He stood in profile, staring with an almost faraway distraction out of the window and into the rain, looking eerily like one of those ads for some fancy watch or men's perfume that only footballers and TV chefs seemed to buy. He wore jeans of a fussily perfect fit, a crisp new shirt with two buttons undone and the cuffs rolled to the elbow.
Put together, it was a combination quite cleverly disguising the fact that Richard Hammond had just emerged from several hours of filming.
Two thoughts came immediately to James. The first was that it was actually rather irritating that his co-presenter should waft through life in the manner of a man blessed with success and popularity, if not exactly vertical supremacy. Not that James noticed these things, of course. Not that he over analysed them, or lay awake at night wondering why some people got everything they desired, while others were stuck wading ankle-deep in the gene pool, as it were, cleaning up the nuts and bolts. It was just an observation, nothing more.
But the second thought was baffling. So baffling that he'd gotten to the end of his crossword and had become inexplicably stumped by a two letter-word. It was the fact that no matter what he tried, no matter what he did, he just couldn't tear his eyes away.
Fantasies were not supposed to be like this.
James's fantasies consisted of seventeen work-draws filled with neatly categorised socket wrenches. They started with the image of all the world's automotive air-vents simultaneously pointed in the same direction, and ended with a bathtub full of motorcycle parts, each one requiring his individual attention and a much needed scrub. They were sensible, rational, with just a hint of self-imposed disorder. In James's fantasies, the only reason he knocked the model train off its tracks was for the excuse to set it all up again from scratch.
They most certainly didn't consist of gazing over the top of his newspaper and wondering, quite out of nowhere, what had caused his co-presenter--his trendily clothed, limpid eyed, occasional day-time television dallying co-presenter--to suddenly replace the spanners and wrenches of his dreams.
As he watched, Richard reached back for his mug, and in one swift movement tipped the remaining dregs of cold tea into his mouth. Very quickly James averted his gaze, but not before he caught a glimpse of what he didn't, he really didn't, want to see: tanned skin and the slight sheen of perspiration somewhere in the region of Richard's neck. He looked down and read studiously, intently, trying to ignore the images which swam in between the typeface and two-inch headlines: KATE MOSS CRASHES JORDAN'S BIG NIGHT...BBC FAKE NEWS LEAK EXPOSES COMPANY RIFT...MAY SHOCKS VIEWERS BY TAKING RICHARD HAMMOND AGAINST THE WALL OF A RUSTY PORTAKABIN AND DOING THINGS TO HIM WHICH WOULD MAKE A SAILOR BLUSH...
Oh, for God's sake. He tossed the paper aside, scattering pages.
"Any more water in that kettle?" Richard asked.
James wiped his hands on his thighs, thinking perhaps it had been a mistake all along to lower his standards and attempt The Sun quick crossword. Hack-journalism he could swallow at a pinch, but mixed with what was rapidly becoming an embarrassingly bold subconscious, it was all too confusing.
Across the room Richard waved the mug about in the air, his eyebrows doing a neat impression of a question mark. Part of his collar had turned upright; he reached back and smoothed it down without shifting his gaze, fingers quick, the movement effortless. James got up and left.
Fantasies were not supposed to be like this.
Outside the weather hit him with all the delicacy of a nitro-filled GT-R, causing his hair to fly about in several directions at once. He stepped onto the tarmac, fumbling without success at a lighter. Irritated, and still flushed with unsettling arousal, James gave in and crushed the sodden cigarette under his heel. He stood in the rain until his face grew cold and his thoughts were, thankfully, his own again.
When he looked back on it, when he really thought hard and rationally about it, putting everything in perspective with the sort of maturity that his grandmother would've been proud of...it was all Jeremy's fault.
By rights this shouldn't have been much of a surprise, for as James often found, discomfort and embarrassment on his part usually came hand in hand with something Jeremy either said, or implied, or suggested. And Jeremy was very good at suggestions, especially when they involved things of an unfortunate nature happening to James. To be fair though, most of these were made in the sphere of television, and would end with a lot of swearing, Jeremy and Richard collapsing on the track in a fit of giggles, and James stalking off in a huff with the cameraman in tow. Most were made with fun in mind, and simply harmless.
But occasionally, Jeremy would make a suggestion that had strange and irrational consequences. More often than not James was shrewd enough to catch these ones early, and would nip them in the bud before anything could come of it.
This one, he hadn't.
They had been filming a news segment, and doing pretty damn well; the lines were coming out at a cracking pace; the audience was hanging on to their every word. Richard even had on pair of jeans that Jeremy had bet James ten quid he wouldn't possibly wear, even if it were a choice between wearing them and breaking the BBC's strict naked-on-camera policy. They were achingly fashionable. They were tragically hip. And they were so snug in places that the girls in the front of the gathered circle had, for the last twenty minutes, been looking on with slight but meaningful smiles. Even James, who had a rule of never making a bet unless he had thoroughly calculated the odds and deemed them to be safely in his favour, was rather shocked at his win.
It was at this point that things began to unravel.
James made a joke. More significantly though, James made a joke and everyone laughed. Everyone. And because that almost never happened--at least, never on the first take--he'd smiled to himself all throughout the next item, and as a result wasn't paying quite enough attention to where the conversation had drifted.
"So you think the traffic cones are...what?" Richard was saying, a wide grin on his face. "Breeding like randy bunnies?"
Jeremy's eyes gleamed. He'd been going at full steam all day, and wasn't about to miss an opportunity now. Especially when he noticed that James's attention had wavered. "Well, I can see that James is thinking along those lines. Some quiet time with the pointy end of a traffic cone, alone under the duvet..."
"Okay, cut it there, guys." By now the audience was guffawing with laughter, and the boom had wobbled into shot. The floor manager waved his hands about. "We'll try that again, Jeremy? Only maybe not so much with the--you know."
Though he was still smiling, or at least trying very hard to keep up the facade, James had heard and digested every one of Jeremy's words. While the crew hurried about re-setting equipment, he leant back against the upholstery and crossed his arms in an attempt to look like a man who hadn't a care in the world. In particular, a man who hadn't a care when his sex life, or lack thereof, was being paraded about for everyone to hear, chuckle over, and most likely repeat in a variety of humiliating ways. He felt the heat rise in his face. Thanks a lot, Clarkson. What am I, poster-boy for your single-brain celled idea of fun?
It took him a moment to realise that Richard was still there. Jeremy, true to form, had taken the pause in proceedings as an excuse to pull out his mobile--probably to negotiate another book deal, James suspected, a touch spitefully--but Richard hadn't moved. And apparently he'd been observing James's thoughts as if they were plastered across his forehead.
"What?" His voice came out in a grumpy shout, which he immediately regretted. James swallowed and glanced across warily, waiting for the teasing to continue.
"He didn't mean it."
"'Course not." James smiled thinly. "Like he didn't mean it this morning when he suggested I put a camp bed in the garage because the car jack has been pining for some one-on-one time. Like he never jumps at the chance to imply that the daring do-all parts of my life involve nothing more than an oil can and tastefully positioned spirit level."
He expected Richard to laugh at that, or to at least swat James's comment away with some half-arsed reasoning about Jeremy seeing a camera only as an excuse to pander to his adoring fans, but there was no response. Instead, Richard shifted his eyes to the floor, and placed both hands on his knees. There was a long pause, and when he looked back, his gaze had softened with a quiet intent.
"Okay. So tell me, then."
Something flip-flopped in James's stomach. "I'm sorry?"
Richard continued to look at him, an odd, half-smile appearing at one corner of his mouth. "What do you want them to be?"
He started to reply, but a hand from makeup emerged from nowhere, patting suddenly at his forehead and blocking his view. When James could see again, the moment had passed, and he was left feeling as if he wasn't really there, as if he were sitting somewhere else entirely, without quite knowing why.
Jeremy, meanwhile, had re-appeared and was arranging pages on his clipboard. He caught James's eye. "Ready?"
Richard answered for him, all business-like again. "He's ready. Let's go."
And that was that. They finished the segment, wrapped up a few more intros and cutaways. A brief argument was played out before the Cool Wall, with Jeremy winning, as he normally did, by placing the picture card so far up that it couldn't be reached. James watched with some detachment from the sidelines as the two of them played to the audience, perfectly at ease and perfectly in their element. The old jokes, it seemed, were still the best.
So, okay, it wasn't much. It didn't move the universe, or make rainbows shine upon the hanger roof. In fact, it was fair to say that in James's world, when things unravelled, they did so with rather quiet fanfare. It was like doing a large jigsaw, a Turner seascape perhaps, where for every few dozen centimetres of colour there is a tiny variation in shade, making precious little sense until the last few pieces fall into place, and suddenly there's the ocean, there's the sky. There's the whole picture, breathtaking in its complexity, a thousand pieces now turned into one. Just for the sake of some pretty fantasy, at a mere £4.99 plus VAT.
And that was how he felt about Richard. More or less.
On a good day, this was merely confusing. On a bad day, when opening the studio wardrobe to grab his leather jacket meant staring with unfocused distraction at Richard's spare shirts and wondering what it would be like to peel them off the wearer--well, frankly, it was a nightmare.
So James was forced to give up crosswords. And being alone with Richard in the Portakabin. And standing out in the rain. In a strange way, his plan might have actually worked, had he not caught a cold from the latter and attempted to explain, with somewhat over-emphasised sensibility, that he didn't want to spread germs.
"Germs?" Jeremy made the word sound like something from the pen of Oscar Wilde. He even repeated it for good measure, with theatrical-like emphasis. "Germs? Don't be so bloody delicate, May. Just give it a good blow, and come join us out on the track."
Which is how James was left holding a box of tissues, his plan to avoid Richard all but crushed to a pulp by a Clarkson-sized double-entendre.
Gretna Green. Of all the places they could be sent on a challenge to, it had to be that touristy trap, home of Scottish trinkets and the celebration of old-fashioned elopement.
"I'm surprised it wasn't morphed into a Vegas-style community years ago," James observed, as they sat around the table with cups of tea and half a packet of stale biscuits. "With civil ceremonies performed by Elvis MacPresley."
"Yes, well, with any luck you'll find some lonely heart," Jeremy replied, "and end up testing the waters yourself."
Jeremy had been impatient to finish from the moment they'd started going through proceedings, and this was said more as a closing statement than the thinly disguised prod James knew it to be. They left with instructions to meet up early the next morning at an upmarket London coach bay, from where Jeremy, luck permitting, would depart in the latest Mercedes--turbo-charged, convertible, horsepower of a ridiculous number not worth thinking about--while Richard and James took their place on the 'Over-60s Day Tour to Magical Scotland and Afar'. Seats 11A and B.
It was going to be a very long day.
James had by now gotten over his cold, but things hadn't improved much from the situation that had brought it about. Now and then he'd catch Richard looking at him--in a rear-view mirror, over the breadth of a rusted engine they were supposed to be fixing, sideways glances while Jeremy was holding court before the cameras. And he knew, somehow, that he was rapidly giving himself away. It then occurred to James, in the slightly paranoid manner of a man who'd spent too many evening in the company of just a cat, that perhaps Richard knew as well. That he knew, and was waiting, like James was waiting; that they'd spend the rest of their life waiting; caught motionless in a perpetual state of waiting--
Cocking hell, I'm stuck in an infinite loop. I can't do this.
They stood together in the car park, trying not to breach the subject of just how badly they were going to lose. Richard tossed his keys from hand to hand. "Tomorrow," he said, breaking the silence. "Remember, James, bright and early. Er, with the sparrows, and all that."
James sat behind the wheel of his car, not moving as the engine ticked over. He winced at his blasé words. Absolutely? A whole day, sitting three inches apart. Grandmotherly types all around them. Richard nodding off on James's shoulder. Richard alternating between moments of wide-eyed panic and hyperactivity. Richard smiling at him over too-hot coffee in polystyrene cups. Richard, Richard, Richard.
When he arrived the following morning, part of him was secretly hoping that the production team had inadvertently chosen the single day of the year when all luxury coach tour operators go on strike, and they'd all escape to the pub for a lazy day of darts and brown ale.
Sadly, this wasn't to be. They waved off Jeremy's Mercedes, with Jeremy inside being his usual smug self, and duly took their places on board. Richard was oddly quiet for the first half-hour, which James put down to either no caffeine, or no cigarettes. Or a very mean combination of the two. But for a while, at least, he was happy to enjoy the silence.
"There's an old lady in row twenty-three who has a Pontiac GTO sitting untouched in a garage in Swansea. Mint condition, baby blue."
A pause. James waited. "And?"
"Do you think if I buy her an ice-cream at the next services she'll leave it to me in her will?"
James rubbed the space between his eyes tiredly. "Don't be such a pikey."
Undeterred by the insult, Richard thought hard for a moment. His expression brightened. "Never mind, I'll try another means of attack."
And with that he was up and away again. James muffled a sigh and sank a little further into the plush seats, not watching, not thinking, as the miles ticked over and England very quietly rolled by.
He remembered feeling out of his depth, in the beginning. Of the forced banter about Bentleys and fold-up bicycles, or having a haircut that made him look like Paul McCartney's worst nightmare. And in some way that feeling never left. It was not in James's nature to step blithely about the television world with the sort of outward confidence that the other two seemed to possess. The image of himself played back on monitors or in the dark realm of the editing suite offered both a shock and a deep, intrinsic thrill; neither of which he could properly explain. If he were honest, he still felt it. The only difference being that these days, he'd simply gotten better at hiding the uncertainties.
There's a trick to all this, you see. Throw in the odd handbrake turn, it'll shock them so much to see him doing something wild, they'll never actually see the fear.
The worst times he'd ever had on camera were those spent racing hell for eternity in the most ridiculous pursuits. The best, however, were when their entourage had scattered for the night--on a boat to Oslo, around a dying fire in Florida--and James would talk to Richard about things which had nothing whatsoever to do with adventures, thrills, or running about breathless and quite possibly pelted at with stones. Instead he spoke of what was waiting for him in his garage at home; what projects he'd made a minor breakthrough on; what new and improbable place he'd found Fusker taking a nap. And James was able to say these things, because he knew that he was being listened to, really listened to, by someone who cared. Of course, that someone would also take the absolute mickey out of his words, accuse him of being compulsive, having a Pythagorean complex and a mindset stuck firmly in 1958; but almost in the same breath Richard would inevitably turn around and say he wished he'd kept up with music more at school, because it was good to have a talent. And all this, James was certain, without a trace of insincerity.
It was nice. Nice in an oddly pathetic way, of course, but quite honestly, he didn't care. The sentiment remained the same. It almost made Jeremy's jokes worth suffering. Simple as that.
Of course, nothing stays simple for very long.
There'd been one moment when James came the closest he'd ever come to saying something along the lines of this is how I feel--and actually being understood. During their African soiree, when quietly drunk, he'd looked Richard in the eyes and told him they were like two Victorian heroes.
"You mean," Richard had replied, swaying a little, a rather striking visual counterpoint to the crackling flames and black night, "that we should retire to our tents, down a gentlemanly nightcap out of our respective pith helmets...and then shag the living daylights out of each other?"
He could never be absolutely sure of what might have happened after that, aside from blurred corners of his own imagination; by then they'd paused for too long, and drunk too much, to understand what was really being said. In his tent, James had hurled some heated but nonsensical abuse at his torch, undressed and tried, by ways and means he still wasn't certain were all his own, to quickly shut out the burning sensation of guilt. He hadn't done anything like that for months. He hadn't needed to. But the strangeness of it all, the feelings that would replicate themselves and re-emerge during news segments, races through Japanese train stations, or rainy days stuck in a ramshackle studio, they remained, whole and absolute.
So James retreated towards more analytical measures, pushing the whole mess to the back of his mind, to join those serious questions, mathematical formulas and impossible Bach fugues which he'd tried learning, tried to properly grasp, but never with any real success. Whatever happened now, it would be his own doing. Like hill starts in semi-trailers, he could either crush objects because he failed to let go--or drive forward. Take a risk and move.
Unless, of course, he was drowned in metaphors first. He rather thought it would serve him right, just quietly.
James lifted his eyes. One of the old ladies in the opposite row was peering at him over her reading glasses.
"Are you and that lovely young man from the television?"
An encouraging smile, hopeful. "I do enjoy your show on antiques."
"Er, no. I think you may have us confused with--"
"My husband Stanley collects thimbles."
With no real energy to argue, he nodded along as the voice rattled on cheerily, more to herself than anything. They were supposed to be filming some background shots--something of the pair of them sitting together and plotting their next move--or at least, they would be filming if his so-called co-presenter would stop chatting to the old ladies up the back of the bloody bus like some darling son returned from the war.
James turned his gaze back to the window. If ever there was a wrong comparison to be making, it was that. All he could think of now, as he blinked at the horizon, was Richard Hammond in a 1940s flight suit, helmet under hand and hair tousled by the wind, the prizes of victory shining like stars in his eyes.
"Where do you think Jeremy is?"
"Lost, hopefully, in deepest Wales." James frowned and peered at the laptop. "Unfortunately I can't give you a better answer until this thing deigns to grace us with its presence and emerge from cryogenic freeze." He tapped impatiently at the keypad. "I'm telling you, technology hates me."
Richard picked at the wrapper of a Kit-Kat. He broke off a segment and held it out to James--a peace offering. He ate his own half noisily as they continued to watch a blank screen.
"You're jiggling. It's slightly annoying, bordering on very annoying."
Without shifting his eyes from the laptop, Richard pulled at the neck of his shirt so that the collarbone was exposed. A nicotine patch had been stuck haphazardly onto the skin, looking like a badly applied sticking plaster.
"Okay." James hid his smile. "How long has it been?"
A watch face was shoved into his line of view. James stared blankly at it. This was like those stupid games of pantomime he was obliged to play out with The Stig on camera. "A day?" he guessed. "A week? The better part of a fortnight?"
"No. That place where we stopped for lunch."
"That was twenty minutes ago! It can't be that bad, surely."
Richard looked wounded. He sighed deeply, leaning his head back into the seat. "The Pontiac," he said, "was last driven...in 1968."
They sat together in silence, lost in a moment of perfect understanding. Even the cameraman couldn't hide his smile.
And so the day progressed. Both of them agreed that this was not one of their more spectacular jaunts; as it stood, they'd do well simply to avoid the whole day's effort being tossed wholesale onto the cutting room floor.
"I'm just calling to say--" Jeremy's voice blasted merrily out of the walkie that Richard was holding, "--that I'm sitting in the car park of the Let's Anvil An American Tourist, or whatever this blacksmithing place is called, and there are fifty people standing about in white shorts holding camcorders...and not one of them is you."
"That's because we're stuck on the motorway, like you don't already know," James said. He looked at his watch. It was coming up to three o'clock. It felt like they'd been travelling for a week.
"Oh. What an absolute shame. And how are the old dears? Been mothering you both like a flock of clucking hens?"
"You're really enjoying this, aren't you?"
There was no reply.
All they could hear were a series of muffled voices. To James's ears, it sounded suspiciously like an argument, but before he could say anything there were some scratching noises, a loud thud, and dead silence. They exchanged glances.
"Um," Richard began, "should we be...?"
"Worried?" James thought for a moment. "Maybe. I think I heard something about preferring a Chrysler to a Mercedes. And Jeremy telling...whoever that person was...that not only did they have two heads, but both of them were screwed on backwards. I could be wrong, though."
"You could be wrong about a lot of things," Richard remarked, yawning. "But this is Jeremy we're talking about. I don't think you are."
James caressed his forehead. "God help me...if that blithering idiot has actually succeeded in infuriating a large conglomerate of Americans, then there's every chance we'll end the day as honoured guests of the Scottish bloody rozzers."
This minor outburst only seemed to amuse Richard, which wasn't really the response James was hoping for. Once again, there he was, relegated to the position of level-headedness while everything around him went to sea. One of these days he was going to develop a hernia from unnecessary stress. In fact, it wouldn't surprise him if he weren't already suffering from some phantasmic illness--chief symptom, working alongside Jeremy Clarkson, keeper of The Undying Opinion. With some frustration he pressed his cheek against the glass in an attempt to see what the traffic was doing. As he did so he felt the coach's engine rumble; they were moving again. He leant back into his seat, wondering briefly what the producers would make of this amazing non-adventure. He could even picture the rundown sheet in his head. Tonight on Top Gear--German Engineering Vs The Senior Citizen: Confessions of a Pontiac in Baby Blue.
So not much, probably.
Still, it could be worse. They could have tapped into his daydreams, of Hammond in sepia-toned glory. If nothing else, James could be fairly certain that at least would generate some interesting feedback.
The minutes passed. Gradually, he became aware of something pressing against his shoulder. It was, of course, Richard; his eyes were closed, hands still clasped around the walkie, but loosely now, the weight of sleep relaxing his body so that it felt fluid, free of worry. James reached up carefully and adjusted the vent so that cool air blew down onto his face. He sat very still, looking up at the moulded plastic, trying to discern the exact sound it made past the rushing thud of his own heart. He thought of the mechanics behind it, the faint irony of how everything had to run on near-burning heat in order to engage the opposite effect. Compression and expansion, the pooling of gas through coils, turned suddenly into liquid, then evaporated and expelled--just like that, a cycle at the flick of a switch. It was astonishing, really, how things worked; even more astonishing that they should be so taken for granted.
He should have known this from the start. Richard's breath warmed his neck, constant, and very real. There was nothing James could do. They had argued to be off this thing the moment they first climbed on, but right now, just for a time, he was happy to forget it all.
The production team had booked them all into a nearby hotel; small and neat, cosy in a way that made James think he'd not so much stepped off that coach than morph quietly into yet another arm of middle-class opulence. There was even an open fire at the bar, and a proper newspaper. But really, it was just more silence to envelop himself in. Perhaps they should have given him a tent and patch of meadow. Thistles and cows--it might mean a better night's sleep.
The barman slid a coaster across the oak top, followed by James's half-pint.
"What's this? Wallowing? May, you never fail to surprise me, even on a good day."
"Clarkson. Care to join me?"
"Not really." Jeremy sat down anyway, and performed a charade-like exchange with the barman. "But because the slats on my bed broke spectacularly when I threw my bag on it, there are now six broad and strapping Scots running around trying to wheel in a replacement, so I can't get into my room. Also, I needed a drink."
James took a sip. "Only you," he said, shaking his head, "could manage that."
"You'd be quite surprised at some of the things I can do."
Reaching for his drink, Jeremy looked James over and angled his head thoughtfully. "No," he said, stretching the word out lazily, "not tonight. Tonight we drink in peace, for tomorrow we all pile into my lovely, lovely Mercedes, you two complain that I had an unfair advantage from the start, and I rebuke by hammering out some seriously sexy horsepower and therefore winning the argument. As well as the race."
"It wasn't a race, Jeremy. We were making the very valid and worthwhile point that you can see just as much of the countryside on a coach, as you can in a silly convertible with a stupid flappy paddle gearbox and a grille that looks like Mike Tyson's heavyweight belt. And I'll tell you why. It's because...because..." James trailed off. "Oh, cock. Okay, so maybe you're right. But it's still a terrible car."
"What if it'd been a Panda?"
"Then I'd have bowed as one gentleman to another to your fair and honourable victory."
"Oh, do shut up."
Jeremy rolled his eyes and James smiled, more to himself than anything. Across the room there was a muffled thud from the fireplace; a log had rolled, causing the flames to dance briefly, before settling down again to a darkened glow behind the iron grate. Lost once more in his own thoughts, James watched it for a moment; he watched until the heat seared his eyes and he was forced to turn away. "Can I ask you something?" he said, turning back to face Jeremy.
"Has Richard...said anything to you?"
Jeremy peered into his glass, pretending to be deeply fascinated with the inch of amber liquid and froth clinging to the bottom. "About what?"
A wave of tiredness swept through James. He sighed and placed both hands on the bar. "Don't be an arse. You know exactly what I'm talking about."
"Do I? Since when?"
"Since you made the executive decision to expose me head to bloody toe before the world."
"You can hardly blame me for that!"
James was about to snap back angrily, but closed his mouth instead. He knew he shouldn't have brought this up, especially with Jeremy. He took a breath and started again, this time managing to keep the emotion out of his voice. "So he knows."
"I'm sorry, has today suddenly turned into mood-swing Friday?" Jeremy got off his stool with an inelegant slide, his expression one of clear bemusement. "James...look. I don't pretend to know what your every waking worry is. Frankly, in between pissing off the heads of BBC equality, and every American who's ever walked on our fair shores, not to mention, after today, the entire Scottish Tourism Board, I've got enough on my already overflowing metaphorical plate as it is. But if we're talking about Hammond, then yes. He knows. He couldn't know it less if you placed a full-page advert in The Sunday Times. You're like a walking cliché. And just between the two of us, if your intention is to sink deeper and deeper into some sort of textbook illustration of English repression, then all I can say is..." Jeremy trailed off and waved his hands about in an attempt to pluck an answer out of the air. He gave up and shook his head. "All I can say is well done. You're doing a hell of a job."
James stared into the middle distance. He almost--almost--said thank you. "That's kind of what I was thinking," he murmured instead.
"Yes, well." Jeremy stood there for a second or two, unable to add to this. Instead, he poked his hands in his pockets, fished out a tissue and blew his nose.
"Damn soft top. Knew I shouldn't have kept it down. I've spent the day inhaling half the countryside."
James drained the rest of his beer, and stepped away from the bar. His limbs felt heavy, like he needed to sleep for a week. "I just...I don't know what to do," he said, at last. He could feel Jeremy's eyes on him, and folded his arms. A thread of cotton was working itself off the end of his cuff; it was the old striped rugby jersey he'd had for so long. He'd already sewn up a hole at the elbow, plus one at the hem, but it was a hopeless job, like repairing a well-loved bike he knew was going to one day fall to pieces beneath him. "I suppose I don't want things to change."
"I think you'll find it's too late for that. Change is a cruel bastard. You're just going to have to come out with it. So to speak."
"So to speak..." James closed his eyes in frustration, only to open them again quite suddenly when his brain caught up with the rest of Jeremy's words. "'Change is a cruel bastard'?" he repeated incredulously. "Please don't tell me that's the title of a self-help book you've just read."
Jeremy sniffed loudly. "Hardly."
"Well, thanks very much, Jeremy. I knew I could rely on you to provide a sensitive and understanding shoulder to cry upon."
But instead of a sarcastic reply, there was only a hand patting him on the back, surprisingly gentle.
"Go to bed, James."
And with that, Jeremy was gone.
At his room, several beers later, he found himself engaged in a small, one-sided battle with the sticking door lock, which James supposed pretty much summed up the day. Once inside, he lay fully clothed on top of the duvet and gazed at the mock-Edwardian ceiling, idly wondering if Richard would appreciate him knocking on his door and very politely confessing the secrets of his deeply repressed heart, before giving up half-way and snogging him in front of Jeremy's six strapping Scots and newly arrived bed. In the end he decided it probably wasn't the best timing, and got up in search of his toothbrush.
There were many, many things about Jeremy that James found annoying. But at the absolute top of these was the fact that, somehow and inevitably, he was always right.
He woke to the sound of rain. Rain that drummed on the glass and turned the sky to thick opalescence; the sort of rain that had the look and feel of not letting up for the whole day, and probably the whole week, too. James pulled the curtains back, letting the weak sunlight shine into the room, as he moved about tossing items into his bag.
Downstairs, he found various members of the crew eating breakfast. The last to arrive as usual, he tried to slip in unnoticed amidst the conversations and rasping of cutlery.
Richard, half-turned in his chair, was looking over his shoulder with an expression on his face that was impossible to read. James hesitated; thoughts of the previous night came flooding back, bringing with them a distinct wave of apprehension; but Richard was smiling, so he nodded back, and smiled as well. It was all he could do, really--if he didn't count the fact that his stomach was doing an impression of a Robin Reliant attempting to cross the sort of terrain designed to test old Soviet tanks...
Or perhaps he just needed to eat.
"I hope that convertible of yours has a decent top on it." James pulled out the chair beside Richard and sat down. He aimed a pointed glare at Jeremy, who'd spread his breakfast dishes over three quarters of the table, and was now engaged in stirring an alarmingly heaped teaspoon of sugar into his tea. "Because the thought of sharing a ride with the weather itself does not fill me with joy."
"Oh, yea of little faith."
"And why does it look like the Battle of the bloody Somme here?" James continued irritably, pushing aside a jam-splattered plate and several forks so that a small patch of tablecloth was visible before him.
"I'm hungry. Is there suddenly a rule against eating?"
"Jeremy, if they ever bring back conscription, you're going to find it pretty damn hard coping with a three piece set of enamel-ware if this is the standard you like to live at."
Richard wiped his mouth and grinned. "He's got a point there."
"Look, I'll have you both know that a night on Scotland's most uncomfortable fold-out bed has whetted my appetite somewhat. So you can sit there and grin all you want, but I don't give a flying monkey's." Jeremy slurped his tea noisily. "What's more, May, you're going to eat your words when we roll into London."
"Because you're driving us back."
James blinked. "I am?"
"We voted, mate," Richard said cheerfully. "Rock, paper, scissors."
"I don't care if it was by a twelve-body legislative committee! You do realise that I hate that car? Absolutely and unquestionably?"
"No you don't," Jeremy scoffed. "You think you do, but really, deep down, you're as madly in love with it as every red-blooded male in this place. Your level of denial is simply more fortress-like than...a normal person's."
There was a look that accompanied this remark, one that James recognised only too well as an echo from their last conversation. He glanced briefly at Richard, who had an elbow propped up on the table and was fiddling with the band of his watch, unaware of the silent communication being acted out in his vicinity. Jeremy raised an eyebrow and James swallowed heavily. "Okay, fine," he said. "I don't have the energy to argue any more. Just don't complain of boredom if I go the whole way without breaking the speed limit."
"Sounds good to me. I can get some decent kip." And with that Jeremy stood up and left, wiping his hands with what James unhappily suspected was a flourish of actual triumph. Jammy bastard, he thought.
Beside him, Richard bit into a croissant, scattering flecks of pastry. His eyes darted to James. "Guess I'm riding shotgun," he said, chewing slowly.
"I guess you are."
If there was knowledge there, if there was more meaning to Richard's words, then they were heavily disguised. Or maybe they weren't. Maybe that was the point, and he just couldn't see it any more. James wasn't fluent in this sort of language; he felt as if he needed it translated into some familiar type of algebraic form, the safety of mathematics, like the fantasies he'd always believed were his own and nobody else's. The freedom of coming out and just saying something, well, it was sheer audacity, the emotional equivalent of overtaking at a hundred and twenty on a double line.
By now Richard had left as well, and his voice could be heard across the room, laughing with the crew. James carefully stacked plates and knelt to retrieve a butter knife from beneath Richard's chair. The seat was warm against his hand; he held it there for a moment longer than necessary, then stood and took a furtive gulp of his tea. It was completely stone cold.
Jeremy was true to his word, and within a very short time after setting off, he'd closed his eyes and proceeded to fall asleep with an alarming ease. Not that there was much to keep him awake; as James drove, Richard kept his gaze firmly outside, and for a long time things remained that way, no talk, no idle conversation. Perhaps it really was the weather. It certainly wasn't the car; James, while not a fan of driving through sleet and hail, had to admit that he wasn't having as truly bad a time as he'd predicted. It was still too showy for his tastes, and there was too much overstated, teeth-clenching power, but the further they went the more he began to enjoy it.
It was this realisation that eventually broke the silence. For James, it was becoming just too hard to keep the smile off his face. When Richard saw this, he finally spoke.
"I've been thinking," he said.
James adjusted the speed of the wipers, and watched as they drew long, twin curves across the rain-splattered glass. "About what?"
"You mean the imaginary Pontiac which probably doesn't exist?"
"Yes. Except it does, because I want it to." Richard waved a hand dismissively. "Anyway, I was thinking about it, and then I thought about what I'd like to be doing right now. The two things are combined, by the way. Just thought you'd like to know."
"Is this one of those 'anything you can do, I can do better' games?"
"Then what is it?"
"It's...it's imagining what would be perfect, right here and now. Sitting in that honest-to-god muscle car, an open road, free to go wherever you want...burning rubber and hot sun. Not a drop of rain in sight. Come on, you give it a go. Add something to my small flight of whimsy."
There was a pause. James glanced at the rear-view mirror; in it the box-like shape of a large lorry was moving up on their tail, very close, and very quickly. "So I'm there, too?" he asked.
"If you want."
"Even if I'm likely to complain about the ride, the engine, and what I'm assuming will be your completely unnecessary insistence of driving with one fingertip on the wheel?"
"Bloody hell, James. Yes. You're there."
"Good. Just so we're straight." He thought for a moment. "You know, I might not do any of those things..."
"I might really, really like it."
Richard grinned. "Of course you might. You're only human, after all."
"That's a stunning observation, Hammond."
"Well, so far, it's not exactly a stunning fantasy we're weaving here. I seem to be doing all the heavy lifting; you're just playing to your own stereotype. So, come on. Be adventurous."
"Okay. Right." James took a breath and plunged in. Behind them, the lorry pulled out and began to edge slowly past, like something malevolent emerging from the rain. Side by side, this sleek and low convertible they were sitting in suddenly felt very small. "Uh...who's driving?"
"Broken the speed limit yet?"
"There are no speed limits."
"There just aren't!"
"I don't know, it's all sounding a bit irresponsible to me."
"I'm sorry. I'll try again. So, we're headed nowhere in particular...there's just the road."
Richard closed his eyes, leaning his head back. "That's right."
"Just the road. A few bends. No hairpins, because that's not the point of the car--just enough of a decent curve so the tyres grip. Um, low gear out of the turn, the engine's kicking a little; there's an old pickup thing blocking the way, so we overtake."
"I thought I was driving this thing."
"God, no." James looked ahead, pausing as his thoughts played catch-up and a stab of daring emerged. "We pulled over long ago, swapped sides so I could show you a thing or two."
Slowly, Richard opened his eyes. "Yeah?" His voice was low. "Tell me, then."
This. He'd heard this before. It didn't surprise him how quickly the mood had changed; only that it had taken this long to happen. Suddenly, he wanted to pull over. He wanted to stop talking. But he did none of those things. Instead he gripped the wheel, and swore beneath his breath.
"I'm sorry," he said, quickly.
"Oh, for God's sake..." There was a shuffling sound in the back seat, followed by Jeremy's voice, fuzzy with sleep. "You're both completely hopeless. It's like listening to an Australian soap opera, except with two middle-aged blokes instead of the blonde surfie teenagers."
Richard twisted his body around. "Sleep well?"
But Jeremy simply shook his head, crossed his arms and settled back again with a heavy sigh. James drove on while the others bickered quietly. He kept his focus on the road, and listened to their voices, Richard's especially; noting how seamlessly the sense of unease was disappearing, merging into an easy acceptance. He felt like something had been answered without the need of a single question.
"Now, don't be shocked, Jeremy," James said, voice clear enough to halt their argument, "but I take it all back. I am completely besotted with this amazing, wonderful car."
"Well done, James. I couldn't be more pleased. Wake me when we reach London."
Ahead, the road glistened with rain, but it was thinner now, and when he looked into the clouds, there was actually a visible stretch of blue, as if the sun, lost for the better part of the day, had plucked out of nowhere a sudden, quiet determination. James pressed his foot to the accelerator, pulled out of their lane and swept past a pair of Land Rovers, both towing horseboxes, both completely splattered with mud. He felt Richard's eyes on him. The engine soared for a brief, dizzying moment, before better judgement came over him and he dropped back a gear.
James watched the dials edge downwards, and smiled a little.
"So...have I completely ruined your fantasy?"
"No." Richard didn't hesitate.
He could have stopped right then. A week ago, a day ago even, and he might have done so without thinking. "We should probably try again some time," James said lightly.
For a moment he thought he'd stepped beyond something, and had done it too fast, like the speeding lorry, scattering gravel and rain. But Richard merely glanced away; he picked up his sunglasses from the dash and turned them absently over in the light, catching sight of his own reflection with a faint, unseen smile.
"For real," he echoed.
It was a single word. It could be interpreted in so many different ways, but this time, James knew exactly what it meant. This time he believed it.