The House of Jones has a garden. Not a proper one out back with a shed, but it's a garden just the same.
Someone, they still don't know who, brought Dan a rosemary plant while he was in hospital. 'What the fuck are we gonna do with that?' Jones asked when Claire brought it home, scraggly and neglected in its little paper pot. It sat on a windowsill for weeks, the red ribbon around it drying and fading to washed-out yellow-pink in the sun.
When Dan left, the first thing Claire said into the silence (after her I can find somewhere else-- and Jones's no need) was, 'I can't believe it's still alive.'
Jones felt a bit bad for it and took Claire up dark cobwebby stairs, through a maze of shop dummies and bird shit and a moaning rusted door and into the sunlight. He didn't tell her about the night he'd found Dan up here and they sat together until sunrise without saying a word. What he told her was, 'I reckon it'll get more light out here.'
The rosemary plant looked like a twig in the old iron tub they planted it in, but it grew and kept growing, wild and rangy and pungent. Jones came home from Stanley Knives one day to find Claire stripping a stem into a pan of potatoes. She used too much and it tasted like soap and got stuck in their teeth, but they laughed about it and the next day Jones painted grinning pink and blue skulls around the sides of the washtub.
Dan couldn't (or wouldn't) come to the phone on his birthday ('I'll be sure to tell him,' Susan Ashcroft's voice warbled shakily out of the speakerphone). Claire slammed out of the house without a word and came back four hours later with a hoarse voice and a packet of basil seeds. They borrowed a bit of dirt off Calvin (as Jones had dubbed the rosemary seriously-verging-on-bush-now) and planted them in a teacup, and Jones let Claire play her Belle and Sebastian CD without complaint or interference.
Half the SugaRAPE staff quit to work for Nathan, only to be loudly and profanely sacked when Channel 7 decided Trash TV wasn't going to series. That day, Claire brought back a cutting from Sasha's rosebush that went into a pickle bucket.
When she came home with a box of tulip bulbs, Jones asked her what happened. 'I...like tulips?' Claire said. That, more or less, is how it came about.
Now the staircase is free of spiders, and not dark anymore since Jones spent an evening installing lights. There's a clear path through the cluttered old storeroom, dummies in Oxfam hats pointing the way with painted signs. One's got a face, courtesy of Ned, who actually isn't so bad. Definitely terminally stupid, but he's a laugh and doesn't actually have totally shit taste in music once you get him off the posturing with a few drinks.
Jones still hasn't oiled the door hinges, mostly because when he sees Claire through the window, she's always so engrossed in whatever she's doing that she might jump out of her skin if she doesn't hear him coming. Today she's pruning the rosebush, kneeling by the leopard-print pot that's got 'Betsy' looping around its middle in hot pink cursive. She looks up when she hears the door whine and she's got a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Her hair is falling out around her face from the clip she's put it up in, and Jones thinks she looks beautiful.
He smiles. "Alright?"
"I'm trying to get this bastard to bloom again." She strips off one of the gloves that always remind Jones of his gran and her daffodils and quince jam and puts out a hand for him to help her up. He pulls too hard on purpose and she stumbles into him, sun-warmed and sweaty and smelling of soil and green things.
"Betsy's a Mills and Boon woman," Jones says. "Needs her attention so she can swoon about." He kisses Claire on the forehead and licks the salt off his lips.
"Fuck off," she says, shoving him back. "I don't care what you painted on there, it's called Bastard." She takes her other glove off and wipes at her face with the back of her hand, but still doesn't get the dirt. "Don't," she says when he goes from wiping the smudge off with his thumb to brushing her hair back from her face.
"I know," Jones says. They both know. There was one very strange night a few months back when both of them were too sad and too drunk, but they both know that's not somewhere it's even possible to go. "There any more tomatoes?" They're amazing on toast, the scratch of the bread satisfying the itch on the roof of his mouth from the sweet acidity.
"Not yet." Claire wrings the gloves between her hands. "I talked to Dan."
There's no point in trying to act like he's not bothered, like he's over it. "How is he?"
"Still Dan," she says with a wry smirk that fades too quickly. "Mum's driving him mad. He's found a flat." Flats mean signed papers and agreements. Flats mean that 'he'll come home when he's better' is Jones lying to himself. Claire looks like she knows exactly what it means too. "He's moving in two weeks if it doesn't fall through."
Two weeks isn't much time at all when you need to change Dan Ashcroft's mind.
Each room upstairs is like its own secret. Best Jones can tell, at least part of the place used to be a shop, a tailor's or a dress boutique or one of the old family department stores that got done in or moved on from. A door with a tarnished brass plate reading 'private' leads to what probably used to be an office. There was never anything in here but a couple of dusty filing cabinets and a fat bolt of heavy unbleached cotton nearly as tall as Jones. When he's not painting something that has to stay where it is, he does it in here.
He hasn't in months, though, and the easel with the dusty sheet over it looming in the centre of the room like a misshaped ghost is the reason why. Jones pulls it off and lets it pool onto the floor, dust dancing in slivers of sunlight like little bits of glitter, and there's Dan's half-formed face smirking back at him. This was meant to hang next to the one of Jones, a matched set. Dan was used to Jones sketching him at odd moments, but he never knew why. 'I have to look at myself enough as it is,' he said when Jones hinted at the painting.
'I like looking at you,' Jones replied, and it didn't stop him working on it. That was before Nathan Barley was part of Dan's world, before Jonatton showed his true colours, when he and Dan would get pissed together on random afternoons and Dan would laugh readily and wouldn't pretend to be asleep if Jones crawled into bed with him at five in the morning. It wasn't that he was ever particularly cheerful for more than a couple of hours at a time, it wasn't some overnight transformation. It was just that all the parts of his brain that made him scowl and hate got faded slowly up, and the ones that remembered it wasn't all shit got lost in the background.
Jones didn't stop work on the portrait until the Stray article. He couldn't picture Dan's eyes without that in them anymore, and anyway, the hair was all wrong. It was just as well-- it was going to be a Christmas present, and Dan was gone by then. If not for Claire the day probably would have passed without a word between them. Now he's not sure he can finish it.
He's not quick enough to get the sheet back over it before Claire's in the doorway, breaking off whatever she was about to ask him to say, "Wow."
"It ain't finished."
"I can see that, but it's-- When did you do that?"
"Ages ago." Jones finally looks at her properly. She's wearing a dress, a nice one. "Fuck, it's Pingu's video tonight."
"I came to remind you. He's shitting himself so I'm going round early."
"Three hours early?"
"He's incoherent. There's going to be press there. He broke something while I was on the phone with him and he actually started swearing. Have you seen the other one of these?" She holds up a high-heeled black shoe.
He has, but not lately. He remembers it breaking and being violently chucked into the Thames while Claire drunkenly ranted about all women's clothing being bullshit. He remembers carrying her halfway home after she stepped on a piece of glass, carefully cleaning and bandaging her foot in the bathroom and the impulsive kiss to her ankle that led to one thing and another and a ruined skirt and her skittish and apologetic in the hungover light of morning.
'We can't do that again.'
'Mind'f I ask why?'
'Because! You're... you're in love with my brother! It's fucking warped.''
"You threw it in the river."
"Oh." Her cheeks colour and she looks down. She remembers it too. Maybe it is a bit warped, standing here thinking about that with Dan's one finished eye staring at them. Wanting Dan to come back so badly it makes him sick even though he suspects it will break this. "Are you going to finish that?"
"Dunno if I can. He won't like it anyway."
"You're in a mood."
Jones sighs and rakes his hands through his hair. "Sorry. I'll be alright. Go peel Pingu off the ceiling."
He stares at the painting for a long time with Claire's perfume lingering in the air.
Claire dreams of aphids clustered on the rosebush's leaves like gathering snowflakes. She wakes in a cold shaking panic with no sense of where she is, thinking she should see scrappy makeshift curtains and egg crate foam and Jones's face screaming out the time, the art nouveau version of her face amongst smoke and lilies that Jones painted for her suddenly foreign and wrong-looking on the wall of her not-so-new-anymore bedroom. She doesn't stop to dress, just rushes upstairs barefoot in knickers and an old t-shirt, past the decorated dummy sentries and out onto the roof, straight to Betsy/Bastard to plunge her hands into the bloomless branches. Thorns catch her skin, but the leaves are just leaves, clean and uninhabited.
Her relieved sigh turns to a gasp. Jones is there, sat on the rickety bench with a sketchbook in his lap, full of different angles of Dan's face, expressions she can nearly remember seeing at some point in a faded past.
"Easy, 's just me." Jones puts his drawing aside and moves over, patting the spot next to him.
Claire sits down and it's only then that she realises how little she's wearing as her bare legs make contact with the weathered wood.
Jones turns, wraps his arms round her waist and rests his chin on her shoulder, his cheek rough and raspy against hers. She remembers how it felt on her neck and breasts and thighs, feels the echo of a whimper rising in her throat at the memory of his mouth on her.
He doesn't ask why she's run up here in her pants, and she doesn't ask why he's making a memory study of happy Dans. His fingers are black with graphite and leave muddled smears on the front of her shirt, idle patterns drawn over her stomach. She doesn't turn her head, just tilts it to one side, and Jones takes it for the invitation it is, teeth and tongue openmouthed on her throat. She doesn't touch him, not properly, just clutches at his knee and falls back against him and there are wet grey streaks on the insides of her thighs, marking her like the paper that's got her brother staring up at her. He doesn't seem to judge, for once. It's still fucking warped.
Jones searches out her lips with his and she bends towards him unbidden, and it feels like the talking they ought to be doing but won't. It might only go on for minutes but it feels like hours, slow and earnest and undemanding, but the thought of him going back downstairs alone and what he might do there has the pencil smudges etched inside her clenching and curling and drawing her over across his lap. Her hands fumble too much at his belt and they undo it together, soft laughter against her lips. They laugh their way through it, about Claire getting beard burn on her tits and Jones getting splinters in his arse. They go quiet at the end and hold tight for a long time until their breath stops shuddering.
Neither bedroom seems like the right place and they sleep tangled up on the sofa. Claire goes back to her own room in the damp chill grey of dawn and covers Jones with a blanket.
Wind ploughs through London the day Jones leaves, Claire's flowers bent at right angles and threatening to uproot. The House is half infested with burnt-orange coloured ladybugs (the same shade he'd used for the shadows between the smiling crinkles round Dan's eye), coming in through the windows and doors and biting when they fly at you. Jones said they weren't ladies and wanted to hoover them all up; Claire said they eat aphids and swept them back outside with a scraggly broom. They haven't talked about two nights ago on the roof. There's maybe an understanding of not-understanding. Claire goes to the station with him and doesn't pull back from an impulsive snog that's a goodbye in maybe several ways.
He loves her. But he loves Dan too.
A fresh gale whistles through his ears down the platform, as though it might propel the train towards Leeds just that little bit faster. Claire tells him good luck and looks like she means it.
He feels naked travelling with just the one rucksack, no flight cases to wheel about or record crates to worry over. Leeds is grey and damp and still and there's no one to meet him at the station because no one knows he's coming. He follows Claire's directions, a half-mile walk and two buses, and finds himself in front of a red brick semi in a quiet street that might have kids playing football in the middle of it in better weather. He rings the doorbell and doesn't get what he was expecting, Dan's mum and having to explain himself. It's Dan and a dropped jaw closing back up, eye and mouth corners working and figuring and processing, and finally a soft, "Jones." Dan Ashcroft is not good with surprises.
"Alright, Dan?" Old reflex standby.
A familiar smile only flickers onto Dan's face, replaced with worked-in brows and a frown. "What are you doing here?"
Jones has never been one for presenting anything other than what he is and what he means. "Came to bring you home, didn't I?" He doesn't smile, and he reaches a hand out.
Dan doesn't take it. "You can't just--"
Jones waits for him to finish, but he's not going to. "Fuck you and your can't. You gonna ask me in?"
He doesn't, but he steps aside to admit Jones and lets him follow into a middle-aged middle-class front room with floral sofas crowned by uninspiring paintings of landscapes. Dan belongs here about as much as Sid Vicious in an old people's home, and it shows in every angle of his body as he sits down. He belongs on a secondhand settee underneath scarf curtains and silkscreen art. He belongs in a sea of noise where he's the island of dissenting quiet, or the counterpoint and backbeat to the backspin, swears and scratch of pen on paper as inspiration.
"I've given up smoking," Dan says after a long silence.
'I've fucked your sister' isn't really the right response just now, though it's going to have to be said. "Well done," Jones says instead. It's stifling in here like best-behaviour teatimes in his gran's little-used parlour, which she even called a parlour.
"I'm not coming back."
"You fucking are."
"I'm fucking not."
"Undone and fucking done in, Jones. I can't."
"The hell you gonna do here, though?" He's too good for here, to be hidden away. Jones remembers Dan at 25, two fingers resolutely stuck up at mainstreams and trends and norms, a literarily worded fuck-off at the ready for anything objectionable that crossed his path. He'd been going to change things. He had changed things, and some, enough, for the better. But being Dan, he can only see the worse. Jones knows firsthand how hard it is to ignore the twat with shutter shades shouting at you and missing the point, but he also knows it's possible to ignore in favour of what matters.
"Teach literature to spotty ungrateful ASBOs. Maybe keep a couple of them from growing up to be total wankers. Write a book."
"You can do that in London."
Dan looks down at his hands. He's picked up a pen off the side table and is holding it like a cigarette. "I can do less than fuck-all in London."
"You just gotta stop letting those bastards--"
"I have. I'm done with them."
He'd imagined, days ago, and even a bit on the doorstep just now, that he'd shut Dan's objections up with a kiss and that would be the end of the argument, that Dan would say yes squashed together in a childhood bed amongst yellowing Smiths posters and dusty school prizes. But it turns out the end of the argument is a photo of Claire on the mantelpiece, young and sneering and uncomfortable in a formal gown between a gangly boy and a naff backdrop meant to conjure up Camelot. He can practically hear her pissing and moaning about the corsage pins jabbing her, and the white tea roses are a pale joke compared to what Betsy serves up, even if Claire pricks her fingers and pisses and moans about that too as she cuts the blossoms and arranges them in jam jars. It's saying something that he's thinking more about whether there's another round of blooms in store than about how Dan's hand feels in his when he takes away the pen and laces their fingers together, callused skin playing over the veins on the back of Jones's hand like remembering the way home without a map.
"There ain't a map." Jones only realises he's saying it aloud when his own words hit his ears.
"What?" Dan says.
"Nothing." Nuffink. Dan used to massively take the piss out of him about that. Now their hands just squeeze together. His other arm's got less sense and pulls Dan close, and he tries to file away the feeling of his hair getting caught in lazy stubble and the smell of day-worn cotton against Dan's neck. If they made a noise it would sound like jangly guitars. Claire sounds like Northern Soul. He never would have expected to like either. There are other things he doesn't say out loud; they'd be off-notes, trainwreck. Dan kisses the crown of his head. They don't move for a long time, but Jones doesn't stay the night. It's a quiet goodbye and nobody says they're sorry.
It's not even dinnertime when he gets back to London, and the fact that it's so soon means he doesn't have to tell anything and Claire doesn't have to ask. They get extremely pissed and wake up naked, and they still don't talk about it, but they don't get out of bed either.
Jones frames the unfinished painting as it is, wraps it up and puts it in the post to a new address neither one of them has ever seen the inside of.
Ned comes over for dinner, Rufus and a skateboard in tow, for the last of the tomatoes mixed into a theoretically Ethiopian dish that just tastes like a nondescript sort of stew. Nathan Barley's parents pay out fifty grand on his behalf to settle a libel lawsuit that doesn't stop him doing anything. Pingu shrugs and says there's no point when Claire suggests he bring one up himself.
Betsy/Bastard is pruned back for autumn and the herbs are covered over with sheets to guard against an early freeze, vintage-patterned ghosts against fogged-pink sunsets that come earlier and earlier. In November she harvests the last of them to be dried or given over to an ill-considered rosemary vodka infusion (Jones's idea) that's alright for cleaning countertops but not suitable for drinking. Dan comes for Christmas and hugs Jones for so long that Claire leaves the room, but it's her mostly vacated one that he sleeps in on his own, and on the chilly barren rooftop Boxing Day morning they find each other there, and his smile is calm and real enough when he says he's happy, and happy for her and for Jones and for them, that she's inclined to believe it.
Come spring she'll have her hands deep in potting soil and there's already an old clawfoot bath that Ned and Jones and someone called Medical Steve have wrestled up the stairs ('Well happy birthday,' Ned had said, falling in an exhausted sprawl against Clive's tub) waiting for whatever she wants to plant in it. More roses, maybe, she tells Jones. She half snorts her coffee when he asks if she'll name it Gobshite.
"No," she says, "but maybe Idiot."