David has a headache.
Rob knows this because he recognises the exact way David’s brow creases in the middle, knows the exact furrows and indentations. Plus David keeps rubbing his eyes, which means he probably wants to take his contacts out and place the comfortable, familiar frames on his face and hide behind them in front of the television.
“We can leave this until later if you want, you know,” Rob says.
“D’you mind? It’s just I’ve got this killer headache…”
“No, it’s fine.”
Rob gathers together the papers they’ve been brain-storming on, shuffles them and taps them like a news reader. Later, he thinks. ‘Later’ is their favourite word.
Always bloody later.
At Cambridge, David was the lazy one. People think of him as the most organised and studious - Rob knows that and he doesn’t mind; in some realm it’s probably true anyway - but really it was Rob who worked hardest. He’d always had to work for everything he got, twice as hard as anyone else and being working class and at Cambridge meant that he had something to prove, if only to himself.
So David used to sit around and watch documentaries or mindless, cheap soap operas when he was supposed to be working. Rob knows this because he used to go over there with alcohol and join him (even though his work was more important; missing marks in the third year cost more than it did in the second) and wait patiently for their hands to touch when they both reached for a can at the same time.
Rob used to say ‘later’ then too, but only to himself. It was a different sort of ‘later’; a cowardly sort, the sort that made him hate himself when he found he was alone in his bed again. But David wasn’t the sort of person you could just spring things on. He hated surprises.
Then when they left and started writing, it really had to be later. Because as soon as they started getting paid for doing this thing they weren’t even completely sure they were good at, Rob realised that the situation actually was rather tentative. Now wasn’t the best time to mess things up, not when the chance of actually making a career out of this was at stake.
So once again, it was ‘later’.
The only time it ever came close to not being ‘later’ was a morning in the attic of the hotel David’s parents ran at the time. That Mitchell and Webb Sound had just gone down a storm for the very first time and they were having a morning after moment, hungover from the celebration of the night before. Mrs Mitchell had been asking David to sort through his collection of old things for months; it was on Robert’s pushing that they had gone and spent the night in Oxford, eventually ending up with piles of family albums around their knees as they hunkered on the scratchy wooden floor.
“What a pretentious twat I was,” David had said, fondly smiling at a picture of his seven year old self. He had drawn a handle-bar moustache on himself and was wearing something Robert could only describe as ‘Tudor’.
“Are, you mean,” Rob had said.
“Ha ha, very funny. You can throw that one away.”
Rob looked down at the paper in his hand, an essay on Eliot with a date that suggested A Level - maybe G.C.S.E.
Rob could only imagine G.C.S.E. David, shuffling off to classes with a folder under his arm and slightly over-large glasses falling down his nose.
It almost made him reach out and touch.
“But its Eliot,” Rob had said, “You can’t destroy anything Eliot-related, it’s against the law.”
“It’s probably all quotes,” David said, sticking another pile of papers into a sickening, over-sized bin bag beside him. “To an Eliot expert like you, it would probably sound like tripe.”
This, of course, made Robert read.
His breath caught in his throat when he realised it was about Prufrock. He tried to remember whether he’d ever expressed to David just how much he was in love with this particular piece; probably, but only during a drunken evening rambling about literature that neither of them remembered. There was a copy of the poem at the end of the essay, lines highlighted and scribbled on as though it was a revision piece gone astray, but of course Rob knew most of the lines by heart, anyway.
He didn’t realise he was reading aloud until the noise of David rustling the bin bag dropped away. When Rob looked up, David was staring at him.
He didn’t have to say it; ‘go on’, his eyes said. Rob read them as easily as Eliot.
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
Rob stopped reading, took a deep breath in. Damn Eliot and his stupid intuitions. Damn him for knowing human nature so well; for knowing Rob’s nature so well.
Damn stupid genius Eliot.
“What happens?” David asked, after a moment. “I’ve forgotten. Does he do it?”
Rob shrugged, shook his head. “He was too afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid of being rejected, afraid of being thought silly, of acting like the hero when he wasn’t one.”
“So pretty much afraid of everything, then?” David asked. “Sounds like me.”
“More like me,” Rob said, “Not sure if he should dare disturb the universe.”
And then, just for a moment, it might not have been later. It might have been now, but then there was a call from the landing downstairs; a guest had upset a bowl of cornflakes all over herself and David’s father needed desperately to know if David knew where the mop was.
That was probably Rob’s own version of the human voices waking them. He felt vaguely like he was drowning, anyway.
After that, it went back to being ‘later’.
“D’you want some paracetamol?” Rob asks. He is stalling by the door. He hates stalling, but so often finds himself doing it.
“No, I think I’ll just have a sit, maybe watch a bit of Countdown.”
“You can stay if you want to,” David says. “We can give Susie in Dictionary Corner a bloody good kicking?”
Time yet for a hundred indecisions, Rob thinks, kicking up the edge of David’s hallway carpet with the toe of his trainer, feeling horribly, uncomfortably like Jeremy Usbourne.
He should go home really, go and see his wife, go and do the weekly shop, feed the ungrateful cat and work on getting that bookshelf assembled some time before 2020.
A bloom of warmth breaks out on the back of Rob’s neck as he looks up at David, sees those eyes that he’s seen a million times in a million different ways and wonders whether taunting yourself with more and more ‘laters’ is ever a good thing. Wonders whether you’ve ever really got a choice of whether or not to do it, anyway.
“You got something else that needs doing?” David asks, sounding for all the world like that weak (powerful), quiet (loud), vulnerable (strong) first year he met at university.
Robert stuffs his hands genially inside his pockets, smiles. “Nothing that can’t wait until later.”