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If you don't think every day is a good day, just try missing one.

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'I have a theory about Viggo', Orlando says as he puts down the tray with breakfast next to Sean's. 

Sean has a spoon of porridge only centimetres from his lips, and for a brief second, he debates whether or not to postpone shoving it into his mouth. Then of course he does just that. So his response to Orlando's words is a mumbled 'Whazzat' around a big load of slightly too hot breakfast deliciousness.

Orlando throws him a glance of mild disapproval, like Sean was that First Year of his that has absolutely no impulse control when it comes to picking his nose. Then he points at Viggo with his tea spoon.

'He gets weirder in December' he says, then, after a moment of extracting his teabag from his mug, he adds, 'I mean, look at him.'

Sean hums. It's not necessarily something that needs any other confirmation than what you can see with your eyes. Viggo is currently sitting not at the teacher's table in the dining hall, but between two very uncomfortable looking Third Years from Orlando's house. He is also wearing a pyjama top with reindeers on it.

'I asked him about that once,' Orlando says, casually, like that doesn't mean he brought on a Blitz-inquisition since that is the only way he ever talks to Viggo. 'Because he didn't used to be this weird, did he?'

Sean distantly remembers one Christmas do in the early 90s or something that was organized by a bunch of overzealous Fourth Years. There was egg nog. Viggo confiscated it immediately and naturally ended the evening completely plastered. He hums.

Orlando looks at him from over the rim of his mug of steaming tea, waiting.

'He has reindeers on his pyjama,' Orlando points out, unnecessarily, and shakes his head. 'Honestly.'

Sean licks the last porridge from his spoon. Orlando shakes his head, then concentrates on spreading Nutella over his toasted bread; very neatly and almost half a glass. He quirks an eyebrow when Sean nudges his side, but he looks up where Sean's spoon is pointing now.

In the doorway to the dining hall, Eric leans against the frame, accidentally blocking the entry for some tiny and rather hungry looking first years, In contrast to his fashion victim lifemate, he is wearing perfectly normal clothes and an absolutely shit eating grin.

Orlando rolls his eyes.

'Reckon he lost a bet?' Sean asks idly and helps himself to a clementine from Orlando's tray. 

Orlando cuts his bread into four neat squares.

'Reckon it's what Eric put in his advent calendar.'

Sean chuckles and starts peeling his clementine.

The next day Eric spends carrying around a burning candle wherever he goes, by that violating all kinds of fire safety rules, and sending Christopher almost into shock. Viggo perpetually looks like he wants to propose. 

Over dinner, Orlando takes one look at Eric who is trying to shield his (now very low) burning candle from being blown out by Dom and shakes his head.

'They are all such idiots', he says but doesn't sound unkind.

Sean hums and steals a gingerbread cookie from Orlando's tray.

***

On December, 3rd, Sean's history class in year four unanimously decides that enough is enough. Sean vaguely wonders why he is never invited to the revolutionary tribunal meetings they must have during the five minute break.

'So', Olivia says and parks herself before me, and Sean is impressed by how much accusation and challenge she can pack into those two letters.

'Off to the guilotine?' he asks as he sidesteps her and puts his books onto his desk. She immediately follows (probably considering whether that was a suggestion worth considering), once more halting in front of him and glaring up at him in all her five foot glory.

'We've decided that it's well unfair, Mr Bean.'

'Life in general, Liv?' he asks back. But she won't have any of his nonsense and frowns, her ponytail bobbing as she shakes her head.

'Like, right, Mr Mortensen's class is doing all kinds of Christmas whatnot, and all we do is -' she pauses for a moment and then spits out, 'talk about some weird geezers in wigs.'

Now, one might argue that Robespierre and Danton would object to being called 'weird wigged geezers', and also 'all kinds of Christmas whatnot' was definitely more R.E. than it was history. But honestly, Sean doesn't fancy a kick in the shin and being mugged behind the bike shed later, so he keeps his mouth shut about that.

Instead he does what he usually does in a situation like this. He leans against the edge of his desk, crosses his arms in front of his chest just like she does and nods at her.

'All right, you have 30 seconds. What have you in mind? And it better not involve skiving.'

Olivia glances back at her classmates and when she looks back at him, she has her poker face on.

Let the bartering begin.

***

When Bernard opens the door, he has shaving cream on the left half of his face and is not wearing trousers.

'Am I too early?' Sean asks with a grin, even though he knows he is.

'Depends', Bernard says and waves him in, scratching his bum as he walks back into the house. 'Are you here to side with me on the handlebar issue?'

'You're not going to leave the house with that kind of monstrosity on your face', calls a voice from the kitchen.

'Hi Marianne!' Sean shouts and nearly stumbles over a skateboard because he wasn't paying attention where he was going for a second and that is almost always near-leathal in this house. Bernard laughs when he sees it and then makes another grand waving gesture as if Sean was a swarm of wasps that he is trying to redirect.

'Go and bother my wife while I finish up, mate.'

So Sean does and honestly, he loves Bernard but the real reason why he is always early for Sunday lunches in the Hill house is because Marianne is always in need of someone testing her sauces and dips and whatnot. So when the others begin to trickle in - Eric's and Viggo's arrival announced by the racket Eric's Falcon makes, Orlando bringing flowers because 'I wasn't raised by fucking wolves, you know' (he was de facto raised by Sean, and Sean is positive that he never ever taught him this), Gerry and Dom West both nearly breaking their necks over the skateboard of doom - Sean has already eaten half his weight in stuffed mushrooms. He also is already a little tipsy thanks to the wine that Bernard generously poured the moment he and his handlebar moustache entered the kitchen.

And because it's the second Sunday in Advent, and two candles burn on the pine cone wreath adorning the dining room table, there is of course a small fire at some point. As per usual Dom West is adamant he had nothing to do with it, even though they all know he is an arsonist in his spare time. Viggo bravely quenches the flames by smothering it under a generous helping of mashed potatoes while Gerry, unperturbed, continues giving Bernard completely bullshit advice on what he calls 'proper beard care, mate'.

So, pretty much the usual Sunday lunch, really.

***

'And yes, Mr Bloom, in my opinion, Kant's imperative is absolutely -'

A knock on the door interrupts Robert's continued attempt to assassinate Orlando's nerves before the first break on Monday. Still, Orlando can't very well blame an attack dog for fighting when he has been the one edging him on.

'Yes?' he answers, not even attempting to hide the fact that it is a minor annoyance to be interrupted in the first place. If this is Diane being late again, he has every intention to - 

Dom's face appears in the opening slit.

'Excuse the interruption, but do you have a moment?'

Feeling a frown appearing on his forehead, Orlando gives a nod and steps out into the hallway after telling Robert to enlighten the rest of the class on his views about the categorical imperative.

The second he pulls the door shut behind himself, Dom loses the serious expression and grins like the demented person he is.

'I swear, Dom,' Orlando starts and honestly, he doesn't even know how many empty threats to Dom's life he has started this way. Dom knows anyway, so he cuts himself of, and instead asks, 'What is it?'

'No, seriously, you need to come with me', Dom says and just turns around on his heels and walks off, snickering to himself. Orlando heaves a sigh and glances back through the window to his classroom. Robert has gotten up to the blackboard and Orlando thinks he just saw him throw a piece of chalk in the general direction of Tobias, so they should be good on their own for another five minutes. 

He catches up with Dom just when Dom rounds the corner and halts in front of Eric's classroom. Orlando wants to ask what this is about, but Dom just points at the small window in the door and keeps snickering.

'One of these days, Dom,' Orlando says, then looks inside.

Eric stands in front of the blackboard, enthusiastically waving his arms about like he does pretty much every minute of his awake time during the day, and he has his A-level kids engaged in an unusally lively discussion.

Orlando mouthes 'What?' and Dom rolls his eyes like Orlando was the odd one around here.

'Look at the blackboard, you idiot,' he instructs and pushes Orlando back towards the door.

The blackboard is filled with a lot of calculations and geometrical drawings in different colours, so it takes a moment for Orlando to make sense of them. When he has, he turns back to Dom.

'He isn't honestly -' he starts and Dom nods enthusiastically.

'Mate, he totally is.'

Orlando looks at the blackboard, then at Eric who is now typing something into his calculator like his life depended on it, then at Dom.

'I don't know any of you people', he decides.

He turns around to walk back to his classroom and the safety of German enlightenment, leaving the head of the Maths Department and his math minions to finish their complicated calculations for designing the perfect two storey gingerbread house.

***

Karl needs new mates. Preferably from New Zealand. Sean is a good bloke, but his obsession with obscure footie teams borders on idiotic. Also, Karl keeps getting his ass handed to him at WOW as well as Madden which is just wrong. 

Of course, Sean isn't as bad as Eric. First of, Eric is an Aussie and that alone is reason enough for Karl to be actively ashamed of calling him a mate. That and his unhealthy attachment to Viggo, really. Not that Karl particularly cares about their codependency, and while he is pretty sure the two of them have been fucking for years, he doesn't give a shit about that either. But really, Viggo is a massive cunt, and so is Eric.

But what can you do when you happen to work in the UK, in the middle of nowhere. The alternative to watching footie with Sean and cricket with Eric and Viggo is probably going to the theatre with Bernard or watching Dom West blow himself up with one of his stupid science experiements. Yeah, no.

So he shows up on Eric's doorstep in the middle of the fucking night because New Zealand plays Australia in the ODI series at 2.20 p.m. in Canberra and they are on the other fucking end of the world. Eric opens and has the Australian flag wrapped around his shoulders like a cape. Because he is an idiot. Someone (Viggo) also painted his face in red, blue, and white. They are both idiots. Karl makes a gagging noise as he walks past and parks his ass on the comfy chair furthest away from the sofa where Viggo is already sprawled.

The next couple of hours? Karl will hurt anyone who even dares to mention them to him afterwards. New Zealand throws away wickets in a fashion that makes Karl want to curl up in a ball and cry. Eric, on the other hand, is cheering so loudly that around four thirty, there is a knock on the door and a Fourth Year stands there, blinking tiredly and wearing pyjamas, pleading with him to tone it down a bit. Eric laughs in the kid's face and forces him to watch the next half hour with them, squeezed between Eric and Viggo on the couch. The kid is still only the second most uncomfortable person in the room. Karl has to invent new curse words to do the shit justice that is happening on the field. He wouldn't make that fucking bad choices at the toss if he were blind and crippled.

Viggo falls asleep around five with his legs draped over Eric's. At least that keeps Eric from getting up every fucking time Australia gets lucky and hit Karl in triumph. When the first session is over at 6.20, Eric tosses a bag of crisps at Karl's head and tells him that that is breakfast. Viggo, in the meantime has converted Eric's stupid flag into a blanket and is snoring like nobody's business. 

The second session is still running when they can't stall any longer and have to head for class - Karl is wearing his trackies anyway, so how is that for professionalism and foresight. Eric puts on a shirt, yeah, but other than that he doesn't even bother washing off his stupid Make Up. Which is how - at ten past nine when Karl is trying to teach his inept first years how to throw a ball - Eric storms into the gym, beats his chest with his fist like a gorilla and proclaims that Australia is by far the superiour cricket nation. Karl tells him to piss off. Then he crouches down next to Jeri Faber whose reaction to seeing her math teacher in full war-paint is apparently fainting.

Karl needs new mates.

***

Eric opens his door and finds Viggo standing there.

'Yo, 'sup?', he asks and even though he doesn't wear a baseball cap and can't pull its visor to the side like the cool kids do it, Viggo's mouth quirks into a smile.

'Got a gift earlier', Viggo answers readily, and that's at least something.

Because the thing is, Viggo doesn't knock on Eric's door, usually. Normally, he just lets himself in (sometimes it's through the window as well) or he calls - no point in having a cell phone if you can't use it as a door bell, that's Viggo's motto. Usually that also means that they are already deep in conversation when Eric does let him in, and it has happened more than once that they kept talking on the phone, Eric in the kitchenette, Viggo in the dining area.

But when Viggo knocks on the door, it's because there's the gap between the knock and Eric answering, sort of a ten seconds delay that Viggo could use to walk away, to reconsider whether he really wants to talk or not. Eric can't say he particularly likes it when Viggo knocks instead of phoning or breaking in. 

But it's not a bad day, not really, is it, when Viggo is talking. Not when he doesn't seem to want to spend the better part of the afternoon brooding on Eric's couch before finding the right words, but when he holds a piece of paper in front of Eric's face; the gift in question apparently. Eric takes the drawing and waves Viggo in.

'Is that supposed to be you?' he asks as he follows into the living area.

Viggo takes Eric's beer from the bookshelf where he left it.

'I don't have a halo, neither have I got wings.'

'True,' Eric says and pretends to compare the drawing and Viggo anyway. 'Same kinda crooked smile, though.'

'Thank you for thinking of me as an angel with apoplexy', Viggo replies and drinks. 'Victoria Miller drew that. It's Saint Anthony, she said.'

'How comes she draws you the patron saint of lost souls of all people?' Eric asks, partly because he is a show-off who can't pass up on an opportunity to brag with his knowledge of catholic saints, partly because Viggo is giving him that kind of look, the one where he isn't really blinking, when he is waiting for something.

Viggo takes another sip from Eric's beer and lifts his right shoulder in a shrug, his eyes not leaving Eric's.

'She told me she was praying he'd look out for me', he offers, and his voice is quiet, laced with both fondness and bitterness.

'And the boyband version of him even,' Eric says with fake reverence. 'Look at that blow-dry,' 

He steps closer to, and Viggo automatically draws his hand back to get the bottle out of Eric's immediate reach. But Eric isn't interested in that anyway (at least not at the moment, he'll steal it back later). Instead he drops the drawing onto a shelf, grasps Viggo's head with both of his hands and lightly knocks their foreheads together.

'Lost soul, my arse,' he mocks humorously with enough certainty for both of them.

After a moment he feels the hard glass of the bottle resting against his skin, two of Viggo's fingers still hooked around its neck as he strokes the base of Eric's skull with the others.

***

Thursday, December 8th, 3.25 p.m., Jackson High's Chemistry lab.

Featuring one very busy chemistry teacher with a history of damaging school property and one very bored biology teacher with a questionable sense of humour.

'So, anyroad, so I asked Fiona in bio this morning, Fi, what part of the human body increases ten times when excited? And what do you reckon she answered?'

'I don't know, Gerry.'

'She didn't say that, though she clearly didn't. Nah, she looked at me all scandalized and said, 'Mr Butler, sir, I'm not answering that!'.

'Did she?'

'So, I turned to Younes, and Younes was rolling his eyes at me and was like, could it be any more kindergarten? It's obviously the human eye, sir, then he turned to Fi and was like, you've got a proper dirty mind, you know that.'

'They are fifteen, what do you expect?'

'Not finished yet, mate. Fiona, she was just trying to come up with some stupid excuse when Rob turned around to her and said, also you're in for a fucking big disappointment, sister.'

'Hm.'

'C'mon, West, it's hilarious!'

'It's also completely made up, isn't it?

'Gen up, you wound me. Okay, fine, then answer me this: Why are men sexier than women?'

'I'm a bit swamped right now, can we postpone your coming out until I'm not holding dangerous chemicals?'

'First off, I wasn't coming out just then. Second off, how is any of that tat dangerous? And thirdly, answer my question.'

'I have no idea. You tell me. Why are men sexier than women?'

'Cause you can't spell sexy without 'xy'! Hah!'

'I didn't know jokes could cause one actual physical pain. Thank you for broadening my horizon.'

'You're welcome, mate. How do you tell the sex of a chromosome?'

'You pull down its jeans.'

'No, you - actually, aye, how did you reckon?'

'You're a biologist with a terrible fondness of bad biology jokes. Statistically, more than half of them revolve around genes.'

'Do they? Wait, you actually sat down and compiled that stat, didn't you?'

'No.'

'C'mon, West, it's like you think I don't know you.'

'No.'

'Of course you did.' 

'I didn't.'

'Aye, right. Did you make a pie chart, too? That's braw, mate, I knew you cared.'

'Gerry?'

'Mate?'

'Do you really think that making fun of me in the middle of my lab is such a clever idea? There are literally twenty two things within reach with which I could seriously injure you.'

'Mate, I've seen your lesson plans for this week, and also I'm not blind. You're surrounded by deodorant and attempt to create perfumes with your year six, so they smell nice for Christmas. Which is of course very manly and - whoa!'

'You were saying?'

'I'm not saying anything as long as you're pointing a fucking flame thrower in my direction!'

'But Gerry, you saw my lesson plans, all I'm doing is fiddle with deodorants. Coincidentally, did you know that propellant gas is highly flamable?'

'I do now! Seriously, West, get that out of my face, I'll look like a numpty if you scorch off my eyebrows.'

'All right. I'm just saying. Chemist. Dangerous materials. Not a good idea to annoy me.'

'Noted. But seriously, I didn't see that in your lesson plans. 'How to make a blow torch out of a can of deodorant', I mean.'

'I thought it wise to not include ways to set fire to the school into the curriculum.'

'That's sound.'

'Even though it's rather futile, considering they have an unlimited access to the internet.'

'Nah, they won't search for that. The internet is for porn.'

'Hm.'

''s my professional opinion. As a biologist, I mean.'

'Can I ask you something, though?'

'Sure, mate.'

'It's sexy gay porn, isn't it? What your internet is for?'

***

Somehow, Dom got stuck with three hours of supervising class tests today. It's a fate worse than death if anyone asks him. He knows some people (Orlando) spend the time you're supposed to stop pupils from cheating grading papers, others (Viggo) annoy other people (Sean) by texting them continuously, and a third party (Bernard) once held a ten minute monologue of how he wishes he had a tractor lawn mower to haunt Jackson College's grounds, until a pupil (Lijah, when they were sixth formers) told him to shut the fuck up, they were trying to concentrate here.

Anyhow, Dom doesn't trust lawn mowers, and he doesn't have any papers to grade as of yet. So he is insanely bored and seriously considered just giving his year four the answers to the test, so this agony would end. But somehow, just the moment he thinks that, honest to God, Christopher walks past his classroom and looks through the window like he KNOWS what Dom is about to do. Dom very nearly falls off his chair, but successfully covers up the almost-embarrassment by glaring at Mahdi in front of him who turns red and tries to hide his cheat sheet under his desk.

Dom's been working at Jackson College for twelve years now (or something), and he is still fucking petrified of Christopher. Seriously, if Jackson College was housed in an ancient castle instead of a bunch of Edwardian houses, Dom would be convinced that Christopher wasn't actually vice principal but a vengeful ghost haunting the halls. He is pretty sure that even the headmaster himself is scared of him, and McKellen regularly faces down Ofsted people who are like bureaucratic pirates or something.

Dom reckons the only person not afraid of him is Orlando but that is mainly because Orlando is an insane person. Not if you asked him, of course, Orlando regularly makes it very clear that he firmly believes that he is the only one around with actual functioning braincells. But that's the thing about crazy people, isn't it? They always think they are sane. Dom, who has known Orlando since the first day of school and who has witnessed him doing things like eating a pound of ketchup just because someone said he couldn't, Dom knows better. Orlando is mental and possibly suicidal, so he always calls Christopher out just for the sake of it. Like during the staff conference this morning when Christopher reminded everyone that it would be a safety violation to put up Christmas wreaths in classrooms and light candles. Of course, Orlando instantly started arguing with him about it.

Dom pulls out his phone and checks his messages (discreetly, under the table, kinda like Joanie in the second last row is doing it right now; as if she'd find the answers to Dom's test question on Wikipedia). Orlando has send him a picture. Of a wreath. Of course he bought a wreath. And a fucking ugly one at that. Golden tinsel? Seriously?

Naturally, Dom knows what will happen next. Orlando, who thinks Christmas is the most idiotic holiday on the planet, will turn lighting the candles on his wreath into some sort of symbolic gesture to fight oppression. Viggo won't be able to help himself and pour fuel into the fire. Somewhere along the lines, Karl will punch something. It will all escalate until Cate will tell Sean to get Orlando a fricking set of fairy lights to weave into his stupid wreath because she is a pragmatic goddess, and the only person able to nudge Orlando off of his war path has always been Sean, if he can be bothered.

Dom sends Orlando two thumbs up and about twenty emoji candles. Then he turns the sound on his phone back on, opens the app he renamed 'Disciplining students too stupid to cheat better', flicks his phone and releases the maximum volume whiplash sound. All pupils look up. Joanie and Mahdi nearly fall off their chairs.

***

'I have no idea why I allow you to talk me into these things', Cate says, the bell at the end of her Santa hat jingling as she shakes her head. 

'You wha'?' Sean asks, very much incredulous, or as incredulous as you can pull of when you're wearing felt reindeer antlers on your head and have your mouth stuffed with cinnamon cookies.

With a mittened hand, Cate makes a great expanding gesture at York's Christmas market surrounding them. It's not the best of ideas since she uses the hand that holds abou five different plastic bags and she nearly hits an old man in the face with it. He looks up to complain about it and she gives him her most beatific smile. It would've worked, too, if Sean wasn't snickering next to her. She elbows him in the side.

'The stuff I do for you', she sighs ostentatiously and turns to a stand that sells exceedingly ugly ornaments.

Sean stuffs the last cookie into his mouth and crumples up his now empty cookie bag. He discreetely stuffs the little paper ball into one of Cate's many bags. He then proceeds to lick his fingers clean from crumbs and has just finished with that task when Cate turns around again, her scrunched up nose a commentary on the cheap tat she just eyed. Sean's (licked-clean) middle finger is greeting her. 

'The stuff you do for me, eh?' he says humorously. 'Let's see, you allow me to drive you here and find us a parking space in this hellhole, you then allow me to tag along while you endeavour to buy the most atrocious things known to mankind. What else, oh yes, you kindly destroy my sense of smell by forcing me to stand around in The Perfume Shop for half an hour and have me be the guinea pig for your husband's new after shave.'

He nods, pats her Christmas hat, using it to also wipe his fingers clean and earns himself a slap agains the chest for it.

'Yeah, you're life is filled with hardships.'

Cate glares at him for a moment but really, Sean smells like a olfactorily challenged sailor on shoreleave, so it's not like she can deny it.

'Fine', she gives him, 'maybe this is partly my fault. This here, though?' Once again she gestures at the Christmas Market, and with the kind of mezmerized fascination with which you pass traffic accidents. Her gaze momentarily gets stuck at a shop selling glass baubles with one's face on it. 'Why would you insist coming here? You're still looking for a present for your parents?'

Sean makes a dismissive gesture and she follows as he starts to push his way through the crowds once more.

'I'm getting them Sky to watch the football.'

'Orlando then?'

'He's getting the only thing he ever wants.'

'A device to remove that stick up his arse?'

Sean snorts but shakes his head and pulls on her sleeve to re-direct her into one of the smaller aisles.

'Books.'

Cate catches up with Sean just as he slows down near the end of the cul-de-sac they found themselves in.

'Okay, I give up. Why are we here then?'

Sean half-turns to her, gives her his patented grin that makes him look like the villain from a Bond movie and points up at the last stall's wooden sign.

'Mulled wine, obviously.'

***

Liv is well fucked. It was Susa's idea, of course, to get hammered on Saturday - 'cuz they never check your ID card on Christmas markets, I know that for a fact' and 'you can get well mullered on mulled wine, haha'. Both are true, obv, but what they haven't reckoned with is that their house teacher might have a taste for it as well. So, when it is Liv's shout and she has just picked up three new mugs of steaming wine, she runs straight into Mr. Bean, spilling half of it onto his coat. Now, Liv is a good liar, but even she can't explain away this. All she can do is keep Susa, Marina, and Mo out of it, after she sees them diving behind the next dumpster the second they hear Mr. Bean's 'Oi!'. Good reflexes, Liv's mates have.

Anyway, smelling of cheap spiced wine, Bean ignores Mrs. Blanchett standing behind him, laughing herself silly. He also ignores Liv's stammered attempt to come up with a lie. He points at Liv and says, 'You. Five hours on my couch. Tomorrow, noon.' before he starts wiping himself clean with the napkins Mrs. Blanchett holds out ot him.

So, that is how, at 11.55 a.m. on a bloody Sunday, Liv stands in the hallway in front of Mr. Bean's rooms and practices her contrite face before she knocks. It's not the first time she's been couched, and it's not that bad, really, she told that to Susa, Mo, and Marina yesterday when they were totally freaking out after catching up with Liv.

This is how it normally goes: Bean opens the door and looks at you with his stern face that even Liv was proper scared off the first few times, and he bids you in. He gestures you to sit down on The Couch and offers you a mug of tea. But that isn't out of the kindness of his heart or anything; he lets you sit there stewing in your own sweat while he takes his bloody time to mess with the kettle. Then, when you have a mug in your hand and wonder how low a teacher's salary must be if he can't even afford china that isn't chipped, he sits down opposite of you, drinks his tea and just looks at you in varying degrees of annoyance and benevolence ('Benevo - you what?' Susa asked when Liv explained the procedure because she is a muppet and doesn't know any words with more than four letters). Then you talk about whatever it is that caused you to end up here, and somehow, Bean never yells at you but still makes you feel right shit for a while. Sometimes he even asks you what you think the proper punishment for what you did would be. Liv wonders whether anyone ever answered 'Well, getting twenty lashes with the whip would be appropriate, don't you think, sir' and then got what he wished for.

It's exactly like that today as well, at least at first. Bean also offers her an aspirin, and Liv takes it because she does have a fucking headache and she doesn't even care that obviously Bean is laughing at her. And they talk and whatever, and Liv pretends that she is sorry and won't do it again and Bean pretends that he believes her. He then tells her to stay put and finish her bio homework here; because he is fucking omniscient or something, and he knows that Mr Monaghan is doing alcohol addiction in bio at the moment. So ironic, yeah.

Anyway, Liv thinks that as far as punishments go, this could've gone worse, fetches her stuff from her room and tells Mo, who's asking what Bean's gonna do with her, that she has to spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning his kitchen in nothing but her bra and pants. Mo nearly keels over because she is soft in the head and believes anything you tell her.

Back in Bean's rooms, she sits down on The Couch and starts with bio while Bean is in his kitchen and tries to cook, though it turns out that he is utterly useless at it and nearly sets off the fire alarm. He laughs when he comes back into the living room to fetch his phone and call help, and Liv scrunches up her nose at the terrible smell of burned eggs or something. Anyway, ten minutes later, there is a knock on the door and Mr Bana stands there. He says, 'Sean, you're a complete idiot and inept at everything in life, you'll never -' then he pauses for a moment when he sees Liv on the couch, like he is considering toning it down a notch with underage company present, but then decides against it. 'You'll never find a husband if you can't cook and are shit in bed'. He then disappears in the kitchen and Bean sits down next to Liv and helps her with the bit about mental ineptness as a result of chronic alcohol abuse, while Mr Bana cooks and fucking sings while he is doing it. 'Honest, you're trying to drive me to alcoholism here, don't you' Liv mutters under her breath and naturally Bean hears it.

Still singing like the lunatic he is, it's ten minutes later that Mr Bana carries in plates with grilled cheese sandwiches and opens the door to the flat even though there wasn't even a knock. Mr Mortensen is standing there, like he is some bloodhound with a nose for grilled cheese or something. So Liv interrupts bio and eats with them, while Mr Bana and Mr Mortensen have a conversation in code that no one but them understands. Liv thinks it might be about cricket but it could just as well be about taking over the world. Her sandwich isn't half bad, though.

When they leave again, dirty plates still on the coffee table, Mr. Bean starts reading a book and leaves Liv to bio again, and she is almost done when around three there is another knock on the door - not the same loud boom-boom that might as well have been Mr. Bana's foot against the wood, but three sharp and precise knocks. Mr Bean opens and it's Mr Bloom there. He is wearing a Manchester jersey and is carrying two bottles of wine because of course he is a fucking ManU fan and thinks it's totally normal to get drunk on bloody wine while watching the football. He is so fucking la-di-dah.

He gives her one look and honest, he isn't even Liv's house teacher but his looks are far more fucking intimidating than Mr. Bean's. And he asks, 'What have you done, then?' like he is her dad or something. Liv mutters something and Mr Bloom looks like he is about to tell her to sit up straight and speak up when Mr. Bean, behind him, lightly hits the back of his head and says 'Leave it, Orlando. Remember Christmas '93, eh'. - Because all teachers speak in fucking code, apparently. But wonder of wonders, Mr Bloom does shut up. He cleans away the dirty plates and ignores Bean's 'you don't have to do that'. Then he opens his pretentious wine and pours himself and Mr Bean some and turns the telly on.

At 3.10 Liv flips her laptop shut because she is done. 'Can I go now?' she wants to know and Mr Bloom gives her another look over the rim of his glass of wine but doesn't say anything. Mr Bean looks at his watch. 'Two more hours to go, Liv. Either come back after the football, or watch it with us.' Liv opens her mouth to argue but shuts it again when she sees that Mr Bloom is struggling to contain his laughter.

'Fine', she says and crosses her arms in front of her chest as she leans back. 'ManU is shit, though. I'm rooting for Tottenham.'

***

'So, a drama teacher walks into a bio class,' Gerry opens as he sits down next to Dominic in the staff room, five minutes before their break ends. 

Dominic, who is busy prodding a zippo with a biro, glances at him with a deep frown on his face.

'I think we need a new rule at this table', he says. 'No jokes before noon, and that's still ninty minutes off.'

Gerry smacks his lips and crosses his arms behind his head.

'Aye right. Try putting that to a vote, mate. It'll never pass. The Wonder Twins are never gonna go for it.'

Dominic doesn't even look at Dom and Billy; he has perfected zoning them out since 8 this morning when they sat at the breakfast table and started beatboxing Chrismas carols. Instead his eyes fix on Gerry, he holds up his zippo and lights it. The flame is satisfactorily bigger than before he started fiddling with it.

'I'll take my chances.'

Gerry pulls his eyebrows up in a comical version of horror, then he leans forward and blows the flame out.

'No, but really mate, I wasn't gonna tell a joke. I just realized something and thought you might appreciate the information.'

Dominic flicks the zippo shut and pokes it with the biro some more.

'Okay. I'm all ears.'

Gerry licks his lips, leans in and stage-whispers, 'Johnny is a complete bampot.'

'You don't say.'

'I'm not kidding. He borrowed my third form just now, and you'll never guess what for.'

'Ritual mass suicide?'

'New rule: No sarcasm before noon.'

'That's a great idea. Let's see how far that'll get you.'

'You want to hear my tale of woe or not, mate? And you'd better say yes because I'm gonna make you listen to it anyway.'

'I could just get up and walk away.'

'You wouldn't.'

'I wouldn't?'

'If you tried, I'd feel justified to just keep you here by sitting on you. Then you'd have to listen to my story while having me sitting in your lap. Do you want that?'

'Not particularly, no.'

Gerry laughs in satisfaction, even more so when he manages to snatch the zippo from Dominic's hand.

'Okay, I'll be quick.'

'That'd be a first.'

'Shut up for fuck's sake! Honestly, you're worse than my second formers. Did I tell you -'

Dominic snatches the zippo back.

'One story at a time, Gerry, okay?' 

He lights a fire and waves it from side to side the littlest bit as if that will get Gerry to focus. Gerry's eyes indeed follow the flame for a second or two, then he grins and picks up the rather mangled looking banana that is perched on his crooked pile of bio books.

'Right, okay. So, just now, I was busy embarrassing the fuck out of my third formers by showing them how to roll condoms on bananas -'

'As you do.'

'Right. So, half the class had a proper beamer, and that's when the door is slammed open like this was some big theatre entrance, and I was like, what is this an impromptu inspection, why do they always catch me with condom wrappers between my teeth?'

'You do realize that it's not safe to open them that way, don't you?'

'I had my hands full!' As if to emphazise his point, Gerry waves with the banana before he starts to peel it while he continues. 'It wasn't an inspection, though, it was Johnny and he wanted to borrow my class. Now, usually, they have enough sense of self-preservation to not volunteer to go with him, yeah, but for some reason they all jumped up instantly this time.'

He bites a huge chunk off the banana and hums with pleasure. Dominic looks from the penis-stand-in in Gerry's hand to his mouth, then back to the banana.

'No idea why', he says dryly. 

Gerry nods enthusiastically.

'I know, right? Anyroad, Johnny took them all and I started cleaning my labspace and whatever, and that took me a good twenty minutes or something like that. Which was when I decided that it'd look bad on my CV if Johnny sold my pupils into slavery, so I went to check up on them. And guess what he'd done?'

'It's Johnny. There is no way any sort of logical reasoning will help me here.'

Gerry bursts out laughing and nearly spits banana in Dominic's face. Dominic very carefully pushes his chair slightly more out of Gerry's reach.

'Go on then, what did he do?'

Still laughing, Gerry puts the banana peel back down onto his books, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and pulls out his phone. 

'Have a swatch', he says and holds out the phone for Dominic to see.

It shows a photo of the library, a very pleased looking Johnny in the foreground, flanked by a couple of third formers that apparently don't know whether to look amused, freaked out, or embarrassed. Behind them, almost reaching the ceiling, looms... well, Dominic reckons it's supposed to be a modern art Christmas tree installation. Its shape vaguely resembles that of one at least; a thick solid bottom that is thinning out towards the top. It is, however, made entirely out of books. Which explains why all the shelves are empty.

Dominic hands the phone back to Gerry.

'You do realize,' he says slowly, 'that Christopher will have an aneurism, right?'

Gerry shrugs.

'It's kinda funny, isn't it.'

Dominic nods.

'Hilarious. Christopher'll also be looking for someone to crucify for this. For instance the person who was supposed to supervise this bunch of misguided youths.'

Gerry pulls a face, crosses his arms in front of his chest and looks at the ceiling.

'Dom, mate,' he then says and looks back at Dominic. 'What's on your schedule next?'

'Physics, sixth form.'

'Any chance, I can borrow a few kids?'

***

A horde of first formers tramples up the staircase, momentarily interrupting Dom's and Orlando's in-between-classes conversation.

Orlando gives their collective behinds a stern look, but Dom just picks up where they left off.

'Cheap perfume', he says.

'Hairspray', Orlando counters immediately.

'Sweat.'

'Feet.'

'Desperation.'

Orlando shakes his head as he holds the door for Dom.

'Doesn't count.'

'Why not?'

Orlando throws him the same look he just gave Monica for constantly calling Diogenes Diagonal.

'Because it's an abstract idea, stupid, not a smell.'

'It is when you're supervising exams in fifth form.'

'Okay, what does it smell like then?'

Dom thinks about it for a moment, kicking an empty plastic bottle that someone dropped down the hallway.

'Kind of rank?'

'Like sweat and feet? Cause we had those already.'

'Nah, more like ', Dom adjusts his backpack, so it doesn't slide off when he starts waving his arms about frantically. 'OMG, if I fuck this up, my life is totes over.'

Orlando frowns at him and picks up the empty bottle before they round the corner.

'Those are the same words you used to describe love last week.'

Dom shoulders open the next connecting door, nearly squashing two girls hunched over a phone right behind it.

'What's your point, Orlando?'

'Love and exam stress are not the same thing.'

'Agree to disagree. Ever heard of performance anxiety?'

That elicits a smile from Orlando, and he leans against the wall next to the bio lab as Dom searches for his keys, pupils starting to crowd behind him.

'Fine,' Orlando concedes. 'It's still not a smell, so it can't linger in the air and permanently damage your nose.'

Dom finds his keys and opens the door, putting on his thinking face as his next class streams past.

'Desperation smells of milk turned bad, trackies that you forgot in your gym bag for a month, and just a hint of bogies.'

A small blond girl with pigtails looks up at him.

'Ew, Mr Monaghan! That's pure vile!'

Orlando uses his hand not holding his textbooks to gesture at her.

'What she said. - Are you up for lunch at the pub later?'

'Yeah, sure. After this period?'

Orlando nods and pushes himself away from the wall.

'You're on. Oh and Dom?'

Dom turns around in the doorway.

'Yeah?' 

'Bogies don't smell. So, I win.'

***

Viggo looks up from the box filled with truly questionable designs for Christmas cards his first formers have drawn (there is no way anyone is going to pay money for any of these, and Viggo is including the parents in that equation) when Eric enters the staff room. He's got his third pile of tests stuffed under his arm, and he nearly runs over Christopher who is having a staring match with Gerry. As much as that collision would have entertained Viggo normally (and might have gotten Gerry out of the detention he is apparently headed for), Viggo can't bring himself to be amused by it. When Eric collapses in his chair with a loud sigh, it's not just the ostentatious, mocking one, but something like real exhaustion.

Viggo shows up at Eric's - Christmas card box in his hand - around nine and finds Eric on the couch. He has a smudge of red ink spreading over most of his lower lip, looking like a bruise, and Viggo sees untidy piles of classwork on the coffee table as well as on the couch itself. Eric just briefly looks up, then goes back to grading and muttering about the stupidity of his pupils.

Viggo puts the Christmas cards onto Eric's printer and watches how Eric cracks the end of another ballpoint pen because he is chewing on it with too much force. Without looking up from the text perched on his knee, Eric cusses and tosses the pen in the general direction of the bin next to the TV before picking up another one. Viggo goes into the kitchen to pluck the coffee maker in.

When he returns to the living room, carrying the biggest mug he could find, Eric does interrupt his work in order to lean his head back against the couch, look at Viggo upside down and whimper pitifully. The corners of Viggo's mouth twitch, and he puts the mug into Eric's hand who manages to spill only a little of the hot coffee it contains onto the paper on his thigh. He briefly closes his eyes and sighs when Viggo's hands drop down onto his shoulders to give them a squeeze. It's not a massage because getting rid off the tight knots in his shoulders would require way more time which Eric doesn't have at the moment, deadlines and all.

So, Viggo fetches his box and a mug for himself, clears a pile of tests from the sofa and gets comfortable next to his mate. He starts sorting through the Christmas cards, prepared to shake Eric awake repeatedly within the next couple of hours.

***

'I feel old', Sean says, sitting next to Orlando on the park bench in front of the science building during the ten minute break.

'What I've been telling you for years', Orlando says without looking up from his phone.

Sean looks over his shoulder, but it's honestly too cold for any kids to linger outside out of their own volition. He lights a cigarette.

'You know what happened in my lower sixth right now?' he asks after taking the first drag.

Orlando hums, signalling that he is listening, even if his eyes are still glued to the screen of his phone.

'I was in the middle of explaining – oh, it doesn't matter – anyway, despite the rules I heard at least six text message alerts going off simultaneously at five to two. Six. Subsequently, half the class had ants in their pants and couldn't get out of the room fast enough when I called a break. I'm losing my touch.'

A rare smile tugs at Orlando's lips.

'At 1.55, you say?'

Sean nods.

'You are out of touch,' Orlando says with his usual lack of kindness. 'Those weren't alerts for text messages.'

Sean takes another drag before putting the cigarette out as he sees a couple of hunched over sixth formers in the entrance of the science building.

'No?'

'No.' Orlando shuffles a little closer to Sean and starts typing into his phone. 'Skam update on NRK.'

'I didn't understand a word you just said.'

Orlando looks at him pityingly, then holds out his phone so Sean can look at the screen as well and shows him. 

Sean is late for his next period.

***

'I think this will be a catastrophe', Eric mutters with his eyes firmly fixed on the stage, wedged between Viggo and Sean.

'This is a catastrophe', Viggo corrects him, pretty much radiating glee, while a forelorn first former crab-walks across the stage, wearing a very crappy star-shaped costume.

'Will you two shut it', Sean says because the Star of Bethlehem in in his house and he feels responsible. However, he can't help but snicker himself when another tiny human emerges, wearing a XXXL wool jumper whose pattern spells out 'SHEEP'. It earns him a snide look from Orlando.

'Seriously? Can't you just let them rehearse in peace? I'm gonna throw all three of you out if you're being like that', he hisses under his breath.

'Oh really, mate', Eric laughs, 'you and what army?'

'Yeah, what army?' Viggo echoes, much too amused to be able to hide it. 'Certainly not the horribly anachronistic members of the Mossad over there.'

The aforementioned squad consists of five girls in cameo outfit and machine guns who lurk next to the nativity scene on stage. Johnny has obviously come up with this whole thing while under the influence.

'No, of course not' Orlando replies calmly. 'I'll get Karl and Gerry to do it.'

Karl, everyone can believe that. Karl likes wrestling people to the ground for no reason. And Gerry? Gerry can be convinced to switch sides for as little as a Mars bar.

Eric, however, makes a dismissive gesture nonetheless.

'Like I'm scared of that sheepshagger.'

As if that reminds him, Sean ignores the arrival of the three holy men (one wearing a business suit, one carrying Lidl bags, one mostly hidden behind a giant map) and leans a little closer to Eric. 

'Been meaning to ask: You're flying home over the break?'

Eric nods enthusiastically.

'On the 24th, at...'

When he hesitates for a moment, Viggo finishes for him, '7.50 a.m. from Manchester.' 

'Means we have to get up in the middle of the night.'

Viggo laughs. 'You book the flight next time, if that'll stop you from bitching. At least I only got us one layover only in Dubai.' He looks at Sean and gestures at Eric. 'That one wanted to book a flight that'd have taken us 40 fucking hours.'

'Yeah, yeah', Eric answers with a smile. 'Whatever you say, mate.' 

'I just hope that they have more decent in-flight movies this year. I'm not having any more of that romcom shit from last year.'

'I told you that they don't have porn there, ever', Eric replies his grin growing broader yet.

Orlando reaches across to smack him.

'Seriously, take this the fuck outside or stop fucking talking about fucking porn in front of the kids.'

He may have said that a little loud because two lanky third formers holding up the tarpaulin that is supposed to be the roof, look their way with comically large eyes. Sean, Viggo, and Eric suppress their laughter with varying degrees of success. Orlando just adopts his 'I am a serious adult' glare until the kids look away again.

'You're going with again, then?' Sean resumes the conversation, his words this time directed at Viggo.

'Course he is', Eric answers. 'We're staying at my sister's hotel, and Viggo didn't leave the suite he had last year.'

'You mean broom closet.'

Eric laughs at that, and considering that the Bana's hotel prides itself for its five stars, that's about all the response needed.

'How about you?' he then asks Sean back.

'Staying here', Sean says with a shrug. The Star of Bethlehem trips over his own feet and lands on his face. Even Orlando's lips twitch. Lazily Sean gestures at the stage. 'Someone's gotta look after this lot.'

Viggo shakes his head.

'You're something like a saint, for always volunteering. I'm gonna propose sainthood for you with the big guy in Rome. Next summer; I mean it.'

'We're doing Rome again next summer?' Eric asks and pulls a face, as two 'SHEEP' kids try to get the Star back onto his feet but mostly manage to drag him back and forth. 'I hate it there.'

'Why, did a pigeon shit on your head?' Orlando asks without taking his eyes of the scene on the stage.

Sean snorts with laughter and so does Viggo.

'ONE?' Eric asks back, scandalized. 'Have you ever BEEN to Rome? The second you step out of the hotel, they zone in on you. Like it's a Hitchcock movie.'

'Yeah, right, Tippi Hedren.'

'What about you?' Viggo asks Orlando. 'You driving down to see the parents?'

Orlando huffs and if you looked very closely, you could see his features harden minutely. 

'No, I'm not.'

'Someone's gotta look after me, looking after this lot', Sean says after a pause. 'Eh?'

Orlando looks at him, then at Viggo, then back at Sean. He nods.

'Right.'

The tiniest of first formers creeps onto the stage, dressed as a hippie version of baby Jesus, and Eric throws his arms in the air like he is attempting a one-man Mexican wave. He accidentally hits Viggo in the face.

***

The upside on one's birthday falling on a Saturday in December?

It's 9.30 p.m. and Bernard and Marianne returned from a birthday dinner ten minutes ago. That's when the doorbell rings, and upon opening, Bernard finds Sean, Cate, and Dom there, singing Happy Birthday loud enough to wake Bernard's elderly neighbours. They may be a bit tipsy already. Also they are dressed as the three wise men, using what appears to be Cate's silk shawls for makeshift turbans.

Bernard gladly takes their offerings of booze, booze, and more booze, then tells Marianne he'll be out for a while. Because on his birthday, Bernard is Jesus, and Jesus decides that they need to prank Viggo.

***

'God, could you look any more like a chav?' Orlando says instead of a hello as Sean opens his door.

Sean looks down at himself, the bowl of cereals, his trackpants, his mismatched socks. 

'Can't all be looking like we're coming from church, can we?'

Orlando scowls at him at that and tugs at the collar of his shirt.

'Arsehole.'

Sean shoves a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.

'What did I tell you about swearing on my doorstep, Orlando?'

That actually gets him something of a smile before Orlando nods at the flat.

'You're gonna let me in, or shall I come back later when you've had time to hide the evidence?'

'Evidence?'

'Honestly, you're the worst liar in the history of lying', Orlando says, entirely unimpressed. 'I'd bet my bike that you didn't even hide the stuff you stole from Viggo last night.'

Another spoonful of cereal buys Sean maybe a second. He shakes his head.

'No idea what you're talking about.'

Orlando rolls his eyes and stuffs his hands into the pockets of his slacks.

'Right. Are you gonna invite me in now or what?'

Orlando never just pushes past or (like certain other people that Sean, Bernard, Dom, and Cate did spend burgling last night) climbs through the window. He always waits until he is invited in; like a copper who hasn't got a search warrant or (Viggo's words, not Sean's) like a vampire.

'C'mon in, then', Sean says and steps aside. 'If you're having one of your sensitive days, ignore whatever it is you think you see on the dining table.'

Orlando doesn't, of course. Instead he makes a bee line for said table, like a well-trained narcotics detection dog. Sean watches and eats as Orlando picks up the small plastic satchels, opens a few of them and sniffs their contents.

'Seriously, most of this shit will give you an absolute fucker of a headache', he concludes and shakes his head in distaste. 'Where does Viggo get his weed from, a fucking first former?'

'Not everyone can be best mates with the resident drug lord', Sean answers and wipes milk from his lips with the sleeve of his jumper before he puts the bowl down.

Orlando snorts.

'Drug lord, my arse. Don't let Dom hear that or his head'll explode. Some kingpin he'd make.'

Sean steps next to Orlando and looks down at the satchels of different sizes that are strewn over the table. Breaking into Viggo's rooms was so damn easy, they managed it drunk and with just Cate's credit card as a tool. Granted, the noise they made (especially Bernard when he ran into Viggo's artificial Chrismas tree and tumbled to the floor with it) would've woken even the soundest of sleepers, but Viggo wasn't in, most probably staying at Eric's as usual.

'He really shouldn't be leaving that stuff just lying around', Sean says, letting teacherly disappointment tone his voice.

Orlando smirks and picks up one of the smaller satchels.

'No, he shouldn't. Anyone could take it and light up.'

Sean looks at the weed that Orlando apparently deemed smoke-worthy and arches his brows in a suggestion. He then goes to look for some rolling paper.

'Anything in particular you wanted?' he asks while rummaging through a kitchen drawer. 'Or did you come here with this in mind?'

When he turns around again, Orlando has sat himself down on one of the comfy chairs and shakes his head.

'Nah, I wanted to ask you something.'

'You know I don't do advice.'

Orlando laughs at that.

'You're mistaking giving advice with giving useful advice, mate.'

Sean sits down on the couch and drops the small tin can that contains rolling paper and a lighter onto the coffee table.

'And yet here you are.'

'Yeah, I thought stupid romantic getaways, who might be the expert on that, and I came to the conclusion I should hit up the resident serial womanizer.'

Sean chuckles at Orlando's ultra dry tone of voice and props his feet up on the coffee table.

'You're looking to surprise Kate?'

'It's Katy, Sean', Orlando corrects with a roll of his eyes. 'I've been seeing her for almost a year now, you can at least try getting her name right. But seriously now, two days, over New Year's, what do you recommend?'

Sean stares at the ceiling long enough for Orlando to get restless, pick up the weed and the tin can and roll a neat joint.

Then finally he says, 'Booze Cruise to Ibiza.'

The ready joint between his lips, Orlando pauses in his his attempt to light it.

'You're such a fucking chav.'

***

'Are you free this afternoon?' Viggo asks as he puts down his tray with lunch next to Eric's. He doesn't wait for Eric's response, though. 'Cause I need someone to help me bury Orlando's body.'

Eric licks grease from his lips (spare ribs day is his favourite day in the entire month) and shrugs lightly.

'Sure, if you want. What's he done this time?'

December is not a good month for peace and quiet. It seems with all the Christmas cheer around, Orlando doubles his efforts to be an atheistic grouch. Not that he generally has difficulties in that area; at this rate, being in the same room with him riles Viggo, and Orlando doesn't even have to do anything.

Viggo pulls a face and points one of his spare ribs accusingly in Orlando's direction. Orlando, seated between Sean and Karl, is of course eating his ribs using cutlery. He is an absolute weirdo, but that's nothing new.

'He stole my weed.'

'Vig,' Eric says, carefully because Eric loves Viggo, but once Viggo has decided on something it is pretty impossible to dissuade him. 'Bernard gave it back to you last night. And he even confessed.'

'He's a scapegoat,' Viggo insists, nibbling at his rib and throwing Orlando dirty looks like he really wishes he was gnawing on Orlando's throat instead. 'I know it was Orlando.'

'Must've been some elaborate plan,' Eric says peacably. 'I mean considering I was texting him about that Christmas do on Wednesday all night.'

'He could've done that while breaking in. Do you think that Dom West has enough computer skills to pull Orlando's GPS data for his phone?'

Eric looks over to where Dom West is seated next to Gerry. As per usual, Gerry is talking and animatedly waving his hands around like he is trying to impersonate a windmill on crack, while Dominic's reactions need to be measured in micro-expressions.

'I don't think he can do that', Eric says. 'Or maybe he does. Maybe he branched out to cyber terrorism.'

Momentarily distracted by that notion, Viggo sucks on the bone he already picked clean and gazes over to Gerry and Dominic. Gerry notices and waves. Dominic looks at Gerry as if Gerry was mental, then says something that makes Gerry splutter orange juice over the table.

'Yeah, okay, maybe not', Viggo concedes. 'But I know that Orlando smoked some, I just do. Just look at him.'

Obligingly, Eric looks back at Orlando who is listening to whatever Sean and Karl simultaneously are trying to tell him. Instead of his usual frown, he actually listens patiently, nods a couple of times, and doesn't interrupt or snark or do anything else... Orlando'ish. And that is, even though, when Eric walked past them five minutes ago after getting seconds, he knows for a fact that he heard the word 'Ibiza'.

'Yeah, I kinda see your point', he therefor agrees after another couple of moments. 'He's never that... human when he isn't stoned.'

It's partly a joke, but Viggo just nods with a grim expression on his face.

'Aw, fuck,' Eric says abruptly and shakes his head. 'I can't, this afternoon. Help you bury his body, I mean. I have a department meeting.'

Viggo, teeth buried in the meat of his next spare rib, growls in response. Eric raises his shoulders in a silent apology.

'Sorry, but if I don't show, Christopher will kill me. And then you'd have two funerals to organize in a week.' He picks up another rib and looks at it lovingly, then he uses it to point at Orlando who is now laughing (seriously, he HAS to be high) at something Karl said. 'Tell you something, though. I confiscated a bag of Christmas elf glitter during rounds last night -'

'What on earth is 'elf glitter'?'

'Stripper glitter, really. But Eva McShannon didn't want to fess up to moonlighting as a showgirl, so she told me it was elf glitter. Anyway, my point is, I have about a pound worth of that shit just lying around.'

'And?'

Eric licks his lips, looks at Viggo, grins.

'Monday night is laundry night for Orlando, isn't it?'

***

Liv needs new mates. She is dead serious about that.

Because it's the first period, philosophy, and Mr Bloom walks in in his stupid grey slacks, grey cardigan with stupid elbow patches, black shirt, and starts talking about Plato before he even put his books down.

And of fucking course Liv notices, fuck, even Hector notices, and he sits in the last row and is playing with his balls through his pockets (and Liv so wishes she hadn't noticed that. Well gross.). But it's Mo and only Mo who goes all big eyed and interrupts Mr Bloom's monologue on uber-humans or something, by blurting out, 'Mr Bloom, you're totally wearing glitter. Are you gay??'

In the silence that follows, Liv's groan is very loud. 

Mr Bloom's face doesn't move. He looks down at his shirt that is covered in glitter, so there is no way he hasn't noticed. Then he sits down at his desk and launches a twenty minute speech on the history of blokes getting it on with blokes and how glitter does not, at any point, come into it.

And seriously, it's 2016, like anyone cares about being gay or whatever. Liv wouldn't even give a damn if Mr Bloom was fucking Mr Bean (okay, she would, because they are both well old and that's proper disgusting). What she does care about is that thanks to Mo, she now has to listen to one of her teachers talk about assfucking and, worse, love and that is just enough to make her wanna vom.

Urgh.

***

'I am massively pleased that you came to me with this,' Dom says, way too loud, considering the circumstances.

Orlando shushes him and makes a silent and impatient gesture at the door to Eric's rooms. Dom looks over his shoulder twice and is the personification of shifty and suspicious, and really he is shit company for breaking and entering. But Karl is busy with rugby practice on the outer field, and Sean has couched two Lower Sixers for indecent exposure on said field last night, now most probably in the middle of his lecture about safe sex and how rolling around in the mud is not it.

'For fuck's sake, Dom, it's five thirty in the afternoon', Orlando mutters and tugs at his mate's shoulder to get him up from his knees. 'Just try and act normal, you idiot. There us no need for lock-picking'

Once Dom is on his feet again, Orlando pushes him off the doormat and retrieves the spare key that Eric hides under it.

They let themselves in and Orlando rolls his eyes at Dom's ridiculous tiptoeing, and Dom whispers to him that he is a fuckhead who sucks all the fun out of life; the usual.

They stop dead the second they enter the living room. Because Eric was supposed to be with Gerry, preparing the gym for the Christmas bash tomorrow. It's why Orlando chose this time for his retaliation. However, it seems that Gerry roped someone else into helping him or just wanted the balloons and tinsel all for himself. Because Eric isn't out. He is sprawled out on his sofa, his head hanging over the side, fast asleep.

'He looks like a giant sloth,' Dom whispers, snickering. 'If sloths grew to be 6'2'' and had little enough taste to wear knitted Christmas jumpers.'

Orlando shakes his head.

'Not a sloth', he corrects, 'Kangaroo.'

And Orlando is right, of course, like he usually is. The national animal from Eric's homeland carries its offspring with itself in a pouch on its belly. Only that in Eric's case, it isn't a precious baby kangaroo that he is cradling to his stomach with both his hands, but Viggo's head. Viggo lies on his belly between Eric's legs, his own mostly hanging off the other end of the sofa. He is also fast asleep.

'What the fuck', murmurs Dom, and it sounds like cooing and mockery both. He nudges Orlando's side. 'Man, if that was an attempted blow job, they need some serious help. Cause who falls asleep during a blow job, and they aren't even naked.'

He knows, of course, as well as Orlando that this isn't a life-sized diorama of how to not give head.

They both freeze when Viggo shifts on the couch as if the noise brought him to the edge of wakefulness. In response to the movement, Eric growls in his sleep and tightens his grip on Viggo's already hopeless hair, pushing his face back against his Christmas sweater. Viggo stills again, possibly smothered.

'Naaw, look at that, how adorable', Dom says and then nudges Orlando again. 'Now, let's find the keys to the Falcon already.'

The plan (Dom's plan, Orlando might add. He doesn't have the imagination of a first former.] was to relocate the big Christmas tree from Viggo's house and stuffing it into Eric's beloved car. But now, Orlando just shakes his head and gets his phone out instead.

'Nah, over it', he says and waves Dom's instant protest aside. He switches the camera function on and takes a picture of the scene in front of them. 'I do have the perfect Christmas card now, though.

***

'Gerry?'

'Dom?'

'I don't think this is a clever strategy.'

'No idea what you mean, mate.'

'The sunshades, for starters.'

'What, I think they are the hight of fashion. Very 'Top Gun'. Very Tom Cruise.'

'Hm. Maybe. Still, suspicious.'

'You think?'

'Well, it's 8.30 in the morning for starters, and we're in the staff room. There isn't any need for sunshades unless you're trying to -'

'What? What's that gesture supposed to mean? That I'm secretly wearing mascara under these?'

'Yes, because that's what this is about. You wearing Make Up to school. Of course it isn't. I was refering to the bags under your eyes, clear sign for heavy boozing.'

'I didn't booze, mate.'

'I saw you do the chicken dance last night.'

'So?'

'First of all, who does the chicken dance on a Christmas party?'

'I was teaching those second formers how to do it. They asked.'

'Hm. Yes. Just following your calling as a dance instructor, then.'

'You can call me Patrick Swayze.'

'I'd rather not.'

'You know, because of 'Dirty Dancing'.'

'Yes, I got the reference. I just disagree with your choice of cinematic role models.'

'What, you'd rather I quoted 'The Untouchables'? You know, prohibition and whatnot?'

'Don't know how much you remember from last night, Gerry, but 'Untouchable' was pretty much the opposite of your motto. I am pretty sure you tried feeling up Cate. And Sean.'

'Not sure which one is weirder.'

'The weird part is that Viggo filmed it.'

'Hey, West?'

'Hm.'

'Last night, after the Christmas do? I was on my way home through the village, and I ran into a nun. So, I walk over to her and slap her in the face.'

'What the -'

'Then I punch her in the stomach and knock her over.'

'Gerry -'

'So, I give kicking and when I'm done, I bend down to her and am like, "Not so tough tonight, are you Batman?" Hahaha.'

'I don't even know why I am friends with you.'

'It's because of the shades and my dance moves, mate.'

'Yeah. No.'

***

As soon as the plane is above 10.000 feet, Viggo switches his mobile on again, the nervous twitching of his leg instantly stopping. During the 'all devices must be switched off' period, Eric more or less successfully distracted his phone-addicted best mate by reading the safety instructions to him in a very politically uncorrect Melbourne accent and taking wild guesses which of the in-flight movie titles might actually be code for porn until the flight attendant gave him the stink eye. Now, he relaxes in his seat by the window, eats Viggo's bag of complimentary peanuts and watches as Viggo scrolls through his usual websites and reads his messages.

'So, world ended in the last half hour?', he asks with amusement as he always does because Viggo is actually physically incapable of surviving without his phone for longer than twenty minutes.

'Possibly', Viggo answers and leans a little closer so Eric can see the display of his phone. It shows a Whatsapp message from Sean that consists of just a photo of a quite distressed looking second former trying to climb the (already alarmingly crooked) Christmas tree in Jackson College's entrance hall.

'I swear, we leave them alone for five minutes and they take the whole place apart', Viggo says with a fond smile while Eric ponders whether Sean did at least save the boy from being crushed by the tree after he took the photo.

The flight attendant walks past and ignores Eric's broad smile and attempt to catch her eye so he can ask her for a drink. Ah, well. In the meantime, Viggo has just finished typing his reply, when his phone announces another message. With his shoulder pressed against Eric's anyway, Viggo just needs to tilt his phone a little bit for Eric to be able to read the new text. 

It is from Orlando and it simply reads "Merry Christmas". 

Technically, it's still the 24th in the UK, but Eric supposes that Orlando, who is the most anal person in the history of ever, sat down and calculated in which time zone Eric and Viggo would be right now - Dubai, their layover airport on their way to Melbourne, is four hours ahead of York, so technichally it is Christmas Day for them, even if only just. However, the message itself is, coming from Orlando, slightly surprising.

'Huh,' Eric grunts and nudges Viggo's shoulder. 'Look who is feeling the Christmas spirit this -'

He stops when, in quick succession, two more messages appear on the screen. 

"Since you believe in that ridiculous shit." and "My love to your Australian elf".

Viggo scoffs and shakes his head.

'Aw,' Eric says dryly. 'Isn't that sweet of the little fucker. What do we reply?'

Viggo looks at him and then switches his phone to camera mode. He shuffles closer yet and leans the side of his head against Eric's as Eric slings his arm around his shoulder. Holding the phone away from them, Viggo sticks out his tongue and Eric raises both his hands, giving the camera the finger.

Merry fucking Christmas indeed.

***

It's three o'clock in the afternoon, when Orlando leaves the main building's common room, trusting the game of Mario Kart to keep the kids entertained for a while. He makes his way through the empty halls, past his classroom door that some idiot decorated with nativity scene stickers to which Orlando had allowed his lower sixth to add their favourite footie players. 

When he enters the library, he half expects Robert Ryan and Maria Dayton there - he's caught them with their pants down (sadly, not just metaphorically) thrice in the last three days alone; they both seem to be big into exhibitionism and it'll be such a fucking joy to have to supervise them in the next two weeks. But for once, he is lucky and there is no one in the library at all, the ceiling light revealing just rows and rows of quiet books, and Orlando's favourite table by the window beckons. He figures he has an hour or so to himself until he has to make good on his promise to bake with the handful of disproportionally overweight members of the baking club. No matter what he likes people to believe, puppy dog eyes have the same effect on him as they do on everyone else.

For the time being, he is alone. On his way to the window, he picks up a book from the philosophy shelf, doesn't even look at the title, but grins when it turns out to be Feuerbach's 'Essence of Christianity'. As he sits down, pushes on of the other chairs back and props his feet onto it, he flips to the borrowers history on the last page, and it makes him laugh of course. Next to the dates, it's his name and Viggo's taking turns, and that is probably how it will continue until the list runs out of space.

As the sky outside grows from light to dark grey, he re-reads random paragraphs and repeatedly reaches for a pen to take notes only to find the table in front of himself empty of course. 

He removes his feet from the chair when the door to the library is pushed open, leaves them on the carpet even when he sees it's not an impressionable kid but Sean walking in. He let himself in with a push of his shoulder since both his hands are full with two steaming mugs, one of which he puts down in front of Orlando. Orlando wants to remark that drinks in the library are absolutely prohibited and Christopher will leather him once he finds out, and he will find out because he was trained by the KGB, Orlando is fairly certain. However, he is also fairly sure that Sean will take the mug away again if he said something, and from the smell alone he can tell it contains Sean's secret receipe of mulled wine. It's riciulously sweet and pretty much the nicest thing Christmas has to offer.

So he nods his thanks, puts his feet up again, and ignores Sean's pointed look at his shoes on the chair, at his book of choice. Sean turns to stack books from the history shelves onto one of the larger tables. With books it is as it is with food with Sean, he just can't get enough.

They read in silence, Orlando enjoying Feuerbach - "If man is to find contentment in God, he must find himself in God." and Sean building the Great Wall of China in paperbacks around himself. A quiet Christmas Day of Orlando's liking - until both their phones chirp simultaneously.

'Sorry to disturb', starts the message from Robert Jacob, 'but we kinda lost a first former in a game of hide and seek. Any chance she's with you, sirs?'

***

From: Someecards
Sent: Monday, 26.12. 2016 6:27
To: s.bean@jackson-college.co.uk
Subject: Viggo has sent you a card from someecards.com!

Hi Sean,
Viggo (occasionallyiamjesus@gmail.com) has sent you an ecard:

Message:
"G'day mate,

I hope you and the devil's spawn survived Christmas and the kids didn't deem it necessary to cook you instead of the turkey (Eric wants to know if the turkey was delicious and wants me to remind you to tell Cook to put some aside for him).

Christmas in Oz is as good as ever; Eric already have a massive sunburn because he NEEDED to go surfing immediately after our plane landed and our luggage -as always - got lost and with it the sun lotion. His sister only calls him 'lobster boy' and told him not to show his face to the hotel guests in fear of scaring them off.

Anyway, I hope you have a good two weeks ahead of you. If I recall that correctly, he-who-must-not-be-named wasn't able to convince the woman he conned into being in a relationship with him to go to Ibiza with him over New Year? In that case, have fun with him. Maybe Bernie will grant you asylum.

Cheers,
Vig"
If this card went to your junk mail or bulk mail folder, please add "dispatch@someecards.com" to your address book.

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Someecards, Inc. | PO Box 695 | New York | NY | 10159

***

When Bernard knocks on Sean's door, he is not surprised that Orlando opens. The green paper crown on his head is maybe a bit odd, Christmas being officially over. But when Bernard follows him inside he finds that Sean is wearing one as well, and so does the assorted bunch of first to third formers sprouting from Sean's carpet like mushrooms.

All of them look at him with excitement, including Sean but that might be attributed to the burgundy on the coffee table. Sean takes Bernard's coat and scarf, and two of the miniature book enthusiasts get up from their knees to get a look at the book that Bernard bought before he even has a chance of sitting down on the infamous Sofa.

Orlando, too, gives the book's cover a curious glance while pouring wine into the third glass.

'Aaaaarrr', he comments on it, voice low and rough.

This completely uncharacteristic display of swashbuckling leaves the kids in stunned confusion. Bernard grins. 

'Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum', he replies and takes a swig of wine. 

Sean, as always, is the one who enjoys their kid's bafflement the least. As he sits down in his favourite armchair, he lets them off the hook.

'Mr Hill brought 'Treasure Island' for you,' he explains. 'You're gonna love it, it's got lots of pirates in it.'

'Prepare for lots of interruptions from Mr Bean regarding historical inaccuracies,' Orlando says with a smile.

Bernard knows for a fact that it is Orlando who is the closeted piracy buff and that includes fencing lessons all through his lower sixth (or maybe that was someone else). But Sean doesn't say anything, just winks at Orlando and gestures at Bernard to get going already.

So, the annual post-Christmas meeting of Jackson College's book club has officially started. Three of the kids simultaneously stuff two home-made (i.e. crooked) cookies each into their cheeks, and everyone just stares at Bernard. Bernard eats a cookie himself (delicious), then opens the book.

'Chapter One - Squire Trewelany, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17something and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof - '

***

From: Liv D.-S.
Sent: Wednesday, 28.12.2016 4:23
To:
Subject: Homework

Dear Mr Bana,

first of, I wanted to tell you that I've already finished the homework you have us over the holidays. You told us to calculate the Christmas Price Index for 2016. It is £ 127.960.84,27. So, now that I've handed that in well early, I don't have to list all the prices for the stuff in that stupid carol, right? Cuz nobody even knows what a bloody partride is, do they?

Second of, I got your private email address from Mr Bloom, and he only gave it to me under the condition that I tell you something. And a promise is a promise and all that, even though you all are proper mangy. So the message is: 'Tell the hippie to use aloe on you, you muppet.' Whatever that is supposed to mean. And before you ask, I can't tell you if he is having a go or not, he was acting all earnest but Mr Bean was totally losing it at the same time, so it's anyone's guess.

Merry Christmas and whatnot.
Liv

***

'Yeah?'

'Gerry? Is that you?'

'No, Dominic, I'm terribly sorry, this is Gerry's mother. I'm afraid he can't come out and play today.'

'As much as I admire your acting skills, not even you can pull off an elderly woman.'

'Don't let my mother hear you call her elderly or she'll skelp ya.'

'Yeah, yeah. Listen, I rang because I just got a parcel from the postman.'

'Aw, it only arrived today? Bummer.'

'So it is from you?'

'Put my name on the thing, didn't I?'

'Well, considering the content, I thought I should make sure.'

'It was supposed to arrive yesterday. It would have made more sense then, obviously.'

'I don't think I agree with you there.'

'On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me-'

'Gerry?'

'Yeah, mate?'

'I don't mean to interrupt, but you sending me wedding bands in the mail and now serenading me - are you trying to tell me something here?'

'What? No! What gave you that idea?'

'I just told you. You sent me wedding bands and -'

'Aye, aye, I know. But that wasn't meant as a come on.'

'I'm very relieved to hear that.'

'Oi, no need to be rude, mate.'

'I'm never rude.'

'Haha, have you met yourself? You're always rude. Especially when you're being polite.'

'That doesn't make sense.'

'Remind me to never buy you anything again.'

'Which brings us back to the point - why did you sent me five golden rings? And Gerry, I swear, if you start singing that blasted carol again -'

'What, now you don't like my singing voice either?'

'No, you have a lovely singing voice, and I'd gladly listen to you sing entire arias to me.'

'Fuck off, Dom.'

'I mean it, though. But I still rather get an explanation than a song.'

'I got them at a thrift sale of sorts that my sis dragged me to last Friday.'

'Is that a Butler family tradition? Buying Christmas gifts in thrift stores two days before Christmas Day?'

'Nah, would be a belter idea, though. My sister went cause she was selling off some of the childhood toys my parents still had in their attic.'

'And you were trying to stop her?'

'And I was the packing mule, mate. You won't believe how fucking heavy Legos are.'

'You sold your Lego? That's like selling your soul.'

'Now, who is being melodramatic? Anyroad, they didn't sell anyhow, so I had to drag them all the way back again at the end of the day.'

'Your life is filled with hardships.'

'It's kinda a first world problem, isn't it?'

'Kind of. So, you left with more than you came? To that thrift thing?'

'You mean because of the rings? Nah, we actually sold quite a lot of shit, some you wouldn't believe. And anyway, the rings, they were cheap and I remembered you wanted to do some gold experiement with your lower sixth.'

'Huh.'

'What? You were chewing my ear off about that Rutherford thing just the other night, weren't you? And for some reason, about plum pudding, which I'm rather partial to.'

'I got that when you started singing about plums. I wasn't talking about actual pudding though, but the fact that previous to the Rutherford Experiment the structure of the atom was thought to correspond with the plum pudding model and - anyway, not the point.'

'Which is?'

'I'm not trying to sound ungrateful here, considering, but you didn't really pay attention to most of what I said, did you?'

'See what I mean about being rude all the time, mate?'

'The Rutherford experiment, I'd need gold foil for that and quite a lot of radioactive material.'

'Huh.'

'Yeah.'

'Mate?'

'Yes, Gerry?'

'Pretty sure Christopher won't let you play with radioactive shit in Jackson, mate.'

'No kidding.'

'Huh.'

'But thanks anyway, mate. Appreciated.'

'You're all right. But much more importantly now, what are you gonna do with the five golden rings?'

'I could wear one on each hand.'

'Leaves three.'

'One on each ear.'

'Very pirate of you. Orlando will be so jealous. Leaves one.'

'Do you want it?'

'Dom?'

'Yes, Gerry?'

'Are you proposing to me over the fucking phone?!'

***

Sometimes Orlando pauses for a moment and asks himself how the fuck it is that he ended up where he is – this time it's the frozen foods section of the local TESCO, surrounded by what seems to be army suppliers, judging by the enormous amount of food they hoard in their trolleys. On a fucking Friday afternoon. Then he remembers – Sean, for all his nice bloke appearance, is deep down a con man.

'Sure you can skip chaperoning the New Year's do', he said, generously, as if that stupid party for the kids staying over the holidays hadn't been his idea (and thus responsibility) in the first place. 'I'll make sure they don't burn the house down or get too obviously plastered while you're gone. Anything for your love life, mate.'

Which is how Orlando got guilted – and Orlando normally doesn't do guilt; it's a waste of time and based on a set of morals and threatened reprecussions that he doesn't believe in – into doing the shopping for the party. With six kids in tow. He has no idea where any of them are. If he had to venture a guess, he'd say Mahdi Sahin is looking at dirty magazines and Larissa Madden is poking holes into overly ripe fruit (she has a very weird obsession with fruit, that one).

With a sigh, he starts stacking packets of ice cream lollies into his trolley. With packet number four he gets a weird look from a stressed-out elderly woman who apparently thinks he is some kind ice-cream pervert. Like she isn't gonna eat the giant Black forest cake in her trolley all on her own. He doesn't say anything though. Because tonight he is going to fly to Paris with Katy ('That is, like, the most clichéd thing anyone's ever given me for Christmas, Orlando. I abso-fucking-lutely love it!'), not not sit in a cell for initiating a slap-fight with a senior citizen next to the freezers.

'Can we get these?'

Orlando – as well as the nosy old bag – look up from the display of frozen goods at the question. Lisa Maher (the girl who got fucking turned around in the school on Chrismas Day and ended up in the boiler room of all places) and Michael Stetham appeared out of nowhere in front of them. They both are literally armed to the teeth with fireworks.

'Please, please?' Michael has the decency to add while Lisa just skips Orlando's reply and simply starts piling her haul into the trolley.

Orlando ignores Michael's Bambi eyes and blocks Lisa's way. Meanwhile, Michael's professional adorableness brought the old woman on his side.

'No way in hell', Orlando says. It earns him a pout from Michael and a disapproving headshake from the old hag. However, Lisa looks up at him defiantly.

'You don't believe in hell. You said that the idea of hell is used as a social control over the people to keep them in their place.'

Michael's pout makes way for an expression of confusion. The old woman tsks and gives Orlando the stink eye. With narrowed eyes, Orlando looks down at Lisa.

'I didn't say it, Karl Marx did,' he corrects her. After a glance contents of their trolley, he turns back to the freezer. ' Put the Roman candles back, they are obnoxious. You can keep the rockets.'

***

From: Someecards
Sent: Saturday, 31.12. 2016 11:58
To: littleripper@ausi.co
Subject: Viggo has sent you a card from someecards.com!

Hi Eric,
Viggo (occasionallyiamjesus@gmail.com) has sent you an ecard:

resolution-kiss-hook-up-new-years-ecards-someecards

Message:
"Happy New Year, you."

If this card went to your junk mail or bulk mail folder, please add "dispatch@someecards.com" to your address book.

-----------------

From: Someecards
Sent: Sunday, 1.1. 2017 0:09
To: occasionallyiamjesus@gmail.com
Subject: Australia's Finest has sent you a card from someecards.com!

Hi Viggo,
Australia's Finest (littleripper@ausi.co) has sent you an ecard:

comfortable-flirting-man-penis-censored-ecards-someecards

Message:
"WHY ARE YOU SENDING ME ECARDS WHEN I AM STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO YOU??? Also, why would you assume that I won't remember what you look like tomorrow, you drongo?"

If this card went to your junk mail or bulk mail folder, please add "dispatch@someecards.com" to your address book.

***

Sean's list of New Year resolutions (written around 3 a.m. on the back of a work sheet with tasks about the development of hygiene in the 19th century whilst waiting for Robert and Mo to finish vomitting their guts out in the lower floor toilets)

#1 Reinstate prohibition corporal punishment mandatory loo cleaning duties for sixth formers.
#2 Stop volunteering to stay in Jackson over winter break.
#3 Give Orlando hell for abandoning him this year and use the resulting guilt to get him to pay for a lads' weekend away. A proper one, not some odd trip to the middle of nowhere only to discover that Orlando wanted to visit some dead philosopher's grave. Remember: The fun of seeing Orlando regressing into a state resembling that of puberty-ridden goth is not worth the hassle of having to argue with him even more than usual. The only exception being the trip to Nuremberg and Feuerbach's resting place because of the railway museum just around the corner.
#4 Get around to planning the summer holidays biking tour. Bulgaria maybe?
#5 Never listen to Karl. Especially not when he is suggesting biking and camping in New Zealand and surviving on hunting skills.
#6 Research long-term symptoms of scurvy.
#7 Get in touch with Daragh and the lads and put John in charge of planning their yearly get together. Possibly in the same Portuguese vinyard as last year. Definitely without the drunken shooting practice. Whose stupid idea was that anyway? Probably Jason's.
#8 Re-stock on Portuguese wine.
#9 Talk Eric and Bernard into having a cook-off at Bernard's and generously offer to judge.
#10 Make peace with Christopher and convince him that joining forces in a prank war against Viggo and Eric is in the best interest of the school.
#11 REINSTATE PROHIBITION.

'Robert, will you be done chucking up any time this year? For Christ's sake, lad.'

***

Around four in the afternoon Sean considers changing his approach to education. It has worked for the last couple of decades, sure, his system of reward and punishment, understanding and firmness.

However, when he looks at Robert and Monica now, he isn't so sure about it any longer. Having them clean up the storage room under the backstairs was supposed to be punishment for spicing the punch (well, for not being a little clever about it). But they found a moving company sized cardboard box there about five minutes in, and it turned out it contained a couple of miniature steam engines, a rusty pickaxe, a coal miner's leather helmet and a model of a loom. Sean dimly recalls putting them there in the mid 90s, after finishing a project on the Industrial Revolution, and then forgetting about them entirely.

That is how, around four o'clock, Monica crouches in front of his coffee table with a firelighter in her hand, trying to get the steam engine to run, and Robert has upended the tool drawer in Sean's kitchen in search for a screwdriver small enough to fit the tiny screws of the loom.

This was supposed to be punishment.

***

SO1
SO2
SO3
SO4
SO5

***

On the fourth of January, four - equally mundane - things happen simultaneously:

Sean nearly gets knocked out by Orlando's holdall when, in the waiting area of Leeds' airport, Orlando greets his chauffeur with a one armed hug. As hugs go, it's more on the awkward side.

Gerry, after temporarily his sister's grasp, falls prey to an overly enthusiastic shop assistant in a petrol station just outside Glasgow. He exits the shop with three barrel sized bottles of after shave smelling of pine trees. He isn't sure how that happened but figures he'll give one to West as a belated Christmas present. Gift horses and all.

In Australia, Eric goes to bed. Or rather he faceplants onto the mattress, it being really late and him being pretty shitfaced thanks to a lethal combination of Viggo and tequila. Or rather, he tries to faceplant onto the mattress but missed and ends up on the carpet.

In Jackson College, Robert and Mo decide that the now considerably more spacious closet under the staircase (what with most of Mr Bean's shit out) makes for a pretty decent place for a prolonged snog.

***

'I just want to stay here forever.'

'No, you don't.'

With deliberate slowness, Viggo pushes his sunglasses into his hair to stare at Eric. Eric stands his ground, partly because he knows he is right, partly because it is hilarious when Viggo argues for the sake of arguing.

'I do', Viggo says and his brows draw together. 'I bet you my socks that it's currently raining back home, whereas here –'

He doesn't finish his sentence but makes a grand gesture, designed to encompass the entire beach. Eric's eyes temporarily linger at a pair of stray dogs who are fucking very enthusiastically next to one of the trashcans. Then he shakes his head.

'Yeah, yeah, I know, also back home, there is Orlando waiting to piss you off, considering that he hasn't been able to do it for the last two weeks, and then there is your very weird relationship with Gerry's herb garden that completely baffles me.'

'There is nothing weird about it. He asked for my advice.'

'Pretty sure that he didn't think that you'd try talking the parsley into compliance.'

'I was only doing that because you and Gerry were lost in your love of the Stooges.'

Eric crosses his arms over his chest. He is wearing a t-shirt (the one that he won in the fish eating competition on New Year's Eve), and he can't really feel his sunburn any longer. Well, not much anyway.

'There is something wrong with you for not joining in, you know that, right? It makes me cry inside just thinking that you don't love them as much as Gerry and I do.'

Viggo's brows furrow even further for a moment, then he breaks into a cackling laughter. He pulls his sunshades down again and lies back on his towel (technically, it is a towel he stole from Eric's sister's hotel).

'Oh, I do. Especially your reenactments. Up to the point where I get punched in the face.'

'Yeah', Eric agrees sagely. 'That happens quite a bit, I can't deny that. Still, bless Gerry's enthusiasm.'

Viggo hums, and they are quiet for a moment. The dogs have finished their business and now turned to raiding the trashcan. Eric can very much relate to that, sex always leaves him close to starvation.

'I mean it, though', Viggo says and his voice is as warm as the sun. 'Let's just never leave this beach. It's perfect here.'

Contentment is a rare state of mind with Viggo, and Eric looks at his best mate for a long moment, happily treasuring it. Then he picks up the cheap water pistol he bought this morning and shoots Viggo in the face with it.

***

'Now, here's something that you're gonna like,' Sean says with a chuckle.

Orlando - who has been preparing lessons and basically ignoring Sean's random attempts to let him partake in his random Wikipedia search - doesn't put down his pen or look up from the books on his desk.

'What's that, then?' he asks at least, voice loud enough to easily carry to the couch.

Sean puts his feet up on the coffee table and clears his throat, and Orlando knows that his reading glasses are perched on his nose because Sean's phone is tiny and he is old.

'In some countries they celebrate Epiphany with what I reckon is a variation of the whole Halloween shenanigans.'

'Where? In imaginary-fairy-world?'

'Austria for instance. Where is imaginary-fairy-world, Orlando?'

'Your brain?' Orlando shrugs and crosses out the entire section he wrote last. It's too late in the evening for Hume.

'What do they do in Australia?'

'Austria, mate', Sean corrects him. 'Australia, I have no idea about them. Kangaroo racing on surfboards?'

'I dare you to say that to Eric once he is back.'

'Maybe I will. You want to hear about Austria's Epiphany customs now?'

'I'm on the edge of my seat', Orlando says and even though he couldn't sound any more bored, he now looks over to where Sean is slouched on his couch. 'Halloween?'

'Pretty much', Sean confirms, 'with a very limited range of costume choice for your trick or treating. And you don't get to threaten stingy people to egg their houses either.'

'What's the point, then?'

Sean looks at him from over the rims of his specs and smiles.

'Oh, it gets better. So, you dress up as one of the three wise men -'

'You what?'

'And you do some last minute door to door carol singing.'

Orlando shakes his head.

'There are so many things wrong with this, I don't even know where to start. Why would the three wise men - and I think calling them wise is profoundly idiotic in the first place, considering their stupid star-following shtick - still be running around on the 6th of January? How long do they think Mary will hang out in that stable? And what would they been doing, knocking at every door? Asking for the way? In verse? Yeah, I can see that ending in success.'

Orlando could go on for pretty much ever, considering the absurdity of this (like every) religious custom, but Sean's laughter cuts him off. Sean doesn't say anything, he doesn't even look at Orlando any longer, but is instead apparently once more busy trolling Wikipedia for random bullshit to get a rise out of Orlando.

Orlando shakes his head again and flips open his copy of Hume for idiots (not the official title).

'Yeah, well', he says, highlighting the first couple of words, 'I give you a tenner I you manage to get the kids of your houses to dress up like that and harass Viggo.'

He bites back a smile in response to Sean's booming laughter.

***

Dominic tips the taxi driver when he drops him off in front of JC's gates. To be honest, the man didn't necessarily deserve a tip, considering how he kept complaining about the state of the streets all the way. But Dominic is very good at nodding and humming his agreement without listening to a single word that is being said, so the ride from York Grand Central was pleasant enough from his point of view.

He picks up his suitcase from where the cabbie rather inconsiderately dropped it in a puddle and starts making his way up the drive. Nothing has changed here in the last two weeks of his absence, he notes, the big mountain of rotting leaves is still piled up right in front of the sign reading 'Welcome to Jackson College', like Marsters, the janitor, thinks this is some kind of socio-political comment. He ignores the footpath that the kids - particularly the ones perpetually late - have trodden into the lawn to cut a corner and keeps following the road. 

The wheels of his suitcase make quite a bit of noise on the gravel, and two kids on a sleigh stop their path down the hill to look at him funny. Dominic stares back because between the three of them, he certainly is not the one behaving oddly, considering their sleighing adventures are taking place on a piece of ground that has no snow whatsoever on it. Not that the kids mind; mud works as a sliding agent well enough. They probably are from Viggo's house, which is all the explanation for odd behaviour that Dominic has needed for the last decade and a half.

The loud tooting of a horn makes one of the kids, the lanky one that is trying to stand on his sleigh, lose his balance and topple down the hill. Dominic watches until a batch of shrubbery stops the fallen boy's decend from the hill, then he turns around.

The car that caused the quite amusing incident stops right in front of Dominic. It's a Mercedes that in some distant past might have been white. The whole car, even the windshield is caked in dirt and while the wipers have valiently attempted to do their job, they mostly just succeeded in spreading the filth around equally.

Dominic steps from the middle of the road to the right and the car moves a couple of feet, the window on the driver's side being lowered. Dominic bends down to look inside.

'What happened here?' he asks instead of a hello. 'Did you happen to get caught up in a landslide on the way from Glasgow?'

Gerry (because it is Gerry, no one else Dominic knows would even consider driving a car this dirty) gives him a brilliant smile and toots the horn again. A brief look over the roof reveals, however, that it doesn't have the same effect as the first one. The second kid is not rolling down the hill, but instead still making his way down carefully, possibly to assist his mate who is still fighting with the shrubbery.

'You want a ride?' Gerry asks.

Dominic looks to where the hood of Gerry's Mercedes is pointing which is in the direction of the main houses, only 150 yards or so away.

'I think I can manage,' he says, 'Wouldn't mind the company, though.'

Gerry laughs but as Dominic starts walking again, he keeps the car next to him, the window still turned down. 

'You look relaxed,' he says and with the arm that is casually propped up on the window sill he makes a vague gesture in Dominic's direction.

'I spent the better part of last week with my head over the nearest toilet,' Dominic replies. 

'Got a bit rat-arsed over New Year's, mate?'

He sounds like he can relate. Dominic chuckles but shakes his head.

'Sister's cooking. My theory is she tried to poison me.'

Gerry laughs and swerves, missing one puddle but hitting the next, splattering the lower part of Dom's jeans with muddy water.

'Eh, sorry', he says, putting on a sheepish smile that regularly gets him out of all kinds of situations in JC. 'Good to be back, then, hm?'

'Yes', Dominic agrees as they round the last bend. 'How could one not miss -?'

He doesn't finish his sentence, and Gerry stops his car so abruptly that the brakes protest. Both of the stare at the scenery in front of them, illuminated by the Merc's headlights. The giant Christmas tree that had adorned JC's lobby for the last six weeks is on its way out. Horizontally, it looks even more imposing, even more so, since its tip is pointed directly at Gerry's car, and it is on the move. Dominic tilts his head and now that he is looking for them, he can see bits and pieces of children's bodies in between the branches of the tree - pairs of feet, a head here, an arm waving for balance there. 

'Wow', Gerry says, and when Dominic looks his way, he finds that Gerry is still staring a the spectacle with something like morbid fascination. 'So that's what a funeral procession for a tree looks like.'

He crosses himself, a very earnest expression on his face, as the tree wobbles to the right in order to avoid colliding with the car, and is carried past.

Suddenly, Sean's head sticks out from under a branch, and since he doesn't have a hand free to wave at them, he turns on his best 'open-school-day-impressing-prospective-parents' smile on them.

''llo, lads! Welcome back to Jackson!'

Dominic raises a hand. Gerry hoots.

'Seriously, if we don't get a move on, it'll be fully dark before we reach the bloody fence!', yells someone from the other side of the tree.

'Hiya Orlando!' Gerry hollers through the window. Then he turns his attention back to Dominic. 'Tell me, you're not glad to be back home, man.'

Dominic's sister's cooking is truly atrocious, and he did spend quite bit of time thinking she was trying to kill him. Now, however, he thinks that maybe she was just trying to put him out of his misery.

***

Eric pulls a face when they step out of Leeds Airport and the Yorkshire weather fires machine gun sleet at them. He doesn't say anything though, but hurries alongside Viggo, their luggage hastily slung over their shoulders, so they'll catch the bus to Leeds Central Station. The bus driver takes their money, calls Eric 'ducky' and waves them through, and Eric slumps down on the seat next to Viggo in the back, his holdall hugged to his chest.

'Remember when you said you didn't want to leave the beach?' he says when the bus starts moving and instantly gets honked at. 'I bow to your infinite wisdom. What the fuck are we doing here?'

Viggo looks at him, his woolen hat crooked on his head, and traces of the very average curry they had on the last plane still colouring his lips.

'We live here', he then says.

As far as responses to philosophical questions about the meaning of life go, this is pretty disappointing.

'Yeah, I know that, you drongo', Eric replies and hugs his bag a little tighter. Not a good idea, given that the sleet, that hit it, has melted and is now soaking through his jumper. 'But why don't we live on the beach?'

Viggo turns to look out the window for a moment. The view is obscured by raindrops and the early darkness outside, the lighs of passing cars more like an depressing abstract painting than a landscape picture worth looking at.

'Well, for one, you'd get sunburned on a regular basis', Viggo finally says. 'Also, I think if we had to compete for food with those wild dogs, we'd get rabies pretty quickly.'

'Thought you already had rabies', Eric replies, a corner of his mouth quirking up involuntarily.

Viggo nods sagely.

'There is that, yes.'

The bus halts again, and a handful of teenagers push inside, making enough noise for a group thrice their size and carrying with them a thick cloud of the kind of cheap perfume that only boys aged 16 to 18 ever think of buying. The tallest one pulls the smallest into a headlock and ruffles his hair violently. Once released, the small one retaliates by kicking the tall one in the ass, giving him the convenient push he needed to land in one of the free benches.

'We could also try our hands at being animal wranglers', Viggo says, his eyes still following the boys' antics. 'Doesn't make that big a difference from teaching, if you think about it. I got bitten by a second former once.'

'Is that where you got rabies from?'

The tall one in the group of boys throws an insult at a the one with so many spots, he looks like fire ants are attacking his face. Ant-face responds by spitting at the tall one.

'I'm not sure we make that big a difference, in the long haul', Eric says, partly because spitting, that's where he draws the line, partly because the sleet has reached his nipples.

'Yeah, I know', Viggo replies. 'You always say that.'

Eric turns to him, ignoring the oncoming storm of enraged puberty two rows ahead in favour of looking at Viggo again.

'I do.'

Viggo hums in agreement.

'Every time we return to Jackson, you do this', he confirms. 'And I always think that it's funny, you know, 'cause the moment we are back home, you can't remember any of it. Like stepping over the threshold the school wipes your memory, just so you're prepared to listen to another year of my whining without going insane.' He gives Eric a smile, rare in its kindness. 'It's been like that for twenty years, and I sure as fuck hope it's gonna be like that for the next twenty as well.'

He turns to look out the window again, although the scenery hasn't changed and Eric's baffled expression should be more entertaining to look at, really. But Viggo stares into the night, the boys started to play a game of impromptu insult Scrabble without a board, and Eric just sits there, squeezed onto the back row of the bus from Leeds Airport to Leeds Central Station, his nipples cold, and his mind playing a kind of flashback-flashforward (years blend together, and it's really hard to tell whether something is a memory or a premonition sometimes) of random snippets – explaining the basics of geometry for the nth time, the joy of successfully pranking Sean, fish fingers on Wednesdays, taped cricket, statistics, algebra, probability, planning classic-comedy-movie-nights with Gerry, getting Orlando piss poor drunk in the pub, class trips to London and Whitby, grading papers till the early hours, and Viggo, Viggo, always Viggo.

'Yeah, all right', he says quietly.

The insult match in front of them gets a bit out of hand and spotty-face falls out of his seat in the process. Viggo's cold hand pats his knee and stays there until they reach Leeds Central Station.

***

As far as first days back go, this one hasn't started half bad if anyone asks Orlando. Not only did he get a good nights sleep with dreams of the kind you don't discuss over breakfast due to overly expressive content and overly impressionable children within earshot. Also, Eric and Viggo returned so late last night that it made for an amusing breakfast: Eric is, when tired, and even more so when jet-lagged, the most gullible person on the planet. So Karl is able to convince him that he spent his New Year's Eve in a threesome with two Russian models dressed up as WOW characters. That of course leads to a complete nerd-fest with Karl and Sean as the only participants who very nearly execute a third former from Viggo's house who happens to walk past and dares to comment on – to be honest, Orlando has no idea what he commented on since Sean's and Karl's World of Warcraft obsession is exactly the opposite of interesting. But he can't deny his own amusement when Sean, gentlest of gentle souls (and by that Orlando usually means 'sucker') tells the third former to do one in no uncertain terms, and Karl actually throws a bread roll after him. Being a P.E. Teacher, he has very good aim and hits the kid right in the head.

So, Orlando's day starts out pretty well and continues to be like that during the first staff meeting in the staff room right before lessons begin. McKellen seems to be still slightly inebriated from New Years because in his welcome back speech he quotes Bram Stoker. That leads to Gerry coming up with theories about Christopher having been bitten by Dracula somewhere in the late 70s and being a vampire ever since. His intended audience, West, doesn't visibly react at all (no news there; if anyone asked Orlando, Dom West has had a massive stroke sometime in the late 70s and has since then been unable to move a single muscle on his face). However, Gerry as per usual doesn't really get the concept of an indoor-voices or (God forbid) whispering, so his theory carries; not as far as to reach McKellen or Dracula's love child, mind, but Dom hears them and spends the rest of the meeting desperately trying not to dissolve into giggles or make blood sucking noises.

Then Orlando walks into his classroom and sees what is standing on his desk. It's a cactus, that much isn't a surprise. It is, in fact, the very same cactus that Sean got him as a welcome present back in 2003 and that has moved back and forth from Sean's to Orlando's and back to Sean's classroom ever since. However, Sean took the liberty to repot the cactus once more, and that it is now standing in the middle of his desk, putting down its roots in a decapitated doll's head. Orlando still stares at it when the first kids arrive – Mo and Liv.

'Hiya Mr. Bloom, happy New – wow, that is proper sick!'

'Oi, Mr. Bloom, are you smiling? Wow, didn't know you could do that.'

***

'But I'm telling you, this is pretty much solid proof.'

'It's not, Gerry. It's pretty much the opposite of solid proof. It's utter nonsense.'

'Only because you don't listen to me properly, mate. It's dead cert. If you just look at Karl –'

'I'll tell you something certain. If you don't stop pointing at Karl, he will abandon rugby practice and come over here to smack you.'

'Nah, he wouldn't.'

'Yeah, he would.'

'Nah, West. He'll come over and politely enquire what we're talking about that involves him like a civilized person. Are you casting doubt on the assumption that Karl is a civilized person?'

'He appointed a Rottweiler called 'Boris' as his assistant trainer.'

'Which is exactly my point. And I'd explain my reasoning to him –'

'And then he'd smack you.'

'Why would he smack me if he can just bite me, huh?'

'For the last time, Gerry, Karl is not a bloody vampire!'

'Hah, but see, that's where you're wrong. He just wants you to think that, so when you're not paying attention, he'll –'

'Will you stop flapping your arms about, for heaven's sake? You nearly blinded me with your cigarette!'

'Oh, aye, sorry about that.'

'Let's just assume for a second that Karl is a vampire, sired by Christopher – and I am not saying that there is even the tiniest possibility of that being the case –'

'I agree, the mental image of Christopher sucking on Karl's neck is a bit... eurgh.'

'Well said, mate. But let's just assume that you're onto something there and not just being... you –'

'Oi! If you don't watch it, you numpty, I'll be the one skelping you.'

'Yeah, yeah. So, if Karl is a vampire, then why can he walk around in the sun without turning to dust? - Speaking of, can I have another light?'

'You shouldn't smoke so much, mate.'

'Pot, kettle, Gerry.'

'There ya go. And it's dead obvious, isn't it. This is Yorkshire, the weather here is pure Baltic. There is pretty much no direct sunlight. Hah.'

'Afternoon, lads.'

'Hiya, Sean.'

'Afternoon, Sean.'

'Sean?'

'Aye, Gerry?'

'You're mates with Karl, aren't ya?'

'For heaven's sake...'

'Aye, I reckon I am. Why?'

'Oh, nothing. West and I were just wondering –.'

'Leave me out of this. Gerry was just wondering –'

'Is Karl a vampire?'

'You what?'

'Yes, Sean, Gerry wants to know whether your friend Karl can transform into a bat and drinks blood for fun. And yes, this is what I have to deal every day.'

'It IS the most logical explanation!'

'Someone being a vampire is never the most logical explanation, Gerry.'

'I reckon I'm gonna agree with Dominic there, mate, sorry.'

'But will you two just – '

'Gerry! Goddamnit, stop waving your fucking cigarette around like that!'

'Sorry, Dom. Anyroad, will you just look at the evidence?'

'All I can see is Karl and Boris at rugby practice, mate.'

'Aye, but Sean, is he or isn't he dressed just like the Prince of Darkness?'

'If the Prince of Darkness were a chav shopping at – Jesus, is that actually a Nickelson jacket he is wearing?'

'Shut it, West, I'm trying to make a point here.'

'Are you really, mate?'

'Et tu, Sean?'

'What Gerry is trying to say, in a nutshell, is that Karl has to be a vampire because of Boris.'

'I don't follow.'

'Trust me, you're not the only one.'

'Gerry?'

'Dom makes it sound stupid.'

'Because it is stupid.'

'Oh really? How else do you explain that Christopher not only allowed Boris onto school grounds but also allowed Karl to officially appoint him assistant trainer? A Rottweiler. There is no other possibly explanation. Christopher is a vampire, Karl is his right hand man and Boris is –'

'Ah, I see.'

'Told you he is completely off his head.'

'No, no, I get it. Boris is a shapeshifter. Makes perfect sense.'

'EXACTLY! HA! I TOLD YOU, WEST!'

'I loathe you both.'

***

After the first three days of school after the winter break, this would be seven recommendations for how to spend your five minute break in order to make it through the rest of the week:

If you asked Sean, he would get you a cup of tea.

If you asked Orlando, he would scoff at you for your weakness. Then, if he happened to like you, he might lend you his very tattered copy of 'Blandings'. Because everything is better after a bit of Wodehouse.

If you asked Viggo, he might tell you, with a very stern face, to stop bothering him with your first world problems. Alternately, he might spontaneously compose a limerick for you that will have you in stitches.

If you asked Karl, he would most probably slap your shoulder encouragingly (and nearly break it) or give you a bone crushing hug. If you timed your complaint right – that is before ten in the morning – then there would also be a good chance that he would not reek of manly P.E. teacher sweat.

If you asked Harry, he would probably tell you curae canitiem inductunt, which you would maybe have found consoling if you only knew Latin.

If you asked Bernard, he would tell you to pour some whiskey into your tea and give you the key to his locker, filled with DVDs that you can put on for the kids.

If you asked Dom, he would tell you which of Bernard's DVDs include sex scenes that are hilarious to put on if you enjoy teenagers squirming uncomfortably in their seats (and frankly, who doesn't).

It's only two more days till the weekend, after all.

***

 

Eric knows Viggo pretty well, let's face it. Warts and all, figuratively and literally, because Vig has this freckle on his shoulder he gets paranoid about. It's a vice versa thing, too. Once (when Sean said called both of them spinsters and asked where their cats were, they had an afternoon off and Tinder had just come out), Viggo spent an afternoon chatting up random people on the internet, pretending to be Eric while Eric lay on his carpet in pain from laughing too hard.

The thing is, most things that other people (mostly Orlando) call 'Viggo's fucking odd behaviour' don't even register with Eric anymore. So what if Viggo likes bubble baths in semi-darkness that last for hours? It's scientifically proven (well, probably it is; Eric hasn't really checked) that hot baths relax you after long stressful days. And Eric is certainly not judging anyone, let alone Viggo, for their choice of bathing salts, even if personally he prefers lavender over cherry. And so what if Viggo has his own bathtub in his rooms but prefers Eric's? Viggo's bathroom was tiled in the late 70s; being in there is a bit like being trapped in a giant green bottle. And really, so what if he leaves the bathroom door open? For one thing, it saves electricity because the floor light is on anyway, and it's not like Eric hasn't seen Viggo naked before numerous times, is it?

Okay. But still. Sometimes, Eric forgets that his very detailed knowledge of his best mate is not, as such, shared by the rest of the world. So, when he tells his 'maths for dummies' tutoring group that they can meet in his rooms because the heater in the lower Sixth's common room is going mad and it's about 100° in there? He kind of fails to take into account Viggo and his Thursday bathing habit.

After half an hour and about four mugs of tea, Mahdi excuses himself to use the loo, and Eric just continues explaining how to calculate the volume of a cylinder for the 100th time (π h r squared, duh). His valiant effort to teach the kids of Yorkshire how to suss out the contents of their Pringles tube is interrupted by a short screech and Viggo's disgruntled voice, telling Mahdi to bloody turn the light off again.

***

Friday night at the 'Prancing Pony', Orlando is the first to arrive. His phone chirps as he shrugs off his coat, and he shakes his head when he reads the message from Sean – 'be about 45 late. Couch.' Like Sean has ever managed to keep his sofa speeches under an hour. Orlando orders a pint, starts deleting spam messages from his phone, and with half an ear listens to the weird fight about pancakes the elderly people in the corner booth are engaged in.

Harry turns up about ten minutes later, muttering stuff in Latin. Even though Orlando distinctly recalls that he said he would pick Karl up on the way, and even though Orlando enquires about that twice, Harry doesn't say anything about Karl's whereabouts whatsoever. With that, however, Orlando considers his duty to care about the safety of his lesser insane colleagues fulfilled and engages Harry in a conversation about 'The Republic'. Not that Orlando particularly cares about Plato, but he gets Harry's head to be redder than the one of the old pancake enthusiast before he even finishes his first bag of crisps.

Gerry and Eric burst in about the same time the rainstorm outside is reaching its peak, bringing with them loud laughter and a rush of wind. They down two whiskeys before even getting out of their (soaked) jackets and then proceed to do some impromptu sketch. It seems to be about a milkman and a boxer, or a boyband, Orlando isn't sure because Gerry's Glaswegian gets thicker the more he laughs.

Somewhere in the middle of the second act, Karl punches Orlando's shoulder in lieu of a hello and drags him off the bar stool, after ordering them a pint. Orlando kind of wants to know how he got here after all, considering that he has leaves sticking to his hair, but then it is much more important to annihilate Viggo and Dom at darts.

Sean arrives surprisingly, only 37 minutes late. He slumps down at the table occupied by Gerry and Eric, the first thing he does is break the only rule the 'Prancing Pony' has by announcing that in 2017, he didn't even make it two full weeks until having to dry tears of homesickness. Even though the storm outside must have calmed down considerably, he looks more disheveled than Gerry and Eric together.

Orlando hands off the baton (well, his darts) to Harry and pats Sean's shoulder before sitting down at the table.

'Your shout, mate. You know the rule, no shop talk in the pub.'

Sean chuckles but gets the next round in, and then he and Gerry start slagging off Manchester United even though they knows perfectly well that Liverpool won't stand a chance against them on Sunday. Idiots. Orlando is feeling generous, however, so he doesn't say anything, not even when Viggo joins them and he and Eric start talking cricket. Sean excuses himself for a loo break, and so Gerry makes faces behind Eric's and Viggo's back (honestly, no one should take cricket that seriously) while Orlando tries to keep a straight face.

Suddenly, a bag of Walkers hits him in the chest, his hand reflexively catching it, as his gaze shoots up. Sean grins down at him.

'Happy birthday, mate.'

With an arched eyebrow, Orlando looks at the crisps he is holding.

'Prawn cocktail? However did I get so lucky?'

Sean laughs and ruffles his hair which earns him delighted laughter from Gerry and Eric and an elbow in the thigh from Orlando.

'Be a bit more grateful, or I'll pay Dom to sing for you,' Sean says, sitting down again and rubbing his thigh. 'And no one wants that.'

Orlando laughs, shakes his head and rips open his bag of disgusting crisps.

There are worse ways to spend your 40th birthday.

***

'You're such a weirdo.'

'Shut it, you're not allowed to talk to me like that.'

'Since when?'

'Since it's not your birthday anymore.'

'Really, Sean? Since when has that stopped me.'

'It hasn't since 1989, but I'm not giving up hope yet.'

'Which brings me right back to my original observation. You're a weirdo.'

Sean gives Orlando his stern look over the table separating them, and that might have worked if this was the late 80s or something close to it and Orlando wasn't really hung over besides that. As it is, he just rolls his eyes, leans back in his seat and closes his eyes.

'Weirdo.'

Sean does his own version of the eyeroll but lets it go. Instead he picks up his paper cup of tea and looks out the window. The Yorkshire landscape rushes past, misty and rainy and grey, and the steady rattling has that kind of soothing effect Sean associated with trains ever since he was a kid.

'Seriously though', Orlando asks, jerking Sean out of his thoughts without even opening his eyes.

'I thought you'd fallen asleep', Sean says.

Orlando opens one eye to glare at him. While Sean wasn't paying attention, a woman sat down next to him, her face hidden behind today's 'Guardian'.

'You can't blame me for being cautious', Orlando says. 'Not after last year.'

'Last year wasn't my fault. You were the one suggesting we'd search for a strip club. In Manchester.'

Orlando grunts and closes his eye again.

'Well, you chose Manchester as a birthday venue, which is fucking weird all on its own, really. So, you should have considered the possibility that we'd run into Bernard and Marianne there.'

Sean pulls a face at the memory and when he looks over at Orlando, he sees him crinkling his nose as well.

'I reckon I give you that. It was a bit weird.'

Orlando's face evens out again, but he still seems to be unable to let it go. After a moment, he shakes his head and opens his eyes again.

'Really, I have no problems with sexual kinks my colleagues may or may not have.'

'Please, can we change the topic?'

'Did you know that Descartes had a massive thing for cross-eyed women and Diogenes liked to wank in public?'

The woman sitting next to Orlando glances up from her 'Guardian' and gives Orlando one of these looks people who don't know Orlando usually give him. Orlando (as per usual) completely ignores it.

'I did', Sean says with a nod. 'I did know that because for some reason you like to bring that up.'

Orlando nods as well.

'So, I wouldn't judge if Bernie and Marianne used a Mancunian Strip Joint to spice up their love life.'

The woman (blond, in her late 40s, great cheekbones) now looks at Sean, like Sean was responsible for this or for Orlando in general. Sean gives her a smile and a wink, and here is another thing he loves about trains; women who ride them usually are pretty open to his charms. She smiles at him, and Christ, she has perfect teeth.

'But honestly', Orlando continues and the nose crinkle is back, 'karaoke night in a place called 'Obsessions'? That's just deranged.'

'And I repeat: You picked that spot.'

Orlando makes another face, the one that looks like he just bit on a stick of dynamite, the one that announces he might admit that he is in the wrong.

'It was close to the Industrial Museum', he says, then adds, 'which you picked.'

Sean takes a moment off from silently flirting with the woman across in order to try his stern look on Orlando again.

'If you don't drop it, I'm gonna kick you out in Burton-upon-Trent.'

Orlando narrows his eyes and is silent for a moment, like he is actually considering it. Then however, his frown deepens even more.

'Are we going to Birmingham?' he asks incredulously.

And Sean has to give it to him, he sounds honestly surprised. They have been doing this for ages, these trips on both their birthdays. And even though the deal is that the other one organizes something and the birthday boy isn't allowed to ask questions or even look at road signs or listen to announcements on platforms, Sean usually cheats and Orlando (in an uncharacteristic show of restraint) usually pretends he doesn't notice.

Meanwhile, Orlando is still staring at Sean intensely.

'Birmingham, mate?' he asks with quite a lot of disdain; maybe a little too much considering he is probably insulting half the other travellers' hometown.''Are we going to the Coffin Museum?'

Now it's Sean's turn to look baffled.

'There is a coffin museum?'

'There certainly is', says the woman with the nice smile. 'It's located in an old factory that made everything associated with coffins apart from the coffins themselves, from the handles to the shrouds.'

She smiles at Sean again, and Orlando for once doesn't tell her that it's rude to interrupt other people's conversations. Instead he gives Sean one of his especially smug looks.

'Told you. Well, considering we're on this train for at least 90 more minutes then, I'm gonna get me a cup of coffee. - Excuse me, any chance –?' He turns towards the woman, clearly intending to get up. She gets out of her seat to let him past. He turns one of his less lethal smiles on her and at the same time gestures at Sean. 'Cheers. And hiya. This, by the way, is my mate Sean. He's a bit shit at planning birthday surprises, but other than that he's a pretty great bloke.'

With that, he turns around, straightening the button row of his cardigan as he walks off.

Sean looks after him for a second, shaking his head. Then he looks back at the woman.

'I'm sorry about that. He was raised by wolves.'

The woman, for some reason, still smiles and sits down once more.

'So, you're not going to the Coffin Museum?' she asks.

Sean chuckles and picks up his cup again.

'Nope. The motorcycle museum. We're both enthusiasts.'

Her smile grows even broader and she scoots over to Orlando's spot, exactly opposite of Sean.

'I own a 1972 Norton Commando. I'm Christie.'

Sean loves taking the train.

***

Gerry has a lot of mates, okay. He likes meeting new people, people like telling him things and he likes listening (no matter that Monaghan says he never shuts up. He is one to talk.). So, technically speaking he has a flock of people dragging him to do stuff anyway, particularly when it comes to football and music.

Which is why it should be a bit of a mystery to him that he and West are mates. Because West is hilarious and quick-witted and whatnot, but he has turned alienating people into an art form (in comparison, Orlando is head of the cheerleading committee) and fuck, he is so silently judgemental Gerry should not like him.

And yet for some reason here he is, at West's alternately listening to Mahler and West's very odd declaration of love to the cello. As pre-game celebrations go, this is a wee bit on the odd side. But Gerry also knows that West will shout at the telly in the pub even louder than Gerry, even though he is not rooting for Liverpool or ManU.

Gerry doesn't know a lot about West's private life. For all Gerry knows he could have a wife and four kids or work for MI6, he is that good at keeping secrets. But as West walks next to him, still humming Mahler and wearing his Wednesday scarf around his neck, Gerry thinks that he knows him well enough, doesn't he.

***

West sits down on the chair right of Orlando's. Orlando, who barely tolerates Sean and his bloody awful mess crowding him from the left, looks up from his work sheets. They have a fifteen minuteS break, and West spends the first two minutes of it silent. He eats his strawberry yogurt and stares at Orlando. In that way where he doesn't blink and after ten seconds or so you can't help but feel that he is thinking about how to blow stuff up.

'How was your weekend?' Orlando asks because it's what polite people do instead of asking 'what the fuck do you want' or 'seriously, I'll be pissed if you nuke any of my stuff'.

West gives him a one shouldered shrug.

'All right, thank you for asking.'

He doesn't return the question, of course he doesn't because he is West. Not like Orlando would have said anything but 'same here, mate'. He did have a fantastic weekend actually, because the Motorcycle Museum was fucking brilliant and what with Sean abandoning him on Saturday evening in favour of chasing tail, Orlando called Katy to join them in Birmingham, and that was brilliant as well (at least until 2 a.m. which was when Sean decided to return to their shared hotel room, drunk enough to think it a perfectly fine idea to fall asleep on the couch while Orlando and Katy were doing a little bit of a late celebration of Orlando's birthday in the bed).

Anyway, Orlando wouldn't have shared any of that information because he isn't sure what West would do with it anyway, and he is a sensible person and would rather be safe than sorry.

So instead he just looks down at his lesson plan again and asks, 'Anything I can do for you?'

West lowers his spoon.

'I have a proposition. If you're not busy.'

Orlando really isn't, considering that this lesson about Machiavelli is one he could teach in his sleep anyway.

'No, no, go ahead.'

'It involves a spot of extra-departmental counterintelligence and possibly sabotage.'

Orlando arches his eyebrows.

'Yeah?'

Instead of answering, West redirects his laser beam stare of potential death away from Orlando and to his regular spot in the other corner of the staff room. Gerry sits there, as per usual taking up space for five people (sometimes, Johnny has to sit on the window sill because of that. Okay, it might also be because he is Johnny, crazy, and smoking out the window even though it's forbidden). Next to him, in West's usual spot, there is Dom. Gerry is waving his arms all over the place like a windmill in a hurricane, and Dom is staring at him like a love-struck Don Quixote (and thank you, Orlando knows that the simile is off; Dom is more the Sancho Panza to Gerry's demented Don; but that wouldn't account for the waving, would it?).

'Yeah', Orlando says, as a way of acknowledging the situation. 'So?'

'So, Gerry and your little enabling soulmate there', West says, and Orlando has got to give it to him, he kinda continues being impressed by the effortless off-handed way West insults people.

'Yeah?' Orlando prompts, when West concentrates on death-staring and eating yogurt instead of talking for a moment.

'As it happens, the heads the geography and the biology departments', West says, using his spoon to indicate Dom and Gerry, 'decided that they should be in charge of the next field trip for the teaching staff.'

West pauses there, allowing the enormity of that information to unfold.

'Yeah?' Orlando says for a fourth time. He can hear the apprehension in his own voice.

'I don't know about you', West says, 'but I am not very particular to spending a Saturday, or in fact any other weekday, playing hide and seek at a Nuclear Waste facility.'

Orlando opens his mouth, then closes it again. He frowns, but when West doesn't crack a smile or otherwise indicate that he is pulling Orlando's leg, Orlando just repeats the mouth-opening-and-closing thing again.

West nods and dips his spoon back into his yogurt.

'Yeah.'

***

'In all honesty', Bernard says instead of a hello when Sean opens his door. 'I am quite certain that the staff is going more and more insane.'

Sean waves him inside and they have a brief wordless fight over the bottle of Bordeaux that Bernard brought but won't be parted with.

'I reckon it's a matter of perspective', Sean says, not entirely disagreeing, as he finally pulls the bottle from Bernard's hand. 'However, it might just be your sanity disintegrating. One person's craziness is another one's reality, hm.'

Bernard clucks his tongue, weaves his head from side to side, but then shakes it.

'Don't quote Tim Burton at me, or I won't take you seriously anymore either.'

'It's because you're a toffee-nosed snob', Sean yells from the kitchen just as the cork of the wine pops.

'Self-complacency is pleasure accompanied by the idea of oneself as cause', Bernard yells back.

Sean's laugh is loud enough to carry much further than just the distance from the kitchen to the living room where Bernard sat down at the oak table. Bernard drops the papers he brought with him onto a crooked pile of what seems to be work sheets from circa 1998 and waits for Sean to emerge from the home of the corkscrew before he speaks again.

'But speaking of cause and effect and, in fact, questionable sanity', he then says and greets the large glass of wine Sean hands him with an even larger smile, 'you, my friend, might want to have a chat with your surrogate son.'

Sean does a bit of character typical clean up by shifting the biggest piles of papers onto one of the other chairs before putting the glass down and sitting down next to Bernard.

'If you mean Orlando by that, may I remind you that he is not my surrogate son. The idea alone is highly disturbing and makes me question your grasp on reality.'

'And yet he is the first one you thought of.'

'And that has nothing to do with us having had this conversation about a thousand times already, of course.'

'In any case, I saw Orlando, who is in no way related to you, neither biologically nor spiritually, talk to Dominic West this morning. And I thought I should tell you about it, the same way I am pretty certain that Churchill would have appreciated a brief heads up of the private talks of a certain German and a certain Russian dictator in 1939.'

Sean settled for a longer speech from Bernard (since that is Bernard's usual way of conversing) picked up his wine and sipped from it, which is unfortunate since he now nearly chokes on a good drop of Bordeaux.

Bernard very generously slaps him heartily on the back whilst continuing with his summary of the day.

'I am only saying this because they either plan on taking over the school by threatening a nuclear attack – and Sean, my friend, we both know that West is doing unsavoury things in his laboratory and I wouldn't put it past him to have put together a small nuclear missile in his spare time – or they are thinking of killing Dom. The latter, I have to say, would grieve me quite a bit more than the former, because then I'd have to find another partner to go on field trips with me, and I am not sure anyone can measure up to my standards.'

Sean has stopped accidentally suffocating on wine and wipes a tear from his eyes while nodding.

'Naturally. Dom must've set the bar unnaturally high. Incidentally, Orlando tells me he has a very severe medical condition that causes him to break wind a lot when in your company?'

Bernard smiles beatifically at the world in general and Sean in particular.

'Marvelous trait, I can tell you that much. No way to disperse pupils faster than this.'

'Well', Sean says with a nod and some gravitas in his voice completely wasted on the occasion, 'if I had any influence on Orlando whatsoever, I would certainly try to talk him out of whatever world domination he and Mr West are hatching. As it is, I haven't, so I won't. Anything else?'

Bernard looks at him thoughtfully for a moment, highlighting said thoughtfulness by tapping his index finger to his chin. Then he puts down his glass and picks up his previously temporarily abandoned piece of paper.

'Yes, yes. The real reason why I came over – and what brought the whole issue of sanity up, really – is that the new drama workshop starts tomorrow. And as you might remember from the last staff meeting, I have the pleasure of co-teaching this with Johnny.'

'Oh, I remember', Sean replies with a nod and looks like he is about to burst out laughing yet again. 'Both of you were very enthusiastic about it. About as enthusiastic as –'

'As Katherina at the proposed marriage to Petruchio, yes', Bernard confirms with a nod. 'But as said Shrew, I am not too proud to abandon all sanity, principle or in fact sensible character development and shall jump into bed with Johnny with a smile on my face.'

'Congratulations, then, I reckon. Make sure you'll reserve some seats for me, then.'

Bernard makes a dismissive gesture as if that much was a given anyway and uses the motion to thrust his piece of paper against Sean's chest.

'Now, I have a list of pupils here who showed interested in theatre, and I'd like your expert opinion on them.'

Sean briefly scans the names on the list while drinking some more of the wine.

'Yeah, I know about half of them', and five of them are from my house, he then concludes. 'But I'm not sure whether I can say anything about their acting talents, I'm afraid.'

Bernard laughs, refills his own glass that miraculously is empty already, and shakes his head.

'Oh, I don't give a flying fuck about their acting talent', he says. 'What I'd like from you is a semi-professional diagnosis re: their mental state. Someone in that auditorium has to be in possession of the majority of their marbles, don't they?'

***

'Fancy meeting you here, mate. So, that's where you two sneak of to on a regular basis, is it?'

Eric turns his head when a hand lands on his shoulder, though he doesn't stop chewing on the nail on his thumb. Gerry gives him his broadest smile.

'Gotta say, I'm a wee bit disappointed', he continues. 'This whole get up, I don't think it lives up to the gossip about you two.'

Thankfully, Eric only needs the fingers of one hand to nervous-torture with his teeth, so he has the other one free to flip Gerry the bird.

'If you're expecting a reply, you've gotta wait six more minutes till it's over.'

Now it's Gerry's turn to swing around, but he isn't the least bit surprised to find Viggo standing there.

'By the looks of it, yours is pretty desperate for it as well.'

Gerry ignores the comment and Viggo's significant nod in favour of pointing at the two cups Viggo is holding.

'Coffee, mate? Now that's just sad, isn't it? I mean – wait, is that vanilla I'm smelling?'

Viggo raises one of the cups only just and nods. Gerry looks thoughtful for a moment, but then shakes his head again.

'Nah, I stand by it. Coffee is just wrong for this whole full body sensual experience thing. Gotta be wine or summat.'

Viggo's lips curve into a smile before he lifts the non-vanilla coffee to it. Eric pulls his maltreated thumb from his mouth, however.

'Like I'd ever drink and drive, you drongo.'

There is enough hurt pride in his voice to make Gerry hold up his hands in surrender and for Viggo to snicker. Eric takes the cup that Viggo pushes into his hand and sips while his hawk's gaze still is fixed on the same spot as before.

'I mean it, though', Viggo says and nudges Gerry with his elbow. 'That thing is just filthy.'

Gerry turns around to where his Merc is still parked next to the petrol pumps. He has to admit, there is a bit of a mud situation going on there. It looks kind of like his younger sister did when she'd tried out their mum's Make Up for the first time and opted for 'the more the better'.

'It's a protective layer,' he says and if he was standing within reaching distance, he'd pat the roof of his car fondly.

'Protective against what', Eric asks. 'More mud?'

Gerry raises his brows at Viggo in response to the seriousness of Eric's tone of voice, and Viggo shrugs.

'Don't mind him. This stresses him out.'

'Well, of course it does!' Eric drags his eyes away from where they have anxiously stared at the entrance of the automated car wash in order to glare at Viggo. 'What if the stupid thing scratches my baby, huh?'

Instinctively, Gerry takes a step back from the crazy, while Viggo (of course) does the opposite.

'Nothing will happen to the Falcon, Eric.'

'But what if it does, though?' Eric replies and fuck, Gerry is impressed by the amount of anguish on his face. Well, 'impressed' might not be the right word. Rather something between 'mildly freaked out' and 'properly amused', but whatever.

Positioning himself right next to his mental petrol head of a best mate, Viggo rests his lower arm reassuringly on Eric's shoulder.

'Eric', he says in that way you talk to spooked animals who might just trample you to death if you don't calm them down. 'This is why we came here, remember? This is s a Touchless Wash controlled by computer technology, 100% scratch free and unique in the UK. The beauty of the Touchless Wash is that it can wash the vast majority of cars. You can go through with a roof rack and is ideal for 4x4s, cabriolets and most types of spaceships. Just check the height restriction signage.'

Viggo makes a gesture to the car wash and its giant 'Touchless Wash' banner.

Eric makes a small sound.

Gerry doesn't ask. Instead he backs away slowly.

Well, if this is what floats their boat, who is he to judge? He decides that he has more important things to do than worry about Eric's obsession with his oldtimer or Viggo's odd love declarations that happen to sound exactly like the car wash's official webpage text: For one thing, he never knew that you could get Vanilla flavoured coffee at a Jet petrol station. He is definitely gonna get himself one of those now.

***

The following conversation takes place during lunch time in the cafeteria at the teachers table. For those keeping record, it is January, 19th, a rather cold Thursday, and lasagna has been served (the pupils' tables are accordingly messy). Present teaching staff members are Gerry, Dom, Orlando, Viggo, and Dominic himself.

However, it is noteworthy to point out that there has been no conversation before Gerry and Dom arrived half a minute ago. Orlando and Viggo had a fight about Feuerbach (again) around ten in the morning, are temporarily no longer on speaking terms and currently demonstrate that by sitting across from each other without acknowledging the others' presence whilst reading Sean's 'Guardian' (Orlando) / a book containing the collected poems of some obscure Latin American writer (Viggo).

Technically, Dominic is also present, but for the record he would like to point out that he is only still sitting at the table precisely because of the passive-aggressive silence that has been going on before. Also, the lasagna isn't half bad.

But then Gerry elbows him in the side, almost causing him to spill some of his mineral water.

'Dom, mate, you really need to back me up here.'

Dominic doesn't. Instead he carefully puts his glass down and avoids eye contact in favour of inspecting the remains of his lunch.

'Yeah, busted, Gerry. Not even your best mate is on your side. Epic fail, man.'

Dominic isn't Gerry's best mate. He is certain of that. Well, fairly certain anyway. He pushes a slightly charred lonely noodle to the side of his plate, feeling Gerry's eyes on him.

'You don't know what you're talking about, Monaghan. I don't care if I'm the only person left on the planet, thinking that.'

'Trust me, you won't be. You'll be killed pretty much at the beginning of it all.'

'I won't.'

'You will.'

'Fuck you.'

'Fuck you.'

If this was a conversation between pupils, at this point Dominic would feel the need to tell them to mind their language. Or rather, he wouldn't, because Orlando would've slapped both of them already. As it is, Orlando is immersed in an article about Boris Johnson which means that Dominic needs to vacate this table in the next five minutes before the Bolshevist preaching starts.

Then Dominic makes the mistake of glancing up from his plate. Dom and Gerry naturally take that as an invitation to make him the umpire in their daily bit of metaphorical bullshit table tennis, and they even feel the need to fill him in on the specifics. Oh joy.

'See, mate, Monaghan and I were talking about the apocalypse.'

'Which is totally part of the syllabus.'

Dominic highly doubts that.

'And anyway,' Gerry continues. 'We are in absolute agreement that a zombie apocalypse is complete nonsense. At least in a post nuclear war scenario.'

'Right there with you, man. It makes no sense whatsoever.'

They both look at Dominic expectantly. Dominic doesn't say anything because there is nothing to say.

'However', Gerry says, and Dominic knows that tone of voice, 'a vampire apocalypse, now that is absolutely happening.'

'Absolutely', Dom agrees. 'Nuclear dust clouds blocking out sunlight? Perfect breeding ground for vampires. And they don't need to worry about genetic mutations either, since their version of procreation -'

'- is of the bitey kind. And we are in agreement that the first thing to do in case of, you know, the end of the world and all that is to get Christopher and Karl to bite us all.'

That gets him a sideways glance from Viggo who seems to be blissfully ignorant of Gerry's tinfoil hat theory of the month.

'So we're all vampires, so that's the whole radiation issue sorted,' Gerry continues. 'But then of course there is the issue of food and territories and that's where – '

'Gerry is being completely unreasonable.'

'I'm not.'

'You are.'

'You are unreasonable.'

'I'm not.'

Dominic drinks his last sip of water. He kind of wishes it was hemlock.

'Obviously, I'm gonna set up camp in Glasgow because –'

'Because you're being a patriotic idiot. Anyway, you can have the whole of Scotland, I don't even care, I'm gonna set up shop in the Mediterranean anyway, and I'm taking everyone with me.'

The idea of spending eternity with Dom Monaghan on Myconos is worse than an apocalypse. Gerry tosses a cherry tomato at Dom's head.

'Over my dead body. If we can't agree on a location, we'll have to split up. I'll even give you first pick.'

'Oh, you're so gonna regret that', Dom says smugly and instantly points at the 'Guardian' paper wall on the other side of the table. 'I'll take Orlando as my right hand man, of course. He'll argue anyone into submission.'

Orlando doesn't lower his paper. He does, however, give Dom the finger.

'Your loss, man', Gerry says with a shrug. 'I'll pick West. He knows how to make bombs.'

Dominic does possess enough of a working knowledge to get him an internship in any international terrorist organization. Gerry shouldn't know about it, though.

'Yeah, I'm all right with that', Dom says dismissively. 'I'll pick Karl next. All that sport's gotta be good for fighting.'

'Eric will be with me. He can fix any car we'll find. Hah. And he's good with a cricket bat.'

'So is Viggo.'

At this point, Dominic frowns and that seems to be loud enough for Gerry to take note. Dominic pointedly looks at Dom's first choice, Orlando, who is now making growling noises at his newspaper because there's a picture of a priest in it. Then he looks at Dom's third choice, Viggo, who has pulled out the silver cross that he is wearing around his neck this week and is silently holding it in Orlando's general direction in the familiar self-defense gesture.

As a result, Gerry leans back in his chair and triumphantly crosses his arms behind his head.

'Monaghan, your team is gonna tear itself apart before you even reached the Med. My clan will rule the world. We will feed on human corpses and mutated sheep and roam the highlands like princes. Right, West?'

At this point, Dominic thinks it prudent to take his tray and remove himself from the table.

***

Cate is the unchallenged queen of betting at Jackson College. It's all about knowing the little things and remembering them at the right moment. Which is why Cate has filed away all kinds of bits and bobs over the last twenty years. Like...

...Orlando knows how to knit. Bernard's wife taught him; though Cate has no idea why.

...Viggo has a thing for necklaces and it's not just crosses but all kinds of good luck charms. And a giant crocodile tooth.

...Bernard's favourite writer is Voltaire which is pretty rebel for an English teacher.

...Christopher prefers highland over lowland whisky.

...Sean has a lorry driving license.

...Sean also spent a night in a cell in 1999. Cate still doesn't know why. It is incredibly vexing.

...Eric talks to his car when he forgets that there are other people in the Falcon with him.

...Eric's pet name for his car is the same one he uses for Viggo when both of them are really drunk.

...previous to his employment as Karl's assistant trainer, Karl's dog was working full time on a scrapyard.

...Dominic West is a freakishly excellent swimmer and rower.

...Gerry is a very enthusiastic ice skater. He is also incredibly shit at it and usually has to be dragged of the ice by a handful of kids he is supposed to be chaperoning.

...Craig got the job at JC teaching German after talking to Christopher about how to silently kill people with a trench knife during the job interview.

...Dom Monaghan is a regular McGyver with a condom. He even manages to make half way decent balloon animals out of them which is only a bit disturbing.

...Orlando may appear to only own clothes in black and grey. That doesn't include his underwear. That is very colorful.

...between them, Eric and Gerry can spontaneously reenact about half the episodes of 'Mr Bean'.

...Dominic West sometimes only leaves his lab when it is well after midnight. Cate thinks that is slightly worrying.

...Viggo and Eric both have the same tattoo. Or had, in 2007; Eric's was non permanent.

...at least four members of staff as well as the janitor are seriously addicted to soaps.

...Orlando is scared of babies and spiders. The latter only when he is inebriated.

...Ian is always willing to ignore the official school policy that betting is frowned upon as long as Cate shares the inside knowledge with him over a cup of tea.

***

NYC Orlando

NYC, 1/2/2017

Sean,

the USS Intrepid was commissioned in 1943 and decommissioned in 1972 and is featured in three movies, one of which being some silly Disney flick called 'National Treasure'. This means I'm up two points on our scoreboard of stupid facts; and I WILL be checking it when I come back, so don't pretend the postman lost this card again.
We haven't actually been to the Intrepid because I could care less about war propaganda and Katy lost interest the moment she learned that there weren't any cute sailors around. Also, we keep getting stuck in cabs that never take us where we want to go. Strange place, this.
Don't forget to not water my cactus.
Cheers, Orlando

***

Viggo waves to Sean from afar when he passes the football field, and Sean nods in response but doesn't pull his hands out from the warmth his winter jacket's pockets must provide. He turns back to supervising his girls, and Viggo rubs his own mittened hands together for warmth as he continues his way back to the main buildings.

To some, teaching is a vocation. It's the one thing Sean and Viggo have always felt about exactly the same, it's the one thing that let them drift towards one another when they first started at Jackson College. It's still the reason why both of them are so easy to talk into spending Sunday mornings editing school brochures together with Bernie or standing in the rain, watching thirteen year old girls kick a football around in the mud.

When Viggo rounds the corner behind the small patch of oak trees, he sees Eric's Falcon on the car park, still in the same spot. It's a bit surprising; it's Sunday after all and Eric rarely spends a whole day at Jackson College if he doesn't have to. When he decided to move from the village onto school grounds, it had nothing to do with his devotion to the JC and everything with the fact that the rooms that Ian Holm vacated were adjacent to Viggo's.

Eric is the one (alongside with Karl) who has no qualms laughing tears at one of his kids' misfortunes; whether that may be general clumsiness, brainfailure during exams or any other side effect of being a teenager. And you won't find kids taking up residence on any of Eric's furniture, like they do on Sean's, and Eric's idea of demonstrating support to a heartbroken teenager is either to call Viggo or to offer comfort food and a tissue, which usually happens to be a squished toffee from his jacket pocket and a crumpled napkin from a chippy.

'Don't wanna have to use up all my compassion on teenage drama outside the classroom', is his standard excuse for not getting involved, though Viggo figures Eric partly puts it so bluntly because he knows it'll get a rise out of Orlando whose raison d'etre is re-living puberty second hand, like he was trapped in one of the deeper circles of hell.

Viggo's phone chirps somewhere in the depths of his coat and he has almost reached the buildings when he finally manages to locate it. It's a text from Eric; a slightly blurry photo of his television screen, showing the current cricket results, and an accompanying message.

'2nd session is about to end; Warner is on FIRE, FOR FUCK'S SAKE COME HOME ALREADY!'

Viggo should print out the revised school brochures and prepare his lessons for tomorrow, and he should see if he can find Janina Marching for a follow-up conversation about her ill-advised gap-year-plan and tell Rashida Smith that she still needs to put in three hours of gardening work for the damage she's caused to the shrubbery.

He should.

'Two minutes', he texts Eric instead as he pulls open the door.

***

When Orlando and Sean enter the staff room (Orlando in the middle of a rant about how much of a cunt Kant is, Sean very focused on peeling the orange he got from Fiona Radford from his second year), they find the room almost deserted. 'Almost', because Karl is there, with his feet on Sean's chair, his arms crossed over his chest (his left hand holding his whistle, ready for use), and his eyes closed. Snoring.

Orlando silently points at Karl's mouth and the bit of drool clinging to its corner, rolls his eyes and makes a bee line for the kitchen.

When he returns (with Sean's P.G. Tips and his black coffee), Sean has used the time wisely by collecting all scarfs and woolen hats he could find (quite a few since Yorkshire continues to rock sub zero temperatures) and draping them over Karl who hasn't moved an inch.

Orlando sips from his tar-like drink of choice, watches Sean trying really hard to not burst into giggles. Then he picks the slightly dusty tin foil star of Bethlehem that Johnny made from Dom's sandwich wrappings, and very gently places it on Karl's head.

***

Now, Liv doesn't mind going to JC. Yeah, all right, she minds, but not because it's JC but because it's school and who enjoys that is a proper weirdo in her book. Mind, she'd rather be at home, def – even if her older brother is totally useless with the whole legal-guardian lark most days, and Liv really can do without his husband starting every single fucking conversation by asking her whether he should help her with maths. But they both love her no matter what. They are family, right, and the good thing about family is that they are, like, duty-bound to love you no matter how often you fuck up and whatever. Liv is, in all honesty, ace at fucking up.

Case in point, is today. It's absolutely Mr Bloom's fault. He was the one who went on and on about beer during philosophy this morning. Mr Bloom, he has this thing where he blows his top when he even sees someone wearing a cross around his neck. It's pretty hilarious the first few times, and it's handy when you want to distract him from shit. Just throw in something about God or religion or whatever, and he's like a dumb cat chasing a laser and ramming its head against a wall in the process.

For some reason he thinks that they are interested in his weird hobby, which is coming up with idiotic non-christian holidays (and he is so making them up; Liv doesn't care that he says he has a book or whatever about that). Anyway, according to Mr Bloom, January, 24th is beer-can-appreciation-day. Something about the invention of the beer can in the 1930s or whatever; Liv wasn't really listening because the moment Mr Bloom put that can of Heinecken on his desk, the plan about a spontaneous booze up distracted her from listening. Beer is a pretty solid choice when you want to get mullered, though not as good as vodka, obv.

Not that she is telling Mr Mortensen that when he looks at her with that expression on his face, like he is constipated, only that it's a sigh he is forcefully trying to hold in, not shit or whatever. For a moment, Liv contemplates whether she might get away with switching on the doe-eyes and acting all innocent. Another reason why being at home beats living in JC, really, because her brother always falls for it. With Mr Bean, there's at least fifty fifty chance; Mr Bloom though? No chance. He is even worse than her maths-loving stepdad. And she's not delusional; no doe-eyes in the world get you out, if Mr Mortensen catches you with a backpack full of Tesco Lager when you try to sneak back inside. However –

'Do you care to enlighten me what this is about?' Mr Mortensen asks when he opened the zipper of her backpack.

Liv shoves her hands into the pockets of her jacket, shrugs and decides to go all in.

'Well, it's really Mr Bloom's fault, you know', she says.

Mr Mortensen's face switches from professional disappointment to that look Liv's career-criminal uncle sports whenever he can pull a fast one on a business partner.

'Oh, really? What exactly did he say?'

Back home or at JC, it doesn't really make any difference, Liv thinks as she tells Mr Mortensen all about beer can day and how Mr Bloom might be the devil.

Adults. Such fucking easy marks.

***

'Ahoy?'

'Dominic? Is that you?'

'Yes, of course it is. You dialed my number, Gerry.'

'Why do you answer your phone with – are you on a boat right now?'

'No. Of course not.'

'Ah, I see. You're pretending this is the 19th century and you're Graham Bell. Did you know he was a Scotsman?'

'Everyone knows that.'

'Question springs to mind, though. Why are you pretending to be him?'

'I'm not discussing this with you. It's 1.30 a.m..'

'Did I wake you? Is that why you're answering your phone like –'

'I'm still up. Grading tests.'

'Ah, bummer.'

'Gerry?'

'Yeah, mate?'

'Was there a reason for your call?'

'Oh, aye, course there was. I just woke up from a nightmare.'

'Bummer.'

'Is that all you have to say about it?'

'There, there?'

'Oh, for fuck's sake. Anyway, so, I was in my classroom, right, and I was giving this lesson about safe sex and condoms. Only that someone switched out my vegetables –'

'You use vegetables for sex ed? Please don't tell me you get them from JC's kitchen.'

'Okay, if you want. I'm not telling you I'm taking them from the kitchen, then. Anyroad, the problem wasnae the kitchen staff, they are usually very lovely about it, and sometimes even let me borrow aubergines.'

'I don't know how to respond to that.'

'You're distracting me from my story, West, I mean from my dream. Of course I use aubergines. It gives the kids a proper complex about the size of their penis and if that isn't a way to prevent teen-pregnancies, then I don't know what.'

'Straight out of the national curriculum.'

'I'm having you on, mate. Of course I don't use aubergines or any other vegetables. In reality we don't, I mean. Cause in my dream, I was supposed to, but they'd given me the wrong ones. And have you ever tried pulling a condom over a potato?'

'I can say with uttermost certainty that I haven't.'

'It's a wee bit awkward. Anyway, so I had this potato squished between my knees, trying to get it ready for sex without the potential of STDs, when the door to my lab opens and an Ofsted inspector walks in.'

'I see.'

'Aye. I was a bit embarrassed by it all, and as it turns out, my dream self isn't too good with dealing with stress, so I jumped up and threw the potato away. And it knocked Simon Bankwell unconscious. You know the little kid that looks like a rag doll that someone pumped up with helium? Then I woke up.'

'My condolences.'

'Man, I hate dreaming about Ofsted. At least I was dressed in this one. Once, they had me do a practical demonstration. Of sexual positions, I mean.'

'Hm.'

'That was a wee bit weird. I didn't even get to the actual sex part in that dream because as it turned out, I couldn't find a sex doll in the lab. Have you ever had nightmares about Ofsted?'

'Not really.'

'Hm.'

'I did nearly blow up my lab during an actual inspection, though.'

'You did? How?'

'Dry ice bomb.'

'You what?'

'It's a plastic bottle with dry ice and water. You shut it tightly –'

'Mate, I know what a dry ice bomb is. I've seen Myth Busters. You made that in class? During an Ofsted inspection? You're kidding me!'

'Well, of course I am. It's a bomb, Gerry. A rather primitive one, and really very easy to make, but a bomb nonetheless. I'm not building bombs in class.'

'I've heard different rumours.'

'Rumours spread by you, mostly.'

'That is true, yes. Anyroad, so you don't have nightmares about Ofsted and you're taking the piss?'

'Not really.'

'Seemed like it to me.'

'I was trying to cheer you up, mate. But yeah, sorry. Next time, I'll –'

'Nah, come on, you're all right. I'm just fucking with you.'

'Oh. Okay.'

'Appreciate it, Dom. One question, though.'

'Gerry, I'll hang up if you ask me about Graham Bell again.'

'No, no, I wasnae going to, was I? - But you do know how to make bombs? Not in class, I mean. But in general?'

'C'mon, Gerry. Who doesn't?'

***

January, 26th is Spouse's Day. Teachers at JC know this, mostly because Orlando effectively destroyed Valentine's Day for everyone in 2007 by having his A-Level class do a diorama on saints and the way they died. It ruined February, 14th for everyone.

Spouse's Day has less to do with chocolates, red roses and heart-shaped whathaveyou and more with showing the special someone in your life (husband, wife, significant other, Siamese twin who shares a heart with you – whichever) that you appreciate them.

Apparently there are a LOT of married people who haven't got a fucking clue as how to properly celebrate the love of their life and share advice on the internet. Now, Viggo would be happy with their usual once-a-month lawn-chair-and-beer evening (it's exactly what it says on the tin, though during the winter months they occasionally switch beer for thermos bottles of mulled wine or something else to warm themselves up under the blankets because they are sitting outside in a camping chair in fucking Yorkshire, all right?). But Eric likes holidays, and he fucking loves internet help sites. One quick search with Google and he is on a website that is called engagedmarriage.com – Love your marriage, lead your family. (is it just Eric or does the second half of that slogan work better on a cult than a marriage?), telling you 74 ways to show you care.

Take the kids to the park while they are on Spring Break and let her have a nap.
- Eric does offer to spike Viggo's morning mate with some of the Valium he nicked from Christopher's office and pull the fire alarm during first period. He doesn't, because that's all kinds of illegal (and because Christopher is giving him the stink eye all morning anyway), and also because merely mentioning it makes Viggo snort mate through his nose.

My husband is easy. Smile at him and say, “I appreciate you, honey!” makes his day.  - Eric does do that. Instead of pulling the fire alarm, he does that in the middle of first period instead by interrupting Viggo's second year R.E. class. Viggo nods very seriously and replies 'And I cherish you, babe' which makes the entire class do vomiting noises. It's hilarious.

Dinner. Then dishes. She loves that! - Wow. Eric is not touching that one. Just... wow.

A three-minute hug. - That's a good one, in Eric's opinion. Viggo agrees. Most of their colleagues do not. They have to squeeze past them because Eric choose the middle of the staff room as an opportune hug location.

One simple thing I could do to brighten my husband’s day TODAY is locate a copy of Boondock Saints for us to watch! - Eric won't be doing that one. Both he and Viggo get way too emotional over the throwing-a-toilet-from-the-roof-scene. Jesus. That is love, man. Pure. Eric just – he can't – he – Viggo saves Eric from having an emotional breakdown whilst waiting in line in the cafeteria by telling dirty jokes in a horrid Irish accent. That probably means their lunch lady from Belfast spat on their fish fingers. Ah well.

Wash the dishes…Naked!!! - Yeah, Eric is not doing that one either. For one thing, the heater in Viggo's kitchen is on the fritz and there are frost flowers on the window in the mornings. For another, who does their dishes naked and thinks that that is sexy? Plus, who the fuck does their dishes by hand? Have the people subscribing to engagedmarriage.com never heard of dishwashers? However, Eric does leave a handful of Fairy dishwasher tablets on Viggo's desk before afternoon classes start.

Sending him sexy texts to work and keeping him from getting bored in the minutiae of the day. - This is definitely Eric's favourite. Not for the apparently obvious reason.

He and Viggo text throughout the day all the time anyway, so that's not actual a Spouse Day thing. But engagedmarriage links to the most hilarious video explaining how to sext that Eric watches during his free period in the afternoon. He gets a solid ten minute laugh out of it before he sends it to Viggo who replies by calling it the best thing that ever happened to him.

Then Eric sends Orlando a sext. Orlando responds with mild confusion. But by the time that Viggo shows up at 6.40 p.m. with pizza, Eric is up to 37 messages and Orlando's responding texts are already in angry all caps. So, for the rest of January, 26th they continue sending more or less lewd (and more and more weird) texts. By midnight Eric has three shouty voice mail messages from Orlando, threatening to bloody beat him to death and behead him like fucking Saint Valentine.

Eric loves Spouse's Day.

***

It's breakfast time, and Sean is happily peeling his second egg when Dominic clears his throat and Gerry snickers. Each sound on its own is worrisome enough, but combined? They make Sean automatically look for a clear line to the exits and the closest fire-extinguisher.

However, there is no small fire (they haven't had one of those since the incident with Dominic's birthday cake last October). Gerry is trying to soak up his amusement by stuffing toast into his mouth, but Dominic, noticing Sean's interest, nods to Sean's left, where Orlando sits.

Sean has good good reflexes, thanks to football and the fact that the best way to nip water bomb fights in the bud is catching the damn balloons mid air. So it takes him 0.2 seconds from seeing to grabbing Orlando's arm which is raised mid air, his fist holding a butter knife.

'Christ, Lando!', Sean grunts under his breath and pushes Orlando's arm down onto the table before any of the kids can see.

Orlando turns his glare at him, and Sean is not a religious man, but he has watched 'The Omen' a dozen times and it is like looking at Damien Thorn himself. If Damian Thorn was a 40 year old man with bags under his eyes, he supposes.

Gerry dissolves into giggles. Dominic picks up his plate and leaves the table.

'What is wrong with you today?', Sean asks and attempts to extract the butter knife from Orlando's grasp.

'It's his fucking fault', Orlando hisses in complete seriousness and jerks his arm free from Sean's grasp, even though he lets him have the knife.

'Who are you talking -?' Sean starts but stops when his gaze follows Orlando's across the table.

There is Viggo, cutting apples slices into his cereal and looking far too happy with the world at large. And then, of course, there is Eric. Who is, and there is no other way to say it, performing fellatio on a giant banana whilst making... well, it's probably the Australian version of bedroom eyes, Sean supposes. It's mildly scary.

Sean looks back at Orlando. Orlando, who now picked up his fork in a slightly distressing manner, narrows his eyes even further and mouths 'You are so fucking DEAD' to Eric.

Three third formers make the mistake of looking over to the teachers' table at that very moment. Sean tries his reassuring smile, but even that has its limits.

***

'Please tell me that this isn't going to be another 2009.'

Sean looks up from the worksheets on his desk that do a pretty good impression of leaves during a thunderstorm. Bernie smiles at him and leans against the desk, turned towards him conspiratorially. Naturally it's only then that a couple of Sean's sixth formers look their way.

'No clue what you mean ', Sean replies, voice low.

Bernie scoffs.

'Please, like you haven't noticed the big grin on Orlando's face all morning.'

Of course Sean has, it's pretty hard to ignore considering its rarity and the fact that it freaks the kids out. 

'So what', Sean replies with a shrug and for the benefit of their nosey underage audience he adds, 'Maybe he got laid.'

Yasmin and Sasha both pull the same face of disgust and turn away. Bernie chuckles and shakes his head.

'No, it's not that. It's not his satisfied smile but the scary one.'

'Don't you think it a tad odd that you labeled his smiles?'

'No, and stop trying to change the subject. I got to be back in my classroom in two minutes, and I'd just like to know whether I need to prepare for an MCA type of situation. Like in 2009.'

Sean frowns a little and shakes his head.

'2009?'

For a second it looks like Bernie contemplates reaching out and slapping him, but then he remembers their surroundings and just rolls his eyes.

'The last time one of Orlando's and Viggo's silly feud escalated. In case you don't remember, I got marooned on the pond's island and Dom ended up in hospital.'

'Where they told him that you can't get a heart attack from laughing too hard. It really wasn't that bad, mate.'

'You say that because you're Switzerland.'

Sean laughs, and Bernard clucks his tongue and looks actually mildly bothered.

And sure, Sean could ease his mind. Not that a repetition of The Feud isn't still an option, not after Eric's continued sexual harassment via text. Orlando has the memory of an elephant and bears a grudge like nobody's business. But that is exactly why Sean was sort of relieved when he overheard Karl talking Orlando into an evening of Halo last night. Karl undoubtedly brought Boris, and Sean knows Orlando well enough. He definitely was in enough of a mood to use Karl's scrapyard trained Rottweiler to scare the living daylights out of disobedient kids during one of his rounds and have a good laugh about it.

Orlando is not a particularly nice person.

But then again, neither is Sean. So, he rubs his chin contemplatively.

'You reckon?' he asks and adopts an expression of growing worry. 'Better avoid the pond then for the foreseeable future, eh, mate?

***

'Ahoy, mate.'

'Oh, it's you.'

'You could sound a bit less disappointed, West.'

'Sorry, I was just expecting a call from – nevermind.'

'No, no, do tell. Let me take part in your life. Is it MI6? Your wife? Pablo Escobar?'

'Isn't he dead?'

'I reckon.'

'Why on earth would I be expecting a call from him then, Gerry?'

'I don't know! Why I asked, isn't it?'

'Nevermind what I expected. What can I do for you?'

'Tell me who your having secret phone conversations with. Let me take part in your life, mate.'

'My life isn't a soap opera for your entertainment.'

'Now there's a thought, though. If your life were a soap, you reckon you'd be the baddie? The hellraiser? The womanizer? The locksmith?'

'The locksmith? Now, that is random.'

'Not really, considering.'

'Considering what?'

'Actually, mate, I called with a specific question in mind. Do you, by any chance, have any pointers as to how one would go about breaking into their own flat?'

'What would be the point of breaking into my own – did you lock yourself out, Gerry?'

'In a way.'

'What do you mean 'in a way'? I don't think there is any room for misunderstanding there.'

'Well, if you're asking if I misplaced the keys to my flat and if the door is locked, then the answer is 'yes'.'

'See, it's pretty straightforward.'

'However, if you're asking whether I have locked myself out, as in, can't get into my flat, then the answer would be 'no'.'

'Gerry?'

'Yeah, mate?'

'Did you lock yourself in?'

'Yeah, mate.'

'Why?'

'Well –'

'Before you proceed, let me assure you, if your next sentence includes the word 'vampires', I will hang up.'

'Do you think I'm a complete bampot, West? It's the middle of the day, why would I need to protect myself against vampires? Nah, it's not that. Precautionary thing, though, yeah. Remember my rooms are next to Eric's?'

'Ah, okay, I see. It's because of Orlando?'

'Exactly. Now, he might very well be a vam-'

'Gerry, I mean it, I will ring off.'

'What? Yeah, okay. Anyroad. I locked myself in earlier, and now I can't find the keys and now how do I get out? I don't own a rope ladder.'

'Have you tried calling the janitor?'

'What?'

'Marsters. The janitor. Call him.'

'That is a pretty smart idea, West.'

'I live to serve. And it's not like I have anything else to do on a Sunday after-'

'MAAAARSTEEEERS!! OI!! MARSTERS!!'

'For fuck's sake, Gerry!'

'What?'

'What are you doing?'

'Pretty daft question, considering you just suggested it, isn't it. I opened a window and called the –'

'On the phone, for fuck's sake. I meant you should phone him, Gerry.'

'I haven't got his number, do I? Who has the number of –'

'It's on the A4 sheet of paper in that generic frame right next to your door. As it is in every room of the school.'

'Oh.'

'I am pretty certain he will have heard you already, though. Jesus, you've got a loud bellow.'

'Cheers, mate.'

'That wasn't a compliment.'

'Yeah, it was.'

'No, I am positive that – sorry, gotta cut you off now, my other call is coming in and –'

'IS IT PABLO ESCOBAR?'

'Call the janitor, you idiot.'

'What would I do without you?'

'No idea. I gotta go now.'

'Pint later? My shout.'

'If you manage to get out, sure.'

***

It's precisely 9.16 p.m. on Monday morning when Eric's lesson on key stimuli and frilled dragons gets interrupted by the door crashing open.

The next five minutes are the worst of Eric's life.

A woman marches in. She has the body of a stripper (and an according demeanor as well) and wears a sheep hat on her head and New Zealand's flag as a rather skimpy dress. She corners Eric who is too flustered to do anything against it before it is too late. Then she sings the entire version of 'God defend New Zealand' – the English and the Maori version – right into his face.

When she ends, Eric's entire fifth year gives her standing ovations. Eric feels like he is going to be sick any moment now. The evil singing telegram smiles her brightest smile, then gives him a peck on the cheek and whispers into his ear,

'Orlando sends his regards'.

***

Viggo climbs in through Eric's kitchen window, and he is not being very elegant about it. Also he is humming the melody to 'Dawson's Creek' and carrying a picnic basket. Well, a bag from Tesco.

Eric, who should be preparing geometry lessons but really isn't, watches him whilst stirring tomato soup on his stove.

Viggo, who successfully managed the unnecessarily complicated entering process and ends up kind of upside down on the kitchen floor, gives Eric an upside down grin and produces a champagne bottle from his Tesco bag.

'I've decided something', he says solemnly.

Eric knows that tone of voice. He leaves the soup be and crouches down, eyebrows waggling in excitement all on their own.

'Yeah, mate?'

Viggo nods and fluidly sits up to hold out the bottle.

'I'm not down with the whole New Year celebration thing, considering it's just once a year. I propose we do this monthly now.'

Without taking his eyes off Viggo, Eric pulls a corkscrew from a drawer and uses it to point at the bag before reaching for it.

'Please tell me you got fireworks in there, mate.'

***

On Wednesday, a package gets delivered to the teachers' table when they have lunch. It is for Orlando, and considering the latest developments and the size of the parcel, Dominic decides that it would take him less than a second to dive under the table. He should be relatively safe under the heavy oak if it contains a mid sized bomb from Eric. Orlando (somewhat foolishly) opens it without precautionary measures. Dominic doesn't need to dive. It contains chocolates. Orlando looks mildly puzzled. Dominic supposed they might be poisoned.

On Thursday, Karl witnesses Eric playing keepie uppie with four boys from Orlando's A-level, the best players in JC's footie team. And they are definitely letting Eric win. Karl shakes his head and walks on.

On Friday, Bernard comes into the 'Prancing Pony' to see Eric and Orlando annihilating a group of tourists at darts. Must be they've made up then. Still, Bernard sits at the far end of the counter. Because Eric is waving his hands all over the place and Bernard has been slapped by him accidentally before. And Orlando with a sharp object in his hand? Now there is a thing to be afraid of.

***

Orlando opens his door with a frown on his face. Not that he is actually in a bad mood, but a knock on his door at a quarter past eight on a Saturday? Chances are that it is one of his kids who messed up again, so putting on the disapproving glare right from the start saves time.

It's not a child standing there but Karl and Boris, and Orlando straightens out his forehead.

'You got a woman in there?' Karl asks while Boris gives Orlando a scrutinizing look.

The frown returns to Orlando's face.

'A. No, I don't. And B., even if I did have an orgy in here, I don't see how that'd be any of your business.'

Karl looks unimpressed.

'Yeah, whatever. I was being polite. How about you return the favour?'

Orlando steps aside, and Karl and his dog walk past him, immediately taking up all the space on and in front of the sofa respectively.

'To what do I owe the pleasure?' Orlando asks, climbing over the mass of Boris's sprawled out body.

Karl purses his lips.

'Sean's got PMS.'

'Excuse me?'

'On his couch. Or something like that.' Karl makes a dismissive gesture. 'Didn't ask. There were three crying girls inside his flat, and they frightened Boris.'

Upon hearing his name, Boris raises his head from the carpet. Orlando doesn't think he looks too scared. Karl, on the other hand, does.

'Yeah, that happens', Orlando says. 'Shoulda called ahead.'

'Did that, when we were agreeing on what movie to watch.' Karl pulls a memory stick out of the pocket of his trackie bums. 'Narrowed it down to ten, not one of them has Justin Bieber in it.'

'Justin Who?' Orlando pulls the memory stick out of Karl's hand. It has 'Stuff' scrawled onto it with a marker pen. He looks back at Karl who seems pretty displeased with how his evening turned out.

'Well, I got beer.' He slightly raises the usb stick. 'If you got 'Bullit' on that, I'll even share it.'

Karl gives him a two-thumbs-up, kicks off his trainers to give Boris a belly rub with his foot while Orlando searches for the remote.

***

The afternoon of the first Sunday in February is what you might call very representative for all fifty something Sundays in the year.

Karl goes for a run so early in the morning that he is still the first one at the bakery when he returns. Bernard's wife comes in right after him, makes cooing noises at Boris and somehow gets Karl to agree to pruning the apple tree in her front yard.

Orlando wakes up on his couch with an obscure philosophy book (usually German) on his chest and spends the next five minutes trying to suss out whether he really did call his girlfriend in the middle of the night and turned an offer for phone sex down in favour of ranting about Kant. Again.

Sean has a yelling match with a teenage girl from his footie team, receives a picture (usually a horse) from one of the tiny first years from his house and calls his parents.

Dominic listens to Mahler or Beethoven and shakes his head in disappointment when Gerry claims that he can't tell the difference. (He can, of course, but where would be the fun in that.) Then Gerry talks Dominic into doing something stupid and pointless with him like attending a winching event where people deliberately get stuck in mud in order to winch themselves out again. Dominic says it's stupid and pointless, but Gerry knows he loves the physics behind it.

When the weather is rainy, there is a good chance that Viggo gets maudlin for a while. Mostly Eric can make that go away with food or cricket. If that doesn't work, there is always the option of threatening to sit on him and tickle him. Actually, Viggo doesn't need to be broody for Eric to go for that option.

***

'Everyone in this fucking school is fucking insane', Orlando says when he returns to the staff room He glares at Sean who still hasn't stopped snickering but now makes a (very poor) effort.

'I fucking hate Gerry', Orlando elaborates and kicks the leg of his chair for emphasis.

Karl, whilst licking cheap chocolate from his lips, leans back in his chair to inspect Orlando's arse.

'Yeah, still there, mate', he says and scrunches up his nose. 'Looks like you shat your pants, man.'

Orlando gives him the deadliest death glare of doom.

'Where the fuck did he even get all that shit from?'

'Tesco's', Dominic West says as he walks past, scrutinizing the list of contents on a Flakes bar. 'He purchased everything they had on Sale a month ago.' He looks up from his reading material, gaze catching on the back of Orlando's slacks.

'You look like... you had a bit of an unfortunate accident there.'

Sean nearly falls out of his chair, he is laughing so hard. Orlando picks up the squashed chocolate Santa from his otherwise utterly professional desk and tosses it at Sean's head.

'That's thanks to your idiot friend Gerry', he grumbles. 'Why would that idiot leave Christmas chocolate lying all over the place in the middle of February anyway?'

'They didn't have Easter eggs yet,' Gerry says reasonably as he returns from his quest for photocopies. Upon seeing the look on Orlando's face, he wisely stands behind West. West isn't 100% on board with that plan of action.

Orlando doesn't go for the instant physical attack but instead just gives Gerry his patented 'What the fuck' look.

'Of course they don't sell fucking Easter eggs! Why would anyone WANT Easter eggs on February, 6th?'

Dominic rips open his Flakes bar. Sean momentarily pauses, his lips wrapped around the head of a chocolate Santa. Karl licks his fingers. Gerry crosses his arms in front of his chest and allows himself a smug smile. He still keeps Dominic between himself and Orlando, though.

'Dunno why this gets you so hot and bothered, mate', Gerry says, very much avoiding to look at the state of Orlando's trousers. 'You're the one with an affliction for weird holidays, I thought you'd find this out of season Easter egg hunt belter.'

'Today is Lame Duck Day', Orlando says with the kind of quiet voice that his kids fear more than his yelling.

Gerry, still trusting his human shield in the form of West, chooses to ignore that.

'Bah. I think today would fare much better if it was known as Hide Your Stash Of Christmas Chocolates In The Staff Room To Put A Smile On Your Colleagues Day, what do you say?'

Orlando is silent for a moment. Then, very slowly, he turns to Sean who actually manages to look back at him with not even a smile (even if with traces of chocolate) on his lips.

'In your professional opinion', Orlando says, 'is it too much of a stretch to interpret Lame Duck Day as an opportunity to remove an elected official from his position due to the fact that he is clearly clinically insane by ripping his head off?'

***

'Are you meditating down there?'

Viggo opens his eyes and finds Eric looming over him. He leaves his hands folded on his stomach and just shrugs, the fluffy carpet tickling his ear.

'Does that sound more mature than sleeping?'

Eric weighs his head from side to side.

'Not really. More bonkers, probably. On the other hand, you teach R.E., so this counts as lesson prep maybe?'

'Could you take a step back, so I don't have to move too much when I want to kick you?'

'Do you one better', Eric says amicably, drops his bag onto his couch and lies down next to Viggo on the new carpet.

'What are we doing here, though?'

When Viggo turns his head to the side, he finds Eric still looking at him. Viggo gives him a crooked smile.

'Self-preservation. I saw Orlando walking past outside, and I dove for cover.'

Eric beams in response and nods, like this is a perfectly normal thing to do. Then he shifts a little bit on the carpet, maybe a little like you would when testing out a new mattress.

'It's surprisingly comfortable,' he concludes.

'My words exactly, if you remember.'

Eric chuckles quietly and lightly butts his forehead against Viggo's shoulder.

'The face of that saleswoman when you climbed on top of that pile of carpets.'

Where their bodies touch, Viggo can feel the vibrations of his amusement at the memory. Viggo unfolds his hands and lifts his arm, Eric shifts a bit and comes to lie on his back, his head pillowed on Viggo's chest.

For a while they just lie there, listening to each others' breathing and the occasional footsteps in the hallways outside.

'You know these glow in the dark stars', Viggo says eventually, 'the ones you can stick to the wall in your nursery?'

Eric hums, and his verbal response takes him long enough for Viggo to think he might have dozed off.

'Sure, mate. Why?'

Viggo looks up at the ceiling of Eric's flat. In the corner next to the door there is an abandoned spider's web.

'Would you mind if I stuck some up there? Like, fifty or something?'

***

'You know', Viggo says slowly, then waits until Eric looks at him, albeit upside down, 'if this is an attempt at pillow-forting, I think you need to take lessons from some of my boarders.'

Eric flops onto his stomach and props himself up on his elbows to be able to look at Viggo without giving himself vertigo.

'Mate', he replies and makes sure to sound properly offended, 'if I wanted to build a pillow fort, it'd put the fucking Sydney Opera to shame.'

For emphasis, he picks up a couch cushion that somehow found its way onto the floor and tosses it at Viggo. Without effort, Viggo catches it and hugs it to his chest as he leans against the side of the arm chair that Eric pushed out of the way to get more room.

'The opera house, huh? That sort of does look like a pillow fort. Kudos for that simile.'

'It does, doesn't it?' Eric agrees. He gives Viggo another grin, then turns over and sits up, the blanket now pooling in his lap as he fishes the television's remote from under the coffee table. He leans back against the sofa and switches on the telly.

'You know, Richard Hammond did is this neat program about the opera house... give me two minutes...'

For thirty seconds of those alleged two minutes, Viggo remains where he is, but even though he absolutely believes that Eric means to go straight for what he is looking for when he opens youtube, he also knows his best mate. So, he goes to the kitchen, prepares a measuring jug filled with chocolate milk for Eric and finds a bottle of wine for himself. Eric's laughter drifts in from the living room, mingled with the sound of people falling onto their faces and possibly various other body parts. Viggo fixes them a bowl of couscous and shrimp and decides foregoing the wineglass all together.

Eric pats the carpet next to himself when Viggo returns with his spoils, and he has finished his two pints worth of milk before Richard Hammond even reached Sydney harbor. They eat with their fingers, drink Viggo's wine and watch the program, and it's only when youtube automatically starts loading the next episode of 'Engineering connections' in line that Viggo gestures at the pillows strewn all over the carpet.

'If this isn't an attempt at recreating Australia in your living room, what then, mate?'

Eric turns down the volume, but he doesn't immediately reply. Viggo watches the first seven minutes of how the Millau Sky Bridge came together.

'You know, maybe it is'; Eric says then. 'Not Nuns in a Scrum, but -' he shrugs and smacks his lips. 'Home, you know.'

Viggo turns to look at him, and Eric pulls a face.

'Not 'home', really, that's not it. 'Home', that's Jackson, and it's you, 'course it is, but...'

He looks up at the ceiling, at the single crooked star done with a yellow marker pen that Viggo put there yesterday.

'You know the kind of feeling you last had when you were a kid, still crawling around on the carpet? Like when the worst you had to worry about was bumping your head against the table?'

There is a quietness to his voice that is not quite melancholy, not quite nostalgia, and yet it is both, and he lightly nudges Viggo's shoulder with his own. Viggo has to look back at the telly and watch Richard Hammond build a bridge model out of baguette for a while. It's ridiculous really, the kind of spontaneous burst of love Viggo feels for him sometimes, like his very being contracts and expands around it, and Viggo is left feeling too small and too big at the same time because of it.

It's minutes later, and Eric started picking the last crumbs of cold couscous out of the bowl, that Viggo finally returns the shoulder nudge.

'So, we're gonna live on the carpet now?'

'Don't see why not'. Eric stretches to deposit the now spit-clean bowl on the coffee table. 'The carpet is comfortable enough, we have an unlimited amount of stupid videos on the internet at our disposal -'

'Acting as a grown man's bedtime story, hm?'

'That, or a Night Nurse stand in, or an unsteady night light, same difference.' Eric shrugs and rests his head against the sofa. 'The important thing is that I can't see my desk from here, and I'm pretty optimistic that my phone ran out of battery an hour or so ago.' As if to defy the unnamed thing that's fraying the edges of his words, he smacks his lips and adds in a lighter tone, 'Plus, this sofa? Perfect cover in case ninjas decide to invade the flat.'

Viggo nods sagely.

'Ah, the daily dangers of being assassinated by ninjas.'

'You don't see them coming. Kind of like stomach bugs.'

'And the worst thing you have to worry about is bumping your head against the table.'

Eric chuckles and pats Viggo's knee, fingertips curling around its cap.

'Got you to look out for that, don't I?'

In response, Viggo picks the remote from the sofa and types 'How Australia became the global superpower of cricket' into youtube's search field.

'You bet.'

***

'There you are', Sean says, 'I've been looking all over for you.'

Orlando opens his eyes and squints against the afternoon sun. Sean's standing there, dramatically backlit and with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Orlando closes his eyes again and doesn't bother removing his arms from the back rest of the bench.

'Yeah, I totally buy that', he replies dead pan. 'Not like you came here to smoke.'

'Whatever. Shift over.'

Orlando curls his lips and waits until Sean unceremoniously nudges his knee until he moves about three inches to the left. Sean thanks him with a grunt and blows the first puff of smoke against the side of Orlando's face. Orlando growls. Sean chuckles.

'I overheard kids from your house', Sean says, and he sounds so pleased with that that Orlando even contemplates opening at least one eye again.

He doesn't.

'You're gonna like this', Sean continues, the smile very prominent in his voice now. 'Because it's hilarious, and it'll give you a reason to lord it over your kids.'

Orlando raises the arm that isn't practically trapped by Sean in order to flip him off.

'Sod off, Sean.'

Sean chuckles again and for about half a cigarette length he shuts up. All Orlando hears is the sound of a couple of tentatively optimistic birds in the trees behind them, and the faint rumbling, scratching, and slapping sounds that are tell tale noises of illegal skateboarding in the lower yard.

'Remember Karl asking Eric whether he's got a ruptured disc?'

'Course I do. It was this morning. Do I look like I'm suffering from Alzheimer's?'

'No. Tourettes', that I believe. But you're much too young and what's the word... rude for Alzheimer's.'

Orlando leans his head back and lets out an exaggerated groan.

'Fine, fine. I bite. Hey, Sean, you said you overheard a conversation? Please, do share all the juicy intel with me. Because God knows that I thrive for gossip from the mouths of teenagers.'

'Amy Jackson and Phil Raymond are convinced that Vig made Eric try out positions from the Kama Sutra.'

At that, Orlando does open his eyes. Sean looks at him as earnest as they come. Orlando tries very hard to hear the sounds of the birds once more. It's near to impossible what with his blood pressure up to 2000.

'According to them, it's 88% certain it happened during 'the elephant',' Sean adds conversationally and brings his cigarette back to his mouth. 'By the way, if you want to borrow my couch to grill them how they would know something like that, you're more than welcome to it till eight tonight. Then I wanna watch the racing.'

***

When Dominic enters the 'Prancing Pony' around ten, he feels like he walked into a Twilight Zone version of the staff room.

Of course, there are Karl and Sean doing the proper thing to do in a pub – playing darts with a pint each. But as he walks past Bernard's and Dom's booth, the two of them don't even acknowledge his greeting because Dom is too immersed in trying to sway Bernard's vote regarding the upcoming staff trip.

In one of the other booths at the very end of the bar, Dominic spots Viggo, Eric, Orlando, and a stunningly attractive woman. And even if Orlando hadn't got three open books on the table in front of him (he has), wasn't gesturing aggressively (he is) and should know how to behave himself in front of his girlfriend (he probably doesn't), Dominic would stay well clear of that corner. Eric's presence usually only postpones the inevitable – now, he has one arm slung over Viggo's shoulder and it's not 100% clear whether that is intended to be a gesture of comfort or a precaution to keep him from leaping across the table to strangle Orlando.

Then of course there is Gerry who has taken over the bar and is pulling pints like this was his actual day job. Of course, being Gerry, he almost spills the latest one, when he spots Dominic and waves him over enthusiastically.

So Dominic pulls out a bar stool, sits himself down, and enquires whether Gerry has the actual bar man tied up in the back room. Gerry laughs loud enough for most of their colleagues to automatically look their way. Dominic doesn't think that this counts as a definitive answer.

***

'Ahoy, West!'

'How are you even coherent?'

'You what?'

'How is it possible that you are able to speak and be so chipper about it. I fucking hate you.'

'Now, that's harsh. Talking to the man with his hands on the tap like that.'

'You are tapped. What the hell did you put into my drinks last night? Flunitrazepam?'

'What?'

'Rhohypnol. Date rape drug.'

'Now you're just being crass, mate.'

'Well, let's see, Gerry. I can't remember anything that happened past eleven last night, and I just woke up on Dom Monaghan's couch.'

'Dom Monaghan?'

'Dom Monaghan. Who, by the way, is in his bedroom and someone tied him to his bed. It looks like the fricking set up to badly done bondage porn in there.'

'That was probably... You don't remember ringing me last night?'

'What are you talking about?'

'You called me a couple of hours ago, and mate, you were a bit incoherent, rambling about how it's utterly confusing to have to Dominics walking around Jackson and how there was a good chance that Dom wants to steal your identity.'

'I did?'

'Swear to God.'

'And then you're suggesting it was me who tied him to the bed?'

'Well...'

'I do not like the sound of your voice. The last time when you sounded like that, I ended up hip deep in mud and you nearly ran me over with your stupid car.'

'If it's any consolation, I am pretty sure it wasn't you who did that to Dom.'

'No?'

'Well...'

'Gerry!'

'Aye, okay, it was around two last night, when I closed the pub, and since I am a belter bar man, I didn't drink anything all night which really can't be said about the rest of you. If you give me a second, I can send you a photo I took of Viggo and Eric – Vig was so drunk, Eric had to carry him home. You by any chance know whether he ever worked as a fireman? Cause I am pretty sure that kind of 'throw someone over your shoulder like a sack of potatoes' -'

'Gerry, for fuck's sake! Get to the point!'

'Oh, yeah, right, sorry. Anyroad, you were a bit, let's say, unsteady on your feet since you'd challenged Bernie to a drinking game even though we all know that that's a fool's errand. So, I valiantly offered to carry you home as well, which for some reason you were opposed to. Sean, though, he knows a good offer when he hears one, so we tried that out, but Sean's not really as flexible as Viggo is apparently, so we ended up with this pretty awkward attempt at a piggy back ride and – West? Hello? Dom, you still there?'

'What?'

'West, seriously? Did you just hang up on me?!'

'I told you I don't have time for your fairy tales. I spent the last five minutes looking for my damn trousers and guess what I discovered? My belt has been used to tie Dom's right foot to his nightstand. What the hell happened here?'

'I was getting to that. So, Sean and I nearly ended up in the ditch next to the 'Pony', and Karl was being no fucking help at all. Anyway, when we'd given up that particular endeavour, you were already pretty far down the road, with Dom and Orlando.'

'Orlando?'

'Oh, aye. And I'm fairly sure it was he who did the whole tying up last night. See, you did call me and told me about your conspiracy theories and whatnot, but then I reckon you must've rambled yourself to sleep or something, and next thing I know, Orlando has your phone and asks me whether I know anything about tying knots. And mate, of course I do. Did I ever tell you the story about how I can park a boat in less than two minutes... But I digress.'

'The first step is to acknowledge the problem... Where the fuck is my other shoe...?'

'Have you checked the bathroom?'

'Why would I – ? Never mind, I don't even want to know. So, you told Orlando how to tie up Dom like a trussed up chicken?'

'I reckon so. I mean, I was just trying to be helpful and – '

'Yeah, I know the rest of the story, I have met you, you – Jesus fucking Christ!'

'What is it? Did you find your shoe? It was in the bathroom, right?'

'Gerry?'

'Yeah, mate?'

'After you taught Orlando how to be a dungeon master, did you also tell him where to find Dom's Sharpies? And tell him that it would be a good idea to draw a Klingon beard on my face while I was sleeping?!?'

'Well...'

***

'I reckon this is the worst Sunday activity I have ever had to take part in', Eric says very firmly.

'First World Problem, mate', Viggo says as he hands him the treacle.

'But seriously, Vig', Eric insists, and there is definitely a whine in his voice as he peers down at the bowl of... well, it looks like vomit, to be honest. 'Why?'

Viggo pops a handful of dried fruits into his mouth and leans against the counter of JC's kitchen. Sean has gone through the trouble of bringing a folding chair with him on which he sits now, as if to make it even more evident that he is just here to supervise.

'Teaches you to never underestimate Orlando', is what Sean says with a big fucking smug grin on his face. Eric gives him an over-the-shoulder glare before he dutifully adds a disgusting amount of treacle to his work in progress.

'Mr Bloom's punishments are proper weird', Justine Watkins pipes up as she struggles with the scales. 'What is this supposed to teach me?'

'What did you do?' Viggo asks her in return.

She holds the bowl of dried fruits as far away from her as possible as she hands it over to her sister Jennifer.

'Skinny dipping in the pond.'

Eric turns around at that, brows raised to his hairline.

'In this weather? Isn't that punishment in itself?'

'I know, right?' Justine says and Jennifer pops her chewing gum in nonverbal agreement. (There are good chances that this gum is going to end up in their finished product, everyone knows it.) 'Mr Bloom makes no sense, and where is he even?'

'Nursing his hangover, probably. Lightweight', Viggo mutters to Eric, but Sean has indeed the hearing of a watchdog.

'He's not the one spending his Sunday making plum pudding for the entire school, is he?'

'What was your crime, Mr Bana?', Jennifer now returns the question.

'Being the bigger lightweight', Sean answers before Eric has a chance to.

'Word of advice', Eric says, turned to the two girls. 'Never bet against Mr Bloom. He cheats.'

'Oh Christ, less moaning, more baking', Sean instructs, picking up his football mag from the floor. 'Or the whole school is gonna go hungry tonight.'

Defiantly, Eric moans even louder but then switches the blender on.

'Plum pudding', he spits out and shakes his head. 'So random.'

'It's Plum Pudding Day', Justine corrects him and when both Viggo and Eric glance at her with matching frowns, she gives them a long-suffering look. 'You never saw the holiday calendar in Mr Bloom's classroom or in his office? I thought you were his mates.'

Viggo chuckles in response, but Eric turns a dark gaze down at the molasses-like mass in his giant bowl.

'Not anymore. Not anymore.'

***

When Sean splutters coffee, Orlando pulls his neat stack of essays his A-level pupils handed in half an hour ago out of the spraying range before he even looks up. Sean is busy coughing and wiping a more or less fine spray of coffee from the test sheet he has been reading.

'Need a pat on the back or a napkin?'

Sean shakes his head and raises the paper in his hand.

'A bang on the head or an Aspirin to ease the pain, more like.'

Orlando demonstrates a mild amount of interest by minutely raising one eyebrow. Sean takes the purple felt pen he possibly stole from a ten year old girl and now uses for grading (it's not like Orlando gave him a beautiful Kaweko pen for his last birthday. Pleb.) and makes a dramatically over-sized circle around one of his pupil's answers.

'Sometimes', he says by way of explanation, 'I honestly wonder what kind of idiot taught these kids history, their answers are that dense.'

'You did', Orlando says, extremely dead-pan.

Sean looks like he wants to flip him off but has his hands full with paper and felt pen.

'I know that, thank you. Which is why this,' He waves the sheet in Orlando's face, 'makes me want to disappear into the stationary cupboard and weep quietly for five minutes.'

Orlando picks up his coffee mug and crosses his legs at his ankles.

'Good thing you're not a giant fucking drama queen, man.'

Sean looks like this personally offends him and pushes his reading glasses up his nose again before reading out from the sheet.

'The question was “What is the historical significance of February, 13th?”'

Orlando shrugs.

'The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. The RAF and the US Air Force destroyed over 90% of the city centre.'

Sean smiles at him, all the pride of a teacher in his pupil on his face, and Orlando may be 40 now, but that doesn't stop the school boy inside of him to feel both stupidly pleased at the same time. To rectify that, he frowns deeply, gestures at Sean's paper and asks, and his voice is gruff when he asks,

'What'd your idiot child write?'

Sean chuckles and shakes his head, then licks his lips as if the answer suddenly was honestly delicious.

'”On February, 13th, 1974, the great singer and songwriter Robbie Williams was born.”'

'That's not wrong', Karl says without looking up from his task of cleaning his whistle.

'Calling Robbie Williams a great singer and songwriter is all kinds of wrong', Orlando contradicts him.

'”Rock DJ” is a good song.'

Orlando makes a retching noise.

'That's all beside the point', Sean says, pointing at the heading of the sheet with his felt pen. 'Peter Gabriel was born today as well, and so was Chuck Yeager.'

'Who's Chuck Yaeger?' Karl asks. He experimentally blows his whistle, which seems to be properly cleaned now, considering the loud sound coming from it that wakes Bernard up from his lunch hour nap two tables over.

Orlando gives Karl the very opposite of Sean's look of teacherly pride.

'Honestly? You know who fucking Peter Gabriel is but draw a blank at Chuck fucking Yeager?'

Karl responds with a full body shrug and a curled up upper lip. Orlando shakes his head.

'My point is', Sean says, still rather determined to stay on topic for some reason, 'that in my class about Nazi Germany and the Second World War, a question about February, 13th clearly is not about any celebrity's special day, is it?'

Dom West walks past their table, a cup of strawberry Yogurt in his hand.

'Wagner died on February, 13th, 1883. Hitler's favourite composer.'

Karl's upper lip curls again. Maybe because he dislikes Wagner. Maybe because he doesn't know who Wagner is.

Sean's face freezes momentarily, but then he smiles and nods at Dom West, mostly so Dom West walks on and doesn't set fire to any of Sean's things (there is a history).

Orlando takes a sip from his mug and weighs his head from side to side.

'Well, I'd give him half the points for that.'

***

On February, 14th, Mr Bloom's classroom is kinda like a safe haven. Not that Liv's gonna tell him that, mind. First off, he'd throw a proper fit for calling his room anything religious, even if it's clearly metaphor-like. Also, he doesn't need to know that she doesn't hate his classes or his head would grow even bigger, won't it.

But thing is, she is actively relieved when she comes into his classroom after lunch and it's not decked out in all kinds of stupid Valentine's stuff. And Mr Bloom, he takes one look at her when she arrives five minutes early and kinda disturbs him reading one of his dusty books.

'Who're you running from?' he asks.

'Stupid fucking Valentine's Day', she says and leans against the wall, her bag hugged to her chest. 'It's a right hassle.'

He gives her one of his head-tilted-to-the-side scrutinizing looks, like she is having him on or something.

'You're a teenage girl', he points out, picks up the sponge and starts on the blackboard.

She scrunches up her nose. Stating the obvious there, mate.

'This day is tailored to teenage girls.'

Liv kinda wants to tell him to go and fuck himself, but that'd probably mean he'd send her to spend the afternoon on Mr Bean's couch and she's definitely had enough of him for the day.

'Yeah, well,' she says instead, 'you grown ups did a proper job to ruin it, didn't you? This morning, right, I had to listen to Mrs Blanchet waxing on about French love poetry for an hour, and to Mr Bana waxing on about –'

'Mr Mortensen?'

Liv pulls a face.

'Ew, Mr Bloom.'

Mr Bloom looks right pleased with himself because he's a weirdo, but then he nods like he's agreeing with her.

'And you're in a strop because the guys from student council didn't deliver any flowers to you?'

'Get lost', Liv scoffs. 'Like I want a stupid cactus or summat from some spaz.'

Mr Bloom automatically glances at the small collection of cacti on his window sill.

'They're not doing roses this year?'

Liv gives him her best pitying look.

'Seriously? You should have a chat with Mr Bean.'

Something like a smile briefly comes near Mr Bloom's mouth before it thinks better of it and disappears again.

'So, he rediscovered his interest in Victorian floriography. Didn't think that would catch on with student council.'

Liv rolls her eyes.

'Yeah, whatevs. It's weird.'

Mr Bloom briefly interrupts his wipedown of the board to give her another one of his x-ray looks.

And yeah, okay, Liv's day hasn't been that bad till lunchtime came round. She got to make fun of Mo for accidentally sitting on a cactus and Mr Mortensen traumatized half of her year by going into way too much gory detail about St Valentine's beheading.

But honestly, you try staying in a good mood when you call your brother during lunchtime to have a chat with him about the football, and he tells you he is currently too busy shagging his husband. And yet he picked up the bloody phone. The two of them solely exist to make her vom. Seriously.

Mr Bloom tilts his head.

'You alright, though, Liv?' he asks, and honest, it's almost like he sounds kinda concerned. It's all kinds of wrong.

Liv let's out a big sigh and tosses her bag onto her desk before slumping down on her chair.

'I'm just saying, it's bloody Valentine's Day, isn't it? Makes people act like complete muppets. '

Mr Bloom chuckles and scribbles something about hedgehogs onto the blackboard.

'A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.'

And honest, the bit about the safe haven? Liv takes it all back.

***

'All right?' Sean asks, when Viggo steps up next to him. 'You look a bit... peaky.'

Viggo groans as he undoes the fly of his jeans.

'For one thing, I needed to piss for two hours.'

'Yeah, something the world at large didn't need to know', Orlando says sternly, giving the soap dispenser another squeeze.

Viggo just groans again, this time in relief as at least one half of his problems gets solved.

'And for another?' Sean asks, the amusement clear in his voice.

'Right, so I asked my third formers with whom, if they could choose from all of history, they would like to spend an afternoon.'

'Nosey', Sean decides with complete determination, and at the same time, Orlando asks, 'Seriously? You're still doing this?'

'Sean, I really don't get why you would choose Wellington if you could have Napoleon instead?' Viggo says, addressing the smaller problem first.

'Oh, I can tell you that –' Sean starts and hits the urinal's flush button with so much vigor that everyone present in the teachers' loo knows that this heralds a long lecture about Sean's man crush, Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington.

'And Orlando', Viggo says, firmly ignoring Sean's overture, 'I told you in 1995, and I will tell you now: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is not a valid choice if all you want to do is punch him in the face.'

Orlando scoffs and pulls a paper towel out of the dispenser with way too much force.

'Please. I'm not a teenager anymore. Today, I'd prove to him how his absolute idealism is utter bullshit.'

'And then you'd punch him in the face', Sean says, greatly amused, and jostles Orlando out of the way to get to the washbasin.

'And then I'd punch him in the face', Orlando agrees with a nod. 'Very different, though.'

'Course it is', Sean says in a tone of voice that makes Orlando actively contemplate tossing his crumpled up paper towel at his head. With his hands under the water spray, Sean looks over his shoulder to Viggo again. 'So, what got you so worked up this year? Was it half your class opting for Hitler again?'

Viggo groans for a third time, this time at the memory, but he shakes his head and zips up.

'Benedict Mitchum told me he wanted to meet Aragorn II, son of Arathorn.'

Sean chuckles, Orlando frowns. Viggo sighs and flushes.

'No clue where they get these ideas.'

***

The floorboards creak under Viggo's feet as he climbs the staircase in semi-darkness. It should all be quiet and peaceful, safe maybe for Julian McDonagh's snoring; it's late enough. 

However, there is a noise emitting from the end of the corridor, a very distinctive melody. And as Viggo walks closer, a trauma (buried for twenty years) blindsides him and he briefly has flashbacks to pupils pressing against one another and stretching their arms to their sides whenever they stand next to a railing (ships optional).

Still. That doesn't prepare him for what awaits him when he actually opens the last door to the left on the corridor. The room's lights are switched off, but there is no doubt that all three inhabitants are wide awake. Jay Thomas is holding two flashlights and is waving them about like he is fighting an invisible Jedi. Kilian O'Riley is dancing in the flickering lights, and with abandon. And Younes Ansari is holding his flashlight like a microphone, its light creating absurd shadows on his chubby face.

And all three of them wholeheartedly sing along to Celine Dion's 'My heart will go on'.

That is, until they see Viggo standing in the backlit doorway. Then they fall abruptly silent; Celine now wailing solo from the speakers of Kilian's iPod.

All three stare at Viggo wide-eyed and frozen to the spot. Viggo, for a moment, does exactly the same.

Then he closes the door again and walks away.

He could so do with some of Dom's pot right now.

***

It's one of those days, a rainy Friday in February, and their joint half-day field trip to York's Castle Museum has gone less than smoothly so far, and neither Viggo nor Orlando nor Sean are impervious to the strain the myriad of little annoyances provides. 

The bus is late ('I could've taken a piggy back ride from Eric and we'd still have been there quicker'), Simon Malwell inexplicably exits the bus with a bleeding head wound ('It's non-lethal, stop whinging' - Orlando Nightingale Bloom, everyone), and Sean's collection of about a thousand coins worth of collected entry fees spills all over the staircase at the entrance which is just too bloody typical.

And then, of course, there is the fact that Sean must've been completely drunk when he agreed to accompany Viggo and Orlando. Somehow over the quarter of a century that the two of them have known each other, they've managed to dig the trenches continuously deeper and used the time to perfect their sniping techniques.

Bernie and Cate think it incredibly entertaining, and Sean would love to agree with them. He would agree with them - he's not delusional enough to believe that all of Sean's mates could just get along with each other if they just tried hard enough. 

It's just...

Just ten minutes into the exhibition on the horrors of the First World War - three of Orlando's fourth formers (buzz cuts and trousers and shirts as close to ghetto gangster style as you can get within school uniform guidelines) huddle around them, their habitual attempt at aloofness erased by honest and heartfelt appal. Orlando takes them aside as the rest of the group shuffles on. His expression is as stern, his look is as sharp as ever. But with his unemotional quiet voice he talks them down - possibly explaining the concept of weltschmerz to them, if Sean knows him right - and it helps. It's not by accident or foolishness that the boys turned to him, after all.

As their guide moves them along, Sean comes to stand behind Viggo whose hand rests consolingly on Jana Simpson's shoulder as she wipes tears from her cheeks.

Orlando's and Viggo's schism would be hilarious. If they weren't so bloody alike.

***

The following resolutions were made for the week of half-term holidays:

Orlando is determined to finally get his teeth into the Habermas biography that Sean got him for Christmas. Also, he isn't opposed to Katy's counter-proposal (though he sees it more as an addendum to his own plan) to have sex at least twice every day.

Sean doesn't have any particular book on his shelf that can't wait. He can focus all his energy on wooing his acquaintance from last month's trip to Birmingham, the one with the Norton Commando.

Bernard recently sent Gerry a link to a website about eclectic hobbies. Gerry set himself the goal to find Dominic West a hobby; setting lab equipment on fire really can't be fulfilling. To achieve that he is determined to try out at least three promising fun past times every day. Saturday is going to be test-run day for candle making, beatboxing, and shark fishing. Well, in Gerry's bathtub. He is very optimistic to have the perfect hobby for West by the end of the week.

West is going to spend his week dreaming up fun ways to kill Gerry. And possibly Bernard.

Eric has no particular resolutions for the upcoming week, nothing out of the ordinary anyway. His life will just continue revolving around a. cricket, b. the love of his life, c. the other love of his life. Australia's tour of India started on Friday, his Falcon needs a proper waxing, and he and Vig spent under fifty hours in each other's company over the course of last week. Eric is going to develop the Viggo-equivalent of scurvy if this isn't fixed asap.

Viggo is all set to being Eric's metaphorical slice of orange.

***

As far as Sundays go, Bernard definitely had better ones in his life. As it is, he supposes he has to count his blessings. It isn't raining, and he was smart enough to put on Wellingtons when he left the house. That is about it, though, since his idea of an ideal Sunday afternoon doesn't involve woodlands, yelling 'Boris, Boris, where the hell are you?' until he is hoarse or getting yelled at by elderly women with tiny mops of hairy dogs because 'Was that your brute of a dog that tried to molest my darling Fufu? How dare you!'.

When he returns home around dusk and finds that Boris has found his way back there hours ago, he vows to pay more attention. Next time, when Karl asks him for a favour, Bernard will not nod distractedly whilst focussing most of his attention on the cake Cate brought to the staff room. He will listen to Karl's explanation involving an impromptu holiday on Mallorca and how Boris won't fit into his hand luggage. And he will nod and say 'tough luck, my friend' and walk away.

***

For weeks, February, 20th has been marked in the calendar by some people. The same selected group of people have spent mentally preparing for this for even longer. These people... you know, they probably wish to remain anonymous because let's face it, there are some addictions for which there aren't even self-help groups because the stigma is just too great.

Okay, it's Orlando and Sean. But for Sean, it's something he has shared with his parents since he was thirteen, and who are you to shame him for honoring family traditions, huh? HUH? And as for Orlando? He blames Sean. As per usual.

Anyway.

If you don't know anything about how the world works and / or possibly don't value your life, then you might try and call Orlando or Sean in the early evening hours of February, 20th. You won't, of course, actually reach anyone.

With Sean, you'd just hear the phone ringing and ringing until you get bored.

With Orlando, it'd automatically switch to voicemail and you'd hear the following message:

'You've reached Orlando Bloom. I can't take your call at this moment, but please don't hesitate to leave a message after the tone. I will return your call as soon as I am able which, in case you happen to call between seven and seven thirty, is when 'Emmerdale' is over. However, if you happen to call between seven and seven thirty on February, 20th, I have a message for you: Why the fuck are you trying to call me during the fucking wedding of the fucking year? Do you WANT me to kill you? Honestly, I can't even -'

'Orlando, stop messing with your phone and sit down already, it's STARTING!'

'I can fucking see that, can't I? Stop hassling me! - Anyway, leave a message or don't, I don't care. Now fuck off.'

BEEP.

***

Viggo tries very hard not to laugh when he sees Eric. For about a second, maybe two, then he has to clasp a hand over his mouth, and that doesn't really hide his amusement.

Eric's eyebrows do a thing where they maybe try to frown at Viggo, but they don't really manage because the rest of his face is too busy looking traumatized and being covered in smears of red-and-black-and-white-make-up.

'Did you walk across school grounds looking like this?' Viggo asks and still actively tries to stop himself from laughing.

With unsteady steps (and it's not because of unusually large footwear, Viggo checks) Eric makes his way to the couch and gives Viggo a shaky wave of a warning to scoot over before collapsing on the cushions. Viggo makes a commiserating noise and pats his thigh, suggesting it as a headrest.

'How does West do it every day?' Eric asks as the back of his head is pillowed in Viggo's lap.

'Well, he tries to blow up the school on a regular basis', Viggo says. 'I'm not sure whether that's the healthiest coping technique.'

Eric turns his wide eyed, non blinking stare up at Viggo. He did a particularly poor job of removing the black diamonds around his eyes, it looks more like he had a proper cry and smeared it like that.

'I can relate to that, mate', he then says with a heavy sigh. 'Gerry is certifiably crazy.'

Viggo weighs his head from side to side.

'I don't know. It kinda does suit you.'

Eric purses his lips, and the remainders of the comically large down-turned mouth painted onto his face does a pretty good job at conveying his displeasure. Viggo cards his fingers through Eric's curls to make up for it, and Eric sighs and closes his eyes.

'Why didn't you stop me, Vig.'

Viggo keeps stroking and wonders whether Gerry made him wear a wig; like a giant red one for example.

'You were so enthusiastic about it', he says, '”That sounds like fun, Vig. - It'll be a laugh. - And West needs a hobby and I'm being a mate.” Remember?'

Eric sighs again and turns his face into Viggo's stomach. Viggo bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from laughing,

'Yeah, yeah, mate. But Clown School?'

He presses his face against Viggo's belly. Viggo thinks that it's a good thing that he's wearing an old sweater. This one is gonna have the imprint of the face of a very sad clown on it.

***

It's very early in the morning – too early even for Viggo's wonky alarm clock which can't be talked into taking term breaks into account – when Viggo wakes up because his bed covers are dragged from him. Since his sleeping self is very partial about not being parted from said covers, however, he nearly gets dragged out of the bed with them. Ending up half-hanging over the edge of the bed, he opens his eyes and (no surprise there) comes face to face with an upside down view of Eric's tracky bums clad thighs.

'Why?' he asks, stretching the vowel to a length that allows him to close his eyes again and clutch his blanket a little tighter in the meantime.

Eric – fully awake and in general quite a bit stronger than Viggo – pulls again. Viggo ends up on the floor after all.

'You got ten minutes, mate.'

Eric's cheerfulness is infectious enough to instantly dissolve Viggo's brewing complaint, if not his tiredness. He blinks up at Eric a little owlishly.

'Ten minutes for what?'

'Ten minutes to pack whatever you need.'

Eric lets go of the bed covers and walks over to Viggo's drawer and pulls it open. He throws a handful of boxer shorts over his shoulder in Viggo's general direction, and a checkered one lands on Viggo's head.

'Nine minutes, thirty seconds', Eric continues. 'Then I'm gonna drag you out of here and into my baby, and I don't care if you got shaving cream on your face or only one sock on.'

One of the boxer shorts buttons got caught in Viggo's hair, and he has a bit of difficulty removing it.

'Fair enough', he replies and decides to go for pick and painful in terms of removal procedures. 'But why?'

Eric beams at him.

'Road trip, mate!'

With determined strides, he leaves the bedroom, and from what Viggo guesses is the direction of the kitchen, he finishes his explanation.

'Gerry and I have a bet going. We need to go to the Shetland islands.'

Viggo, who by now managed to get to his feet, put on another sock, hops on the spot to get his left leg into his jeans.

'Okay.'

'I talked Sean into taking over your duties until Saturday', Eric calls, rummaging through Viggo's fridge. 'Well, I say 'talked', I bribed him. Anyway, you're good to go.'

Viggo successfully concludes the getting dressed part of the day.

'Okay', he calls back. 'Why, though?'

Eric's reply is muffled by what is probably half a banana.

'I'll explain later. Pack your camera.'

So Viggo does. When Eric, true to his promise, pushes him out of the door eight minutes later, Viggo is carrying a stuffed Tesco bag. It contains his toothbrush, two pairs of boxer briefs, a woolen hat that is technically Sean's, aforementioned camera, a medium sized package of Kellogg's Peanut Butter Clusters, his phone, and the abridged version of Cao Xueqin's 'Story of the Stone' . The latter partly because he has been reading it last night, but mostly because Eric throws it at him as Viggo is taking too long brushing his teeth.

He tosses it into the backseat of Eric's Falcon where it is in good company of Eric's overnight bag and straps himself in. Eric is already waking half of JC's residents by revving the engine to convey his excitement for the day ahead.

Of course, the Falcon doesn't have satnav since Eric thinks it'd be a desecration of mankind's most beautiful piece of art. As they pull out of JC's parking lot, they silently agree that road maps are for idiots as well. It can't be that hard to find the Shetland islands – it's just heading North, after all.

As soon as they are on the M6, Viggo's late night reading catches up with him. He dozes of to the healthy rumble of the Falcon's V8 engine and Eric singing along to whatever Radio 2 has to offer.

When he wakes up, it's not because Eric pulled away his covers (or rather Eric's coat which Viggo fashioned into a makeshift blanket). Instead the slight change of the car's sound as it slows down and sudden silence from the driver's seat stir Viggo's slumbering consciousness.

Instead of sheep and Shetland ponies (which is about all Viggo knows about the Shetland Islands, if he's being honest), the much more mundane sight of a petrol station greet him outside when he opens his eyes.

'We're almost running on empty', Eric says as he pulls up next to the petrol pumps.

A glance at the dashboard reveals that this is very much not true – as if Eric would ever risk that. There is a fancy looking car wash just ahead of them which is the much more likely explanation for the impromptu stop.

'Did we pack food?' Viggo asks and rubs his eyes. 'Other than my Kellogg's?'

In response, Eric lifts the Kellogg's box from between his legs and shakes it to prove its emptiness.

So Viggo gets food from the minimart while Eric fills up on petrol. They wait for the Falcon to finish its beauty treatment in the car wash, eating sandwiches and drinking coffee from paper cups, before they drive on.

Eric proclaims that his vocal cords are getting sore from all the singing, so Viggo switches the radio off and offers to sing for Eric instead – if he makes up the lyrics on the go, there is no chance that Eric can sing along. As it turns out, Viggo's talent for songwriting is a bit rusty and all his impromptu creations feature traffic jams and lorry drivers running amok.

Despite the apocalyptic scenery he paints with his words, they reach Glasgow without even a hint of thick traffic, and it's there, in , Gerry's hometown, that Viggo remembers the reason for their impromptu trip – the bet.

'What exactly is that about?' he asks just as they drive past a slightly dented “Welcome to Glasgow” sign.

'Well, it all started with Gerry being a giant idiot', Eric says, as if that needed pointing out.

The story that follows makes about as much sense as watching an Almodovar movie in Russian. It doesn't really surprise Viggo – it does feature Gerard Butler as one of the protagonists after all – but it leads to Eric getting completely turned around in the city centre. They stop for an early lunch in a pub whose only redeeming feature is its fenced off parking lot and the onion rings that Viggo orders more by accident than by design, and they leave again with Viggo being none the wiser as to the reason for their trip.

They are still heading North, and it's only when a sudden rainfall of truly epic proportions washes over them that Eric looks at Viggo.

'You know, it just occurred to me that we'll probably need to take a ferry.'

It is true, of course. The Falcon is many things, but amphibious it isn't. So Viggo looks up the schedules of the ferries leaving from Aberdeen on his phone and while he's at it, he sends Sean a message thanking him for taking over.

'What is it?' Eric asks when, two minutes later, Viggo suddenly laughs out loud.

'Sean says hi and next time you invade his home at five in the morning, he'll give you a proper slap.'

Eric takes one hand off the wheel to wave dismissively, then turns the radio back on and is delighted to find Shakira coming from the speakers. He starts singing along again, and Viggo kicks of his shoes and manages to get his book from the bag on the backseat.

'C'mon, read something to me', Eric demands when they've just passed Dundee, and so Viggo does. Their subsequent conversation about dreams and reality and the nature of fiction somehow lands them on a seemingly abandoned lay-by in the middle of nowhere, Eastern Scotland, and causes them to very nearly miss their ferry from Aberdeen.

It's only when the Falcon is parked safely in the belly of the ferry and the two of them made it to the upper deck, the collars of their coats turned up against the late afternoon chill, that Viggo nudges Eric's arm.

'Mate, why the Shetland Islands?'

Eric's features, a second before slightly strained due to the sharp wind, instantly soften; an instant transition from hardened sailor to impish lad.

'It's where they have Shetland ponies, right?'

'I believe so. Why?'

Eric nudges Viggo back and turns towards the ocean, the ferry's lights illuminating the otherwise dark blue water.

'I bet Gerry I could carry a Shetland pony the distance of the Nunthorpe Stakes.'

Viggo stuffs his hands into the pockets of his jacket and shuffles a little closer to Eric, because of the cold and the rocking of the ferry and just because.

'That's, what, five furlong? Absolutely doable.'

***

The ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick takes twelve and a half hours.

'It's pronounced 'Lerrick', Vig', Eric says around midnight, when they found their way to one of the bars. 'Lerrrrrick.'

'Did Gerrrrry teach you that?' Viggo asks.

'Oh no, 'e taught me nowt', Eric replies with uttermost seriousness. Not only does he do a scarily good imitation of Gerry's Glaswegian, he also has Gerry's facial expressions, his exuberant gestures, even his way of sprawling over a bar stool down perfectly.

For the next half hour or so, he speaks, gestures, blinks like Gerry. Viggo repeatedly chokes on his beer when Eric spins one of Gerry's tall tales about Scotland and only stops when the barman gives him first skeptical, then downright dirty looks of disapproval. By that point, Viggo has already sampled several of the locally brewed beers (the White Wife being his favourite so far). Eric of course sticks to orange juice but insists that Viggo drinks his share of beer as well.

Around two a.m. they – Viggo, that is – switch to scotch and try one-upping one another with idiotic descriptions of the taste. Eric surrenders when Viggo comes up with a (very tasteful) limerick that involves Glenfiddich and going down on a 80 year old distiller.

Viggo celebrates his victory by doing an impromptu jig with a slightly flustered random young woman who happens to sleepwalk past. Then he orders the rest of the well advertised Shetland beers.

After that... his memory is a bit jumbled.

He does have a pretty good recollection of the rest of the boat trip and, in fact, the rest of February, 23rd. But it is less like a properly lit feature film and more like... a dented shoe box filled with somewhat blurry Polaroid snapshots that someone gave a good shake and tumble before thrusting it in his hands.

So, when they return to the B&B in Lerrrrrick, Viggo collapses on the bed decorated with the contents of his Tesco bag, and he is sure that all of the below mentioned things happened at some point during the day. Well, fairly sure. About most things. He just isn't so certain when it comes to the actual chronology of the following events:

One of the Shetland pony establishments they go to doesn't want to let them borrow a pony. A woman with a hat that must have been manufactured pre-war gives them a funny look when Eric parks the Falcon in front of the dollhouse-sized stables. And when they can't produce and appropriately-sized child from the backseat, she sends them away without even asking what they want.

The boot of the Falcon is filled with Shetland beer. And carrots.

They are in the middle of a field where Eric thought he saw a Shetland pony (it was an oddly shaped shrub) when Orlando calls. Skipping the hello, he throws a two minute bitch-monologue at Eric's head (ear) about how they left him and Sean with all the work. Eric listens patiently, then pretends to be Gerry for the rest of the phone call.

Talking of 'pretending to be someone else', Eric must've left it up to Viggo and his phone to find them their accommodation on the fly. The Aald Harbour B&B isn't such a bad choice, considering that Viggo must've been completely pissed by the time he booked it. However, he suspects he might've told something else than the truth regarding their reasons for staying there. The friendly woman behind the reception doesn't volunteer any information where to find carry-able Shetland ponies. Instead she offers a lot of wink-wink kind of whispered tips for romantic spots around Lerwick. Also, she calls both him and Eric 'Mr Mortensen'.

While they are having lunch (or some other important meal of the day, Viggo isn't so sure about the exact timing here), Eric gets chatting with the owner, Douglas. As it happens, Douglas owns a Shetland pony. Or his seven year old daughter does. The pony lives in a shed behind the pub, and it is called 'Coconut'. Or (again, Viggo can't be particularly sure about this; he filled up on beer during 'lunch ') the pony's name might be 'Bobby' or 'Peter' or something else, and it just bears astounding resemblance to a coconut. A giant hairy coconut that weighs approx. two tons. In any case, Eric takes one look at it and then politely thanks Douglas for his time and drags Viggo away.

In their quest for a Shetland pony with anorexia, they somehow end up on a beach. It is very pretty and also very windy. So windy, in fact, that Viggo's woolen hat (which is still technically Sean's) gets blown right off his head and into the sea. Eric says that this is going to make one lucky otter very happy.

That incident is probably very closely followed by them temporarily abandoning their search for a pony in favour of otters, and –

'Hey, Eric, did we see otters today?' Viggo asks, raising his voice so he doesn't have to get up from his bed for Eric to hear him under the shower.

'Course we did', Eric hollers back cheerfully, temporarily turning the water off. 'A mother and her mean-spirited cub.'

Viggo smiles at the ceiling. Eric sounds like Gerry again, and it is about as plausible that this otter spotting ever happened as it is that Gerry is actually a certified barrister (which he frequently claims when West blows stuff up which is also very frequent).

'That sounds fantastic', Viggo calls out anyway.

'It was, mate. You named them Sean and Spawn-of-Satan, it was beautiful!'

With that, Eric turns the water back on and starts singing again, a melody that has been on his tongue all day.

A message from Sean makes Viggo's phone buzz. It informs him that he just caught Mikael Burdin and Jason Franks in the bike shed with their pants down. Viggo can see Sean's ever-patient eyeroll through the text.

'Must be love', he types back. 'It's freezing there this time of the year.'

Sean takes less than thirty seconds to reply.

'Love or not, YOU're giving them The Talk once you're back. Skiver.'

Viggo sends him a thumbs up, then googles 'sex talk' and gets re-directed to a fantastic tutorial on youtube from the 1950s. It kind of leaves out hasty sex with a rugby mate in the bike shed.
Somewhere in the middle of it, Eric returns from the bathroom and the fantastic animation and thrilling narrative instantly enthralls him, too, of course. So, he is still standing at the side of Viggo's bed, towel-clad and dripping on the carpet, when the video is over.

'I so hope this is part of the R.E. curriculum, mate', he says and pokes his waterlogged ear.

'It will be now', Viggo replies.

'You are an evil man', Eric says with acceptance. 'I love you.'

While he then proceeds to rummage through his bag in search of his hairdryer (he packed a little more sensibly than Viggo), Viggo picks up his camera to flick through the pictures they took today. There is a curious amount of snaps of various bits of the Falcon, of stunning landscape and weird cloud formations, none of otters (which figures), of Eric knee deep in the sea trying to reach Sean's bobble hat, of Eric stuffing his face, of Eric –

'Huh', Viggo breathes out.

Eric turns his attention from the news on the television back to him.

'What?'

Viggo uses the zoom function to get a closer look at the picture.

'So, you won the bet.'

Eric gives him a look of amused fondness.

'Yeah, course I did. You were there, mate', he says before looking back at the telly.

Viggo hums again, then flicks through the rest of the series of photos. They all show Eric in front of slightly varying landscape (well, different parts of the same pasture, really), hugging a Shetland foal to his chest that is half the size of Boris. Viggo can't decide who looks more smitten, the foal or Eric. He only hopes that tomorrow morning he won't find a miniature horse on the passenger seat of the Falcon.

***

From: Someecards
Sent: Friday, 24.2. 2017 10:18
To: s.bean@jackson-college.co.uk
Subject: Viggo has sent you a card from someecards.com!

Hi Sean,
Viggo (occasionallyiamjesus@gmail.com) has sent you an ecard:

i-dont-think-of-you-as-a-coworker-because-you-never-do-any-work-nyR

Message:

Thank you for telling Orlando that you told me to give Mikael and Jason the sex talk. No, really. I think it's great that the blossoming love of two of our best rugby players provides so much amusement for Orlando's cold, cold heart. It's absolutely fantastic that he keeps texting me suggestions as to how to approach the subject. Because we all know that if there is someone we all would turn to when sensitivity is needed, then of course it would be Orlando. So thank you so very, very much.

Viggo

P.S. I don't care what Eric promised you in return for taking over for the last two days, but I consider our debt paid.

-----------------------

Shetland postcard

Lerrrrrrick, 24/2/2017

Dearest Gerry,

we are sending you this card so you have something to cheer you up in this time of sorrow. BECAUSE I WON THE FUCKING BET, IN YOUR FACE, MATE. So, just a reminder of what you owe me:
#1 – Petrol and accommodation for my baby for a trip to see Twiglet.
#2 – Coming to the next staff meeting as 'Numpty, the clown'. I expect the full shebang.
#3 – That thing with West and the stink bomb and Orlando's classroom.
And as a one time offer: I'll join youNumpty as Poida if you talk to Jay and Mike about keeping their dicks to themselves when surrounded by bicycles.

Greetings, Eric

***

Holidays leave Dominic with a certain sense of... foreboding. He mentioned it to Gerry once who nodded emphatically and said that it was exactly like when he eats delicious paprika even though he knows perfectly well it gives him the runs. Dominic didn't need to know that, but as far as similes go, it's not half bad.

He returns from a holiday in a location he'd rather not disclose, drops off his suitcase at his room and walks to his lab, passing through the main building.

Technically it has been just four days, but previous experience has taught him that this is absolutely enough time for things to go completely down the drain in this place. He just remains undecided which of the three following observations is most worrying:

1) The door to Gerry's room is plastered with posters showing tiny horses gallopping across misty meadows.

2) Sean, Orlando, and Dom have taken over the main common room which now looks like Churchill's war room, and Dominic definitely heard the words 'school-wide week of project-based-learning'.

3) There is a not small amount of C4H10 missing from his lab.

Dominic looks out the window of his lab, and outside, Viggo and Eric just finished putting up a set of folding chairs next to a small barbecue grill. He straightens the lapel of his lab coat and decides three things:

1) This place is actually safer when all of the pupils are here to lower the percentage of insane people.

2) Gerry is in fact a thirteen year old girl, trapped in a 6'2'' man's body.

3) He needs to find a new flat off of JC's campus. There need to be people in existence willing to let who haven't heard about the incident from last October. And after all, it's not his fault that PVC is so easily flammable.

***

The sole reason why Bernard would set foot on Jackson College's premises on a Sunday normally would be... He cannot think of an occasion when that has ever happened in this millennium. There was one time, it must have been in the mid-90s, when he found himself on school grounds on a sunny Sunday afternoon for a football match that Sean had initiated. That in itself is shocking enough, considering that Bernard is not a religious man but firmly believes that God had a good reason to rest on Sundays. But he wasn't even just there as a spectator or as a chaperon. No, it turned out to be a teacher vs. pupils match and Sean had the audacity to stick him into the goal and claim that Bernard had agreed to this weeks before. Unsurprisingly, the teaching staff lost.

Since that day, Bernard very much avoids spending his Sundays at Jackson College. Especially if they happen to be the last day of the week-long term break and there is a fair chance of getting trampled to death by teenagers returning to the nest.

However, Bernard still has this dog-shaped furuncle that he would very much like to get rid off. (It is sufficient to say that over his week-long stay in the Hill household, Bernard and Boris have not become mates. The low point of their forced-upon partnership was reached on Wednesday, when Boris rather firmly insisted that he, Boris, would be sleeping in the bed with Marianne, and that Marianne's wedded husband, Bernard, could take the couch or the dog-bed for all he cared).

So, Bernard is really rather desperate for a chance to deposit the slobbering menace. And since Karl texted him that he would drive from the airport straight to JC to 'see how much Sean fucked up training the girls without me', Bernard inadvertently finds himself next to a football field on Sunday.

After watching the disturber-of-the-peace turn into a puppy in dire need of a belly rub – Bernard is very happy that Boris is not returning home with him tonight, considering that he rolled around in the mud at Karl's feet –, Bernard makes a valiant attempt at getting away. Of course that attempt is ruined when Orlando spots him.

Bernard is not certain when Orlando decided to become boss of them all. It might have been during aforementioned catastrophic football match in the 90s, when Orlando was still playing for the pupils' side and saw their sixteen to naught (or something like that) destruction as proof for their ultimate weakness. In any case, he ends up following Orlando back to the main teaching building and into the common room where he has to listen to Orlando talk about project-oriented teaching and how Bernard should team up with Johnny to stage Shakespeare.

Now, Bernard would have switched his hearing aids off – metaphorical ones, of course; he just wishes he was hard-of-hearing and could switch his aids off whenever, well, Orlando is around – but accidentally getting stuck with Boris taught him something at least. So he nods and oohs and ahhs for a while until Orlando is satisfied, but he definitely doesn't make any promises or signs anything.

Orlando gets distracted thanks to a confused and traumatized looking boy who is possibly in Bernard's fifth year and is maybe named Mikael (Bernard isn't too good with names). He comes up to Orlando, even waits until they have finished, all the while sea-sawing from one foot to the other rather nervously, and then asks 'whether you have a minute, sir, please, if it's no bother'. Bernard finds it rather reassuring that even 16 year old rugby players are reduced to bumbling, stuttering messes in Orlando's closer vicinity, and he takes the chance and flees.

On his way out of the common room, he gets waylayed by two second form girls, however. They commandeered the one table not occupied by Orlando's project-oriented-week-planning-frenzy. Their table is as much a covered on paper as Orlando's, but it does feature a lot more glitter and printed out pictures. The latter show various buildings of JC over the last couple of decades and there are several portraits of stern looking men among them as well who, Bernard is sure, will very much approve of the glitter. He, at least, does when the girls' ask him for his aesthetic opinion on their project.

They are working on a poster for Sean's history class. Now, Bernard has a very specific view on his pupils' homework that is best summed up with 'don't ask, don't tell' – he doesn't ask whether they did it, and they don't tell him if they didn't. Sean, on the other hand, is apparently still teaching his classes in a way that means a lot more work, and the girls seem very keen not to disappoint him either.

It is a little sad, it has to be said, that their attention to detail when it comes to surrounding a picture of J.R.R. Tolkien with pink sparkles is not necessarily reflected in the accuracy of the bits and bobs of information they wrote onto their poster in calligraphy.

According to them (and apparently the internet, as their cited source is 'google.com'), Tolkien, a renowned professor in Oxnard, founded Jackson College in 1954 after an extended stay in Middle Earth. But it was because of the first headmaster, Peter Jackson, a Middle Earth native, who opened the school to all kinds of people – whether they may be blond, bare-footed, or dwarves ('Mr Hill, is it okay to say dwarves? It's not offensive or anything, is it?') - who made the school truly great by giving Jackson College not only its name but also its first motto.

'Not all those who wander are lost.'

Given the evidence before him, Bernard would normally beg to differ. However, it is Sunday, and he is not on duty. Also, the glitter is very fetching. So, he oohs and aahs, pats them on the back, and suggests they should show this to Mr Bloom next. Then he makes himself scarce.

***

On Monday, February, 27th, Craig gets called into Christopher's office. On any other day, this would be cause for a lot of wide-eyed chatter around the teaching staff's equivalent of the water cooler, the only functioning copy-machine. Because Craig doesn't just teach German at JC, he also embodies all of Germany's world-famous secondary virtues, such as punctuality, discipline, reliability, and subordination. At least according to Christopher, who hasn't ever seen Craig drunk or in a football stadium.

No one is particularly surprised that Craig is being summoned on this particular Monday, though.

Craig closes the door behind him and listens to Christopher's disappointed lecture on how he really expected better from him of all people. When he has finished, Craig straightens the stuffed parrot attached to his right shoulder, and his left eye, the one that is not covered by an eye patch, gives Christopher a level and calm look.

'I asked to be relieved of my duties for today, so I could fly to Cologne,' he argues reasonably, or as reasonably as a grown man dressed up as a pirate can. 'But you wouldn't let me. It's Collop Monday, for heaven's sake.'

***

At breakfast, Orlando's default frown deepens when he sets his tray down next to Sean's.

Sean has bags under his eyes, and he is rasping rather than breathing whilst sipping from his tea and staring into the distance. He looks like shit.

'You look like shit', Orlando says with disapproval.

Sean doesn't elbow him, tell him to fuck off or deliberately sneeze into his cornflakes. He gives Orlando a hazy glance and sighs.

'Cheers, mate', he says. He makes it sound like Orlando didn't point out a simple truth but hurled stones at him.

Orlando knows the reasons for all this, of course. Sean got soaking wet during football practice on Sunday, the parents of two of the kids in his house are getting divorced, which equals a lot of late-night-tear-drying, he locked heads with Christopher about the potential project-based-learning week. He is also old and a sentimental idiot who thinks the world will crumble if he isn't there to hold it together.

Orlando scoffs, shakes his head and eats his cornflakes.

Over the course of the morning, he watches Sean's skin change its colour to resemble that of a dead fish. His rasps turn to coughs despite the herbal tea that Orlando orders Viggo to make him. When Christopher marches into the staff room, his sharp eyes searching the premises for Sean, Orlando walks past him and tells him that he is thinking about taking his philosophy A-level on a week-long field trip to a Buddhist monastery. Christopher promptly has an aneurysm and hisses at Orlando for five minutes straight until the next period start.

After morning lessons are over, Orlando walks up to Sean in the staff room. Sean's hazy eyes are now in good company of a light sheen of sweat on his face. With maybe a little too much force, Orlando puts the work sheets he just photocopied for Sean onto his messy table.

'Three things. First of, I caught Mo and Jellin from your tutor group skiving,'

Sean blinks tiredly but nods.

'All right. When?'

'Third period, art', Orlando says but when Sean leans forward to write it down, he shakes his head. 'That was just fyi. I already had them reorganizing Johnny's paint as punishment.'

Sean sighs again, this time a little less resigned.

'And the other two things? Is it about the project -'

Orlando cuts him off with another shake of his head.

'No, Christopher is just being an ignorant prick, he'll come around next week.'

'All right', Sean nods placidly.

'The second thing is that I'm taking over your yard supervision after lunch', Orlando continues and switches on his favourite and most effective glare of death when Sean's lips part in an attempt of automatic protest. 'Shut up. Because the third thing is, you still look like shit.'

Sean's eyes, momentarily distracted by the neat stack of photocopies on his desk, look up at Orlando again. Orlando curls his upper lip.

'I'm serious. You need to go away and lie down because the sight of you makes me depressed, mate.'

He crosses his arms in front of his chest and pointedly stares down at Sean until Sean gets up.

***