want you forever," she said.
They both jumped when they heard the broken key clatter onto the floor.
"Hello?" said a voice through the door.
Panicked, Charlie and Joey attempted to cover themselves up with their discarded clothes.
"Joey?" the voice called, unlocking the door.
Her colleague, Matthew looked utterly startled as he spotted two naked women on the floor in each other's arms, clutching at their clothes to hide themselves.
"Hey, Matt," Joey said awkwardly.
"I'll um... let you get up in your own time!" he replied, hurrying back out of the door.