My grateful thanks to Bradley Stoke, Katie McN and Elle for their help, criticism and advice; and above all to MT, for that and much more.

The Sunstroke Cure

March 2003

by oosh

Marjorie opened the door. “Clare!” she cried, in apparent surprise. Then she hung her head sheepishly, knowing full well that we'd arranged this visit by phone the day before. “You'd better come in.”


“I've got some dry white in the fridge if you'd like some.”

“Just a glass of water, thanks. Don't let me stop you, though. George not home yet?”

“Not for another hour at least.”

“Okay... Well we've lots to talk about, so perhaps I'll still be here when he arrives. I'd like to see him.” I settled myself on the sofa and lit a cigarette while Marjorie bustled in the kitchen. She didn't resist giving my cigarette a reproving grimace as she set down my glass of water.

“Now don't you start,” I warned her. “I'm not allowed to smoke in my own home any more.”

Marjorie looked at me questioningly for a moment, but didn't ask me to explain. She clearly had too much on her mind already. “So,” she sighed as she sank into the far corner of the sofa, “how is she?”

“Helen? She's fine. Never better.”

“I suppose I'm relieved.” She sighed again, glancing guiltily at me. “Well, of course I'm relieved. I'm just so worried about her.”

“No need to be. She's changed, that's all. But not necessarily for the worse. Not at all. She's beavering away like mad on her law work, even though it's still August. It's as if she can't wait to get qualified and earning a fat lawyer's salary.”

Marjorie became impassioned. “I suppose that's so that she can keep that pushy, grasping so-and-so —”

“Marjorie...” I growled at her in my naughty-girl voice. We older sisters can be so crushing.

It didn't take much. Her shoulders hunched and her expression became resigned. “Sorry... I know...” She turned to me. “You... You gave her my message?”

I smiled reassuringly. “Of course I did. As soon as we got off the phone.”


It was my turn to shrug and look regretful. “She didn't exactly fall weeping on my neck, I'm afraid. She just humphed. I think she was pleased, but she didn't want to show it. It'll take time, Marjorie. These things do. She's on an emotional high at the moment.”

Tears sprang to Marjorie's eyes. “I just don't understand...” She began to cry.

“Tell me about it, tell me...” I crushed out my cig and passed her a hanky from my bag. I'd popped in a good wodge of them.

So, haltingly at first, Marjorie told me about the few days before Jane and Helen had gone on their extraordinary holiday. Helen really hadn't wanted to go, but Jane had been insistent: “She just barged in here and practically took control of Helen's life.” That certainly agreed with what Helen herself had told me, and it was one of several puzzling things about this puzzling affair. “She was bossing Helen around left, right and centre. I don't know how she found the nerve. I mean, they hardly even knew one another.”

“Well, Marje, that's not quite true...” Marjorie's tears were subsiding now, although they'd doubtless start again soon enough. “They were classmates at school, right from Juniors, and then wasn't Jane's boyfriend – er... Jim – wasn't he really pally with that boy Helen used to go out with... what's his name?”

“Ian Jenkins.”

“Yes, that's the one. Well, if their boyfriends were friends, it's a fair bet that they would have teamed up occasionally on their nights out. And if the boys started gassing about cars or sport...”

Marjorie sighed. “Yes, I suppose that's possible. But it's not as if Helen particularly liked Jane. All I ever heard was Helen grumbling about her being so pushy. And she smoked dope. Helen really disapproved of that. So do I.”

“Yes, well, more about that later. First, tell me a little about Ian. Was he her first boyfriend?”

“No. About fourth or fifth, I should think. But he lasted the longest.”

“Aha. How long did they go out together?”

“Oh, for about a year, I suppose... I don't think Helen was quite as keen on Ian as the other way round, to be honest. But it's always difficult to be sure with Helen. You know what she's like.”

“And the breakup – was it messy, or...?”

“Not that I knew of. I got the impression that they just drifted apart. I think Ian was beginning to get the message that things weren't going anywhere.”

“How often had they been seeing one another?”

“Oh, I suppose a couple of times a week.”

Something Helen had told me led me to think that all her relationships had been resolutely Platonic, but I wanted to find out how Marjorie saw it. “Did she ever get back late?”

“Never. Always in by eleven-thirty, and usually by eleven.”

I gave a hollow laugh. “Definitely a sign of coolness these days, Marje. I think most of today's young men would be expecting a bit of action after a couple of months — and that's if she's playing hard to get!”

Marjorie laughed at that. “I didn't get the impression there was much of that going on. In fact I'm pretty sure. That's why George and I liked him so much. We were a bit sorry when it broke up, to tell the truth.”

“Did you say anything?”

Marjorie winced. “Probably. Well, yeah. But Helen didn't want to talk about it, so we didn't press it.”

“Mmm... Probably just as well. How long ago was this?”

“Oh, not that long... About a couple of months ago, I suppose.”

“And did Helen's social life dry up as a result?”

“No, not at all. As soon as that bloody good-time girl heard about the break-up, she got it into her head that Helen wasn't doing enough to attract the blokes. She was always calling round, bringing her those stupid magazines – you know, a hundred and one ways to get your man, improve your sex life, et cetera – and then there were the shopping trips for tarty clothes —”

I laughed. “Oh, come on, Marje, that's a bit...”

But Marjorie didn't draw breath. “And then cosmetics, God!” She rolled her eyes and waved her wineglass dangerously. “She had to wear this lipstick and that mascara, do her hair this way and that way — she practically took over Helen's life. I know Helen didn't like it. But she just let her boss her about.”

“Yes, Helen did say...”

Marjorie frowned as if puzzled. “Why did she go along with it? Why didn't she just tell her to get stuffed?”

I laughed. “Perhaps part of her was curious.”

“Curious about what?”

“About just how attractive she is. It was a sort of adventure for her.”

Marjorie made the rather inelegant hawking noise that she uses to signal impatience. “She doesn't need to do anything to be attractive, Clare. You know that.”

“We know it, Marje, but... You know how it is when you're young.”

Marjorie didn't seem convinced.

“And there's another thing...” I thought that perhaps it was time to broach this delicate subject. “Jane was very... encouraging.”


“Yeah. She told Helen how attractive she was, often and emphatically. She made Helen feel good about herself; and perhaps for Helen that was something new. — She told me about the bikini Jane gave her.”

“Oh yes, the bikini. If you could call it that.”

I chuckled. “Helen told me what you said when she showed it to you.”

“I said that it covered less than a pirate's eye-patch. It was indecent, Clare. Have you seen it?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Just about enough material to cover your woo-wah, and a little throw-on top that obviously wasn't supposed to be worn on the beach, and only just enough to cover the necessary.”

“A thong with a loose top, then.”

“I suppose so.”

“I expect that's what they all wear on the Costa del Sol these days. The days of knee-length bathers are long gone, Marje.”

“You're telling me. But this was so skimpy that... well, when I caught her trying it on in front of my mirror, she blushed absolutely crimson.”

“Doesn't she have a mirror in her own room?”

“Just a dressing-table mirror, not a full length one. I tell you, it was quite a shock seeing her practically naked, twisting and turning and looking at herself like that. I began to realize that this Jane was having quite a bad effect on my daughter.”

“What's so terrible about looking at yourself in the mirror?”

“And there's another thing. Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this. But...” Marjorie broke off and stared pensively for a moment. I didn't interrupt. “...Well, later that evening I heard her in her room, Clare. I knew she was on her own in there, and she was...”

“Having an orgasm?”

Marje sighed. “Yeah.”

“Well, what's so terrible about that? I know she's noisy, but...”

“Look, Clare, I don't think I want to talk about this...”

“You don't want to think of your daughter having sexual desires.”

“No, I suppose I don't.”

“She's nearly twenty, for God's sake! I don't have to remind you, do I, that by that age, you and I...”

Marje held up her hand to silence me. “Okay, okay,” she said hurriedly, “let's not... I know you're right, Clare, and I know I'm being irrational. But that was the first time I'd ever heard her. Ever. And... I don't know...”

“It came as a shock?”

“Well, yes it did. And I just thought – she wasn't like this before that Jane started interfering in her life.”

I sighed. “You know, it wasn't as one-sided as you make it sound.”

“What do you mean?”

“Helen wasn't a complete doormat. Jane didn't get it all her way.”

“No?” Marjorie sniffed. “That's what it looked like to me.”

“You know that Jane was originally planning a threesome. She wanted to take boyfriend Jim out there as well. They were going to stay at some camp-site near the beach.”

“I did hear mention of that. Of course I said it was out of the question. You can't sleep in the same tent with a young couple having it away in the next sleeping-bag.”

“Helen seems to have thought the same. And she did put her foot down about it. That's why Jim had that big row with Jane. Basically, she had to choose between him and Helen, and... Jane chose Helen.”

“Don't think I would have paid a penny towards it – not a penny – if I'd thought he was going too.”

“I'm sure. But it was nice of you to pay for the hotel, and give her all that spending money.”

Marjorie scratched moodily at an imaginary smudge on the table. “Yeah, well... She doesn't often get the chance for a foreign holiday, and I know all her friends get to go, so George and I thought...”

“I'm sure Helen's really grateful. I know she is.” I didn't, but I thought I had better say so.

“And this is how she repays us. We were absolutely horrified when we got Jim's telephone call. We didn't know what had happened to them. We thought they'd been abducted or something.”

“What did Jim say?”

“Just that they'd left the hotel – they'd sold their reservation to another couple of girls – and gone off into the mountains without telling anyone where. Didn't they realize that George and I would be beside ourselves with worry? She should have told us.”

I sighed. “I know. You do have to make allowances, Marjorie.”

“That Jane is just totally irresponsible. What on earth possessed her to drag Helen off into the mountains, when they had that lovely hotel room, right on the beach?”

“That wasn't Jane's idea, Marjorie. It was Helen's. I know you want to believe that this was all Jane's doing, but you've got to understand that your daughter has changed. Something happened while they were away together, and the present is nothing like the past.” I fished in my bag, brought out a little blue and white box, and shook its contents out on to the table in front of her. “You recognize this?”

All the colour drained from Clare's face. “That's Helen's inhaler. What... What are you doing with it in your bag?” She stared at it incredulously, then turned to me in bewilderment. “You... you took it away from her?”

“No, Marjorie. She gave it to me a couple of days ago. She hasn't needed to use it for over a month.”

“But she has a spare. She always carries a spare.”

“No, Marjorie. The spare is in a little chapel, high in the Andalusian mountains. This is the last one.”

Marjorie passed a hand across her forehead. “I think you'd better explain.”

“Well, then. I've spoken to both of them separately, and I think I've more or less pieced the story together.”

Marjorie gave a mirthless laugh. “Keeping the witnesses apart, so they don't confer?”

“Actually, it's more a question of having to, because having a conversation with either of them when they're together is like battling with the cosmos. Shall we say that they're apt to get sidetracked?”

Marjorie frowned, and I thought I'd better press on with their story.

“I got most of it from Helen,” I began. “As often happens on these cheap flights, they had to have separate seats on the way out to Malaga. Helen didn't mind, because anyway she was in the middle of a novel, but Jane got chatting to her neighbour – one Sarah from Penrith. She and a school-friend were going to be camping at a site not very far from Helen's hotel; and from what Helen has told me, these two had it in mind to spend their fortnight in much the same way as Jane – namely, having a good time.”

“You mean, getting stoned and picking up blokes?”

“In a nutshell, yes. Anyhow, it seems that Jane made arrangements to meet up with these two and go out on the town together. And I don't think Helen would have agreed to go, except that the air-conditioning in their room was on the blink and it was like an oven in there.”

“But I thought we booked them a good room in an expensive hotel!” Marjorie made her hands into fists. “I hope they complained!”

“Indeed they did. It sounds as if it was a lovely room, Marje – big balcony overlooking the beach, two double beds, huge mirrors, cool marble floor, sumptuous bathroom – everything was great. And they did fix the air conditioning the very next day.”

“So I should think!”

“But until the heat of the day had worn off, not comfortable. So after dinner in the hotel they decided to go out and visit their two campsite acquaintances.”

“Sarah from Penrith.”

“Yes, and Judith. Now these two were all for visiting some night-club a mile or two down the coast, but Helen stipulated that it had to be a non-smoking club —”

“Because of her asthma.”

“— Yes. And it seems that nobody really knew if it was non-smoking or not, so Jane suggested they postpone the club for one night and just have a little party right there at the camp-site. Judith and Sarah had plenty of duty-free vodka, and when Jane let it be known that she had enough pot to float them over to the coast of North Africa, they were happy enough to share their booze with Jane and Helen. So the four of them sat drinking and chatting, and I get the impression that a pleasant time was had by all.”

“They were in the open air?”

“Yes, just lounging around on blankets in front of the tent, apparently.”

“At least it would have been cool.”

“I daresay... So all went fine until eventually Jane brought out the pot and they began lighting up. And of course before long they started getting silly and giggly, and as Helen was feeling tired, she excused herself and went back to the hotel. Jane said she'd follow in a little while.”

I thought it better not to mention what else Jane had said – that Helen was welcome to try out Jane's collection of vibrators if she had any problem getting to sleep.

“So Helen went to bed and finished reading her novel. By that time, it was midnight, and still Jane wasn't back. Helen began to feel a bit anxious about her, so she got dressed and went back down to the camp site. She told me that she was afraid she'd find the three of them in a drunken stupor, but that isn't what she found.”

“What had happened?”

“Helen isn't sure, and I confess I couldn't pluck up the courage to ask Jane — even if she remembers, which I somewhat doubt. Basically, they'd retired inside the tent and zipped it closed, although a pungent aroma still seemed to be emanating...”

“My God...”

”Helen couldn't hear any words being spoken; just a lot of very quiet laughing – some of it Jane's. From time to time it would die down, and then someone would let out a gasp or a moan, and they'd start tittering again.”

Marjorie put her hands over her eyes. “I do hope Helen didn't try to go in.”

“No. She decided that there wouldn't be any point in waiting up for Jane, so she left them to it and went back to bed for the night.”

She peered at me between her parted fingers. “But what were they up to in there?”

“Well... Helen did suspect that something... sexual might have been going on.”

“So were these other two, Sarah and...”

“...and Judith...”

“Sarah and Judith, were they a gay couple, then?”

“No, not at all – as you'll hear later. But I daresay it's not all that unusual for girls nowadays to have a little bisexual dabble once alcohol has broken down the inhibitions...”

“...And they're high on pot.”

“Exactly. When Helen confronted her about it later, apparently Jane was really embarrassed, and would only deny that they'd ‘actually had sex’ — so let's just say that we all have our suspicions, and leave it at that.”

Marjorie was about to say something – I was afraid she wouldn't be able to resist taking another pot-shot at Jane – but she caught the look in my eye and wisely subsided again.

“So... Helen wakes up bright and early the next morning – still no Jane – and by the time she's ready for breakfast, the maintenance men are banging on the door to fix the air conditioning.”

“Well, that's something, I suppose.”

“I thought so. And they were quick, too. By the time she'd had breakfast, the room was like a fridge, she told me, so she actually turned the thermostat up a bit. She said she'd put on jeans and a t-shirt for breakfast, but outside the temperature was already climbing, so she went for a light cotton skirt instead of the jeans. And then she went round the town, window-shopping and... well, shopping, until the heat became unbearable. And then she went back to her room for a siesta — and actually fell asleep.”

“Tired so soon? She seems to have settled into the Mediterranean way of life remarkably quickly.”

“And slept for about an hour, until her sweet slumber was unceremoniously terminated by Jane giving her an almighty spank on the bottom.”

I did not mention the detail that Jane told me with such mischievous glee – that Helen was stark naked on the bed with a vibrator lying beside her. The plot was moving swiftly enough without regaling dear mother with that one.

“It seems that Jane had been up most of the night, slept through the morning, and was now determined to drag poor Helen down to the beach for some serious sunbathing.”

“My God, how frightful. Did Helen send her packing?”

“Helen was sweet, complaisant Helen. She meekly put on her nothing bikini and allowed herself to be led down on to the blazing sands.”

“In that bikini? She must have caused an uproar!”

“Nothing of the kind. They see so many pretty girls floating around in next to nothing that nobody even turns a hair. So there they are, setting out their blanket. Now of course Jane is dark and rather swarthy, so she just splashes on a bit of factor 4 and she's fine. But Helen...”

“I warned her. She should have had factor ten at least.”

“Absolutely. And Jane was very helpful in applying it — just about anywhere the sun might conceivably reach. Helen began to wonder if Jane had maybe picked up a few ideas from our Penrith friends.”

“You mean she let this girl...?”

“I don't want to ruin your innocence, dear, but by the time Jane had finished with her and she was lying there topless in the full heat of the August sun, your daughter was, as she quite honestly confessed to me, more turned on than she'd ever been in her life.”

I looked at Marjorie to see how she was taking it. She was scarlet with embarrassment. “So... is that when it all started?” she asked me, her voice low and tremulous with fear. I could almost hear what she was thinking: her precious, pure daughter, seduced by this wanton adventuress.

“Not exactly, dear, but perhaps this was when Helen began to realize about herself.”

Marjorie covered her face with her hands. “This is hard for me, Clare.”

“I know, dear. I know.” I took her hand and grasped it in mine, so she had to look at me. “But you've got to be realistic. It's no good pretending that this is all the fault of wicked Jane. Let's look at it objectively. Helen's never wanted for a boyfriend, has she?”

“No.” Marjorie was blinking rapidly. “Quite the opposite.”

“She's got the looks...” I prompted her.

“Yes. Really, she's been able to take her pick, pretty well.”

“And would you say that on the whole, she's a good judge of people?”

“Meaning boyfriends?”

“Yes. Were they nice?”

“Yes. We've never had any cause to worry.”

“And these boyfriends, they would have found Helen attractive.”

“Of course.”

“Yeah, I think so. And you'd agree, wouldn't you, that Helen was never particularly assertive?” We both smiled at that. “Would you say that she's been dutiful, obedient, even rather biddable, perhaps?”

“What are you driving at, Clare?”

“Passive, even?”

Marjorie was becoming agitated. “Yes – perhaps – but what are you saying?”

“She's very attractive, which I'm sure none of her very nice boyfriends will have failed to notice, and she's also of a rather passive disposition – apparently – and yet surprise, surprise, she's never let one man so much as put his hand on her tits. Why do you think that is?”

“I suppose she didn't let them.”

“So she could be assertive sometimes. Then why did she let Jane touch her all over? And I have to tell you, that after Jane put that lotion on her, she was scared to move because she was afraid she'd left a wet patch on the blanket. Do you understand, Marjorie?”

Marjorie's face contorted in pain. I was afraid she'd start crying again, but to my surprise, she didn't. She clenched and unclenched her hands for a few moments, then relaxed and sighed. “I've been trying to come to terms with it, Clare.” Her voice was suddenly calm, and quiet as if she were talking to herself. “Every few hours I look at myself in the mirror and I say ‘Marje, perhaps your youngest daughter is gay.’ Hell, I do it every twenty minutes.” Her face crumpled again and I shoved a tissue at her. She took it, but just held it to her mouth and coughed once or twice into it. “I'm just so sorry for her,” she muttered at last, then shook her head. “But that doesn't help, does it?”

“No, it doesn't help,” I said firmly, “and what's more, I don't think it's very appropriate. Get me another glass of water, dear, have a refill, and let me carry on with the story. I honestly think that when you've heard the whole thing, you'll feel much better about it all.”

While she was gone, I went through the details in my mind as Helen had recounted them to me. A mother really doesn't want to hear very much about her daughter's sexual awakening; but at the same time, Helen needed her mother's love and understanding — and there could be no understanding unless Marjorie could come to grips with what had happened out there in Spain. I'd rehearsed a few phrases that I hoped would get the facts across without actually rubbing her nose in all the gory details.

“Thanks, dear,” I said when Marjorie returned with the drinks. “Now listen carefully to this, because we're getting to the weird part of the story.”


“Yes, you'll see... Now I know this is uncomfortable for you, but I want you to imagine the scene. It's baking hot, the sun is beating down, Jane rolling around nearly naked just a few inches away, and Helen is, well, boiling with lust.”


I raised my hand. “What does Helen do? Does she leap up and start screwing the nearest attractive female, who just so happens to be Jane? She does not. She lies there, trying to get a grip on herself. And guess what happens...”

Marjorie's eyes widened in an expression of helplessness. “Tell me,” she said simply.

“Something very dreadful and very familiar starts to happen. She feels a tightness in her chest. It gets tighter and tighter... She can't breathe...”

“Oh my God,” cried Marje, suddenly understanding, “Asthma!”

“Exactly.” I've seen Helen when it strikes her, and Marjorie must have seen it countless times. The little frown, the eyes darting in terror, and then looking up in panic. “Of course, the moment she realizes, she's frantically scrabbling in her beach bag for her inhaler. And guess what?”

Marje shook her head rapidly, understanding from my tone that something must have gone amiss. “I don't know, she... she'd left it in the hotel?”

“Yup. She'd left her inhaler in her room. So she just croaked ‘Sorry... Asthma’ to Jane, and struggled back up to their room on the nineteenth floor.”

Marjorie was wide-eyed still, this time in alarm. “Did she make it? She didn't black out?”

“Fortunately, no. For one thing, they were really only a few yards from the hotel, so she left Jane guarding their stuff, stumbled across the road and straight into reception. Luckily, the lift was free and waiting for her. So within a couple of minutes she'd got her inhaler, and after a couple of puffs the worst was over.”


“I expect that's what Helen said. Anyway, she decided that before she went down to the beach again, she'd better just lie down for a few minutes and get herself calm.”

Marjorie nodded. Mental calm is as important as the medication, as we both knew. I didn't think it necessary to add that the inhaler had done nothing to deal with the other problem.

“So she's just lying there on her bed, not wearing very much, feeling a bit dizzy as she always does after she's had a dose of the inhaler, and perhaps even more so having come suddenly from the full force of the blazing sun into a beautifully cool room...” I let my voice trail off.

“Go on, Clare. Something happened, didn't it? What happened?”

“The door clicked open. Those were Helen's exact words.”

“It was locked, wasn't it?”

“We think so. But perhaps Helen hadn't shut it properly in her haste to get to her inhaler. Now I'm telling you this exactly as Helen told me. She'd obviously been over and over it in her mind, trying to remember every detail. And every detail is important, as you'll see. One of the first weird things – or it struck Helen as weird afterwards – was that she didn't look up. She just assumed that it was Jane, come to see if she was all right. So she just lay there with her eyes closed, still trying to relax. And after a moment, she heard the door close and the lock click. And then there was one of those chain things that you can use to prevent even the staff getting in with a master key. She heard the chain being fixed, so they couldn't be disturbed. And then, for a long time, there was silence. Helen imagined that Jane was just standing there, looking at her, as she lay almost naked on the bed, with the inhaler lying there beside her. And then, after what she thinks could have been as much as two minutes – a long time, anyway – she suddenly heard a swishing noise right beside her. That's when she opened her eyes.”

Marjorie was looking intently at me now, terror in her eyes. Probably she could tell from my tone of voice that something wasn't quite right. “Who was it? Who was it, Clare?”

“Helen thought it was Jane, slipping off her bikini.”

“She thought it was Jane?”

“Well, she says it looked like Jane.”

Marjorie gave a short, slightly hysterical laugh. “Well, then it was Jane. I mean, Helen should know...”

“All right, then, let's assume it was Jane. The next moment, in one smooth movement, Jane is on the bed, kneeling over Helen on all fours, looking intently into Helen's eyes. Now this is the first thing that Helen can't quite remember exactly. She thinks that Jane actually said ‘I love you, Helen,’ but it might just have been the look in Jane's eyes. I've seen that look, Marjorie, and I know exactly what Helen means. Anyway, here is Helen with a very pretty, naked friend apparently making an amorous advance. Need I say what happens next?”

“Oh, God, can we get this over with? I suppose she kissed her, is that it?”

“No, Marje, wrong. The asthma comes back. Not as bad as before, but still, bad enough that Helen makes a grab for the inhaler. But Jane snatches it away and won't let her have it.”

Marjorie cocked her head in indignation. “What the hell was Jane playing at?”

“I don't exactly know, Marje, but as far as Helen can recall, she said these words, and they made such an impression on Helen that she sometimes thinks they were the only words she did actually hear, and all the rest was in her imagination. What Jane said was ‘You won't be needing that any more. From now on, you have me.’ And it was definitely Jane's voice: Helen is quite sure about that. — Anyway, saying that, Jane laughs and tosses the inhaler over on to her own bed. So Helen begins to panic and starts panting, but Jane hushes her, takes her hands, and stretches her arms up over her head. Okay, this is where it gets a bit physical, but the details are so strange that I think I'm going to have to go into them a bit. You'll understand why in a minute.”

Marje turned away from me. I could see that she was blushing in embarrassment, but I steeled myself to continue, my voice very quiet. “Jane was smiling down at Helen – she told me she felt as if Jane were looking directly into her soul. Jane told her to close her eyes and relax; so she tried to, even though her breath was coming rather short. Then she felt Jane's finger stroking along her upstretched arms, just touching and stroking with one finger, first one arm and then the other, very very lightly. If ever Helen made the smallest movement, Jane hushed her and calmed her, and then went back to touching her. Gradually, the finger worked its way lower and lower, moving so slowly and touching so lightly that at first Helen found it maddening — that's the word she used. But after a while, it was as if she'd become hypnotized: all she could feel was Jane's touch, and a sensation of warmth flowing from there into her own body. She began to feel as if she were suspended, floating in space. At some point she became aware that she could feel the brush of Jane's hair, and that the touches had become kisses. She reckons that Jane didn't leave one square inch unkissed, but it was all a bit of a blur. And once the thong bikini came off...” I sighed. “Well, let's just say that it all became even more of a blur – a very nice blur, but Helen has no idea how long it went on for. All she's sure about is that at the end, she went off like Mount Vesuvius.”

I glanced at Marjorie. From her rapid breathing, and the blush on her cheek, I could tell that she had been listening. Good. “Jane continued gently kissing her for a little while, and then she got off the bed and just stood there, looking down at Helen — who was in a complete daze, as you might imagine.”

“Yeah...” Marjorie breathed, nodding.

“She felt she couldn't move a muscle — all thought of asthma completely gone, of course. She just lay there, looking at Jane's outline through half-closed eyes. She says that she saw Jane turn away and walk towards the big windows that led to the balcony. Practically the whole front of the room was glass, with just curtains at the sides, a net curtain drawn across from either side, and these big glass sliding doors in the middle. She says she saw Jane pause at the doors, which were a little way open, and then slip through the net curtain and out on to the balcony.”

“What, in the nude?”

“Apparently so. Helen just saw the shape of her body as a silhouette, but it was hard to see because of course the sun was streaming in on to the net curtain. Helen thinks she must have dozed, but she doesn't know if it was for a few minutes or a few seconds. But then, suddenly, she felt a sense of foreboding. Her words were ‘I felt as if something really bad was happening, as if something was going terribly wrong.’ She raised herself on one elbow and looked out on to the balcony. But there was nobody there.”

I could see that Marjorie had been following the story carefully, because she had gone from blushing to pale in a matter of seconds. “Nobody there?” she echoed.


“You mean it was all a dream — the whole thing?”

I nodded. “That was Helen's very first thought. And then she saw the chain on the door, and her inhaler on Jane's bed. And... other evidence that some part of her experience had been real enough.”

“You said that Jane took off her bikini. Was that still lying on the floor?”

“No. But even so, everything had seemed so real to Helen – almost more real than reality usually is – that's how she put it – that she became persuaded that Jane must have fallen from the balcony. So of course she rushed out there.”

I looked at Marjorie to see if she was going to ask “what, in the nude?” again, but she didn't.

“Helen was in a complete panic. She looked over the edge of the parapet, but there was no sign that anyone had plunged to their death. And then she looked out on to the beach... and there was their blanket, with Jane lying on it, just as she had been when Helen had left her to get her inhaler. And that's when Helen became convinced that something terrible was happening to Jane. So she struggled back into her beach clothes as fast as she could, and rushed down to Jane as if a pack of devils were after her.”

“And was anything the matter with Jane?”

“Very much so, I'm afraid. You see, she'd been up half the night, fooling around with booze and pot and Sarah from Penrith, and Helen found out later that she'd had a few more vodkas in the morning as a hair-of-dog type thing, and then she'd crashed out in the Mediterranean sun at practically the hottest time of the day.”


“Sunstroke. She was delirious when Helen woke her, and I think if she'd been out there very much longer she'd have had to go to hospital. As it was, Helen was able to more or less drag her over to the hotel. They were very helpful in reception.”

“I suppose they get quite a few people each year who aren't used to the sun.”

“I'm sure. They gave Helen a little information sheet that told her what to do, and rushed an ice bucket up to their room. They even sent someone out to rescue their beach things, which was a nice touch.”

“Was she badly burned?”

“Luckily, no. We aren't sure just how long she'd been out there – Helen's idea of the passage of time was quite hazy, as you can imagine. Well, although Jane was still raving, Helen managed to get her up to their room, and after she'd been sick a couple of times, the delirium seemed to wear off.”

“Poor Helen!”

“Yes, I think she found it quite scary at first. Anyway, she insisted on giving Jane the full treatment, as set out in the information leaflet – cooling her down with ice and cold swabs all over the body – and Jane submitted very meekly, just letting Helen touch her all over. Eventually, when all the ice was melted, Helen was still touching her, and then she realized that she was now doing to Jane more or less exactly what Jane had done to her during that strange dream or vision or whatever you want to call it. Only now, of course, the roles were reversed.”

Marjorie was pensive. “Yes, that certainly is weird.” She shivered. “And it wasn't just the roles that were reversed.”


“If Helen had been handling ice, I suppose her fingers would have been cold.”

“Yes, they would. — So?”

“Didn't you say that in the dream, Helen had felt warmth flowing into her from Jane?”

It was my turn to shiver. “I hadn't thought of that before,” I murmured. “— Mind you, not quite everything was reversed.”


“Let's just say that at some point during the sunstroke treatment, Helen kissed Jane and the gesture was very much reciprocated.”

Marjorie smiled sadly. “Ahh...”

“It turned out that Jane had been in love with Helen for weeks, but hadn't dared to let her know, or even really admit it to herself. So if you need an explanation for why Jane was so adamant that Helen should come away with her on holiday, and why she was always round here fussing over her, you now have your explanation.”

Marjorie was crying again, but her tears now were calmer, and sentimental, not bitter. “It's as if Helen had somehow picked up Jane's distress signals, isn't it?” she said.

“Yes. Helen said, ‘I felt her calling to me.’ I think perhaps that's what happened. Anyway, that's what they believe, and perhaps that's all that matters...

“By the way — I have to tell you one very amusing little detail. The little sunstroke treatment sheet was in rather stilted English. Among the list of recommended treatments there were ‘shoulder massage; cervical massage.’”

“You're joking.”

“I'm not. I've seen it for myself. Helen keeps it as a highly prized souvenir. Of course, it really means ‘neck massage’, but that's not what Helen thought.”

Marjorie began to laugh. “You don't mean to tell me that...”

I laughed too, and nodded. Could I mention the vibrator?

But Marjorie's laughter fell short, and she blushed. “Oh my God, I don't think you'd better tell me any more,” she said, and then laughed again despite herself. “Now you've got my imagination going.”

“Maybe Helen will tell you herself some day,” I said. “Let's just say that it was the source of considerable merriment. Anyway, although Jane was a lot better by evening, she wasn't well enough to go down for dinner. Or at least, that's what Helen decided. But by the next morning... well, all appetites were restored, and from what I've heard, the dining-room and the bedroom provided everything they needed to satisfy them for the next two days.”

“You mean they spent two whole days just...”

“Making love, yes. I suppose they felt they had a lot of catching up to do. On the third evening, when they went down to dinner, there was a phone message for them at reception — they'd had the phone switched off, you see.”

“A message? From...?”

“From Jim. He'd decided to attempt a reconciliation, and basically the message was to say that he would be turning up at the hotel the very next afternoon and, I quote, hoped that Jane would be able to find him some accommodation.”

“What a cheek! Did he expect to stay in their room?”

I shrugged. “Possibly. Probably. I don't know. Anyway, Helen asked Jane whether she wanted to see him, and Jane said no, but she didn't know what to do. So, basically, Helen took charge. She told Jane that she'd prefer to go and stay somewhere quieter and more romantic. Back on her first day, she'd found an agency that did lettings up in the Andalusian mountains, and she'd seen several last-minute cancellations that they could afford. And with Jane's credit card, they'd be able to hire a car to get them up there.”

“And fun-loving Jane just went along with that?”

“Absolutely. It's as if, right from that sunstroke incident, their roles were completely reversed. Helen made all the decisions, and Jane just followed along unquestioningly. Well, the next morning, they went down to this agency and picked upon a nice little place, complete with swimming pool, right up in the mountains, for just over half what you'd paid for the hotel. And Jane told me that Helen quite shamelessly used all her wiles to beat them down on price. She did the same thing at the car hire place, too. They let her have an air-conditioned car for the price of a basic model.”

“She actually haggled with them? My Helen?” Marjorie shook her head in wonderment.

“Yes, and as a result they still had spending money to spare. That's not the best of it, though. While they were packing up to leave, who should show up, but Judith and Sarah from Penrith. They'd come to see Jane, of course, but basically I think they were hoping for a bit more of her stash. So Helen said that if they'd do their best to entertain Jim, they could have the hotel room for the rest of the fortnight, and she'd let them have Jane's hash for half price.”

“I don't believe what I'm hearing.”

“Jane did try to object to that, actually, but Helen just said to her, and I quote, ‘You won't be needing that any more. From now on, you have me.’ Does that ring a bell?”

“Isn't that what Jane said about the inhaler?”

“Word for word. Anyway, Jane just caved in, and the deal was struck. Our Jane is now a total non-smoker, I might tell you.”

“My God!”

“Which is why I'm not allowed to smoke in my own house, Marje – in case I set her a bad example. But back to the story. Helen managed to extract about a hundred and fifty quid out of them, in Spanish money, so basically they were all set for the mountains. It sounds as if it was quite a gruelling drive, with a precipice on one side and lorries thundering past on the other, but by evening they'd made it to this little village — can't remember the name. Anyway, they went into the village at about eight o'clock, and the restaurants were only just opening.”


“They found one overlooking the valley, and from where they were sitting on the terrace, they could see all the lights in the villages coming on as the sun set. And a fantastic sky.”

“It does sound romantic.”

“I should say. I think I'll get Henry to take me there next year. Apparently they had a three-course meal with wine, get this, Marje, for fifteen pounds.”


“Together. Up there, there aren't so many tourists, you see. Oh, they loved it, Marje. They made it sound idyllic. Jane was just completely gobsmacked. It seems that after that, they spent most of their evenings at this restaurant – they could afford to, you see – and their days touring round the mountain villages. Except for one day when they drove up to Grenada, to see the Alhambra Palace. And Helen got that amazingly stylish hair-do...”

“Yes, why on earth? She always had such lovely long hair — George thought it was her finest feature. He was cut to the quick when I told him she'd cut it all off.”

“Oh, come on, Marje, it's not as if she'd had a crew cut. Apparently she got the idea from one of her fashion mags. She reckoned it looked more stylish with the bikini, and I'm sure she's right. And face facts, Marje: it's not George she's trying to please, is it?”

“I suppose not.”

“Anyway, the last thing I want to tell you about their holiday is this little mountain chapel they found. It was right up on a pinnacle above one of the villages they visited on their travels. You could see for miles over the mountains and valleys – apparently it was quite cold and windy up there, despite the sunshine, that's how high it was. So they went inside, and it was one of these funny Catholic jobs with a big statue of Mary all done in blue and gold leaf, you know, very tasteless, and leaning against the walls they had slings and crutches and even a rickety old wheelchair, apparently left by people who thought they'd had miraculous cures. And on the walls there were all these tablets saying ‘Gracias’ for this and that. So Helen – she did a bit of Spanish at school, didn't she? – she starts reading some of them, and she finds one that says – I can't remember the Spanish, but it was ‘Thank you for my lovely little girl.’ So she points it out to Jane, and...”

At this point, I remembered Jane's emotion as she had described the scene to me a few days before, and I couldn't keep the tears out of my voice.

“...and they hugged and they cried, and then they put some money in the box and lit two candles, and promised one another they'd never part. And then Helen took her spare inhaler, the full one, out of her bag...”

“Stop it, Clare, this is too much...”

“I've got to tell you, Marje – she said ‘Since I've got you, I won't be needing this any more.’ And she left it there, with the crutches and the old broken wheelchair.”

Neither of us spoke for a while.

“Look, Clare,” Marjorie said eventually, “let me get you a glass of wine. One won't hurt.”

“All right, then.”

By the time Marjorie was back with the drink, I had recovered myself. “There's not much more to tell. They found a phone box in the village and managed to get through to Sarah of Penrith, back at the hotel. Apparently it hadn't taken much vodka and pot to persuade Jim of the charms of our lusty lasses from Penrith. So if he thinks of going after Jane again, he's likely to get a dusty answer.

“And it was only in the last day or so that they began really thinking about what they were going to do when they got back home. Helen's idea was to be totally frank about it and tell you at once, and I think that was very brave of her. I have to tell you, she was afraid that you wouldn't react very well.”

I took a sip of the wine and looked at Marjorie. She had known all along that this was coming, of course, and she had that hangdog expression that proved it.

“That's why, as soon as they were through customs, they rang me.”


“Yes, and I told them that if there were any problems, they could come to us.”

“That was good of you, Clare. We do appreciate it.”

“And sadly, when she and Jane finally turned up here, you flew right off the handle and said she wasn't coming into your house with a bloody dyke. Not very diplomatic.”

“Well I've said that I'm sorry.”

I wanted to say “Oh, that's all right then,” but I could see that sarcasm wasn't necessary. I just waited to see if Marjorie would say anything else. She did.

“It's just that I'm so... disappointed. We had hopes for Helen. We thought that she might make it as a solicitor, you know...”

“...And meet a nice rich man solicitor and get married and have lots of nice solicitor babies?”

“That's not what I meant, Clare, not at all.”

“What do you mean, then?”

“I mean... Oh, it's just that this is all so limiting. All her options are closing.”

“I don't know about that, Marje. What she ultimately wants is to be herself, and live a happy life. What's limiting about that?”

“Well... this Jane... I mean, maybe she's very nice, but let's face it, Clare, she's just a secretary.”

“All right, Jane's only a secretary at the moment, but she's applied for a PA job and been short-listed; so she could be making quite reasonable money in a little while. And at least she's got a job. She'll be able to support Helen while she's doing her articles. Okay, they won't be rich to start with, but at least they'll be able to find a little place together.”

“It's not the money, Clare. Helen's got brains. She needs more stimulating companionship. And when all's said and done, what has Jane got to offer?”

“Well, she's got lovely eyes...”

Marjorie made her exasperated hawking noise again. “Oh, for heaven's sake, Clare. It was just a holiday romance. Helen's got a future. Jane hasn't. She's just... ordinary.”

“Helen doesn't think so, Marje.”

“Well, of course not. But it's just an infatuation, that's all. It won't last.”

“Marje, you don't know what you're saying. I've seen my Susan with her Peter. I've seen John with Pam, and then with Marion, and now with Becky. I've seen a lot of young people in love, actually, Marje, and this I know. I have never seen such love in someone's eyes as I've seen when Jane looks at your daughter. If you think that's ordinary, then...” I shrugged. “You haven't seen it, that's all.”

Restless, Marjorie rose and went over to the mantelpiece, where she started fiddling with the ornaments. She didn't look towards me. “Thanks for taking them in, Clare,” she said eventually. “I can't tell you how glad I was to know they were with you and Henry.”

“It's lovely having them, honestly. There's such a wonderful atmosphere around them, you know? I get home from Bergsons’ at the end of the day, I park my car, and the moment I see our house, I think ‘that house is full of love.’ I feel as if I can't wait to get in the door. And they're both so, so grateful! Do you realize, I'm not even allowed into my own kitchen?”


“They insist on doing all the cooking, all the housework. I suppose it's their way of saying thank-you. And let me tell you, that Jane is an amazing cook. Apparently she went on one of these Cordon Bleu courses.”

“But aren't they staggeringly expensive?”

“Maybe Jim contributed – a speculative investment, ha ha. I don't know. All I do know is that we get very small, beautifully presented dishes of absolutely maddeningly delicious food, and I suppose it's just as well the portions are small, because otherwise we'd just eat and eat until we couldn't move. I tell you, Jane could open a restaurant tomorrow and it would be packed out.”

“I do believe you're trying to make me jealous.”

“Oh, there are some side-effects that maybe you wouldn't appreciate quite so much. We're thinking of soundproofing their room, for a start.”

Marjorie made a moue of distaste. “I don't think George and I could bear...”

“And once or twice I've had to pack them off to their room when they start getting a bit too affectionate. Oh, and don't for one moment imagine that short hair-do means that Helen's taken to loafing around in a bull-dyke boiler suit. She's got this frilly little twenties number that reveals practically all you could want of those amazing stocking-packet legs of hers. When Henry sees her in that gear, you can practically see the steam coming out of his ears. I'd be lying if I didn't say that things have recently taken on quite a new lease of life in our own bedroom, too... But sooner or later they'll have to have a place of their own. Henry and I have offered to help them.”

Marjorie seemed astonished. “You have?”

“Yes, and I hope you and George will, too. After all, Helen hasn't exactly been a high-maintenance item so far. You were very lucky that you could persuade her to go to the local university. I know very well how much money that will have saved you. Anyway, I'm not going to speak out of turn. I'll leave that entirely to you and George.”

Speak of the devil... I had been ranting so much that neither of us had heard his car pull up outside. Now his key was in the lock.

“Hello, Clare,” he said, pausing on the threshold. Like Marjorie earlier, he seemed surprised, and if anything slightly more uncomfortable.

“I've just been telling Marje all about it,” I said — pretty obvious really, but it was something to fill an awkward silence.

He set his briefcase down and closed the door; then he stood there, fiddling with his hands. “Um...” he said, in that curiously vacant way he has. He acts very stupid sometimes, but I've known George for a good many years and I realize that you've just got to be patient. And then, raising an eyebrow at me, “How is she?”

“You want the full story or just the executive summary?” He looked happier when I said “executive summary.” “In a nutshell, she's transformed by happiness.” I pointed to the table. “Look over there.”

George's eyes narrowed. “Isn't that her inhaler?”

“That's right, George. She doesn't need it any more.”

“But... that's extraordinary. What about her asthma?”

“It seems to have gone.”

“Gone? But how?”

“I'm not sure. Personally, I think it might be a case of ‘Love conquers all.’”

George made a growling noise in his throat and did some more of his hand-twiddling. “Marje was very upset, of course, about her hair. She had lovely hair.”

He paused, but I could tell there was more on the way, so I waited.

“But really, I don't give a damn about her hair. All I really want is for her to be happy. That's all that matters to me. If Jane loves my daughter and makes her happy, then so be it.” George looked down at the floor and frowned. “I think that's about all I have to say.”

Then, without looking either at me or Marjorie, he picked up his briefcase and stumbled off towards his office. “Will you please tell her that I said so, Clare?” And then, before shutting the door, “— And that we will always love her?” Click.

I looked at my watch. “I'd better be getting back, Marje. Doesn't do to be late for dinner.”

She took my hand at the door. “Thanks for coming, Clare. I'll think about what you said. George and I will have a talk about it.”

Of course I passed on George's message. Helen bit her lip and looked thoughtful.

A couple of days later, she gave me a note to put in the post on my way to work. It was addressed to George. I confess I held it up to the light. I could just about see the writing.

“I love you, Dad. And Mum. See you soon. H”

This story won the ASSTR Silver Clitorides Award, March 2003.

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