‘”Because,” he said, “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”’
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Chapter 23.
James was just unlocking the car when his phone rang. It was Lewis’ ring tone. And that couldn’t be right. They should be on the plane by now. Or, at the very least, at the boarding gate. He pulled out his mobile and peered at the screen. LEWIS, it announced. Better answer then, he decided, his stomach giving a lurch.
‘Hathaway?’ His voice came out tentative.
There was silence on the other end.
Then Lewis’ voice, sounding tight with emotion.
‘I can’t, James. I just can’t.’
‘You can’t what? What’s the matter? Has something gone wrong?’ Now his guts really were churning.
‘I can’t go. I can’t leave you.’
And there it was.
Curve ball. Or googly, depending from which sport you chose to pluck your metaphor.
James dragged open the car door and slumped sideways into the driver’s seat in case his legs gave way.
‘Where are you?’
‘Some bloody corridor. There’s miles of it in here. This must be what your Purgatory looks like. Miles of empty corridor with blue spotty carpet. Just me and a few cheesy holiday posters.’
James chose to ignore the dig about ‘his’ Purgatory.
‘Where’s Laura?’ He could feel his throat tightening.
A miserable, shaky sigh on the other end. ‘She’s gone on to the boarding gate. I got this far, and I couldn’t get any further. Me legs just wouldn’t do it. Seems like they’ve got more sense than me head. I’m sorry, lad, I’m sorry I’ve mucked you and Laura about so badly. I was a coward. I should have done what me heart told me to, but I was too scared. So I did what everybody told me I ought to. Because I’m a bloody idiot.’
‘I don’t understand - do you mean you aren’t going?’
‘Aye, I’m not going.’
‘Look, Robert, I-‘
‘And you can stop that right now! Me name’s Robbie, as well you know. It’s about time you started using it again, don’t you think?’
The jolt of Lewis’ anger shook him. ‘I had to,’ James tried to explain. ‘I needed the distance. After you and Laura - you wouldn’t understand!’
‘Oh no? What about all that time when you went off to Spain and that, when Laura and I were first together?’
‘I was trying to give you space,’ James confessed, feeling lame that his ruse had been so obvious. Trying to make a new life for himself too, although he could never confess that. A new, Post-Lewis life. He should have known that there was no Post-Lewis life. There was only Lewis. There had only ever been Lewis.
‘I missed you,’ Lewis said, and James could hear the pain in his complaint. ‘Cutting ties like that, and not telling me. We can’t do that, lad. Sometimes I think we’re tied together with string, with a string going from my heart to yours, and if you cut it-‘
‘I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly,’ James found himself parroting automatically.
‘Aye,’ Lewis said. ‘I knew you’d have the right quote. Keats, is it?’
‘Charlotte Bronte,’ James explained. ‘Jane Eyre. It’s when Mr Rochester is trying to tell Jane he loves her. He tells her he thinks they are tied together at the ribs with thread, and he’s scared that when she leaves him, the thread will snap.’
‘Sounds about right. You’re quite the romantic, aren’t you?’
‘It took you this long to work that out?’
Robbie chuckled for a moment, and then fell silent for a long, painful pause.
‘I did bleed, James. I really did. And I was a fool to think I could do it again. I’m sorry. I’ve no right to ask this-‘
‘I love you,’ James blurted out, unable to stop himself any longer.
Another shaky laugh. ‘I love you too. Why’s it so much easier to say it down the phone, and not face-to-face?’
‘No idea. Perhaps we should invent a code word.’
‘Code word. Every time either of us wants to tell the other one he loves him, we can just say sausages. And then we’ll know.’
‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, you’re a bloody genius, Robert Lewis.’
They shared a silent communion, the dawning of what they had just confided in one another.
‘So what about you and Laura,’ James finally had to ask, for clarification, if nothing else.
‘What does that mean? Is this just temporary, or-’
‘Do you think I’d be telling you I love you if me an’ Laura were still together?’
‘She must hate me.’
‘I think I’m more Public Enemy Number One at the moment, pet.’
James decided he could listen to Lewis calling him ‘Pet’ in that Geordie lilt for the rest of eternity. ‘I’m sorry,’ he told Lewis instead.
‘No, it’s me who’s sorry. I should have had some backbone. She deserves a man who is free to love her properly, and I never was. I’ve led you both a merry dance alright. I just hope she doesn’t hate me too much.’
‘I doubt she’d hate you. Not really.’
‘I don’t know why not. Anyway, I deserve it, the way I’ve havered about this last week. She said she knew it was coming. Just, she thought once I’d made the final decision, that it was over, and she’d won.’
‘Seems she always knew it was a case of who came out top, you or her.’
James was stunned. He suspected Laura knew how he felt, but he never dreamed she saw him as such a threat to her relationship with Lewis.
‘But you’re straight,’ he said, before he could stop himself.
‘I don’t know,’ Lewis said, and James could almost hear him shaking his head. ‘All I know is the thought of losing you fills me with the same kind of dread that thinking of losing Val did. And that has to say something, doesn’t it.’
James realised his hands were shaking. He needed a cigarette. He needed a coffee. He needed Robbie. Yes, he could call him that again, after all the months of denying himself that tiny intimacy in the hope of disentangling himself from these overwhelming feelings. It had all been in vain. Robbie was right. They were tied together, and it wasn’t with a thin silken thread. It was three inch thick steel hawser, and it was about as likely to snap as Peterson was to stop being a narcissist. (Which wasn’t likely.)
‘Where are you?’ he pressed.
‘God knows,’ and again, he could hear Robbie shaking his head in despair. ‘Everywhere looks the same in here.’
‘Can’t you ask someone?’
‘Come on, lad,’ Lewis points out. ‘I’m a man. I don’t ask directions.’
‘You’re also a policeman. You could make inquiries.’
‘Hmmm.’ This suggestion seemed to evidence possibilities. ‘I’ll go back the way I came. Try and get to out to the Arrivals hall. How far away are you?’
‘Just at the car park. I can be back at the terminal in five minutes if I run.’
‘Don’t run. I don’t want you all breathless and sweaty.’ And then there was a pause. ‘At least, not yet.’
Here was a crackle of electricity inside James’ body.
‘Inspector!’ He breathed, in mock outrage, but Lewis had already hung up.
It was like being in a dream. One of those dreams where you replay real events over and over again, but can’t escape them. Groundhog day.
He was standing in the arrivals lounge, sweating under the weight of his black woollen coat, which he should have shed when he abandoned the car again to sprint back over the pedestrian bridge and along the walkway to the terminal building. He was shaking. Almost sick with it. The excitement. The fear. The longing.
Was it real? Had he dreamed it? Was he going mad? Having a breakdown? Hallucinating, even?
He could be doing all of those things, all at once.
The cotton of his shirt was wet against the skin of his back. He could barely swallow. He was breathing so fast he figured he had about two more minutes before he hyperventilated himself into a blackout.
This can’t be happening.
And then, there, amongst the crowd, was a glimpse of that horrible, horrible shirt. And in that moment, there were no words for how much he loved that shirt. That shirt he had hated with venom for the last eight years. And now he had never been happier to see any lurid Hawaiian shirt in his entire life.
And there was the weathered, exhausted face atop it, looking a little lost, rather pale, bemused that the enormity of the decision that his feet had just made for him. Lewis was pushing a trolley with a lone rucksack on it. He looked as nervous as James felt. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered when their eyes met.
‘Sausages,’ James told him, more earnest than he had ever been about anything in his life. ‘Lots of sausages. Great bloody heaps of the things.’
Lewis laughed. There was that beautiful twinkle in his eyes, all mischief and joy, the glitter James had thought he would never see again. Lewis’ nut-brown hand slid under James’ jacket, pressed flat against his lower ribs, feeling for the sacred connection that both of them had denied for so long. He could feel the heat of the older man’s palm through the wool of his waistcoat, the pressure of the pads of his fingers, the curve of his palm. God, it was wonderful, the proprietorial touch of ownership on his body, combined with something heated and erotic osmosing through the fabric. The touch that said:
He felt himself falling forward, falling into the future, into a new life, falling into the steady, solid arms of a love that would never reject him. He laughed with relief against Lewis’ lips.
Two men standing in the bedroom of a flat in North Oxford, facing in each other. One dressed in a rumpled beige linen suit and the most hideous blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt either of them had ever seen, washed out and well-loved though it was. The other in a pearl grey suit, impeccably cut, with a lavender shirt and matching tie. The flat silent around them, almost deafening, the only sound their nervous breathing.
Two pieces of string on the dressing table beside them, each cut to an equal length.
Carefully, the taller, younger man picked one up in his long, sensitive fingers. The older man, face as crumpled as his suit, held out his right hand so that his companion could gently tie the length of twine around his wrist. Then in his turn, the older man watched as his companion twitched back the left cuff of his crisply laundered shirt so that the second skein could be looped and tied around his bony wrist.
Too late, he realised Lyn had spotted it. It had been a little ceremony just for the two of them, James’ idea, as a prelude to the public one, but now they were found out by his eagle-eyed daughter as they stood in the neglected little garden behind the registry office. They stood hand in hand as was their habit, Robbie’s right hand holding James’ left. (It hadn’t taken James long to work out their habitual combination of preference.) The little scrap of rough twine peeped out from under each man’s cuff as they had their photographs taken by the scrum of family, friends and well-wishers who had joined them for their big day. And the way they stood, wrists so close together, made it look as if they were indeed tied together by a thin thread.
‘It’s nothing, pet,’ Robbie shrugged, wanting to keep the little symbol just for himself and James to share privately. But of course, it was not private to wear it out, on this most public and scrutinised of days.
Lyn was too like her mother to be deflected, and she caught up her father’s hand and tugged back the sleeve of his jacket to reveal the rough loop.
‘Dad?’ She looked up at him.
‘The inextricably knotted string,’ James murmured, as if automatically, looking down at his new husband’s wrist.
‘Jane Eyre,’ Lyn sighed. ‘Oh!’ Her eyes brimmed.
‘You weren’t supposed to see,’ Robbie told her, with a hug, his face burning.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she said, and hugged James too. And then hugged her father a second time.
Over her shoulder, Lewis winked at James in relief.
‘Sausages,’ he said.