It starts with Johnny having a much easier time than he used to, reaching into Archy's trousers. Archy can't swat him away fast enough, and Johnny gets ahold of Archy's Browning, turns it on him with more style than he's got any right to and says, in a voice that's gotten raspier and thicker but not much deeper, "Give us all your money, Uncle Arch."
Archy puts his hands up, but the smile comes later, like there's something standing in its way, just outside Archy's lips. "Come on, get in the car, John," he says, brings one of his hands forward to take the gun back. "And what are you wearing gloves for, you're not driving."
The gloves are fingerless, so Johnny's pale finger sticks out on the Browning's trigger like a light. The glove's also not the most outlandish thing he's got on, or hasn't: an open purple jacket that clings to his arms, too short and too tight in the sleeves but fitted everywhere else, and probably made for a girl, over a garish ripped T-shirt, over a netted dinghy that, thanks to the rips in the T-shirt and the pull of the jacket, bares and highlights parts of Johnny's chest that aren't exactly tactful to display. And that's to say nothing of his pants, which are so tight all through his skinny legs that they look like a couple of rolled cigarettes. And his boots aren't laced.
Johnny grins like his teeth stretch up to his gums, like he's letting Archy swipe back the gun. He even ducks his head like he's being shoved into the car, like it's an arrest. Archy ruffles what's left of Johnny's hair, nudges him into the backseat, and shuts the door to go around front. Steve's got all of Johnny's parcels in the boot now, and he's waiting to drive like it itches him. He starts before Archy's got his belt on. Archy glares at him, but swivels over to look into the back and talk to Johnny anyway.
"I hope you paid your pound to wear that today."
"I thought what old Len paid them would be enough," Johnny says, draping himself all over the backseat, boots and all. "Besides, Uncle Arch, they ought to pay me for what I'm showing them, don't you think? Their privilege. Mine to attend, theirs to witness. Wouldn't you say so?"
Johnny's hair is shorn down like it's just grown out from nothing, except for a £ that Archy can see reflected in the rear window, shaved in completely behind Johnny's right ear. It gives Archy no small bit of pause. But Johnny smiles at him all through, with his big dark earnest eyes, looking at Archy with the kind of lust for approval he never uses on Len.
"You're wearing my coat when you walk into your father's house," Archy tells him.
"Wonderful," Johnny says, somehow spreading himself out, like he could take up the whole car if he wanted to. "I should dress like this more often if I get to wrap myself in you."
Archy turns front and looks out at the street. "—Steve! Watch out for that cart, you idiot!"
Johnny doesn't give Archy back his coat until he's asked to.
Which means Johnny's curled up in it, in his bedroom, asleep in a little ball, and the coat reeks of marijuana. Archy has to wriggle the coat off him, and Johnny grabs for Archy's arms and thigh still half-asleep, and it would have been cute last summer but it isn't any more.
Len runs a tight ship but not a strict house. It's not like Johnny has to be up before noon, especially when he's just come back from school, and not like he has to sit any meals with the old man after the stunt he pulled at supper last night (which Archy only heard about through Len, and so he chalks about half of it up to hyperbole, but the part about throwing a pie-slicer at Len's head is probably true), but when it's half three and the boy hasn't even turned his music on, you can't blame Archy for being a little concerned.
"John?" He knocks again. "John, you coming out at all today?"
He does get some kind of answer, but can't make head or tail.
"I'm coming in, John," he says, does, gets it out of the way. The room smells about the same as last night, if cleaner thanks to the open window. The trunks are unpacked and Johnny's guitars are both propped against the wall, out of their cases. He's outgrown the acoustic—literally, it's a ¾-scale that he left home after winter hols and probably plans to trade in—but the electric is new, and the amp a birthday gift from some of the other men in Len's employ, now former men in Len's employ, most probably because of Len's new wave of migraines. Johnny himself is snuggled up knees-to-chest and arms-'round-throat. He's definitely too big for the bed if the sheets look more like a rope ladder bunched between his knees.
Archy gives him a good shake on the shoulder. "Get up, then," he says, a little less gentle than the shake. "Don't start haunting the house."
Johnny groans, and uncoils like a climbing vine, then curls right back up on Archy's arm. "Didn't get a lick of sleep all term," he says, like he's going to bite Archy's wrist.
"Can't be 'cause you were studying," Archy says. He gives him another shake, wrings his arm out of Johnny's grasp and thwaps him upside the head a little.
"Sure I was," he mumbles, "you'll see my marks, just you wait." And then he does bite Archy's arm.
It's a quick, pulling bite, not hard, more like a capture than a claim. Archy backhands him anyway, more out of shock than anything else.
"Mm," Johnny says, "Archy Slaps already. I must be home."
"You'll get a real one if you pull that again," Archy says, means it, and means just as much when he pulls Johnny to sit up. "Come on. Up, have a shower, and eat something so supper don't make you sick."
"Everything in this house makes me sick except you, Uncle Arch," Johnny says, wheedling, the mockery so thick that Archy could probably use it to curdle his tea. "So I'll eat you."
A year ago, or two, this would have been the time for a fond smile. "Like hell," Archy says instead. "Supper's at seven. You have three hours. Be dressed and eat something that isn't me. And in that order."
Johnny obeys, the way Johnny thinks he can.
After an inordinately long shower, he raids the kitchen for an improvised lunch in pyjamas. Archy sends him back upstairs. Johnny plays his guitar—the electric—and sings intermittently for two hours.
Then he comes down for supper in a little green dress.
"I never fucking knew what to do with the little shit, and I don't fucking know now," Len says.
"I threw the dress in the bin," Archy says.
"He'll just buy another one." Len puts his head in his hands. "Wait, no, no he won't, because he's done that one already. Good on you, giving him a chance to top himself."
Archy nods, says nothing.
Len does, though, shoving off his desk and letting the chair roll him almost to the wall. "I should've beaten it into him a little harder five years ago. I've got half a mind to go up there now and finish the job, the end with the buckle this time."
"Didn't work five years ago, won't work now," Archy says.
"You're probably right." Len sighs. "The little fruit probably likes it."
Archy has an easier time picturing that than he wants to. Probably an easier time than he even deserves. Because the image smacks into his mind like a crowbar, of Johnny with the little green dress pushed up above his arse and his underwear, simple white briefs, pulled down, braced over the edge of the bed and taunting whoever's got the belt to put some effort into it.
"You see to it, Archy, the blighter only listens to you," Len tells him, and suddenly Archy's damned certain who's holding the belt in that little diorama, but not so certain of anything else.
Johnny sets up his speakers to point out the bedroom window while he exercises on the front lawn. He's a skinny little bit, with his sweatpants slipping down his hips and concavities all through his belly and chest, dips between his ribs and collarbones and not enough muscle to push them back out. Between that and the close-shaved hair he looks like the BAFTA version of a prisoner of war, hanging around the set of a lower-upper class domestic comedy. He does pull-ups on tree branches he never used to reach so easy, flirts with passing dogwalkers, swats a football around with some of the help. There's hair under his arms but not much on his chest, just some in the dent between his pectorals, like the bullseye of a target.
Len complains about the music, says Johnny's just giving the cops an excuse to show up, and then where will he be? Archy relays Len's concern and is surprised, pleasantly, when Johnny listens. He goes up to his room, and turns the music off.
Three minutes later, the same speakers are blasting some so-called art music that consists entirely of an American man shouting "It's gonna rain" over and over.
There's a reverse bell curve to it. When Johnny comes marching home again, plowing really, he shouts down the walls and does everything he can to make Len's life one circle of hell or another. After about a week, it peters out to compulsory annoyance, and by the middle of July they settle into tense indifference. Archy deals with it, smiling wherever he can, switching out Len's valium for aspirin so he can still drink the noise away, dropping a compliment about how Johnny's hair looks long so he'll let the shaved quid grow out. And so Len goes about his business and Johnny goes about his pleasure, and there was evening and there was morning, beget begat begot.
Not that it means nothing happens at all. Another week in, Johnny stays up two nights running and when the guitar isn't playing, the water's boiling, so to speak, and he locks his door with two chairs and a power drill. The third morning, Archy takes pity and slides him a sandwich under the doorjamb before he threatens to get the axe out of the shed. Johnny says he sold the axe on eBay six days ago. Archy says he'll buy a new one.
"Let me finish the song first," is all Johnny says to that. "After that, you can take the fat sheepfucker's house apart all you want, Uncle Arch."
And then, of course, there is the episode with the hookers.
All five of them.
Now, Archy's a perfectly healthy man, apart from being a career criminal and all. He'd even say his mind's healthy, as far as his lifestyle goes. He doesn't kill as often as he's asked to, doesn't hurt as hard as he needs to, and there's never been anything personal about the job outside of loyalty to Len and Len's livelihood. When it gets personal is when it gets dodgy, Archy knows, when it becomes about what you want and need instead of about being, essentially, a butler with a gun.
But being a perfectly healthy man and all, there's something invigorating but far from endearing about having this Johnny in the house. Pushing boundaries used to be belting The Clash into mirror and microphone, mis-matching his socks, buying a horse with Len's credit card, stashing airport-sized bottles of alcohol in his hollowed-out outdated O.E.D. Pushing boundaries now means inviting Archy into his smoke-spilling room with a hail of laughter and saying, Arch, there's enough of me to go around, I don't think these lovely ladies mind sharing, all stretched out on his pillows like the maharajah of Decca Records.
Thus, being a perfectly healthy man and all, once he sends the lovely ladies packing and slaps Johnny one good, Archy spends much of that evening throwing one off in the shower.
Throwing two off in the shower.
And one in the middle of the night, evidently.
The morning after is another one of those mornings, the ones where Laurie brings Archy tea that's sugared within an inch of it's life, and Len has it out on the phone with his brother in Cardiff, and no one hears from Johnny until half two when London starts Calling From The fucking Underworld. Apparently it's one of those mornings—afternoons—for Len too, because Len's on the second floor before Archy can even get there, and pretty soon between the shouting and the beatings and the breaking of plastic and wood they've drowned out Joe Strummer.
When Archy does make it to the doorway, he gets splattered in the face with blood from Lenny's nose.
Another advantage to Johnny's growth, it would seem. Now it actually matters when he hits back.
Which means Archy and Len are at the hospital the day Archy remembers, "Johnny took his Levels, didn't he."
"If you mean in his fucking fists, I should say he did, and I'm going to go home and break all twenty of his knuckles."
"No," Archy says, "I mean he was in Year 11. He had to have taken his O-Levels, or whatever they're called now." A nurse helpfully supplies, GCSEs, and Archy thanks her. "We're supposed to pick up the results at Eton today."
"They can mail it, for all I care. He's not going to any more school, he made that clear back on Christmas. Besides, like hell I'm spending another pound on that leech."
"Go home and break his knuckles, then," Archy tells Len. Johnny'll have run off, he knows, like a sensible fifteen-year-old. "I'll swing by the school and pick the scores up. You can use 'em as leverage."
Len looks ridiculous trying to smile with his nose all bandaged up and smeared with iodine, but "See, this is why I keep you around, Archy," is still a compliment of the highest order.
There actually is a bedsheet rope-ladder out Johnny's window, but he didn't climb it. He just pinned a note to the bottom, or more precisely a caricature of Len eating out his own arsehole, and he walked out the front door.
It's not the first time Archy's had to spend time searching Johnny out. The last time, the winter before last, took a week. Johnny leaves a trail. It's not that he doesn't want to be found, it's that he doesn't want to be home, and Archy can't blame him.
The trail (consisting of clothiers and contacts and drug dealers, and Tank, who knows fucking everything) leads him, three full days later, to a Radiohead concert, a small one as these go, in some pub stuffed to the gills. Archy isn't the oldest person there, but he's the only one that looks like a chaperone, considering the hour and the venue. Johnny's shared Radiohead with him, so Archy knows what he's hearing, knows what Johnny thinks of the sound and the style and the lyrics that don't always mean. He guesses most of the kids in the crowd think the same, with how they're cheering and all. Maybe it's because they band's telling them that, in heaven, anyone can play guitar.
Archy sees what he needs to, leaves Steve by the door with a word and starts shouldering his way through the crowd. It takes a verse and a chorus for him to get where he has to be, right at the lip of the stage, where concert security is already trying to pry Johnny off Thom Yorke's ankles. Johnny kicks one bouncer in the face and crawls back onto the stage with his bum in the air, wrapping himself around Thom Yorke's legs and licking a swipe up Thom Yorke's boot. Thom Yorke, for his part, looks more amused and concerned than actually offended, and his song hitches with laughter that the people singing along in the crowd don't quite imitate. Johnny's singing along too, or at least his mouth's moving, even if his lips catch on the laces of Thom Yorke's boot and drag, flashing his bottom teeth like a foal.
Archy reaches onto the stage and grabs Johnny by the knee. Johnny's trousers have dangling suspenders and chains and so Archy's got a perfectly good grip, and that means Johnny's sliding off the lip of the stage on his arse sure enough.
"Well, well, Uncle Arch," he says, wedging himself between Archy's body and the stage, "you came close to tearing 'em right off. Want to see what I've got on under, do you?"
He smells of smoke and beer and a forensic team's wet dream, and cologne too expensive to be borrowed. His smile is rimmed in gold and red like his eyes.
Archy slaps him so hard he'll be singing nothing but opera for a week.
Once the song's over, Thom Yorke looks at Archy somewhat apologetically, so Archy buys a couple of CDs on the way out. When Johnny asks if they can wait to get them autographed, Archy slaps him again, and Johnny clings to him all the way to the car, tight enough that Archy has to sit with him in the backseat.
"How'd I do?"
"Bs, most of 'em. A-star in Music, A in English, A in Literature. You got a D in Welsh, didn't even know you were taking Welsh."
"Owed it to mum."
"And you got a G in Citizenship."
"That I owed to the old arselicker. But I still made sure I passed."
Archy can't help laughing.
Damage control, Archy decides, is making sure Len's asleep when they get back to the house, so that Johnny's neck and cheek don't have to take any more abuse, and probably also so that Johnny doesn't break Len's nose twice in the same week. Damage control is depositing Johnny in his bed already asleep and only having to grapple with him for a count of ten because despite all the bluster, Johnny's still fifteen and doesn't weigh enough to balance whatever he's drunk and done. Damage control is letting Johnny kiss him on the watchband so long as he doesn't bite, because otherwise means waking him up, and because the less lipstick Johnny's wearing in the morning, the better. Damage control is setting his alarm for six in the morning to make sure he's awake before Len garrotes the boy in his sleep.
Hanging on to Johnny's GCSE results? That's just fucking prudence.
Johnny doesn't come down for breakfast, or lunch, or supper. Archy lets him alone, and convinces Len it's not worth another broken nose. Johnny doesn't come down the next morning either.
Oh. They never did take back that power drill.
"He made it, did he," Len says, with the sour kind of surprise he usually reserves for unexpected relatives and drug busts.
Archy's looking at the certificate upside-down, from the other side of the desk, but yes, "He did."
"The little shit," Len says.
"Hard to find a parent who'll say that for marks like this," Archy says.
"Yeah, so I'm one in a fucking million." Lenny shoves the certificate away, pushes back in his chair, swivels a bit. "He can't make anything easy."
Archy sleeps easy that night, the rare sort of sunshine-easy that never comes in August, except now. He dreams—and is entirely aware he's dreaming—of lazing on a glass roof with the sun bearing down on him and the sounds of the city, cars and chatter and horses, muffling his ears until it all becomes a kind of music. There are words, by the end, slow words, like all the voices have to meet in waves and twist together, but they're definitely telling him something, and it's something he wants to hear. And then London's got a mouth and it's saying all these things right into Archy's ear, and then the hollow behind it, and then the dip of his neck, and Archy thinks, dreams, he's never been shagged by a city.
It's not speaking. It's singing. It's kissing him and it's singing tuck me in just like your gun, fit your fingers in me, and Archy is a perfectly healthy man so where those words hit him is a place beyond dreaming. The words kiss him sour and hot, they lick his teeth until he lets them deeper, they thumb over his eyes and card through his hair, which means those words have a body and he ought to hold it back. They're light, on him, not much more weight than the air and the sun, and when I push, you pull, that's all I need, they say, but there's not much pushing at all. Biting, yeah, biting on Archy's lip and jaw, not hard, capture not claim—the hand down Archy's shorts, that's a claim—
"Yeah," Johnny's telling him, "yeah, Uncle Arch, I'll write you a song, that's how this is gonna go, you're gonna make me shout it—"
There's an order to things, waking up. Johnny is in Archy's bed. (Nothing new, give him a pat on the head and a swat on the bum and tell him a story about bank robbers where the robbers are the good guys.) Johnny is naked in Archy's bed. (A first.) Johnny is naked in Archy's bed and has just been snogging him. (A first, and also a problem.) Johnny is sliding a condom onto Archy's dick.
Johnny has just been thrown off the fucking bed.
Johnny is laughing.
"You—" the words don't even fucking come to Archy, just action, just tearing himself out of the sheets, feet on the floor, shorts around his knees, condom half-unrolled on his cock. "You daft idiot, I have a gun on the fucking night-table!"
"I moved it," Johnny says. It's not so dark that Archy can't see him grinning, and oh is he grinning, sprawled on the floor, slick between the thighs with—oh god, he's stretched himself out, hasn't he— "It's in the drawer. You wouldn't have shot me, would you Uncle Arch?" He gets on his hands and knees, crawls closer. "Just shot off, maybe? If you need more time, I can do that for you, just sit back down. Don't worry about the condom, I brought another."
Archy's knees buckle, but he doesn't sit. Not even after Johnny's slid his hands up Archy's calves, after he's pulled himself up to rub his cheek against Archy's thigh.
"I bet you can hold me by the hair," Johnny says, damn near sings, "I grew it out all summer, just like you wanted."
Grabbing him is instinct. Grabbing him and pulling his head back so that he shuts up and doesn't shut up, drops his jaw and moans and pushes his hips against Archy's shin, hot and hard and fifteen, the boy is fifteen—
Grabbing him by the hair means Archy can slap him without breaking his neck.
He only does it once. It only takes once, and Johnny shuts up, the real way. He doesn't even breathe. Archy doesn't either, not for a bit, not until the roar in his head goes down.
Johnny's hair slips through Archy's fingers. Johnny sits on his heels, and hangs his head, and lets go of Archy's legs, and kneels there crumpled and contrite. He might be crying, Archy can't tell. Archy wouldn't blame him if he did, but he's too angry to think straight, let alone see straight, let alone blame straight.
"You're lying," Johnny says. He is crying, Archy can hear it, and no crocodile's ever had tears like those. "You're lying, Uncle Arch."
"About what," Archy manages, "about wanting to fuck you? It's none of your business whether I do or not, John."
"But you do, you have to—I want it so much, Archy, you have to want me—"
"You shut it, boy, and you get out of here, or your father'll hear about this. And he'll hear about it from me."
Angry as he is, Archy can still be moved, and Johnny looking up with wet cheeks is moving, enough that Archy staggers back and sits on the bed, harsh enough that it creaks. But Johnny's too smart to call that an invitation, and he gets to his feet, still naked and still a bit hard, and turns for the door without another word. Archy watches him disappear into the dark, and then the light of the hall damn near blinds him when the door opens, and Johnny's gone.
Archy doesn't even listen to him leave before he starts taking care of himself. No matter how fast he moves his hand, it's like getting a jumper for Christmas when all you wanted was a bike, but the promise of Johnny still burns in Archy's head and he groans, pictures it, those eager teeth near his cock, that hair in his hand, that slick little arse riding him. He shoves the condom off and curls in on himself, works it faster, and almost hopes that Johnny isn't gone, that he can hear this and take it with him. Damage control. Someone for the boy to love. That boy, that fucking brilliant poisonous boy, singing in Archy's ear—
If he's out there, he definitely hears it when Archy comes. So does anyone else who's awake, most like.
The morning is almost eerily quiet. Archy knows because he's awake for all of it. He makes his own tea, has three cups of it before Len's even up. The morning is business as usual, appointments, calls, checking Len's nose.
At just before noon, the music starts.
The amp of the guitar is cranked up to blistering, the entire second floor is built on noise, like Johnny's not the only one playing, not the only one singing. The guitar drills, and Johnny shouts, like he could huff and puff and blow the house down.
daddy's dog don't need no leash
he just comes when I call
daddy's dog don't need no cage
he sleeps with me and all
tuck me in just like your gun
fit your fingers in me
when I push, you pull, that's all I need
"Let him," Archy tells the help, heading up to yell at Johnny to cut it out. Archy stops them with a wave. "Let him. Least he's awake before noon, right?"
daddy's dog ain't tame at all
got twice the bite as bark
daddy's dog, he'll carve you up
and snuff you in the dark
tuck me in just like your gun
fit your fingers in me
when I push, you pull, that's all I need
"Archy! Archy, shut him up, go up there and shove that fucking microphone down his throat, I got to take this call," Len rails, waving his ringing mobile phone in Archy's face. So Archy has no choice but to weave through the house and head upstairs, but he can't bring himself to shout, can't drown out what he's hearing.
daddy's dog's more wolf than man
he's wearing daddy's skin
he sliced him up and put him on
and now he wants me in
to tuck me in just like his gun
and fit his fingers in me
when I push, you pull, that's all I need
Archy raises his fist to knock on the door.
"Archy." That's Len, yelling from downstairs, only audible over the music because Johnny's howling, now, wailing with the guitar. "Archy, they want to speak to you. The legal team got a call—since when do you have a court date?"
"I didn't," Archy says, when he can speak again.
"Then you'd better tell them barristers, they seem to think you've got one Thursday."
The music stops.