“So I just said ‘Good Luck,’ and then, like, walked away.” Martin says and takes a long pull from his beer. The others nod sympathetically.
“Yeah, that’s always tough. The first encounter with the married ex,” Niamh says, patting him on the arm.
“Everybody’s been there at some point. Congratulations, you’re a man now. Heartbreak and disillusionment.” Charlie raises his bottle and they all respond, laughing.
“You’ll be a great teacher, Charlie,” Billy deadpans. “Real bright light for our nation’s youth.”
“Fuck off, Mac,” he laughs. Billy smiles and looks down into his beer.
“I just— I shouldn’t miss her. It’s stupid; it’s been fucking years. Actual years. But I always said to myself, you know, ‘Get your shit together, then call her.’ It’s so stupid. I was just— Fuck, I’m in school now, right? Like, I was going to get my degree and then— Fuck, I don’t know.” Martin scrubs his hand through his hair and leans back in his chair.
Their corner of the pub is dimly lit and warm, all dark wood and low music. It’s only the second Thursday that they’ve all gone out, but it looks like it’ll turn into a weekly thing. The five of them met at the beginning of term, all new students at an information session about teaching qualifications. It was Charlie who brought them all together with his loud voice and easy laugh.
Their relative age in comparison to most of their classmates was another helpful factor. Charlie had spent a few years working in his father’s restaurant before deciding—as he tells it—“I can recite two chapters ofUlysses from memory. Do I really want to be a prep cook for the rest of my life?” Martin had left school before his GCSEs, so spent the last few years getting qualifications on his own. Niamh had been “traveling,” though she’s never more specific than that, and Laura remains a bit of a mystery.
Since then, they’d met up once in a while to study, and had finally managed to work out a decent pub night. The atmosphere here is already different from their mostly quiet study sessions, a change which is helped along by Martin’s recent heartbreak.
“Feelings can be stupid,” Laura shrugs. “Don’t get all guilty about it. Everybody gets heartsick sometimes.”
Niamh kicks her under the table and she grins.
“Speaking of heartsick, look at Billy Mac,” Charlie says, digging an elbow into his side. “Where the hell did you just go, man?”
Billy snaps back to attention, looking up from his glass. “What? Nowhere.”
“You heartsick too, Mac?” Laura teases, and Niamh kicks her again while trying to hide a blush.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” he says, smiling slightly. Charlie gives him a sympathetic half-smile. Niamh fiddles with the ends of her sweater sleeves.
Martin sighs. “The one you love married, too?”
Billy furrows his brow for a moment. “Well, yeah.” Martin raises his glass in a melancholy salute. Billy continues, “To me, though. So I don’t think that counts.”
Charlie snorts and Martin sets his glass down, shaking his head.
“No it does not count,” he moans. “Why am I always alone in my misery?”
“You’re married?” Laura asks, trying not to flick her eyes in Niamh’s direction.
“You never mentioned it.”
“Didn’t come up.”
Laura grins at him. “You’re a mystery, you are. Billy Mac, former soldier—,” she falters as Billy makes a face. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s just— Royal Marines Commando.”
They stare at him.
“You say it so casually. Like, ‘No big deal,’” Charlie grins, elbowing him again.
“Shut the fuck up, Ryder,” Billy laughs, shoving him off.
“Our friend here was a fucking commando, people. Green Beret shit.”
Martin whistles admiringly and Billy tucks his chin to hide a blush. Laura raises her eyebrows at Niamh, who makes a face at her and takes a long drink from her cider. Charlie claps a hand on the back of Billy’s neck.
“A married ex-commando who spends his days in the hallowed halls of learning with undeserving civilians such as ourselves—” Billy shoves his hand off and laughs as he continues, “And apparently spends his nights in wedded bliss with some pretty young thing we know nothing about.”
“Don’t act all offended,” Billy retorts. “I just fucking met you.”
Charlie winks at him. ”I can still call you Soldier Boy, though, right?”
“Why haven’t we met her? You could have brought her along, you know,” Niamh says brightly, still picking at her sweater.
“Actually, he’s in Afghanistan right now.”
There is a brief silence as the four consider this piece of information.
“Oh,” Laura says after a second.
“Wait a second.” Charlie’s eyes narrow and the corners of his mouth start to curl. “You’re telling me Soldier Boy’s got his own Soldier Boy?”
“Commando, Charlie,” Laura scolds.
“Your husband— You fought alongside your husband?” Niamh asked, eyes wide.
“Until this past spring, yeah. That’s how we met.”
“That’s actually pretty romantic,” Laura says, and Niamh nods earnestly. Billy shrugs.
Martin leans forward, looking seriously at Billy. “They’re okay with that? I mean, they’re cool about guys getting married and then serving together?”
Billy shrugs again. “Why not?”
“I don’t know, I just figured— Anybody ever give you any trouble?”
“They’re a couple of commandos, Martin,” Charlie says with an exasperated expression. “How much trouble do you think anyone’s going to give them?”
Billy barks a laugh. “Yeah, that’s definitely true. But, I don’t know, it’s been all right. Every so often you get some asshole talking shit, but nothing that’s ever really bothered me. Or Tom.”
“Can we see a picture? Is he cute?” Laura asks.
“You’re asking me if I think my husband is cute?”
“Seriously, man, you are surrounded by hopeless single people tonight. Let us vicariously enjoy your happiness,” Martin all but pleads. Billy laughs and pulls out his phone.
“Here.” He flicks through a couple of screens, then finds a folder marked “Tom.” “There’s stuff in there. It’s my round, and I think Martin needs something a little stronger. Anyone else changing?”
“Fuck it, get me a rum and coke,” Laura says, taking the phone from him. “Hang on. This isn’t just, like, a bunch of naked pictures, is it?”
The other men laugh, but Billy purses his lips, thinking. “Which folder is it?”
“Just says ‘Tom.’”
“Then no, no naked pictures in there.” Charlie whistles, Niamh turns pink, and Billy heads up to the bar. When he returns, the four have shifted their chairs to gather closer to Laura and the phone.
“Mac, this phone is awesome. The picture quality is ridiculous.”
“Yeah, thanks. It was a wedding present. This friend of ours, real posh guy. He had it customized for us. Something about international something and satellite whatever— I don’t know. It’s got some kind of clearance, so I get to contact Tom a little more easily. And it’s got a great camera.”
“Gay, married, commando with special governmental privileges. Right.” The others laugh and Charlie rolls his eyes.
“And a nice voice,” Niamh adds. Charlie gives her a look. “Credit where credit’s due,” she says simply.
“You’ve heard me sing?”
“You did ‘Raglan Road’ while we were walking back from the pub last week.”
“This is a lovely one,” Laura interrupts, tilting the screen so that Billy can see the photo she’s referring to.
Tom is mostly in the frame, looking up at the camera from their bed. He’s propped up against two pillows, wearing an old grey T-shirt and pajama pants and eating a piece of toast. His hair is sticking up every which way, and he has pillow-creases across his left cheek, but his eyes are bright and open and his grin looks somehow surprised, like the photographer had just told an off-color joke.
“He’s beautiful,” Niamh says shyly, and Billy smiles warmly at her.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Definitely wouldn’t kick him out of bed for getting crumbs on the blankets,” Laura says.
“That’s from the morning before he left. Back in September.”
“Breakfast in bed. That’s so sweet I may puke,” Charlie teases.
“Sort of.” Billy smiles at the image. “God, this is weird.”
“What’s wrong?” Niamh asks, looking concerned.
“I’m just not used to being with people who don’t know him, you know? Haven’t done this—” he gestures around to the group, “in a while.”
“Ah, you’re doing fine,” Charlie says dismissively.
“Wedding shot?” Laura asks, flicking through a few more photos. Billy cranes his neck to see the screen. The picture is a segment of a long table, slightly off-center. Billy’s mouth is half-open, looking somewhere to the right of the camera. An older man sits to his left, red in the face and teary-eyed. Tom is on Billy’s right, staring at him with a tight jaw, lips pressed together. Under the table, barely visible, Tom is holding on to Billy’s right hand with both of his.
“Doesn’t look very happy,” Martin says cautiously, leaning closer.
“Oh, that one. Cora—my sister, Cora—took that one. Um. My dad always makes me sing “Danny Boy” at family events—that’s him, there on the right side. So everyone gets a little weepy, you know. And we’d had a bit to drink, at that point.”
“That’s adorable,” Niamh sighs. “I have to admit, hearing you do “Danny Boy” would definitely make me cry. Not joking.”
“My dad said that that’s when Tom became a true McMath, so he didn’t feel too bad about it. But then Cora labeled this one: ‘Billy makes his new husband cry. First in series.’” Billy laughs. “That’s my sister for you.”
The others chuckle and turn back to their drinks, settling into companionable silence.
“How long has he been gone?” Charlie asks, sounding uncharacteristically gentle.
“Two months, now,” Billy says, trying to sound casual. “First tour without— First tour that I’m not there.”
“How are you doing?” Billy looks sharply at him, but Charlie’s face is serious and kind.
“All right,” he answers carefully. “I mean—.”
He looks around at his friends and finds no pity or discomfort, only affection and calm understanding.
“It’s hard. Of course it is. It’s horrible. It’s worse than I’d— But it’s all right. It’s what we do, you know. This is what we do.”
“It’s hard being away from the people you love,” Laura says softly, looking at the table. “I mean, obviously. You know it’s going to be awful but that doesn’t make it any—.” She blinks quickly then looks up with a sad smile. “Well. Another day.”
Niamh reaches across and squeezes her hand for a brief second before turning to Billy and asking, “Which picture’s your favorite?”
“Yeah. Show us your favorite one. The best picture of Tom … McMath?”
“Henn. His name’s Henn.”
Laura hands him the phone. Martin has been looking down at his hands, brow furrowed.
“Is it worth it?” he asks. Billy looks up, startled. “I just mean,” Martin continues, “I feel like absolute shit right now. And I’m not even— This isn’t even proper love. I mean is it worth feeling like that? Like you do now?”
Billy smiles softly at him. “Yeah. It is. No question.”
Charlie leans back in his chair, stretching his arms above his head and grinning broadly. “The question is,” he says through a yawn. “How does he feel about you being a college boy?”
“What do you—?”
“Surrounded by beautiful co-eds all day, bound to fall into some Hellenic tryst with an experienced old professor—”
“Shut the fuck up, Ryder.”
“No one says ‘co-eds,’ anymore, Charlie,” Laura points out. “Or ‘tryst.’”
“This is why I will be teaching English and you will be teaching something inelegant. Like history. Or economics.”
“Mac’s not the type to stray, anyway,” Niamh says with a reproachful look at Charlie. Billy laughs.
“If you knew my— Sorry, this is just funny. No, Tom is not worried about me ‘straying,’” he chuckles again, clicking through the phone. “Definitely not.”
“You worried about him? Straying, I mean? ” Charlie asked shrewdly, and Billy fumbles for a moment in his clicking. “Sweet face like that on a—what is he, a Sergeant?”
“No. I’m not.” He thinks for a moment, then smirks up at Charlie. “This friend of ours—he’s the one that got us together, really—he came by a couple of weeks before Tom left. Gave him this CD he’d burned of sixteen different covers of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’. It was hilarious. I haven’t seen him that pissed off in a while.”
“Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m saving my love for you,” Niamh sings. “That one?”
“Yeah. Of course, Tom— He’s not really the music guy, you know. So he didn’t know the song. And so he listened to the first track and was getting more and more offended. And Henry—this friend—was just cackling away. But no, joking aside. Not worried.”
“That was a rude fucking question, Charlie,” Niamh scolds.
“I’m a rude fucking guy, Niamh,” he responds with a wink.
“Here. This one’s my favorite. I keep rearranging these damn folders, nothing’s ever where I think it is.” Billy hands the phone over to Laura.
“This a naked one? Not that I’d complain, honestly.”
“No, this is my favorite clothed picture. From a long time ago. Before we were really together, actually.”
The photo shows the common tent, with the couch in the center. Billy, shirtless but in his trousers and boots, is lying on the floor with his feet on the couch cushions, arms behind his head and buzzed hair looking almost blonde. Tom has his shirt on, but it’s open and for some reason he has nothing underneath, the lustre of his skin and the glint of his tags clearly visible. He’s sitting on the couch, knees apart, looking down at Billy and laughing. One hand rests on Billy’s raised knee. Billy’s face is only partially visible, tilted slightly to the side to smile back at Tom. The tent flap is blowing slightly open to their left, letting in a shaft of bright golden light and seems to outline the scene.
Laura smiles, looking over at Billy. “This is a great photo.”
“I had it bad for him at that point. Tom had no idea. A guy from our section took that and when he showed it to me I was like, ‘Why can’t I have that all the time?’”
“And now you do,” Martin sighs, raising his glass. “Well done.”
“Now I do.”
“We get to meet him, right?” Niamh asks. “When he comes back?”
Billy smiles warmly at her, “Of course.”
Charlie slaps him on the shoulder. “I’m going to get us another round. We are all switching to something stronger. There has been enough melancholy at this table for the evening. Billy Mac, your man’s going to come back with war stories. It’s up to us to make sure you’ve got something interesting to talk about. Can’t have you boring the poor man to death after nine months of hunting terrorists.”
“Hear hear!” Laura shouts, tossing back the rest of her drink and passing Billy his phone. Niamh smiles and adjusts her hair, tying it up higher on her head.
“Fuck it, I’m in,” Martin says, slamming down his glass. “I could use some stories, too.”
Billy grins over at Charlie. “What did you have in mind?” he teases, making a show of rolling up his sleeves. Charlie rises.
“Oh, I don’t know. The night is young. I’m feeling irresponsible. Let’s go find some trouble.”
Charlie Ryder’s idea of “looking for trouble” includes going to a basement hipster club that no one’s heard of, convincing the poor first-day bartender that they’re the band for the evening using only an excessively large vocabulary and Billy’s natural authority, and revealing a somewhat unexpected competence on the out-of-tune upright piano that the club keeps mostly for ambience.
They stumble through a very drunk rendition of “I Don’t Like Mondays,” and with Charlie on keys and Billy and Niamh singing, it actually sounds pretty good. Of course, none of that really matters, because Laura is having way to much fun on the drums so no one can hear anything anyway.