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When I'm gone I hope you'll see (How happy she made me)
Charity pokes at the fire again, trying to eke out the last of the warmth before they let it die out for the evening. There's a tiredness in her bones that's nothing to do with the long drive. She recognises it because she's experienced the same feeling a good few times over the last year or so. She's just spent. All the talking and crying and deep, aching sadness has used up every ounce of her energy and she knows it won't be replenished any time soon. Not if she's got to paint on a smile for Belle.
She looks up as Lisa comes back from the bathroom, leaning heavily on a walking stick. She sets the poker down and stands, dusting her hands on her backside as she moves closer. "You alright? Need a hand?"
Lisa warns her off with a glare as she lowers herself into her armchair, letting out a sigh of relief once she's seated. "I'm not an invalid, Charity. Not yet, anyroad."
"No, I know that...I just-" She shoves her hands in her back pockets, feeling useless.
"Right," Lisa says, eyes narrowed with determination. "I think we've had more than enough of sitting around being maudlin for one day." She folds her hands over her stomach. "Tell me what's been going on with you."
"Me?" Charity frowns. Talking about the year she's had is hardly going to cheer either of them up. "Oh, you know, nothing much."
Lisa laughs, shaking her head. "Well, since I've been gone you've gone and got yourself a fiancée and a brand new son. I'd say that's something worth talking about, wouldn't you?"
"Two," Charity says, without thinking and then blushes when Lisa's brow wrinkles in confusion. "Two...new sons. Not two fiancées."
Admittedly, that's a new one for Charity; taking on someone else's kid. Yes, Chris had Joe when they got married, but Charity had no time for him. Couldn't wait to pack him off to boarding school. But Johnny. Johnny was part of the package and she knew that from the beginning. And, for some reason, it never put her off for one second. He was just there, with his big blue eyes and his little smile, asking her to read him stories and falling asleep on her shoulder with his hand lost in her hair. He made his way into her heart almost as fast as his mother did and now he's hers. He's one of her boys.
Lisa smiles softly. "My mistake, two new sons. Course." She nods for Charity to keep talking. "Come on then. I want to hear all about it. All the details.."
Charity inhales through her nose, the air shuddering its way into her chest, still shaky with emotion. "Well, Ryan's a Dingle through and through." She rolls her eyes. "Poor lad."
"Oi. Nowt wrong with being a Dingle, lady." Lisa chastises gently. "Zak did say there was no mistaking he was yours."
"Like I said, poor lad." Lisa opens her mouth to protest but Charity rushes on. "Anyway, yeah, he's cheeky and funny and clever." She tilts her head. "Although, in saying that, he doesn't always make the best decisions."
"Sounds like a Dingle, right enough." Lisa laughs. "You've spent a quite a bit of time with him, seems like."
"Yeah. Not as much as I'd like, of course." Charity smiles, but it fades. "There was a while, at the beginning, when I kind of...hid him away. I didn't tell the family and I...I kept him in a little bubble. Just me and him and Ness. This tiny little person I thought had-" She catches herself, biting her lip.
Lisa tilts her head. "You can say 'died' love. I'm not going to turn into a blubbering mess at hearing the word."
"Right. Yeah." She moves over to the fire and holds her hands out, just to have something to do. "Well...this little person I thought had died just sort of...exploded into my life as a fully formed adult. And I didn't quite know what to do with that for a bit. He was mine, but...he wasn't, you know?" She looks down at the fire, letting her eyes lose focus so the flames go blurry. "Me and his mum banged heads at the beginning." She tilts her head. "Well, and for quite a while afterwards."
Lisa nods. "That must have been hard on the both of you. Having to share him."
Coughing to clear the lump from her throat, Charity turns and gives Lisa a smile. "We're still finding our feet, but we're getting there. I hope." She rolls her eyes. "Says he's gone from one mum to three in the space of six months." She lifts an eyebrow. "And I'm pretty sure Vanessa's his favourite out of all of us."
"And what about Vanessa's little'un?" Lisa prompts. "He's around the same age as our Moses, isn't he?"
"Yeah. Just a few months between them. Couldn't be more different from Moz, though. He's such a quiet little thing." She smiles. "Gentle. Kind. Like his mum." She slips her phone out of her pocket and moves over to sit on the arm of Lisa's chair. Flicking through her photos, she finds the one she's after; Johnny and Moses in the bath together sporting huge bubble beards and grinning up at the camera. "That was them a couple of nights ago. Proper brothers they are now. Always up to summat. We've got to have eyes in the back of our heads." She flicks through a few more, landing on one of Ryan and Noah, larking about on the couch in the back room of the pub.
"Definitely no denying he's yours, love," Lisa says, leaning into her side. "What a handsome chap. Lovely hair."
"Yeah. Johnny loves it an'all." She laughs, softly. "Took us five minutes one time to untangle him so Ryan could leave."
She keeps flicking, stopping on a selfie she'd taken of her and Vanessa on Valentine's day, both done up in their gladrags.
"Wow," Lisa says beside her. "What a pair."
Charity covers Vanessa's chest with her thumb, keeping her face as straight as she can. "Yeah, the waiter couldn't keep his eyes off them either."
"Charity." Lisa slaps at her thigh. "I'm talking about the pair of you."
The oppressive sadness she's felt since Lisa revealed her illness lifts, just for a moment, and Charity grins. "Yeah, we scrub up well." Charity stretches the photo so that Vanessa's grinning face is filling the screen. She brushes her thumb over the image, smiling. "It was a lovely evening. We don't get many to ourselves these days."
"Well, make sure you do." Lisa nudges her. "Make time for each other. 'Cause there'll come a day when you've no more time left. So make the most of it."
Charity presses her lips together, determined not to cry again. Lisa's been so strong the whole day. Not even resigned to it, just accepting and pragmatic. She sniffs.
"Yeah. I know." She rubs at her nose. "You know that she, ummm-" Her throat catches and she has to swallow to clear it. "-she got hurt, recently."
Lisa's hand is warm on her arm, squeezing. "I know, love. Our Belle was in a right state about it."
"Yeah." Charity nods, her eyes still on the picture of Vanessa. "I thought I was going to lose her that night. I thought that was it. That our time was up and I'd-" She closes her eyes tight, to keep the tears in.
"Now then, she got through it, didn't she?" Lisa soothes. "She's still here. Still with you."
Charity nods quickly, swiping at her eyes. She shouldn't be crying over what could have happened, not when Lisa's facing the reality she is.
"Yeah. She's here." She tries to laugh. "Probably mega hungover and wishing she wasn't, at the moment. But still here."
"I knew she was gonna be good for you, that Vanessa." Lisa nods. "I could see it from the very start. That she were different."
"Oh, she's different, alright." Charity rolls her eyes, but something in her can't leave it at a flippant comment. "She's...ummm...she's everything, Lis."
She's not the type to moon over her partners, never has been, really. Well, not beyond boasting about their bank balances. But never about her feelings. But then, she's never been one for sharing her real feelings much at all. Not before Vanessa came along. She tried not to give people that power over her. Even now, she finds it difficult to open up about how she feels about Vanessa to anyone other than Vanessa herself. The feelings are so big and overwhelming, she wouldn't know where to start. But she finds herself wanting to tell Lisa everything.
"She's everything I wasn't looking for. Everything I didn't know I wanted. Needed." Charity laughs, wiping at her eyes. "I mean, how was I to know what I needed was a stroppy, bossy little madam who won't let me away with anything?"
"Keeps you in line, does she?" Lisa chortles. "Well, that's not a bad thing."
"Yeah." Charity nods. "But she's...it's so much more than that, you know? I want to be around her all the time. I talk to her. I tell her things, things I thought I couldn't tell anyone. And stupid little things an'all. Sometimes it's like I can't not tell her things."
"You trust her," Lisa says. "You feel safe with her."
"I do." Charity nods. "She knows me. She knows everything about me." Charity meets Lisa's eyes. "And she still loves me. Wants to marry me, even. How mad is that?"
"I don't think that's mad at all, Charity Dingle." Lisa shakes her head and reaches up to touch Charity's cheek. "You deserve every single minute of happiness you can get." She nods. "You are happy, aren't you?"
"I...yeah, I am." Charity blows out a slow breath. "I think, maybe for the first time in my life, I am. Letting all of that stuff out, it-" She puts a hand on her chest. "It's like it freed up some of the space inside me, you know? All that...that anger and hurt and all the secrets." She shakes her head, closing her eyes. "I feel lighter. I feel like there's room for other stuff now that I'm not having to keep all of that inside."
"I'm so sorry, love, that I never tried digging deeper." Charity opens her eyes to find Lisa looking down. "I knew...I knew something had happened to you, something terrible. But I didn't want to face it. I was a coward, and I'm sorry."
Sliding her hand over Lisa's, Charity clears her throat. She's told herself all sorts since Bails turned up again. That she wasn't ready to face it before now. That she'd never have told anyone about it anyway, even if they'd tried. But part of her knows that's not true. They all knew something had happened. They knew she was a kid thrown out on the street, for starters. They knew what she'd had to do. They knew. She sighs.
"Thanks, Lis." She smiles, sadly. "It's...it's alright. It's in the past now. And I found someone who wasn't scared."
Lisa nods and squeezes her hand tight. "I'm glad, love. I'm so glad you did."
They both wipe at their faces. Charity rolls her eyes. "I thought we were supposed to be getting away from maudlin stuff?"
"You're right, we are." Lisa pats her knee. "Tell me more about you and Vanessa. What about her and the kids? They get on well with her?"
"Oh yeah. Well, most of them." She sighs. "Noah's a bit...well, he's been a bit all over the place this year, getting stuff thrown at him right, left and centre. But he's coming around, I think." She smiles. "Debs likes her, which is more than I can say for anyone else I've been with. Including her Dad, most of the time. Ryan and her are thick as thieves. And Moses adores her. Gets this big dopey smile on his face whenever he lays eyes on her."
Lisa's eyes twinkle. "Bit like the one you're wearing now, is it?"
"Hey!" Charity wrinkles her nose. "You picked this subject. You don't get to make fun of me for it!"
"I'm sorry, love," Lisa says, with a smile that suggests she's not sorry at all. "But I could sit and listen to you talk about her all night, if I'm honest. I've never seen you get soppy over anyone." She leans in close. "It's a joy to see, I can tell you."
Charity smiles. "Well, I'm glad my love life is amusing to you," Charity says, getting up and moving to the kitchen to make tea.
"Anyway, when's the big day?" Lisa says, raising her voice over the sound of the kettle. "Soon, I hope. I want to see you wed before I pop my clogs."
Throat tightening again, Charity realises it'll need to be soon if Lisa's going to be well enough to attend. She hadn't even considered that. She nods. "Flamin' next week if Vanessa's got anything to do with it. She's already looking at favours and dresses and venues." She turns and bats her eyelashes. "Determined to seal the deal, obviously." Turning back to pick up the mugs, she swallows and puts on a smile before she faces Lisa again. "Don't worry, we're saving you a front row seat."
Lisa takes her mug with a smile, setting it down on the table to cool. "I'll need to get a nice hat for the occasion."
"You will," Charity agrees, taking a sip of her tea. She keeps her eyes on the cup. "Pretty much mother of the bride, aren't you?"
When she chances a glance at Lisa, her eyes are brimming with tears and she's smiling. She sniffs a few times and nods. "That means a lot to me to hear you say that, Charity." She holds out a hand and Charity takes it, holding on tightly. "And I'm so thrilled to know that you're settled and happy and that you've got someone who'll look after you."
Maybe that's why she was so keen to tell Lisa everything. So that Lisa knows Charity's one less thing she needs to worry about. So that Lisa can rest easy. She nods, her own tears spilling over.
"I have. I am."
"And I know Vanessa's going to make a brilliant Dingle." Lisa squeezes her hand. "I might try and have a word with her about dealing with you lot at some point. Try and pass on my wisdom." She laughs, wiping her eyes. "Such as it is."
"I'm sure she'd appreciate that. Need all the help you can get when you join our family, don't you?" Charity's smile softens. "Thanks, Lis. For everything."
"Don't be daft," Lisa shakes her head. "You don't need to thank me for anything."
"No, I do." Charity sighs. "Like you said earlier, we sometimes think we've got all the time in the world to say things...and we don't. So...thank you, for being the mum I needed. Even when I didn't make it easy on you."
"It's been my pleasure, love," Lisa says. "And thank you for caring about this family like you do, even if we haven't always done the same for you."
Nodding, Charity gives Lisa's hand a final squeeze before they both go back to their tea. They lapse into comfortable silence, both sitting watching the last of the flames licking at the brick fireplace. After a while, a soft snoring starts up and Charity looks over to see Lisa's chin has fallen to her chest, her eyes closed. She smiles.
Lisa's not a Dingle by birth or blood. She married into the family, taking on Zak's unruly brood of kids and cousins and nieces and nephews. And she loves every single one of them like they were her own. She's the one people go to for advice, or to calm the waters when there's been a blow up, or just for a smile and a cuppa sometimes.
Vanessa's not all that different from Lisa, when she thinks about it. Protective, practical, loving, not backward about coming forward. She's not a Dingle by blood either, but Lisa's right; she's going to be a great one. She's already part of the family; slotted in seamlessly and holds her own against all the big personalities.
Charity's never considered herself matriarch material. She always thought it'd be Chas who naturally filled that role when they got older. She's never wanted to be thought of as the head of anything before. Never wanted the responsibility that came with it.
But, with Vanessa by her side, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing.
Charity gets up to tend to the dying embers of the fire. She looks over her shoulder when Lisa lets out a particularly loud snore. Charity smiles.
"I'll do you proud, Lis," she whispers. "I promise."
She could swear that Lisa's lips turn up into a smile.
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