The Watching GamebyHot_Sister©
Author's note: All characters in this story are imaginary and bear no intended resemblance to any person, living or dead. Furthermore, everyone who engages in sexual activity in the story is over the age of 18.
I sat watching the rain on the train window - silver threads weaving erratically over the cold, wet glass. I could see my reflection there too, flitting over the darkening English countryside - the pale blur of my face with its heavy, somber brows and dark sunken eyes underscored by purple bruises of exhaustion, and the line of my mouth tense with the strain of the last few months. The tracks of the raindrops were superimposed across it like tears, and I thought how fitting that was in light of all that had happened.
My mind drifted back over the last eight years, virtually all of them overseas. Seven of them to build the business from nothing: to find a beautiful bride, to buy the house in Seattle and to bask in growing wealth and success. I remembered the invitations and the parties, the new friends and the open doors – a rapidly spinning vortex of money and favours that was so different to what I had been used to. I remembered the excitement of it – the heady euphoria of waking up to each day knowing that it could only be better than the last, and how it had blinded me until it was too late. And I remembered the last eleven months – how the bubble had burst and the company's worth fell almost overnight to virtually nothing. The vultures gathered quickly then, stripping the remaining assets like carrion off the bone – what was left of the Company first, and then the trinkets of success – the paintings and the boats and the cars. I recalled how the friends had vanished and the invitations dried up, and the shrill voice of my wife telling me that if I couldn't keep her in the way she liked she would find someone who would. And then, finally, the bailiffs escorting me off the premises, leaving me alone in the street with barely the air fare home.
And so here I was, Jack Travis Harrison, 30 years old and nothing to show for the past eight years except a few grey hairs and a heart full of bitterness, coming home like a beaten dog with fifty pounds in my pocket.
The train started to slow for my station and I stood up and lifted my hold-all from the overhead rack, nodding briefly at the elderly couple in the corner of the compartment who had clung together for the whole journey as if I was an axe murderer. With a final squeal of its brakes the train stopped, and I stepped onto the dark, windswept platform.
I wished I could say I was happy to be coming home, but I wasn't. Not like this.
"Are you dead?"
The voice was pleasant: soft, with a lilt of the west country and it infiltrated into the black depths of my exhausted sleep, drawing me up towards the light of a day. I groggily opened my eyes.
"I said, are you dead?"
I managed to open one eye, even though it felt like it had been super-glued shut, and I swiveled it to locate the source of the noise. There was a girl standing at the end of my bed, dressed in a pair of working trousers and a heavy sweater. Tall – not much shorter than the low oaken beams above her head. Blonde hair, medium length so that it just touched her shoulders. An oval face with an upturned nose, a little crooked to be perfect, and a full mouth with soft lips turned up at the corners to give an impression that life was only there to be laughed at. She was leaning forward, regarding me intently with pale eyes. Curious eyes – neither friendly nor unfriendly. Just watching.
I peered up at her without answering and for a few moments we stared at each other, and then she shrugged a little.
"It's nine o'clock and Mum sent me to find if you were alive. She'll be pleased to hear that you are, but sorry about your speech impediment."
"Pardon?" God, was that my voice? I'd heard cement mixers with better tonal quality.
"Ah ha! You can speak! Not so much an impediment, then - more that you were struck dumb."
"Who are you?" my voice sounded like a croak.
She shook her head. "You really are out of it, aren't you! How many girls do you know who call your mother 'Mum'? Uh, let me think....uh, there's Donna Ann, your big sister, and – wait for it – Amelia Jane, your little sister." She put her head on the side with a finger to her cheek, pretending to contemplate the problem. "Unless Mum has a few others we don't know about. Hmmm. Let me think. Duh – no, probably not. So - noting that Donna is in London, who do you figure I am?"
She laughed briefly and clapped her hands. "Well done!"
My brain struggled to be alert, to say something clever. "It's just that I haven't seen you for so long, Amie. Last time I looked you were a little girl."
"Well, you'd have to admit you've changed a bit." I regarded her blearily. "Well, a lot really. You're suddenly a big girl." She was, too. Even under the baggy clothes I could sense the curves and warm plasticity of her body.
"Not suddenly. I've been like this quite a while, while you were gallivanting around the world."
"We've spent so little time together – with you at school and me away."
"Quit finding excuses for not knowing me!" she said. "Didn't you remember my eyes? Everyone thinks that's the only thing that hasn't changed about me."
At first her eyes had struck me as pale – almost translucent, but I could see they were actually the colour of clover honey – a pale gold like a wet beach shining in the first rays of the morning sun. They were shot through with iridescent strands of a darker hue – not enough to detract from their astonishing colour, but enough to give them depth and complexity. But it wasn't just the shade that was striking: it was their shape and intensity – not round but slightly slanted, as if someone in our distant family line had been born in the far east, perhaps; and they smoldered with a curious luminescence. Her eyes turned what would be an otherwise interesting face into something quite extraordinary.
"I remember," I said, and she nodded briefly, as if encouraging my mental acuity. Little Amie, just ten or eleven years old and as thin as a rake, clinging to the fence post by the main road to watch me with her clear golden eyes as I drove away. She had been a small forlorn figure then, with pigtails and braces on her teeth. She was right, though – her eyes were the same – the rest of her had filled out and rounded, and I would never have recognised her.
We looked at each other a moment longer and then she gave another little nod. "Well, I'll let Mum know that you are still alive. I guess she'll be relieved as she's cooked one of her gargantuan breakfasts. Don't be too long – she slaughtered half a farmyard to provide for you." She turned and crossed the room, and I heard her footsteps receding down the stairs.
I lay in bed and thought about Amie, feeling foolish that I'd not recognised her – but on balance, it was unlikely I ever would. I'd last seen her ten years ago, a solemn little thing who was painfully thin and very shy, with a pale sallow face and a serious demeanor. She'd been shipped off to one of those dreadful boarding schools that English parents sometimes subject their children too, and I'd left not long afterwards for the States. Besides, I'd heard she had moved out and was living in London, so it was little wonder that my jet-lagged brain couldn't make the connection between the little thin girl and the self assured woman who had unexpectedly been in my room a few moments ago. Little Amie. Who would have thought?
I glanced at my watch – nine o'clock, just as she had said. Pale light was filtering through the faded curtains and I pulled them aside. The rain of last night had moved on but the sky was obscured with a layer of high cloud that gave the light a hard, diffused quality that robbed it of any warmth. I remembered the view from this window used to be of open fields to the south, where the land sloped gently to the small stream that formed the boundary between our land and old Ma Curney's, but now all I could see now was the new accommodation wing that had been added to the house a couple of years ago. It had been finished the same way as the original house, with rough whitewashed stone and black edging around the three leadlight windows opposite me, but the shingles on the roof were much cleaner and it had the effect of making the new work appear taller somehow, giving the juxtaposition of old and new a curious lopsided look.
I let the curtain fall back and I swung my legs out of bed to get up. Well, well, little Amie. In the few minutes she had been in my room she had brightened things somehow, even though she hadn't smiled much. It was difficult to know how – she had said or done nothing to make me feel better, but somehow I did. I thought about it as I shaved in the little sink in the corner of the room and the word serenity came to mind – those golden eyes, not just beautiful but projecting an aura of tranquility that somehow made you feel your problems were that much less when she was around. I wondered if it was just me, or whether other people thought the same. Either way, I suddenly realised that I was feeling happier than I had for months.
Serenity and tranquility. Two words that seemed so right when I thought about Amie. I didn't know it then, but within a day I would wonder how I could have got it so wrong.
Mum was alone in the farmhouse kitchen, kneading a roll of dough on a floured board on the big table. The room was filled with the odour of baking and I for the first time for weeks I felt hungry. She held her arms out for a hug, keeping her floury hands clear as I embraced her. I held her for a moment, realizing how thin she was.
"Your breakfast's in the oven," she said, once I had released her. "It's probably all dried up, as you're so late."
"It's only half past nine, Mum."
"That's half the day gone." She smiled to rob her words of any offence. "In this part of the world that's time enough to clean the house, muck out the stables, exercise the horses and solve world peace – and still have time to bake."
I laughed. "Which of those have you done?"
"This is the last one." Her hands were kneading the dough, pressing it down and folding it in the methodical, neat way she had of working. I could see it was almost ready to put into the greased baking trays by her side.
I took my plate from the oven and sat at the end of the table, watching her as she worked. She would be just fifty now, but she looked older. Her hair was heavily streaked with grey and there were lines of worry and fatigue etched into her face that hadn't been there last time I'd seen her – but she moved with the same energy and purpose that had driven her all her life.
"You should slow down, Mum."
"Ha!" She shook her head in dismissal. "What would I do that for? There's far too much to be done. I'd get bored stiff."
"Not stop – just slow down. Get a bit of time for yourself. Find a bloke and have a bit of fun."
She shook her head. "I don't have time."
"Well, get out a bit then - enjoy some company. Don't you get lonely here, on your own?"
She stopped working for a moment and looked at me, her hands resting lightly on the dough. "I'm not on my own – I have four children."
"I know, Mum, but I've been gone a while now and so have Jim and Donna -"
"Amie's been here, though."
"So I see. Tell me about that – does she still live here?"
Mum nodded, her hands starting to move again. "Yes, she does. When your father died I brought her home from boarding school and she's been here ever since. You had gone and Donna was in London with her fancy man and Jim left not long after. Amie and I needed each other, I guess."
Donna was three years older than me. She was the black sheep of the family, although I never knew what had caused the rift. She had moved to London and married a stockbroker – a nice enough guy by all accounts, but Mum always referred to him as 'the fancy man.'
She was still talking and I tuned back in. "She's been a godsend to me, Jack. She works hard and has always been here for me. Never one moment of trouble."
"I'm surprised she's not married by now."
She looked up in surprise. "What makes you say that?"
"Any woman who sticks around here is usually married by 18 – and Amie's a good looking girl. Surely she has a boyfriend?"
"Not that I know of."
She looked at me, a hard glance. "Don't be grubby."
I laughed. "I'm not being grubby. Some people like partners of their own sex, Mum –there's nothing wrong with it."
She shook her head. "Not Amie...she's not like that. She's a good girl, not like your other sister."
I laughed again. "Donna's not a lesbian."
"I don't want to talk about it."
She was getting upset, so I moved on. "So tell me about Amie, Mum. Did she finish school?"
"Oh, yes – the local high school. She passed out near the top of her class, and is at university now doing a land management degree." She smiled. "You'd never think that she could manage all that and work around the farm and help me in the house, but she does."
"Maybe that's why she doesn't have a boyfriend."
She shook her head. "Amie's strong willed, Jack. She'll find someone when she's ready...although I don't know what I'd do without her. She's marvelous." She stood back, regarding her work. "Could you put these in the oven for me? I'll get on with preparing dinner."
I picked up the trays one by one and put them in the oven. Clearly Amie could do no wrong in this house. I was beginning to feel like an interloper.
The next morning I rose early to find them both in the kitchen. Amie was sitting at the table, dressed in a pair of old jodhpurs and a faded shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. The skin on her arms was smooth and brown, and her hair was tied back with a piece of ribbon. She regarded me without speaking as I kissed Mum on the cheek.
I turned to her. "Good morning, little sister."
She nodded without speaking, her eyes on my face. She had a mug of tea in her hands and an empty plate in front of her. I sat down in a chair opposite, aware of the directness of her gaze.
"Are you busy today?" I asked.
"I'm always busy."
"I meant, are you so busy that you couldn't show me around the farm?"
She raised an eyebrow. "A sightseeing tour?"
"No, not really." I paused whilst Mum put a place of bacon and eggs in front of me. "I thought I could start to lend a hand, perhaps."
"Well – I don't know. I mean, I won't know until I've had a look around and decided."
"What are you good at – apart from dealing with company administrators, I mean." Her eyes were still on my face and I could see a gleam of hostility in them.
"Until I find the answer to that question you can assume that I can lift heavy things, shovel, and sweep."
"Ah – a manual labourer, then." Her glance flicked over my arms, taking in the white flesh and lack of muscle tone and her lip curled. "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Look -" I lifted my mug of tea with one hand, waving it at her. "One hand, unaided."
"Wait until you see me shoveling horse shit."
"Well, there's plenty of that around here." She looked at me pointedly to ensure that I understood it wasn't all in the stables, and then she set her mug down on the table and stood up. "I'll be out the back in five minutes, and I won't wait for you any longer."
"I'll be there."
As we walked across the paddock I tried to engage her in conversation but she was clearly not in the mood to talk and so I gave up and watched her instead. She had a neat, economical way of doing things – even the way she walked – as if time was short and every second wasted was a sin. We had a quick look at the outhouses first, and then moved down to the stables where the horses were waiting for their morning feed. The building was made of timber with slate tiles on the roof, double story, and I asked her what was in the upper level.
"Well, not horses, if that's what you're thinking." Her voice was still brusque and I wondered what had upset her. " Just general storage, mostly – saddles, harnesses, and a lot of rubbish that needs throwing out." She glanced at me. "You'll see when we get inside."
"When did Mum start the stud?"
"About nine years ago," she answered reluctantly. "It started by accident – people looking for agistment, mostly, then paying her to stable their horses. She only owns about ten of them – the rest are other people's."
"How many are there? All up I mean."
"And what are we going to be doing with them?"
She stopped and turned to face me so suddenly that I almost bumped into her. "I'll be checking them and giving them their morning oats," she said. "And you'll be doing nothing."
I looked at her in surprise. She was staring at me, her little face stubborn and her eyes hard, and I wondered whether she was this mercurial all the time or whether it was just me. "I didn't come home to fight with you Amie," I said at length. "I don't know what I've done to upset you, but surely you can use a little help."
Her voice was scornful. "It's not a matter of being upset - it's just that I'm not sure you'd want to work with a lesbian."
I was taken aback. "What?"
"In the kitchen yesterday. Apparently you think I'm a lesbian."
"Ah, so that's it! Well, I didn't tell Mum you were one - I asked her if you were one, which is different. I never -"
"It's the same thing," she interrupted. "You were home for all of five minutes and you made a judgment about me based on nothing. What does that make you, Jack? A bigot, for a start."
"For the record, I asked her if you had a boyfriend. I told her you were very attractive, and -"
"Oh, so now I'm an attractive lesbian! I suppose you think you'll be the one to show me the wrongness of my ways!"
"- and I told her that I thought it was quite normal for some people to fancy their own sex. That's hardly bigoted."
She spun on her heel and started walking again, quicker than before, and her voice was dismissive. "You can think what you damn well like. It's nothing to me."
Clearly this was getting me nowhere, so I tried a different tack. "Just for the record, Amie," I asked, "are you?"
She stopped again, her eyes swiveling around to fasten on mine. "Am I what?"
She leaned forward and for a moment I thought she was going to strike me, and then something in her eyes shifted, and she leaned back and her voice was level. "Maybe I am," she said, "and maybe I'm not. And one day you might find out, Jack – but not in the way you think. Now why don't you go back to your room and unpack your manners."
I watched her walk away, her back straight and her ass tight in her jodhpurs, and I thought about the fire in her eyes and the curl of her hair around her face and the way her lips moved when she spoke.
It was very clear she didn't think much of me. I, on the other hand, thought she was wonderful.
Mum took the car into town later in the morning and I moped around the house for a while, still thinking about Amie. I wondered if she had calmed down at all, and whether I could talk to her and perhaps mend things between us a little, so I stepped out of the house and made my way back to the stables.
It was a stunning day: a clear spring morning with the air like crystal and the sun glittering from a sky of perfect blue. As I walked across the top paddock towards the stables I saw how the cherry trees on the eastern boundary were laden with blossom, and the pale pastel green of new leaves peeped through the tangle of bare branches in the hedgerow beside the house. The main door of the building was closed and on impulse I decided to go to the upper floor, climbing the narrow external stairs and entering through the little red door with its peeling paint and the horseshoe nailed above the lintel for good luck. The atmosphere enveloped me at once: the sharp smell of horses and manure and of fresh straw and oats, mingled with the musty odour of dust and old leather. The roof above my head was steeply pitched and the massive oak beams were dark with age, as solid as the day they had been laid. The walls were of timber too, rough-hewn planks festooned with the bric-a-brac of any farm: coils of robe and old leather traces and bits of machinery and rusty tools hanging from nails hammered into the wood.