A brief note on why I chose to write this:
I love this coupling but I feel like they're not getting enough screen time, resulting in some pretty awkward discontinuity going on with the story line. Therefore the characters and the choices they make are becoming harder to understand and empathise with. This is my version of what happens, it will obviously branch off from the actual storyline as it progresses, because I'm not that good at predicting things. I hope you enjoy this first instalment and please let me know what you think, good or bad. Any response is encouragement for me to keep writing!
Disclaimer: The title of this story, the chapter titles and chapter intros are taken from the album 'This Empty Northern Hemisphere' by Gregory Alan Isakov, which has inspired the majority of this fic in some way or another.
The characters are not mine, but the words are.
And I packed up the dust of all that I owned, handkerchief hung from a pole
Tilly doesn't know what she had expected, really. In fact, at this point, all she really knows is that it feels like she's been in love with Jen forever. She hears Maddie's sceptical tone ring through her head without invitation, a perfect imagining of what her advice on the matter would be – 'It's not love, for god's sake Tills. It's infatuation. You just got a bit obsessed, ya' little weirdo.' She can almost feel the affectionate hair ruffle following the words. She swallows against the obstinate lump building in her throat. So maybe it is just infatuation - but it hurts, like, unbearably. And even if she is misinformed and naive and inexperienced and all those things she just knows Jen thinks about her, she's pretty sure that infatuation doesn't hurt quite this badly.
She relives it. Of course she does – all day and all night, going over and over that last conversation until her daydreams start to feel more real than the things that are actually happening around her. In every re-imagined scenario she's quick enough, brave enough, bright enough to convince Jen to stay. In every re-imagined scenario she manages to say something that stalls her, something that makes her reconsider, makes her turn back around and take Tilly's hand in hers and lean in to kiss her. But at the end of each story arc, as the curtain descends on final kiss after final kiss, the reality is the always the same. Jen won't let it happen, won't let them happen. And Tilly is reminded that all she actually managed to do to counteract Jen's retreat at the time was sit down heavily, mouth agape, shoulders slumped, and search in desperate silence for words that never came.
She doesn't blame Esther, not really. Well, maybe some small, unaddressed, Freudian part of her does. Maybe some small, unaddressed, Freudian part of her would've liked to have snatched that camera right out of her hands and beat her repeatedly around the head with it ... but it wasn't her fault. It wasn't Esther's mistake to make. She was just unfortunate enough to step into the shadow that she and Jen were casting. Tilly finds it quite fitting that it their death knell came in the form of a photograph: Jen was so in love with images, with the depth and clarity of them, it sort of made sense that one would spell her downfall in the end. But Tilly already misses holding the Polaroid in her hands, regrets giving it to Jen in the end, because it was the only evidence she had that she ever meant anything to Jen at all.
Surely infatuation doesn't hurt this badly.
.. .. .. ..
She sees Jen around the school. They pass each other in corridors, and Jen averts her gaze and stares with unwarranted interest at her own shoes as she walks past, and Tilly sighs and rolls her eyes and wonders if Jen really has any grounds to accuse her of immaturity, when she's the one acting like an eight-year-old.
Art is the worst, obviously. A full hour of avoiding being caught looking, or making sure she's at the opposite end of the room to Jen at any given time. Jen leaves the room frequently, returning with cups of coffee, looking wired and jittery by the end of the lesson she's drank so much of the damn stuff. Tilly would almost find it funny if she could stand to think about it for long enough. But it's the most she can do to stay in her seat herself and not spend the majority of the lesson hiding in the toilets, wafting away the passive smoke from the other students who chose to sit out that period.
She almost has a fit on the spot when she realises Jen's lesson is being observed by some senior guy from her teacher training college. She can almost feel the tension radiating from Jen, she can almost taste her panic. It's the first time in weeks Jen has made eye contact with her, and her eyes are big and wide and scared. Tilly doesn't know how to respond. At first she wonders why Jen's staring at her at all instead of ignoring her like usual, until she realises with a nauseating twist of fresh pain that Jen is frightened that Tilly's going to grass her up to her supervisor or whoever the hell he is. He's sat there in some kind of beige suit, his legs spread wide in that unappealing male way that makes Tilly's skin crawl, his shirt straining to stay buttoned across his big round belly. Tilly rolls her eyes at Jen and gestures brazenly to the man who she notices is more interested in staring at the bare legs of the student sat next to him than he is in observing Jen's teaching methods and mouths 'Seriously, this guy? Jen's eyes just widen fearfully before she dashes into the stock cupboard for no apparent reason.
She emerges a few moments later looking distinctly calmer. Tilly watches her as she nervously adjusts the bracelets around her wrists and smoothes out the skirt of her dress before walking over to a student's desk. She leans over the desk on outstretched forearms and it takes all of Tilly's self-control to not stare at the dips and ridges of Jen's collar bones that are revealed just above the neckline of her dress. She sighs slightly too heavily and tries to refocus on the work in front of her. It takes her a few minutes to become conscious of the fact that Jen is slowly making her way around the entire class, talking to each student in turn. Her stomach clenches with both excitement and terror as she realises this means that Jen will have to talk to her, which will be nothing if not a little bizarre after weeks of such admirably upheld animosity. She sort of wonders if Jen will actually go through with it, or whether she'll try to kill all of her time on the students that precede her, silently praying for the bell that will sound the end of her torture.
'And how is this going Tilly?'
Tilly looks up as Jen stands over her desk, not quite believing that she actually had the courage to speak to her after everything that had happened, feeling almost proud that she managed it, at the same time as completely incredulous that she had the nerve to dare.
'It's OK,' she says, not feeling able to elaborate more articulately. She looks back down at her work, not able to hold Jen's stare for longer than about three seconds.
'This is really beautiful,' Jen says, gesturing to some careful brush strokes towards the edges of the paper. 'It almost looks like it's sort of peeling away.' Tilly watches as Jen's delicate finger tips trail along the paper. 'Like it's unfurling or something.'
Tilly clears her throat slightly as it feels like its rapidly closing up. 'Yeah, that's what I was going for,' she says hoarsely. 'A sort of natural decomposition. Like, something unravelling and revealing this sort of skeletal structural underneath.'
Their eyes lock, and for a second Tilly feels like she's back on the beach, her heart racing and swelling with the prospect of finding someone so utterly perfect, so in tune with her. She can almost hear the waves breaking in the background.
Jen's gaze drifts to her lips and Tilly feels the world shudder to a halt around her. Her lips part instinctively, as if aware they are being addressed, and she has to physically stop herself from leaning in towards Jen.
Jen seems to have the same internal struggle in that moment, as she breaks the stare with an almost brutal suddenness and looks away. 'Well it's really lovely. Keep it up,' Jen tells her, not looking back as she moves onto the next desk, leaving Tilly feeling sick and disorientated, like she's been blindfolded and spun around.
Jen looks like she's about to say something to her as they file out of the room at the end of the lesson. Tilly almost stops in her tracks when she realises, but is jostled from behind by people eager to leave. Tilly swings round as she's cajoled out of the room, twisting her head to get a final look at Jen, who seems to have thought better of it anyway and just offers a tight-lipped, insincere smile.
She's thankful the end of the year is drawing close; that the work left to do is coursework assignments that she chooses to complete in her own time – resolving to spend as little time in the art room as remotely possible.
.. .. .. ..
Maddie notices first – one of the perils of having a best friend that cares enough about you to stampede straight back into a burning building when they realise you might be in it. 'You're not spending much time in the art room,' she says pensively, sipping her coffee in unnecessarily dainty sips. 'I never used to be able to drag you away.' She studies Tilly carefully from over the rim of her mug.
'No,' Tilly answers, fingering a dog-eared corner of her sketchbook. 'I'm working on my coursework at home.'
Maddie stares her down, her eyes unflinching and knowing and Tilly has to look away, back down at her book and her fidgeting fingers. 'Nothing to do with Miss Gilmore, right?'
Tilly swallows, knows she looks guilty but can't seem to present herself any other way. 'Of course not,' she lies. 'It's just, you know ... with everyone stressing about exams, it's not a very calm place to be at the moment.' She offers a smile at the end. It isn't fitting or needed and Tilly wishes she hadn't done it because it makes her look more guilty.
She's more grateful than she's ever been to see Esther at that moment, appearing in the doorway of the café like some kind of short, squat angel. Tilly waves at her slightly too emphatically, making Esther smile in bemusement. Her smile soon falters as she notices Maddie.
'Don't wave at her, she'll come over,' Maddie hisses.
Tilly politely ignores Maddie's orders and shifts along the sofa in an exaggerated manner so that even Esther can't possibly miss the invitation to sit down next to her.
She hears Maddie's exasperated 'tsk' as the gesture.
'Be nice,' Tilly warns her.
'I'm always nice,' Maddie assures her as Esther sits down uncertainly beside Tilly.
'Hi,' she says, looking surprised and slightly suspicious of the fact that she's been invited over. 'How's it going?'
Maddie rolls her eyes at the pleasantry before standing up. 'I'm getting another. You want anything Tills?'
Tilly shakes her head, pointing at the almost full latte on the table in front of her.
Maddie flounces off towards the counter and Tilly sighs a small, inward sigh of relief.
'Are you OK?' Esther asks after long seconds of silence.
'Yeah, of course, why?' Tilly answers hurriedly, almost reflexively, until she remembers that Esther is the one person who actually knows with any degree of certainty why she's not OK, and why she hasn't been OK for a while. 'Oh,' she says quietly. 'Yeah ... I'm ... better than I was,' she says. Honesty tastes strange in her mouth; it's been so long since she's spoken anything close to the truth.
'For what it's worth, I'm really really sorry,' Esther begins to say but Tilly just shakes her head to silence her.
'Really, it's OK. It's not your fault. You did everything you could to help me out,' she says, and believes it too. She knows that if had Esther been a different kind of person, she could've used the photograph as some sort of, like, weapon of mass destruction or something. She smiles slightly to herself as she realises that such a thing would've never even occur to Esther – wouldn't even cross her mind. She's too nice for her own good. Too kind. She'll get eaten alive out there in the big bad world.
'How are you anyway?' Tilly asks, setting a hand on Esther's knee in an overly friendly manner that felt right in that second, but now feels slightly too familiar, slightly too affectionate. She withdraws it quickly before it becomes an issue and clears her throat noisily to pre-empt any awkward silences that might follow. 'Revision going well?'
'Oh it's a proper nightmare,' Esther admits, not acknowledging the sudden presence or withdrawal of Tilly's touch against her skin. 'Maths is literally killing me.'
Tilly laughs, remembering almost with a fondness the more simplistic days of GCSEs. 'Oh my god – I'm so glad I never have to look at another equation again.'
'Thanks, you're making me feel loads better,' Esther mumbles grumpily.
'Aw don't worry. It'll all be over soon. Then you can revert to a blissful state of semi-innumeracy like me,' Tilly tells her.
'I can't wait,' Esther says, looking genuinely seduced by the prospect. 'As long as I can count the change in my pocket that's all the maths I need,' Esther says.
'And the amount of zeros on the end of a price tag,' Tilly joins in.
Esther snorts softly. 'Yeah ... and the overdraft limit on a credit card.'
Tilly laughs, feels her stomach flutter slightly. She hasn't been happy enough to laugh for a while.
.. .. .. ..
They go out to celebrate the start of their study period. Tilly doesn't think it's such a brilliant idea, academically driven as she is, there doesn't seem a lot of sense to her in getting completely trashed in preparation for the last precious few weeks of serious revision – thinks her brain cells stand a better chance of performing if she doesn't kill them all off first. But the combination of Maddie, Sinead and George all whining at her in exactly the same tone and pitch, coupled with the fact that she'd seen Jen purposely turn the corner to avoid crossing her path earlier that day, convinces her that maybe a little drinking and a little dancing could be just what she needs to lift her spirits.
Third drink in and she's sure she's made the right choice. She's gripping onto her sides they ache so much from laughing. They're all crammed into the booth of a dark, sweaty club with music so loud that Tilly can feel it in her bones. She's squeezed tight in between Maddie and Jonno, practically sat on Maddie's lap there's so little space, and Maddie is fussing over her – brushing her hair from her face and playing affectionately with the straps of her dress and she feel appreciated and loved and surrounded by people she cares about. It makes her feel normal for the first time in weeks – normal and happy and young and slightly drunk and, somehow, the world feels a little kinder.
Fifth drink in and she lets George drag her by the wrists to the dance floor. He starts throwing his long, lithe form around the second he sets foot on its sticky surface. His liveliness is contagious, and he bounces around like an agitated molecule, transferring energy to whatever he collides with, which is mostly Tilly, who begins jumping and gesticulating with wild abandon, shouting the words to whatever song is playing in a manner that she would probably find totally uncool if she was sober enough to care. She feels the hot beads of sweat running down her sternum between her breasts and the hair clinging wetly to her forehead, enjoys the closeness of other bodies pumping around her, even the ones that are getting a bit too close and excitable, because everyone is young and beautiful and in that moment Tilly loves them all.
Seventh drink in and she's too sweaty to continue dancing so she slithers away from the dance floor and squeezes herself back towards the bar. She orders a corona with lime wedge jammed unceremoniously down its throat because she wants a cold drink to rehydrate but isn't quite feeling sensible enough to get a glass of tap water.
She feels a polite, tentative tap just below her shoulder and swivels round on the spot to see Esther.
Tilly throws her arms back in greeting, almost knocking her drink from the bar to the floor, before flinging them around Esther's neck and hugging her. 'How did you get in?' she shouts into Esther's ear.
'The bouncer didn't ID me,' Esther says proudly. 'Think it's because I'm wearing heels for once,' she adds, pointing at her shoes.
'Very nice,' Tilly says appreciatively, dragging her gaze from Esther's foot to the top of her legs.
Esther shoves her playfully and Tilly laughs, because she was only joking. Mostly.
She buys Esther a drink before challenging her to a shot of absinthe, which Esther knocks back with an ease that Tilly can't help but be impressed by.
Tenth drink in and the alcohol has given her both the motivation and the confidence to text Jen – a bold infringement upon the unspoken rules that seem to be have been set since Jen broke it off. Whatever it was.
You don't have to text back or agree or anything, but I miss being near you.
She tries very hard to spell everything correctly – a laudable triumph seeing as her vision has gone slightly swirly and her thumbs feel like they've swelled to three times their normal size. She's very careful not to add any kisses, not to sign her name. She then switches her phone off for the rest of the evening and casts it disinterestedly to the bottom of her bag, because she doesn't want to be worrying all night as to whether Jen has replied or not.
Twelfth drink in and she's sure coming out was the worst idea anyone has ever had. Ever. The floor feels like it's falling away beneath her as she stumbles out of the club into the early morning air. Her vision sways nauseously and she lets Sinead guide her home using some sort of drunken Monkee-walk technique. She laughs at their ridiculousness for a few seconds before she doubles over and is sick into some bushes. Sinead rubs the base of her spine and Tilly remembers why she thought going out was a bad idea in the first place.
The next day, when Tilly can finally lift her head without it feeling like it's still attached to the pillow with long, rusted nails, she turns her phone back on. Jen didn't text back. Tilly didn't really expect her too, but thinks it still would've been nice if she had. She smiles slightly to find a text from Esther enquiring as to whether she got home safely.
.. .. .. ..
The days blur into one. Tilly alternates her revision subjects to fit with the exam timetable. Her days become punctuated by nothing more than eating and sleeping. She ignores most of the texts and calls she receives, they're only ever her friends complaining about being locked up revising during all this glorious sunshine, and predicting weeks of heavy rain the second their exams are over. She sort of enjoys being so focused, realises one evening that she hasn't thought about Jen for a whole day – considers it progress.
The exams roll by one by one in an almost disappointingly unmemorable way. On the day of her last exam she feels strange. Almost like she could float away. She drifts out of the exam room feeling lighter than air. Summer stretches out before her and the day is bright and warm. She can smell freshly cut grass from the playing fields and she takes a moment just to absorb it all – this feeling of freedom. She knows it's all an illusion; in just over a month she'll be back within the walls of the college, hunching over more books, staring up at more computer screens, erecting more easels. But she lets herself be taken in by the illusion just this once. It fills her with a sense of peace that she's been searching for without even realising.
She sits down on bench near the college gates, revelling in the strange quiet of the college grounds, usually bustling with students. The sun feels warm on her face and she lets her eyes drift closed.
'Last exam, huh?'
Tilly starts, opening her eyes and looking up to see Jen, silhouetted against the bright sky. She squints slightly, as if she can't quite believe it's her, that she's actually engaging her in conversation. 'Uh ... yeah,' is the articulate response she manages.
'How did it go?'
Tilly watches as Jen sits down on the bench beside her, feels for a second like she should move over to give her more room, but decides against it. 'It was OK. Think I messed up one of the essay questions at the end ... I misread the question and only realised about halfway through.'
Jen smiles at her. Tilly finds it slightly unsympathetic. 'I'm sure you'll be fine,' she offers.
'All this ... stuff,' Jen gestures randomly, circling her hands, 'it feels so important right now. But ... you'll realise one day that it didn't really matter. Not as much as you think it does.' Jen studies her from beneath her fringe and Tilly can't help but feel there's more meaning to Jen's words than trying to console her that she misread 'Stalin' as 'Satan' and got herself into a mid-exam pickle.
'Yeah ...' she says slowly, not sure if she agrees or not.
Jen smiles at her again, sits back and settles against the bench. Silence passes between them, and just as Tilly begins to unclench her tensed muscles Jen speaks again. 'Any plans for the summer?' she asks, her eyes closed and her head tilted back. She looks so relaxed, her body lounging languidly against the bench.
'Not really,' Tilly answers. 'Mads mentioned something about going away together again. You know, like, 'the gang'. But I'm not sure.'
Before Tilly can enquire after Jen's own holiday plans, a bell rings in the distance and Jen sits up attentively. 'That's my cue,' she says, 'I'm invigilating a chemistry exam at one-thirty.'
Tilly nods. 'Fun.'
'Never a dull moment.'
'The very reason I wanted to teach.'
They smile at each other briefly. Jen looks like she wants to say something, but doesn't. She just lingers in her upright position, hands poised and sprung behind her back, ready to push her up off from the seat and Tilly feels like she needs to keep speaking, just to keep her there for a few moments longer.
'Is it true that teachers play games in exams?' Tilly asks. 'Like ... they stand next to the student they think is going to get the lowest mark and stuff?'
Jen scoffs in laughter. 'No ... who ever told you that?' She shifts slightly from her position, her gaze darting to the side before focusing back on Tilly.
Tilly narrows her eyes, 'You do don't you?' she accuses.
Jen squirms under the scrutiny, 'Honestly Tilly, I don't know where you get these crazy ideas.' She looks down and back up again, smiling sheepishly.
'You're a terrible person,' Tilly tells her, her lips twisting into a smirk.
Jen sighs, almost in confession. 'Well, it's a lot less risky than the 'fittest student' game,' she says.
Tilly raises her eyebrows. 'Yeah ...' her heartbeat feels like its speeding up slightly. She words her response carefully, not sure whether to be playful or serious. 'I hear that can get you into a lot of trouble.'
'Mmm,' Jen bites her bottom lip. 'Besides, I wouldn't be able to play it anyway,' she admits, 'you don't take chemistry.'
Tilly's heartbeat races and she feels her cheeks flush hot and red. She opens her mouth to speak but no sound comes out. Before she can engage the necessary motor skills to respond Jen is already standing up and moving away from the bench. 'See you around Tilly,' she says.
'Yeah ... bye ...er ... miss,' Tilly stammers, watches her retreat along the path and through the double doors of the school. She lets herself smile, ever so slightly, and tries hard not to feel like she's just won the lottery.