"Ahh, yes. That was me. I didn't think anyone had seen me. I was out walking Pedro and thought I'd explore a little bit. I was curious to unlock the mystery of 'kissing alley'," and she laughed to cover her guilt, "there's another on the other side which I believe is called 'bog alley'. I dread to think where that got its name. You're lucky to live where you do."
"Mum saw you as well," I ventured.
"I hope I didn't disturb anyone. I was really admiring your neat garden."
"It's dad's pride and joy," I replied, "he was busy there when I left today."
"What did your mother say?"
"I told her you were with the new vet and that we'd met down here one day. She also said ..." and I hesitated, "that the new vet was a woman."
I stopped and look down, trying to hide my blushes.
"I'm so sorry, I thought you knew. I hope it doesn't bother you."
I managed to shake my head to tell her it was ok, and I felt a slight pressure as she squeezed my hand gently.
"I never try and hide it. We're married so we think of ourselves as wife and wife."
I giggled and she stopped, giving me a questioning look.
"My mum called you 'lesbans' and I had to correct her," I explained, almost with a sense of pride that I knew the correct word.
The truth was ever since last Sunday I had thought of little else. I had googled it as everyone did these days and ended up more confused than before. I was about as ignorant as a twenty-two-year-old could possibly be. I'd had a few fumbles at the end of my time at school and been subject to gropes and lewd comments but since then nothing. I was the only person my age in the whole village and I had almost resigned myself to a nun-like existence. Cathy was the first person for ages that I almost regarded as a friend and it felt more than a little ok to leave my hand in hers.
"I must invite you over one day to meet Maggie. That's my wife although you may already have seen her as you work at the stables."
"Oh, yeah," I said with a sudden sense of realisation, "I just never put two and two together."
"She's really lovely, but I would say that wouldn't I? You really must come over and meet her properly. She'd love to meet you."
My head was in a spin. It was overloaded with new information and I was struggling to make sense of it all. A chill breeze disturbed the still-bare branches above us and I shivered.
Cathy was immediately decisive. "It's time we started heading back. But I'd like to do one thing before we leave here."
As I turned to face her wondering what she wanted, her lips met mine. It was not a short chaste kiss like you get from an elderly aunt or the affectionate peck that I would get off mum or even dad when he was in a jovial mood. This one lingered and at first, I was too shocked to react. I froze and then ... just as quickly it was gone.
"That's thanks for your company and for being so understanding," she said, a broad smile on her face, "now, let's go. Pedro!"
She called out and Pedro emerged from under a bush. She stood up and I copied her, still in a daze. What had happened? What did it mean? Suddenly I wanted to be home and alone in my room to sort out my thoughts. I think she realised this as we hardly spoke at all until, we got all the way back to the end of the lane. She had let go of my hand climbing over the barbed wire into the field and for the rest of the way we simply walked side by side. We were still close enough that our arms would sometimes brush against each other. I found that strangely comforting.
When we got to the parting of the ways she stopped and looked at me. She reached out and brushed a strand of wind-blown hair from my face.
"Tomorrow?" was all she said.
I couldn't speak. I managed a smile and a nod of agreement. I was both excited and scared at the prospect, but I knew I could not finish things as they were. It was relief to turn away and hide once more behind my mask. Annoying though they are, sometimes they have their uses. There can be safety in anonymity and the hiding of one's true feelings. Luckily, mum was watching TV and dad was snoozing when I got home so I could safely get to the sanctuary of my room.
I had a very unsettled night. No amount of face washing or teeth brushing could get rid of the memory of her lips pressed against mine. I could not even make up my mind whether I had liked it or not. I think mum sensed there was something wrong but knew better than to ask awkward questions. Dad, of course, was oblivious to everything.
I did get a bit of a grilling the next morning from mum as I sat miserably at the kitchen table, cuddling a cup of tea. I didn't really feel like talking but silence would have been even worse.
"How was your walk yesterday?" she asked, trying to sound disinterested, "I heard you come back but you went straight upstairs."
"It was ok," I managed from behind the refuge of my mug of tea.
"Only ok? Did you meet your new friend?"
I was relieved not to detect any air quotes around the word 'friend'. "Yeah, she was out with her dog as usual."
"That's nice, dear. Its nicer walking with someone else. Have you met her ... what do they call it ...partner? Is that the right thing to call her? Wife just sounds wrong somehow but perhaps I'm just old fashioned."
"Oh, mum," I said in exasperation although I knew she was genuinely trying, "its ok to say 'wife' these days. That's what Cathy says she refers to them as. Wife and wife. And her name's Maggie by the way."
"I know. I met her in the shop a few days back. She was putting a sign up about her being the vet. Seems like a nice woman."
"As I said I've not met her yet."
"Are you meeting this Cathy again this afternoon? Not that I mind. In fact, I think it's nice you've found a friend."
"Depends on the weather," I said, trying to put an end to the conversation.
I squinted out of the kitchen window, trying to see around mum as she was busy peeling potatoes at the sink. When they built the cottage ages ago, they poshed it up at the front and put in large windows top and bottom but when it came to the back of the house, they got stingy. The window was behind the sink and so little light got in that we needed the kitchen light on almost permanently. I could just make out the covering of grey cloud across the sky. It seemed to be trying to make up its mind whether to rain on us or not.
"Well, if you do then I'll save your lunch for you." She briefly put down the peeler and wistfully looked out of the window. "It's strange with the pub closed and your dad here when lunch is ready. Can't work out whether I like it or not. Be nice to get back to normal."
As I write this its six months later and 'normal' still hasn't arrived. The pub opened for a short while but only if you were having a meal although they did do takeaway 4-pint plastic flagons, so dad was happy. I know he missed his mates though. The closing of the church was less of an issue as none of us were that keen anyway. I suddenly remembered the vicar.
The tongues had wagged overtime when the new vicar arrived. I'm not quite sure the village was ready for a woman vicar. A few people were outraged but most got used to her fairly quickly. Oh my god, I suddenly thought, remembering the rumours that were rife at the time. When she'd moved into the vicarage, she'd brought with her a housekeeper, a dumpy but happy-looking woman of about fifty-ish, the same age as the vicar. What if? What if they were wife and wife as well? Had they met the new vet and her wife yet? Did they even know about each other? Surely, they must do.
In the end it didn't rain. Half of me hoped that it would so it would make my mind up for me. I put off decision making for a while, helping mum get dinner ready. Chopping up the peeled potatoes and parsnips and putting them in the oven to bake while mum nurtured the big piece of lamb. It was more than big enough but would feed the three of us for at least the next three days. Mum was quite inventive when it came to leftovers.
In the end I told myself off for being silly and decided to go out anyway. Probably nothing would happen, and it would just be a normal walk. She might not even turn up. She was probably busy having lunch with Maggie.
I cannot deny I was pleased to see her as I came round the corner into the lane. I went through the usual ritual greeting with Pedro. He seemed to be expecting me as much as Cathy. I was glad I hadn't let him down. We walked along the lane swaddled in our coats against the steel grey sky, but it wasn't long before I felt her arm slide through mine. It was comforting and familiar and helped to calm the nerves in my tummy.
Over the gate and into the field we linked up again. We'd hardly said a word so far and felt no need to. Arm in arm we walked across the field defying the elements, daring the rain to start. Luckily, it never did, but even so it was nice to get into the shelter of the trees. Pedro was off like a rocket as soon as I unclipped his lead. We both knew he could be trusted not to run off, so we were happy to let him go.
Speaking seemed to be superfluous as we followed the path between the trees, but she found my hand and took that in hers. When we came to the log, we sat down next to each other, all thoughts of masks banished forever during our private time. We both gazed silently through the gap at the grey world outside. The silence stretched but it never became uncomfortable.
I was brought out of my daydreaming when her hand once again touched mine. Her hand did not try to hold mine but simply lay over the top of it. I knew she was about to say something important.
"I want to say sorry for yesterday."
"What for?" I asked genuinely puzzled.
"When I kissed you. I had no right to do that."
"Oh, that. Its ok, honestly. I didn't mind ... really I didn't."
"It was still very forward of me. But I'm glad you're ok about it. I didn't know whether you'd turn up today or not."
"Honestly, neither did I."
"Because you were angry and annoyed at me."
"No, no. I think ... I quite liked it."
There! I'd said it. I felt a huge burden being lifted off me. This was the feeling that I had fought to bury all during the last turbulent night. It felt good to finally have it out there. I felt her draw back slightly and realised it was only to look at me more closely. I bowed my head hoping my face and my blushes would be hidden by my hair, but she brushed it back and laid it over my shoulder.
"It can't have been your first kiss?"
"I got a few from boys at school but they didn't really know what they were doing."
"Would you ...?" she asked after a long moment of silent scrutiny, "would you like to try again?"
Keeping my head bowed I shyly nodded. She reached out and took my chin and lifted my head up and turned it in her direction.
"Lovely though your ear is, I was thinking more of the lovely lips," she said softly.
She left me no chance to change my mind as her lips met mine. The same gentleness as yesterday but this time she lingered. We seemed to be joined for ages. Small movements of her lips were like a massage to my mouth. Finally, she pulled back and this time I did not turn away. I found myself looking into her hazel eyes, that twinkled with joy.
She gave me no time to change my mind but moved forward again. This time her lips were slightly open, and I felt the soft tip of her tongue trace the edges of my lips. Oh, wow! This was nothing like the fumbling squashing together of mouths like the boys at school. She was so tender. I felt dumb, not knowing what to do so it was good that she led the way.
Her tongue easing its way into my mouth felt so right and I greeted it like an old friend. This was so unlike any kiss I had ever had before. It was both tender and brutal at the same time. Her lips and tongue took no prisoners. On my side I accepted my fate, welcomed this attack with open arms and then slowly started to respond. I could feel my ignorance, my inexperience, being accepted. We broke apart, both breathless.
I could not tear my eyes away from hers. I felt trapped within their gaze but so joyful to be that way. It was Cathy who blinked first, looking sideways back at the landscape through the gap in the trees. She seemed almost more in a state of shock than I was. I sat still and silent looking at her profile trying to make sense of the jumble of thought going around my head.
"I think ... we should be going," her voice hesitant and distant. It held an air of regret.
"Pedro!" she called, breaking whatever moment of magic that remained.
With a bark and flourish Pedro appeared from the undergrowth and came bounding over. I realised I was still holding his lead and I clipped him on. She stood up and I followed her back along the path. She slowed down until I caught up and then, almost shyly, reached out to take my hand. It was nearly an automatic gesture on my part to accept the offer.
"Is this ok?" she asked, in a voice so quiet that it would have gone unnoticed anywhere but here, deep in the wood.
I still couldn't speak but squeezed her hand in response. I was so close to something that I was terrified of losing it and yet I had no idea what I was on the brink of. I only knew that it was to be momentous and important and might change my life forever. As we strolled across the field to the lane, still holding hands, my lips and tongue continued to relive the memory of that last kiss. I so desperately did not want it to be the last. I was fearful that anything I said might ruin that chance.
We reverted to linked arms as we walked back along the lane. As we approached the main road she slowed to a stop. She took Pedro's lead from my hand and looked at me.
"Please, tell me I haven't ruined everything?" she said, her eyes pleading and with a hint of moisture in them.
Still not trusting my voice I shook my head and tried to smile. Far from ruining anything I felt alive. More alive than I had ever felt in my young life. Relieved at my silent response she leaned forward and kissed me one last time. Then she turned and tugged Pedro to heel and walked around the corner. For an age I couldn't move. In both direction there was emptiness. Behind me lay memories, in front of me was home and how to handle that. I put off moving, standing by a high wall that hid someone's garden. I was locked in place.
I was jerked back to reality by the roar of a passing tractor and I had to step aside quickly. I hadn't realised but I was standing in the middle of the lane. I mentally shook myself and put one foot in front of the other and began what seemed like the long walk home. I had enough sense to grope inside my pocket and fish out my mask that concealed both my face and my thoughts as I made the familiar journey. Somehow, I survived the next few hours through supper and beyond before I could safely go upstairs to my room. Thankfully, mum didn't ask any awkward questions about how my afternoon walk had gone.
Yet another fitful night followed, full of strange dreams dripping with what must have been symbols if only I knew how to interpret them. Then I was back to work and something to distract me. Although my boss at the shop did comment that I didn't seem myself and she asked if I was ok. I managed to sidestep her question. Thursday was my day at the stables, and I buried myself in physical labour. That is, until a land rover turned up. One of the horses had gone lame and the owner had called in the vet as a precaution. The last time she was here I hadn't really taken much notice. This time my senses were on high alert.
So, this was Maggie! I don't know why I was so surprised at her ordinariness. Oh god, that almost sounds insulting and I didn't mean it that way. I only saw her in the distance from where I was working and even then, only briefly as she went inside the stable block. Of the two I think Cathy was the prettier although Maggie was older and taller. She was wearing jeans and a tweed jacket and green wellies. Much more than that I couldn't really see. She never looked in my direction, so I only got a side view. I missed her when she left as I was behind the barn, so I never got another chance.
It was probably just as well as I might have been tempted to go up and say "Hi" to her. Looking back that would have been awkward as she probably had no idea who I was, although it made me wonder if I'd cropped up in idle conversation over the dining table. In a way I hoped not. I felt a tingly pleasure that I might be part of Cathy's secret life. That thought put a spring in my step as I walked home, and the mask hid my now permanent grin.
All I could think of on the way home was that it was only two days to go before Saturday. Thankfully, some new gossip had taken over the village that did not involve vets and young girls. Some well-known woman's husband had run off with another man's younger wife. It was the talk of the village shop and it consumed mum's topic of conversation for the next few days, letting me off the hook. Even dad showed a mild interest as he knew both couples.
I was overjoyed when Saturday dawned sunny although some clouds appeared throughout the morning. It was still nice and bright when the afternoon came around. I think mum had resigned herself to my walks being a 'thing' and didn't say a word as I put my coat on and left the house. Dad was busy making a structure from bean poles ready for the planting. He was rightly proud of his reputation for growing runner beans.
There was hardly anyone on the street and I approached the turning a little nervously. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I turned the corner to find Cathy waiting for me. But she was alone. Where was the third member of our little conspiracy?
"Where's ...?" I asked as I walked across the road towards her.
"Pedro? He managed to cut one of his paws on some glass the other day. He's bandaged up and condemned to bed rest. He should be fine in about a week. He's in good hands."
Before I could reply she stepped forward and planted her lips on mine. I was a bit surprised but quickly recovered and responded. It seemed we were past the quick peck on the cheek stage, which was fine by me. It was different walking along the lane without an eager dog leading the way. It felt strangely more private. Arms linked, laughing, and talking about nothing we climbed over the gate. This was our traditional place to hold hands and we did so again today. Even though we could still be seen from the lane it felt safer. We didn't even let go as we climbed over the fence.
All through the woods she kept pulling me sideways and stealing another kiss. I felt like a child having an adventure. We were giggling and skipping and kissing all the way to our log. As soon as we sat down, we started. My shyness had gone, and I knew what I expected. Lips and tongues did their synchronised dance, and I was in heaven. I couldn't get enough, and I was greedy for more.
In my head I knew this wasn't all there was to it, there had to be more, so I was excited, more than shocked, when her hand worked its way inside my coat and touched my breast for the first time. It must have been hard to find as my boobs aren't very big, and I had a thick jumper on. But it was enough of a touch that it sent a tingle through me like I'd never felt before. It most definitely did not feel like an intrusion, but it came as a natural extension of our kiss.
As our kissing continued her hand delicately traced the shape of my left breast, homing in on the nipple. Then her hand strayed lower, finding the bottom edge of my jumper, and slipped inside. Now there was only a t-shirt and my bra in her way. I cursed my decision to wear a bra today of all days, but it was my day to dress up. Normally I don't bother and, the truth is, I don't really need one, it just makes me feel grown-up. Which is silly in a woman of twenty-two, but we all need these little massages to our egos. But, today, I wished I hadn't.