Author's Note: OK so I don't know about you guys but I'm not really feeling the whole 'Tilly is a rebel/vindictive lunatic' vibe that H/O have got going on right now. I mean, having your heart broken for the first time is something pretty much everyone goes through at some point, and for that reason pretty much everyone can relate to how much it sucks...
But how many of you have made it your personal vendetta to make life a living hell for the other person? I'm going to guess nobody, because most people are decent humans that recognise that a breakup, particularly of a serious relationship, is pretty traumatic for both parties and don't really feel energetic or motivated enough to turn all sociopath and go around causing rubbish. It just seems so out of character to me - Tilly was always so reasonable, and part of her own moral guidance sort of came from her sheer devotion and adoration of Jen, whose needs she always put above her own. Whether they're trying to play up the whole 'Tilly isn't mature enough' storyline or what, I don't know. But there are other, far more realistic ways, to act out that don't have to involve an entire character re-write.
Anyway, this is just a long winded way of me saying I'm not going to go down that route. Because it's kind of boring and clumsy and just ugh ... disappointing.
And I know it's only a soap or whatever, but it has a potentially huge outreach, and another story about the various lunacies of another mentally unstable lesbian is just so last century I almost can't be bothered to credit it with acknowledgement.
OK - rant over, and I remain hopeful that this will all work itself out. On with the story! Thanks for the continued support guys - sorry for the delay between updates ... it won't be so long next time, promise :)
There's an old folk song on the radio, sounding thin and dark and haunted
It's not like they're girlfriends. Tilly tries to classify it, lying quietly beside Esther, the room pitched blue and shadowy as the digital display on the radio beside the bed informs her that it's little after 2 am. Esther's breathing is slow and quiet, her chest barely rising and falling, lying on her back in the exact position she fell asleep in hours ago. Tilly can't help but think of Jen, tossing and turning, forever manoeuvring herself closer and closer to the middle of the bed, murmuring incoherently and reaching for Tilly's arms and hands in her sleep. Tilly would fondly refer to it as her 'chaotic REMs', and Jen would emphatically deny such behaviour. She misses Jen more than she can say – more than she can bear to even think about. She even tries to hate her, just to see if it will help, but finds she can feel nothing more than the emptiness and ache of being severed from a love that completed her. So she just lies there, half a person, tucks her body closer into Esther's side and closes her eyes – waits for sleep to come so that it might permit her to dream.
Or maybe they are girlfriends, Tilly thinks the following day, as she listens to the metallic clink of a spoon against china as Esther stirs two sugars into the tea she is making for her. They don't talk about it really – they haven't made it official – but they kiss and fall asleep together watching movies and hold hands as they wander through town ...
Esther smiles as she sets the cup down in front her. Tilly smiles back, hooks her fingers around the warm handle. 'Thanks,' she says.
'I was wondering,' Esther says, pulling out a chair beside her and sitting down, 'would you like to go away somewhere?'
Tilly stares at the surface of her tea, waits for Esther to elaborate on the suggestion before she reacts.
'Like ... together. A day-trip or something. I was thinking maybe Bath. We could get a coach,' Esther continues. 'I'm dyin' to get out of this town for a bit. And we have to be back in college in ...' she frowns and Tilly smiles a little to notice that she's counting on her fingers, 'six days.'
Tilly looks up from her tea and into the soft, kind blue of Esther's eyes. 'Yeah ... sounds nice,' she agrees.
Esther flat-palms the table gently. 'Great,' she says, 'I'll look up coaches online.' The legs of her chair scrape against the floor as she stands and rushes to retrieve her laptop.
Tilly takes a sip of her tea, jerking it away from her immediately as it burns her top lip. She sighs, mopping up the spilt liquid from the table with her sleeve.
Definitely girlfriends then.
.. .. .. ..
Results day comes and goes and Tilly almost forgets to feel nervous about it. She waits in line in front of the D to F queue to be handed her brown envelope, feels her stomach twist nervously with an anxiety that for once has nothing to do with Jen and it feels bizarre and not totally unwelcome. When she receives the envelope she moves away from the queue to a quieter area before tearing open its top fold and withdrawing the slip from inside with trembling fingers. She almost squeaks in shock as the letters and figures she sees on the page register their meaning in her brain. She reads and re-reads, feels a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth, her previous anxiety settling somewhat into a strange sort of satisfaction – the reassurance of having made the right decision not to abandon college like she had half-planned to do at the end of the summer, for Jen's sake. She takes out her phone and quickly taps out a message to Esther.
4 A's! Meet me to celebrate?
She wanders outside, weaving through the huddled groups of students that have gathered like crows around the college gates. She sighs in a brief moment of contentment and closes her eyes, tilts her face up towards the sky – the late summer sunshine just about warm enough to feel on her skin. She stays like that for a while, listening to the muted shrieks and giggles of other excitable students eagerly tearing open their own envelopes and rustling the papers inside. When she opens her eyes again she notices the slight trace of orange in the leaves of the trees.
She becomes faintly aware of someone calling her name, spins round on the spot to find where it's coming from.
'Hey Tills!' Maddie says, tackling her into a fierce hug. 'I got three B's!' she shrieks into her ear, and Tilly pulls a pained expression at the volume of the exclamation. She pulls back away from Maddie's embrace, pressing a hand to her ear.
'That's great Mads,' she says.
'Well?' Maddie asks, gesturing to Tilly's envelope.
'Four A's,' Tilly mumbles, looking down self-consciously, but Maddie just beams at her.
'Ah you big old brain box. Well done!' Maddie squeezes her shoulder affectionately. 'Come on, let's find the others to celebrate.'
Tilly hangs back and Maddie takes a few steps before stopping and eyeing her quizzically.
'I'm meeting Esther,' Tilly admits quietly, feels stupid and angry at herself for letting Maddie make her feel embarrassed about it.
Maddie rolls her eyes like the information is the epitome of tedium. 'Can't she catch you up?' she asks.
Tilly crinkles the envelope slightly in her hand as her grip tightens. 'Nah ... it's cool. You go, we'll catch up.'
Maddie huffs dramatically. 'Don't bother,' she says, pacing away and Tilly looks back up at the orange leaves. Then Maddie stops, turns, looks Tilly up and down. 'You know ... I thought you had at least some sort of taste. Miss Gilmore might've been a teacher and everything but I can see what you saw in her. Esther's not even close to her league.'
'Hey!' Tilly says indignantly, full-on scrunching the envelope in her fist.
Maddie's expression slowly softens. 'Sorry Tills,' she concedes, 'I just want what's best for you, you know?'
Tilly holds her stare for a moment before sighing and shrugging with one shoulder. 'I know. But right now ... there isn't a best. Me and Jen are over ... and Esther's –'
'Convenient?' Maddie offers.
Tilly frowns. 'It's not like that.'
'No ...' Maddie says, her stare hard and uncompromising. ''Course not.' She smiles insincerely. 'See you around Tills.'
Tilly nods and Maddie walks off, stopping briefly to air-kiss both cheeks of a girl she bumps into on her way out through the gates.
Tilly shakes herself slightly and turns away – she can't be bothered to dwell on Maddie's words, not when her results are so good and the day is so warm; she steels herself in her determination to not let anything stop her from enjoying her own small success.
Then, in an almost cruel coincidence, Tilly finds herself staring directly at Jen, who has emerged from the front entrance of the college with Diane, talking animatedly about something, gesturing enthusiastically with her hands.
Tilly freezes, unable to redirect her gaze, or move, and Jen catches her staring. Out of ear-shot, Tilly watches Jen's mouth move to excuse herself from Diane's company, and Tilly considers running away as Jen moves purposefully over to her, but finds she can do nothing more than watch her advance.
'Tilly,' Jen says curtly as she walks up to her.
'Miss,' Tilly replies, tries futilely to stop her elevated mood from slipping back into despair at the mere sight of her.
'Congratulations,' she says, nodding to the envelope in Tilly's hands.
'How do you know what I got?' she asks, clutching the envelope closer to her chest, like it contains something hugely personal, like Jen hasn't seem her naked and writhing beneath her in the throes of some terrible passion, asking her to do things with her hands and lips, breathing hard against her mouth and telling her how good it feels.
Jen's momentary look of offence passes quickly, and she stiffens slightly and tucks some hair behind her ear. 'I marked your art coursework, remember,' she says. 'I only know you did very well in that.'
'Oh'. Tilly's grip on her envelope loosens, and the hand holding it falls back to her side. 'Well ... thanks,' she says.
Jen tilts her head slightly, studying Tilly's face too closely, and Tilly clears her throat awkwardly, glances towards the gates to check for any sign of Esther. She almost jumps a little when Jen speaks up again.
'So are you going to carry on with four subjects this year or drop one of them?' Jen asks, and Tilly fixes her with an incredulous look.
'What do you care?' she asks. 'Why are you even talking to me?'
Jen looks positively shocked at Tilly's words, and Tilly regrets them for a second, watching as Jen slowly recovers from her hostility.
'Tilly,' she says, in that slow, measured, teacher's voice that she reserves for telling her something she doesn't want to hear.
'Save it,' Tilly says before she can elaborate. Anger flashes across Jen's face and she opens her mouth to argue, but then stops immediately, physically takes a step back away from Tilly, as Esther flings her arms around Tilly's shoulders from behind.
'I got your text,' she says, 'congratulations! You're so clever.' Esther presses a kiss to Tilly's cheek and Tilly feels her face flush red. She glances guiltily at Jen, notices the gaze she has fixed on Esther is one of shocked bewilderment.
'Hi Miss Gilmore,' Esther says, relinquishing her grip on Tilly's shoulders but remaining very close to her, their hands touching, close enough to hold.
Jen blinks rapidly a few times. 'Hello Esther,' she says. Her voice sounds small and faraway. Tilly watches her chest swell as she takes a deep breath.
Tilly swallows nervously, because as angry as she is at Jen, and as much as she had wanted to wound her just a few seconds ago, she finds she can't stand to see her hurt. Tilly studies her for a moment, trying to ascertain if she is hurt, or just shocked, or perhaps worried that Esther knows something, but Jen's expression has slipped back into an unreadable blankness and she merely purses her lips in a brief smile before excusing herself and walking away.
Tilly watches her go, waiting for the sudden, irrational resentment towards Esther to pass.
'Everything OK?' Esther asks.
Tilly feels her slipping her fingers in between her own. She turns her head to look at her. ''Course,' she answers. 'Drink?'
.. .. .. ..
Despite a week of agitated, sleepless nights preceding its start, College is almost astonishing in its mundanity. Tilly slips back into old routines like the summer never happened, rushing to and from lessons with armfuls of books and papers, dossing around in the common room with her friends in free periods, loitering out by the college gates with a thick scarf wound round her neck waiting for George to turn up with the notes she leant him to finish whatever homework assignment he forgot about. She almost feels normal.
Even art has become just another dull exercise that marks the passing of another day. The first lesson of the year Tilly doesn't know where to look, tries to focus on the presentation Jen has put up on the projector screen at the front of the class. Tilly's eyes scan across the images.
Her gaze refocuses sharply on the woman stood in front of the screen, silhouetted slightly against the bright screen behind her. The lights of the classroom are turned off, the blinds drawn, and the light from the screen makes Jen's outline glow. Jen's speech falters as she catches Tilly's gaze, and she blinks rapidly, checks back through her notes, her finger pushed up against the paper as she tries to find her place. Tilly looks back down at her notebook, waits for Jen to begin speaking again before she looks back up, focuses on the screen for the rest of the presentation. When it's over and Jen flicks the lights back on, her gaze lingers on Tilly, freshly illuminated, with deep brown concerned eyes and Tilly struggles to concentrate. She rushes out of the room at the first sound of the bell, ignoring Jen's surprised 'hey!' ... doesn't wait to hear the subsequent 'the bell is for me, not for you' and practically runs to the common room and just sits in silence for a few precious seconds before the other students begin to saunter through the doors.
But after that first time Jen barely acknowledges her presence, and Tilly becomes used to it. It's easier that way, she thinks. Easier than last year – with its lingering looks of yearning that made her heart flutter – more manageable somehow. Art is still a chore, but she realises with a sort of quiet pride that she can handle it, and she learns to quell her own fretfulness and apprehension with a maturity she didn't know she was capable of, and slowly feels the intensity of the hurt, and the sting of rejection, fading from the present into the past.
She wonders how much of it is down to Esther, whose ignorance of Tilly's true emotional state allows her to almost forget it herself. They have a good time together – it's easy, they make each other laugh, and find they can spend hours just sitting together, talking about nothing, sometimes barely even speaking sentences, watching the world happen around them like they're casual observers sitting just the other side of reality.
Even Maddie begins to give up on the eye-rolling and withering stares, and eventually seems just about able to accept that if she wants to see Tilly, Esther will probably turn up as well at some point.
'How's art going Tilly?' Maddie asks one day as they lounge on a sofa in College Coffee, the abrupt change of conversation topic catching everyone's attention, especially Esther's, who is sat beside Tilly, her hand resting lightly on her thigh.
Tilly takes a thoughtful sip of her coffee, self-assured in her awareness of all Maddie's guerrilla techniques to squeeze information from people that she senses have something to hide. 'Fine,' she answers, slowly leaning forwards and setting her cup back down.
'It's just I heard some of the other students complaining about Miss Gilmore,' Maddie says, non-chalantly inspecting her nails, and she's being so transparent that Tilly can't help but stare at her in amused disbelief.
'Really?' she asks dryly, her tone of voice conveying her lack of interest in indulging Maddie any further.
'Mmm ... they were saying she's really distracted. Forgets her lesson plan, forgets what homework she's set ...' Maddie recounts, and Tilly frowns a little, a small flicker of concern igniting inside her.
'Yeah ... she's been a acting really weird at home as well,' Sinead pipes up, and Tilly's flicker of concern suddenly becomes a full-on panic, because Maddie could've just been lying to try and catch her out in front of Esther, but Sinead could only be telling the truth. 'I swear she's stopped sleeping or something. No matter what time I get in she's always there, like, sat at the table or on the sofa or something. At like three a.m. It's creepy,' Sinead concludes with a physical shudder.
Tilly swallows, unsure how to react. Maddie is staring her, and Tilly tries very hard to remind herself that all of this is no longer her problem, or her concern.
Though when she goes home, kicks off her shoes and drops her bag and hangs up her coat, she finds that she can't think of anything she'd like to do more than stretch out on her bed next to Jen, and weave their fingers together, or run her fingertips up and down the length of her arms or through her hair, lean over to kiss her temple, her nose, her eyelids, her lips. Just be with her. Just have her within reach.
And with this in mind, Tilly finds it quite unfair that it should be Jen who rounds the corner during break-time at college one day, at the exact moment that Esther leans up and kisses her, pulling her close by the bag strap on her shoulder and sighing when Tilly's fingers move to her face and trace softly along the line of her jaw before hooking gently under her chin. Footsteps scuffle to a stunned halt and Tilly breaks the kiss and looks up to see Jen, her face contorted in an expression of pure shock and hurt. Tilly stops just short of physically pushing Esther away, and a few long, tortuous seconds pass as Jen visibly struggles to disguise whatever emotions were just set coursing violently through her, finally managing to close her parted mouth and blink her eyes in a futile effort to regain some sort of control over her facial expression. Tilly feels all the colour drain from her own face with nauseating rapidity and just stares desperately after Jen as she turns on her heels and dashes back down the corridor.
Tilly presses a hand to her forehead, mortified at what has just happened.
'What was that about?' Esther asks.
Tilly glances sideways at her, tries to calm herself, shakes her head. 'Fuck knows,' she mutters.
Esther bites her bottom lip slightly, narrows her eyes in the direction Jen has just fled, then looks back at Tilly. 'There's nothing ... you know ... you two ... you're not –'
Tilly's eyes widen at the insinuation. 'No! God no. I mean ...' she shakes her head again. 'Not since the summer. I swear.'
Esther nods slowly. 'Yeah ... I know,' she says, with a reserved tone of scepticism, but Tilly finds she can't be bothered to try and convince her further, too preoccupied with worrying about Jen's reaction to what she just saw.
She tells Esther that she'll see her later, and walks off briskly in pursuit of Jen, finds her crashing about bad temperedly in the art room, rifling through draws of paint brushes and dumping handfuls of them noisily in the sink.
'Jen,' Tilly says quietly from the doorway, and Jen freezes momentarily, before leaning heavily on the sink with straightened arms and locked elbows.
Tilly pushes the door closed behind her and ventures further into the room. 'What you just saw ... it's –'
'It's none of my business Tilly,' Jen interrupts, in a careful measured voice that betrays her earlier behaviour.
'No ... but ... it's just,' Tilly stammers for the right words, not sure she should've followed Jen at all, seeing as she doesn't really have anything to say for herself nor Jen any right to be pissed off in the first place. She walks further forward. 'This is hard for me too you know,' Tilly says, stopping so close to Jen now that she has to turn away from the sink and face her.
Jen looks fleetingly at her lips before meeting her gaze, and her previously stiff body seems to slump in defeat. 'Why are you even here Tilly?' she asks.
Tilly scoffs, like it's obvious. 'Why do you think?' she asks. 'I want to know what just happened back there.'
Jen folds her arms and rolls her eyes in an alarmingly Maddie-esque display of petulance. 'Leave it out Tilly,' she says.
Tilly frowns. 'No I won't leave it out,' she tells her. 'Not until you tell me what's going on.'
'I mean it,' Jen warns, and her resistance just makes Tilly more defiant in her pursuit.
'Just tell me,' she demands. 'God ... why are you acting like this?'
'Because I can't fucking take it Tilly,' Jen almost hisses, her words laced with an explosive, toxic anger that makes Tilly jump. 'I just can't, OK?'
Tilly doesn't know what to say, opens and closes her mouth a couple of times before she manages to make a sound. 'Well that's just great then, isn't it?' she asks, folding her arms crossly. 'You don't want me but you don't want anyone else to have me, is that it? That's really fucking mature.'
Jen closes her eyes in exasperation, like Tilly's just not fucking getting it or something. 'I never said I didn't want you,' she says in a quieter voice before opening her eyes again, and Tilly just shakes her head as her eyes fill up with tears because this is too much now, this has happened too often and she can't put herself through this again.
'Don't say stuff like that,' she asks of Jen in a pathetic, pleading voice that she can't stand to hear coming from herself.
Jen nods, like she knows how unfair she's being, 'I know ... I just ... I can't help it,' she admits. 'It's just hard, you know? Seeing you around all the time with her.' She looks down at back up, and Tilly notices for the first time how exhausted she seems, how pale and unwell she looks. Sinead's words drift hauntingly through her mind 'I swear she's stopped sleeping ...'
And as if a switch had been flicked inside her, Tilly feels her anger ebb away, replaced with a hollow sadness, and an empathy that she hasn't felt before. She wonders briefly what this new feeling is ... realises quite suddenly that it's some sort of forgiveness. That she has somehow reached a point where she is able to forgive Jen for the pain and sadness she's caused her, and in a practically simultaneous realisation, notices that her inability to do this sooner has been traumatising Jen for months.
Tilly sighs, lets her hand reach out towards Jen almost of its own accord, traces her fingers lightly over the knot of Jen's delicate wrist, and Jen glances nervously back towards the door but doesn't push her hand away. Their eyes meet, and Tilly smiles a small, sad smile at her, which Jen stares at long and hard before reciprocating.
'It'll be OK,' Tilly says, not really sure why she feels compelled to reassure Jen, but finds that she just wants to make things better rather than worse for once.
Jen sniffles a little, like she's just about managing to stave off the tears Tilly could hear in her voice a moment ago. 'Yeah,' she says quietly, moves her hand slightly to allow Tilly's fingers to link with her own.
They stay like that for a few moments, staring at their intertwined fingers, before the bell for next period rings and Tilly leaves without another word.