All Stories, General Fiction

The Glorious Both/And by Jane Houghton

She walked down a long street, new-build red-brick configurations either side of her. She didn’t rush, she had no need for rushing, her strides slow and steady. A slight thing, tiny, some might say delicate, but she wouldn’t be stopped. Couldn’t be stopped. A row of prop-forwards would struggle against her. A decision had been made, signed and sealed in her head. She was going to do it. SHE WAS ACTUALLY GOING TO DO IT. The joy that this yielded rendered her untouchable.

It hadn’t always been like this. Untouchable hadn’t always been her mode of being. Before now hadn’t ever been her mode of being. Heck, up to a day ago, there was no joy – or only fleeting prevues of it, a second today, another second, if lucky, ten weeks hence – and everything touched her, weighing her down, deadening her soul. What people thought about her. What they said about her. To her face. Behind closed doors or gossiping hands. It was all the same. All of it drew blood. Sticks and Stones, a colossal lie.

Save for the occasional passing car and the gentle sing-song of leaves in the breeze, the road was as quiet as a slumbering baby. Just her and her thoughts, a dance of words and images, sensations and internal nudges, alone, together. Since time immemorial, her thoughts had been a thorny terrain, wounding her every bit as much as the judgements of others.

Not good enough.

Not intelligent enough.

Not pretty enough. (At all.)

Not. Enough.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Apropos one topic, however, her thoughts had been straightforward. Reliable and stable. Until they decided not to be. Until they decided to emulate their thorny namesakes, muddying the sole clear section of the water.


For thirty years, she had thought one thing. She was one thing – the thing of her thoughts. No doubts. Concerning every other aspect of her life, an entire football pitch of the niggling buggers, but not about this. Never about this. Her certainty was absolute. It was a non-issue.



They flipped. Her thoughts executed a one-eighty. Certainty melted into uncertainty. Feelings, different feelings, feelings that were other, announced themselves. And it became possible that she was another thing. Just like that.


But. But. But. Was it just like that?

Had this flip been brewing and bubbling beneath the surface for longer than she knew? Had she known all along but chosen not to look? Not to see? Wilful blindness.


She saw now. That was what mattered. There was no resistance, not now, another thing that mattered. And because she saw, because there was no resistance, there was joy – pure, unadulterated joy – as she walked down a long, quiet street lined with red-brick houses.


Love. I’m in love. All around her, people were pontificating on it with such confidence, such authority. Colleagues. Family members. Marti Pellow. Stendhal. Even the old dear that paraded her wedding finger at the bus stop each morning. “Sixty year this summer, cock. Can you believe it?” Yes. She could believe it. She’d been acquainted with the fact many times. That fact had prised its way into her and she now heard it before El Wrinkled One opened her mouth. “He’s a daft sod, but he’s my daft sod.” Two teeth, black and crumbling, swollen knuckles, but a conviction holding her, grounding her; crumpled skin, knackered hip joints, but the serenity of Mother Theresa. I’ve fallen in love. As if they knew what it was. As if they understood. I love you.

She didn’t know what it was.

She didn’t understand.

And yet.

And yet she found herself thinking of the word. All the time. And yet she saw the word. Everywhere.

LOVE. LOVE. LOVE. Solid. Lit-up. Unmissable.

Above her head, floating. Below her feet on the smooth pavement. Spread across the houses, brick tattoos. It pressed against her left breast, her heart, a force that she could feel, touch. Taste. A collage of flavours, each one impossible to pin down. But there. Each one there. Both terrifying and energising, it was a truth that made all in her life prior to it a falsity. Or at least not the whole story. Not as true as she had thought.

And that was messy.

And that was okay. The messiest artworks can be the most beautiful. The messiest artworks sail closer to Truth.


They met on-line. Met. Not quite the right word. Okay…not at all the right word. Inaccurate. Misleading. Physicality is implied, a bona fide corporeal union. But what else is there? How else can a person say it? They matched. A mutual swipe. They shared an interest, dominoes, the archaic parlour game, not the pizza, highlighted in red – for their convenience. And their future marital status. Can’t be letting your beloved escape unnoticed. Two red-hot flames burning through the crud and alighting on each other, coalescing into a sizzling whole. Or so promised the small-print. Matched, swipe, Jesus, it has its own lexicon, is its own world, as alien to her as Jupiter or Mars.

A dating app.

Yes. A. Dating. App.

The one that sounds like the chocolate; sharing none of its sweetness, the one that could be a lot Kinder. Time-poor, concentration-deficient robots using their fingertips to say yes or no, by way of another robot, based on little more than a filtered picture. Nothing screams CONTEMPORARY CULTURE quite like it. Robots upon robots, an android Armageddon. She’d always steered clear of on-line dating. It unnerved her. She didn’t trust it. Desperados. Time-wasters. Fakes. Opening yourself up to exploitation. Humiliation. “Yo. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Mess up my life? Make me feel even more insecure than I do already?  Thanks.” But, hey-ho. Sometimes, the destination merits the pot-holed, shadowy road; sometimes, there’s no path but the pot-holed, shadowy road.

Following the acrobatics in her thinking, she grew restless, wired day and night as if dosed up on industrial-strength Red Bull. She couldn’t settle her mind to anything. Anything that wasn’t these other feelings. Other longings. Because that was how it felt. How she felt. Her body was in a state of perpetual longing. It physically ached, from head to foot, fingertip to bone; it felt undernourished, constricted, sickening for…something…something else…something more. Her body keeping score, telling her that she needed more. Her work started to suffer. Turning in late, missing deadlines, distracted in meetings; her boss, a chubby fellow with hair like Boris Johnson and teeth like Janet Street-Porter, their veritable love-child if ever there was one, pulled her aside twice in one week, concern and annoyance battling it out on his face.

Her longings confused her, disoriented her, for a time she wondered whether she’d manufactured them, whether a part of her was hungry for drama, for change, but, whatever their origins, whether a brand-new development or an unacknowledged fixture, there was no shaking them off. She tried. Oh, how she tried. All the classic tactics. Keeping busy. Exploring hobbies. Meditating. The stuff of self-help manuals. But it was no good. They’d taken root. Firm, wind-proof roots. The meditation was a particular failure; she forgot how to breathe and proceeded to have a panic attack. She couldn’t even listen to music, her one-time saviour. Power-ballads were an obvious no-no, they stirred up an actual hurricane within her, but rap and heavy metal weren’t much better. Poisonous spiders, references crawled their way into anything and everything – head-banging drivel included. And don’t get her started on country. Bloody country! Bloody liability. It was the worst of all. A silent assassin; power-ballads hiding in innocuous cowboy boots. Waiting to spring and seize.

After what felt like an interminable period of hand-wringing and not knowing which way to turn, she took a few sizeable in-breaths – non-meditation style, thank you very much – and leaped onto the pot-holed, shadowy road. Not her usual life strategy, but staying still wasn’t an option. She had to do something; she knew that the ache in her body couldn’t be ignored. Couldn’t be endured. Though it was her choice to sit down at the kitchen table and download the app, her head was in a waltzer-whirl and her fingers seemed to scroll across the screen unaided. It was bigger than her.

Bigger than her, outside her control, something that she had to do…but…wrong. Not wrong in itself, not wrong for other people, but wrong for her. It wasn’t that she deemed herself above the thoughts, morally superior to the longings. No. The opposite, in fact. She had no right to partake in the thoughts. No right to alter the script. Christ in the sky, her mother. What would her mother say? And her aunts? Uncles? The girls at work? That fascist next door?

She knew what they’d say. You didn’t have to be Einstein. She could quote it verbatim. They’d say what she would’ve said, before, smug grins emboldening their faces, cushioned by the knowledge that they belonged to the right club. That their lives, their inclinations, would be safe from scrutiny. Why scrutinise what accords with nature? She’d be the person that they laughed at whilst pretending not to laugh because, hey, we’re all modern people here, we’re all, like, totally wake…awake…awakened…woken…WOKE… we’d never do something like that. Her mother would talk to her Aunty Trish about it – after a lengthy post-mortem, wokeness forgotten, the pair of them would sigh and declare that she was on drugs. Wacky baccy. Hence the wackiness. No other explanation.

Flesh-to-flesh, they met in a coffee shop. Cliché gold; nil pois for originality. Both ordered tea. Milk, no sugar, not too strong but not like water. Avid tea drinkers, both thought tea shop a more suitable name. Or coffee AND tea shop. Another shared interest, this one undisclosed and so not highlighted in red. Profiles can’t be expected to cover every base. She hated coffee. Evil-tasting stuff. As bitter as Hazza after Charlie-boy has spent the entire evening blanking him and cosying up to his little Willy. But she did have a penchant for tiramisu.

Leading up to their flesh-date, she worried that meeting in person, foregoing the protection and anonymity of a screen, would be a step too far. Too real, no longer just an abstract notion, a fantasy indulged in the dead of the night, known only to her. Arranging to meet felt even more wrong than installing the app had – but, there was no denying it, everything went right. Everything felt right as they sat together, side-by-side on a comfy gimmick sofa that had long ago lost its comfiness, and sipped their tea.

She felt right. In alignment. Like she was where she should be. Where she wanted to be.

Her heart pounded but there was no anxiety. Her head spun but her thoughts were still.

Conversation flowed. It was effortless, natural, unfolding like a spool of ribbon in the wind. They ventured beyond the outer. Burrowed deeper than the surface-level. Straight away. She’d never experienced this before, this immediacy, intimacy, didn’t know that it was possible. There’d always been a gap. A need to perform, gain approval. Impress. Cloaking and bolstering reality, sincere insincerity.


Are you ashamed of me?

It was bright outside, warm. The beginning of summer. Light filtered through the curtains, illuminating their faces.

Sorry? I didn’t catch that.

Liar. She’d caught it just fine. Every word.

I asked you, I said, are you ashamed of me?

What? No. No, of course not.

You never touch me.

I’m touching you right now. I touch you all the time.

Out there. In public. You never touch me in public.


Are you ashamed of us?

It was very bright outside, a heatwave. The height of summer. Light burned through the curtains. People were flocking to beaches and parks in their thousands, delirious with the zing of festival season. They were inside, in her living room. Sweat trickled down her forehead, pooling at the top of her nose. Sodden, her navy t-shirt looked treacle-black.

What? You know I’m not. We’ve been through this already. Where’s it all coming from?

You know where it’s coming from.

She shifted her position on the battered futon that she’d picked up from a vintage shop years ago. Pulled away. Turned her head. Their bare legs were no longer interlinked.

You’re cold with me. Distant. You won’t even hold my hand.

We’ve just been holding hands.

Out there. In public. You won’t hold my hand in public. You’re two people.


Are you ashamed of yourself?

The dregs of summer. The sun hadn’t been seen for days. No light. No warmth.


Different pronoun. Same question.

Same evasion.

Same destruction.


I can’t do this anymore. We can’t do this. You’re not ready. I don’t think you’ll ever be ready.


Yesterday it hit her. Permeated her core and shook her bones like a lightning strike. She was doing a jigsaw with her nieces. Eldest Niece slotted the last two pieces together; The Gruffalo came to life in all its whopping glory, Youngest Niece providing a catchy clap-hands-accompaniment and…STRIKE HER DOWN. Downloads from above.

They were the pieces.

The rest was noise. Empty, meaningless, irrelevant.

They were the essence lifted from the noise.

Before was true. Now was true. She could be one thing and another thing – at the same time. The glorious both/and. No boundaries. No limits.

She was ready.


Number ninety-six. Stylish, well-groomed, like its owner. She’d walked the full length of the street. She’d never seen the house before – they’d always gone to her place. She lived alone. There were few neighbours. No prying eyes. No loose lips. Just them.

She crunched her way up the gravel path, her strides still unrushed. Still prop-forward-demolishing-determined. Still certain. She knocked on the door. Birdsong encircling her. The early autumn sun – back after its unseasonable sabbatical and stronger than ever – kissing her neck. A rainbow of flowers, their final flourish before the impending shedding.

She was alive and she was grateful.


The door opened. She held out her hand.

Hold my hand. Please. Out there. In public.

Jane Houghton

Image by Moshe Harosh from Pixabay – monochrome image of clasped hands.

17 thoughts on “The Glorious Both/And by Jane Houghton”

  1. Jane

    This is a brilliant look at a mind coming to a decision. Every point is covered (including some made up ones, as people are known to do). The build to the wonderful conclusion is steady and often funny.
    Another outstanding work!


    1. Leila,
      Thank you so much for your comment – you have captured perfectly what I tried to do: “a mind coming to a decision.” Thank you for your continued support and for agreeing to publish this piece.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think this is a really beautiful piece of writing with immense depth and humour. An insight into an incredibly active, internal mind, dealing with probably the biggest theme there is – ‘love’. Honestly, your pace (a brilliant lead up to the narrator being in love), use of imagery (bricks as tattoos) , inventive compound words (flesh-date) are all superb. And, the wistful, joyous ending is sublime.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. What a lovely comment – it has touched my heart. Thank you so much. It is a wonderful feeling to know that someone has connected to and appreciated a piece of writing that came from you.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are a talented writer and I found your story both moving and extremely interesting. Your use of words describe the scene perfectly. There is a hint of humour as well. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a well put together and perfectly paced piece of writing. Your descriptions bring the scenes to life and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this – well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Jane,
    You are a skilled, intelligent and interesting writer.
    Probably more so than you realise!
    This is another example of an understanding and perception that any exceptional writer needs to have!!!
    I love reading your work!!!


    1. Hugh,
      Thank you so much for this – means the world to me. As with Leila, thank you for your continued support and for agreeing to publish this.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This really built to a crescendo. The writing just got better and better. I felt the pain of both of them. Had some thoughts of beauty and the beast and that’s always a winner.


  7. A rather modern romance story! It absorbed me from the start. Quite lyrical and poetic, as romances should be, She talks of “love” but it’s not connection with the other as much as the connection with the inner voice or feeling that matches the self absorption of our times. I like the protagonist making up thought poetry for herself, and that phrase “flesh date.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and considered comment, it means a lot to me, and thank you for taking the time to read this piece.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story. It was quite humourous whilst also giving an insightful view of how becoming part of a couple can open up all manner of feelings and moments of insecurity. Well done ! (So pleased I got a little cameo in it too )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Trish!!!! Thank you so much for reading and commenting, means a lot to me. So glad that you enjoyed it. And, hey, to who else but you could I give a cameo?!?!

      Liked by 1 person

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