“Stop moping and call him,” Alexander says, stirring his tea.
“I’m not moping, I’m...” James shrugs – he’s not sure there’s a word in the English language to describe what exactly it is he’s doing.
Alexander lets it slide and leans back in his antique armchair, one of the last obvious reminders of his excessive wealth. It’s still strange for James to come to the new house, which is smaller, simpler, so much less like Alexander’s charmingly snobbish taste James used to like to joke about. Sometimes he finds himself almost missing the old days in Formula 3, with a sometimes frustrating car and a competent but almost amateurishly casual team. So much has changed since then – he has changed so much; more than he’ll ever admit.
What’s comfortingly unchanged is this – Alexander stirring his tea and caring about James when no one else really seems to.
“You can’t possibly blame yourself,” Alexander says quietly, gently. James just lets out a frustrated half-chuckle because it’s not like that. It really isn’t. But at the same time he’s not quite sure what it is like instead. All he knows is that coming to Alexander’s feels distinctly like hiding and he doesn’t like it one bit.
There are seventeen little paper balls in the paper basket and around the table on the floor – seventeen discarded versions of Dear Niki. He knows, he’s counted them. Number eighteen lands on the floor five seconds later.
There’s yet another replay of the accident on the news and James switches it off. It’s not like he can see much else when he closes his eyes, anyway.
James has to fight the urge to slam down the phone when he hears Marlene’s voice on the other end. He feels like a fumbling teenager calling a girl for a date, even though the circumstances couldn’t be more different. His mouth feels dry and his palms are sweating.
“Hello?” Marlene speaks again. She sounds tired and James thinks he wants another drink.
“I’m sorry to...” his voice sounds off to his own ears so he clears his throat and starts again. “I’m sorry to bother you but the doctors wouldn’t give me any information – they said I should talk to you so... I was just wondering how Niki was doing...”
James winces at how clumsy and inadequate his words are. He runs his fingers through his hair and thinks he should have lit a cigarette before making the call to the hospital.
Then he suddenly remembers he hasn’t introduced himself yet and quickly adds, “I... I’m James Hunt.”
“I know who you are,” Marlene replies calmly and James hates himself for doing this sober.
Bubbles comes to watch the next race and James is careful not to ask if Alexander sent him – he really doesn’t need any confirmation of just how transparent he can be when somebody actually bothers looking. Bubbles pats James on the shoulder more often than strictly necessary and takes him out to celebrate after the victory.
James doesn’t speak much but drinks all the more and he can’t actually remember how Bubbles got him home.
It’s when he sees Marlene in her simple, colourless elegance that James realizes his shirt is pale blue and has at least three too many buttons undone.
“Hi. Hello.” James tries a toned down version of the least explicit of his seductive smiles. He instinctively leans a fraction closer, but then stops himself, realizing it might not be appropriate to kiss her on the cheek. She’s smiling kindly, in an insincere but polite way that James knows well, and he can tell she noticed his moment of indecision.
“It’s so nice of you to come,” she says and James doesn’t know what to say. What he doesn’t say is: I was never good at writing letters.
“Here,” he hands over the flowers he brought. “I know it’s silly but I wanted to bring something...”
“They’re beautiful,” she smiles, with a bit more honesty and James breathes in relief. Being around her reminds him too much that he’s not actually good at talking to people that aren’t journalists or people he wants to sleep with.
“So which room is he in then?” he asks and takes a step in the direction she came from.
Her expression changes then and it feels like a punch in the gut.
“I see,” James nods.
“I’m sorry. He just doesn’t want visitors.”
“Of course,” James plasters a too bright smile on his face. “I understand.”
As he walks out he doesn’t look at Marlene – he doesn’t actually want to know if she bought his act of indifference.
There’s a card from Suzy after his second win in Niki’s absence.
Hope you’re alright. Call me if you need anything. Alexander has my new number.
There’s no return address. When James turns it around, there is some lonely Swiss mountain looking back. He can’t help but wonder if Suzy wanted that to be a metaphor or if she just grabbed the first card she could find.
James is not sure which he’d prefer.
He calls again just days before setting off to Italy. Marlene is kinder than she has any right to be, probably to make up for Niki’s continuing refusal to talk to James.
It stings and James doesn’t know what to do with himself for the rest of the day, so he just sits at the birdcage for hours, watching.
James smokes three cigarettes in a row after seeing Niki. In hindsight maybe it was self-important of him, but his first thought as he saw the extent of Niki’s injuries was I did that.
He had thought he’d feel better after apologizing – it was all he could think about for weeks – but all he feels is this crushing sense of helplessness. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life, even had to make up for some of them, but it has never been this hard to know how to make things right again. With Suzy at least he always knew all the things he should have done to make her stay, all the ways he should have changed – but this time he’s lost.
He got his absolution from Niki, clearer than he could have hoped but somehow it isn’t enough. And James wonders if maybe it wasn’t even absolution he wanted in the first place.
His hands don’t stop shaking until he beats up that journalist. It may have been for Niki, it may have been something the guy has had coming for a long time – the only thing that matters is that it calms James in a way nothing has since the Nürburgring.
After the race, later that weekend it’s hard to find Niki. Everybody wants to talk to him, everybody wants a photo of him and James doesn’t know how he feels about that.
He almost gives up but then he sees Niki making his way towards his car, so he tries to catch up.
“Hey,” he calls out several times. “Hey, Niki.”
“What?” Niki calls back without turning around or slowing down. It’s only when he stops next to his car that James reaches him.
“Nothing, just...” James shrugs, feeling odd all of a sudden about this. “Wanna grab a drink with me? To celebrate your return?”
James turns on his million dollar smile but it doesn’t seem to have the effect it usually does.
“I’m going home with Marlene.”
“Right. Of course,” James nods, then looks up. “Maybe tomorrow?”
Niki looks at him with narrowed eyes as if he was expecting some kind of a catch.
“We’re leaving in the afternoon.”
“Oh. Yeah, no, sure it’s fine,” James shrugs as if his chest wasn’t constricting painfully. “Some other time maybe.”
Everything about the race in Japan sucks. The weather is just a part of it and as far as James is concerned not even necessarily the worst.
Alexander calls several times and the only reason he didn’t travel around half the world to be there is because he’s quite possibly the only person who still listens to James’ wishes.
Peter doesn’t, though. James supposes that it means his brother cares, but all his presence really does is make James more nervous.
Suzy doesn’t call, and maybe that’s best, because the last time they talked didn’t end well. They both tried too hard and got nowhere and frustration turned into bitterness over things they can’t
James promises himself not to get drunk before the race, but his decision falters when a blonde girl smiles at him across the hotel bar. He’s already about to send her a drink when he spots Niki on his way to the elevator with his wife.
“Niki,” James calls out and gets off the barstool to walk up to him. “How about that drink now?”
“We were about to go to bed,” Niki says and glances at Marlene, who is waiting by the elevator. James makes himself smile at her.
“Come on, just one drink. You can even have water if you want,” he laughs and counts it as a victory that Niki’s lips twitch slightly.
But a moment later they are interrupted by the blonde girl that was smiling at James before. She stands very close to James and puts a hand on his arm.
“I’m getting tired of waiting for you to come over,” she smiles seductively.
“I see you’re busy,” Niki says with a teasing voice that James didn’t realise he’s been missing.
“No. Not if you...” James trails off.
“Just go ahead, James. It’ll make it easier for me to win,” Niki says with a smile in the corner of his lips and James has to laugh.
“You wish,” he says with a grin that stays on his face as he watches Niki walk back to his wife.
“So do you want to buy me and my friend a drink?” the blonde girl asks and smiles at a sexy redhead. On autopilot, James agrees.
He would have thought it might be easier once the season was over, especially with his first championship title in his pocket. But somehow smiling gets tiresome sooner than expected and merely weeks later he bails on some party at the villa of some friend that wasn’t his friend two months ago and James has trouble remembering the name of.
“You’re moping again, Superstar,” Alexander says, stirring his tea in a way that soothes James with its familiarity.
“Fuck off,” James says softly and stretches out on the sofa. He’s been doing this for over seven years now, lying on Alexander’s sofa in various houses, not being as much fun as his reputation would promise. And Alexander lets him for reasons they never talk about.
Alexander smiles. “So tell me, what did he do this time?”
“Why do you assume he did anything?”
“You always end up on my sofa when Lauda gets to you,” Alexander says. James just keeps staring at the ceiling.
“We met on my way back from Bologna.”
James shrugs. “And nothing. We talked. He told me to get back to work.”
There were so many other moments in their conversation that still haunt James but he can’t quite put his finger on why so he decides not to bring them up. But Alexander nods like he understands anyway.
The next season starts too soon and too frustrating and James can feel himself get more and more insufferable with every passing hour before the first race. He somehow sweats out a pole position but the race kicks his car in the arse and he has to retire mid-race.
So does Niki, but that only makes it harder to talk to him later. They’re both frustrated and on edge and the January heat in Argentina doesn’t help. But James decides to try anyway.
“You want to have dinner later?” he asks Niki, walking into the Ferrari pit.
Like so often James feels the intense urge to punch Niki.
“I don’t know. You’ve got to eat sometime. Why not with me?”
“Because there’s a distinct possibility we might kill each other before dessert,” Niki says.
“We might not,” James shrugs. “I’m willing to take the chance.”
Niki watches him for a few moments with an expression James can’t read, then he says: “I’m not.” And walks away.
James can’t move for a few seconds, too frustrated with Niki’s continuous refusal of his offers. When he finally turns around to leave he sees Marlene, watching him with a small, apologetic smile. James returns it and shrugs, before walking away.
It’s a week later Niki calls him and James is so surprised he almost drops the phone.
“I bought a new car. Want to take it for a test drive with me?” Niki asks and sounds only half as reluctant as normally.
“Is Marlene making you do this?” James asks because he might not have been a good husband but he’s had enough to do with other people’s wives to know when they start to intervene.
“Do you want to come or not?” Niki asks, sounding annoyed and that’s answer enough for James.
They meet up in France and spend hours bickering over Niki refusing to allow James to drive. It gets to a point where James thinks it might be more enjoyable to walk all the way back to England barefoot than to spend another hour with Niki. He actually bullies the other man into stopping at the side of the road so he can get out but the second the car stops, Niki leans over and presses his lips against James’, which finally shuts him up.
It lasts only a few seconds and when Niki pulls back with an unusually apprehensive look, James can’t do anything but stare. He opens and closes his mouth a few times but nothing comes out.
Niki’s expression becomes hard and closed off at the prolonged silence.
“If you still want to hitchhike home, I suggest you get out now,” he says, irritation clear in his voice. But he doesn’t apologize for the kiss and doesn’t try to downplay it and suddenly James feels very stupid for not doing this months ago. He slides his palm along the nape of Niki’s neck and pulls him back into a proper kiss this time. There’s a lot of restraint in the kiss at first, on both sides, but eventually Niki eases into it and that makes James grin so wide that he has to break contact.
The sudden euphoria he feels reminds him eerily of that day in Japan when he already gave up and then realized he had won after all.
“So,” he asks, unable to stop grinning. “Will you let me drive now?”
For once, Niki actually sort of smiles back. “In your dreams,” he says and starts the car again.