Nick's car conks out somewhere on the A165 at half past nine on Monday night, which would be the crowning glory on a shitter of a day except that Nick's on his way to sort out the extremely messy, thoroughly frustrating surprise that is his uncle's will.
The car breaking down kind of ties for first place in the competition for the crowning glory of shit, though.
He ends up having to do the dance of no mobile signal on the grass verge five hundred metres from where he's left his car, hoping no one hits him whilst he's not there looking after it, and then ends up having to describe his location to the nice young gent at the other end of the AA phone line using the helpful triangulation points of a post office, the local pub (closed), and a dead garage.
Nick is never getting rescued. He's going to die here by the side of the road, hundreds of miles from London, with the rest of his family not talking to him and everyone mad at his uncle for fucking dying without tying any of his loose ends up and without telling any of them he was fucking ill in the first place.
It starts to rain.
"Typical," Nick says, as his shoe begins to let the rain in, and he's still a good four hundred and fifty metres from his car. "Bloody, fucking typical."
Nick's uncle's will left the cottage at Cradlington, the boat moored in Cradlington harbour, and all the contents of both to Nick.
There are many things that don't make sense in Nick's life right now, but the contents of his uncle's will is number one on the top forty of confusing things.
Number two is why his uncle thought living in Cradlington was ever a good thing to do, since Cradlington is—and always has been—a hell hole of a rainy, crap seaside village, on the wrong side of the Pennines, and a little bit further than "just around the corner" from his family in Oldham.
That was the thing, though: Nick's Auntie Pam and Uncle Tom had divorced when Nick was thirteen, and his uncle had promptly moved in with Nick and his family and stayed for two and a half years. Nick had only let him eventually move out on the understanding that he had to move around the corner, and no further. His uncle had promised, and had then fucked off to Cradlington, and secretly Nick had never forgiven him for leaving.
Nick has spent the last twenty years doing his level best to avoid ever visiting fucking Cradlington, which only goes to show that of course Nick would end up in a broken down car, packed full of all his stuff, getting rained on somewhere in Yorkshire.
The AA finally drop him off at his uncle's house at just after midnight, which is nice. His car's fucked, there's no outside light, and his phone's died so he can't even use that as a torch. The nearest streetlight's halfway down the road, so he spends a good five minutes fumbling with the lock before he can even get the door open.
There's a nice aroma of cabbage when he gets the door open, which is even nicer, and he can't find the fucking light switch, and he's hungry. If he ends up sitting on the floor in front of the fridge eating a cold tin of baked beans whilst all his belongings sit outside in a broken down car just waiting to be robbed, then this is his life now, and he'd better get used to it.
He falls asleep on the sofa, still in his clothes, still unable to figure out where the light switch is or how his life has come to this.
It's minutely better in the morning, mostly because it's not raining anymore, and he's not trapped in the dark in a house he doesn't know his way around. He finds the light switch—cunningly hidden behind a bookshelf, but with a neat circle cut into the backboard between two battered Nevil Shute paperbacks and an Ian Fleming novel, that Nick can't imagine why he didn't find the night before—and he brings some of his stuff in from outside, including his phone charger. Not that he particularly wants to plug his phone in; his mum still isn't speaking to him, and neither is Jane, and neither are most of his friends in London.
Nick has made a particularly poor series of life choices recently, culminating in a clusterfuck of newspaper headlines a month ago, and luckily for him, this is the twenty-first century now so newspaper articles don't just fuck off and get wrapped around chips twenty-four hours later, they're there every single time anyone ever Googles his name again. All in all, it's quite good that now he's run away to take over a fishing boat and spend the rest of his known existence away at sea.
He's felt sorry for himself for weeks now, so one more morning of it isn't going to hurt anyone.
Maybe he could get a dog. Dogs love unconditionally, and don't fuck off at the first sign of trouble.
When it looks like the time is nearing twelve o'clock, he steals one of the jackets from behind the door—one that looks like it might actually be waterproof—a big knitted jumper from Uncle Tom's wardrobe, a pair of wellies from the back porch, and goes to find something to eat. It's a fishing village, there's got to be a chip shop somewhere about.
The jacket isn't waterproof and the wellies aren't his size and they pinch. It rains again and the chip shop doesn't open until twelve thirty, so he ends up standing outside it, hood up, coat zipped right up to the nose, with rain dripping down his cheeks and catching on his eyelashes and reminding him he's bollocksed up everything.
The chip shop opens its door at twenty two minutes past twelve, which is a whole eight minutes early.
"You're not supposed to open until twelve thirty," Nick says, stumbling inside and out of the rain.
The guy inside has his hair tied back under a hat, and a black and white apron over white overalls. He's too hot to work in a chip shop in the back end of nowhere.
"Saw you waiting. Thought you might as well wait inside here. I've only just put the friers on, though."
"I don't care," Nick says, unzipping his coat. Some of the accumulated rain goes all over the tiled floor. "You are going to serve me fish and chips, right? Because everything else has gone wrong so I'm kind of just expecting everything else to go tits up too."
"Toaster's on the blink," the guy says.
"Right," Nick says, in case toasters have a massive impact on providing fish and chips.
"My veg guy says he can't get me courgettes until next week, either."
"Right," Nick says again. "Are they essential for chips?"
"They are if you want courgette fries," the guy says. He looks a bit miserable about his courgettes. He brightens up, though. "Hey, do you want to sit in the restaurant?"
Nick does a careful glance around the chip shop. It looks just like any other chip shop; chip friers, one of those glass cabinet things to keep the food warm so that everyone in the queue could count the number of people in front of them and the number of battered sausages left, a poster of potatoes, a big bowl of wooden chip forks, and a noticeboard full of local events. There isn't a single chair.
There is, however, a door in the wall that looks decidedly closed.
"Could do," Nick says, because if he's going to be murdered by a chip shop employee then at least he's hot.
"It is raining outside," the guy says, tugging a little bit on the door. It finally comes open, and through it, Nick can see a partially decorated room with a couple of dining room tables and chairs. "I mean, it's not finished yet. But you could sit in it."
"Right," Nick says, for want of something better to say. "Okay?"
"Brilliant," the guy says, pulling out a chair at the nearest table. It has a very clean red and white checked tablecloth, and a little basket with ketchup, vinegar, salt and pepper in the middle of the table. "Do you want the special? I'm Harry, by the way."
"Sure," Nick says, because clearly he's asleep and dreaming. Normally he's naked by this point in his dreams, though. "I'm Nick."
Harry's smile is wide and bright. "Cool, I'll get it all going. Do you want a magazine? There's a couple over there, or Liam has some out in the back. I've got some photography ones but I don't know if anyone's really interested in them that isn't me. I mean, my sister tries but I think they're humouring me a bit, you know? Which I don't mind because they're totally supportive and everything."
"Um, photography would be great." He doesn't really know what he's saying. He's still in the clothes he left London in, right down to yesterday's underpants. It's a far cry from being seated front row at London Fashion Week, but then, Nick had rather let all of that go to his head. It sort of explained how he'd ended up here, if he was honest. At least the photography magazines wouldn't be full of gossip.
Five minutes later he has a mug of tea, two photography magazines, the heater is on in the corner, and his jacket is hanging up on the wall. Harry's brought him a plate of bread and butter, and a guy called Liam has popped his head round the door to give Nick a revoltingly cheery hullo and to introduce himself.
Honestly, this would never happen in London. Nick's quite confused.
"Do you want mushy peas or curry sauce?" Harry asks, sticking his head round the door. "Or you can have both, but it's sixty pence extra."
"Curry sauce, please," Nick says, and he realises he's eaten all of his bread and butter. It's probably because he hasn't actually eaten anything since the remains of Matt's bread he stole from the kitchen before he left London yesterday; his life falling about his ears has rather put the knackers on eating properly. "And, um, could I have some more bread and butter? And maybe more tea? I'll pay."
"Course," Harry says, and when he comes back he sits down at the table next to Nick, and steals a triangle of buttered white bread. "Do you mind if I sit down? Liam's doing your chips now, but it's always quiet on Tuesdays. Nobody wants chips on a Tuesday, apparently."
Nick shakes his head, and makes space. "Are boats hard, do you think?"
There's a pause. Harry makes a face. "Depends what you want them to do, I think. They're, like, physically solid. I mean. In general."
"Right," Nick says. "I've got one. Apparently." He waves a hand towards where he thinks the sea is. "Out there somewhere. Parked. Do boats park? I can't even park my car. They tell you you've got to reverse round corners, but you never end up doing it. You don't have to reverse a boat round a corner, right?"
"I don't think so. You moor them, don't you? Or some of them have anchors. Do they all have anchors?"
"God knows," Nick says. "Maybe I own a boat with an anchor, I don't know. He went fishing in it, apparently. That sounds like more than a blow up dinghy, right?"
"Sounds like it." Harry looks a little quizzical. "Do you really have a boat?"
"Apparently." Nick's still too cross at Uncle Tom actually going and dying without giving anyone a chance to say goodbye to be happy about his new acquisition. What's he going to do with a boat, anyway? What's he going to do with a little seaside cottage in the middle of fucking Yorkshire, more to the fucking point. Die alone, probably, like Uncle Tom. "My uncle died."
"Oh," Harry says. "I am sorry."
Nick looks up at that. It's been weeks of Mum and Jane and everyone being so, so angry with Nick over Nick's stupid life choices, and weeks of his entire family being one hundred per cent confused about why Uncle Tom had left a few bits and bobs to various family members but the vast bulk of everything to Nick and not someone more worthy of the inheritance, and it's been so long and so tough that Nick's virtually forgotten what sits at the root of it all.
He lets out a breath. "Thanks," he says softly. "Thank you."
"Were you close?"
"Not really. He lived with us for a bit when I was a teenager, but I haven't seen him much since." It feels weird to just be unloading all of this stuff on a stranger, but Nick needs to talk. He's needed to talk since the moment he could babble nonsense into his mum's shoulder, and the past few weeks he's had nobody. "He left me his house, and this boat, and everything in them both, and I have no idea why. I've been thinking and thinking, and I've got no idea why."
"He obviously wanted you to have it," Harry says. "Maybe he just wanted to do a nice thing."
Nick can't help but look rueful. "He picked the wrong person, then. I'm the last person deserving of a nice thing."
Harry shakes his head. "Not true," he says, and he looks so earnest that Nick half believes it's true, until he remembers that Harry doesn't know.
"I was having an affair," Nick says, all of a sudden. "There was this guy, and I liked him so much, and I knew he was married. I knew he had kids. I did it anyway, and everyone found out. Do you think I deserve a boat now?"
Harry shrugs. "I don't know," he says. "Are you sorry?"
Nick's shoulders deflate. Johnny had been—well. For a while Nick had been convinced he'd been in love. He'd been caught up in the excitement of it all, the exhilaration of being wanted, the adrenaline rush of being loved. The guilt had been easy to ignore for a while, but it had eaten away at him in the end. Almost given him an ulcer, in fact, and made him bad tempered and irritable. He'd been in a bad place when it had started, between jobs, running out of money, some of his friends not picking up when he rang. But he hadn't been in love, not in the end, and the exhilaration of being loved had rather shifted into a Mastermind mind set: I've started so I'll finish, and what had been the point if he wasn't going to see it through, even if he'd stopped wanting any semblance of a future with him.
Running on empty, he hadn't stopped to think about what their lives would be like if Johnny had left his wife for him; the logistics of being a stepfather to Johnny's two children, the operational understanding of what would happen when Johnny's band went on tour again and his wife got another acting role and the newspapers knew about Johnny and Nick.
He'd made five months of mistakes, mistakes he wished he could take back, but the thing was: he couldn’t. He'd done a shit, crap, awful, thoughtless thing that was probably going to end in divorce, and it didn't matter that he'd broken it off weeks before the newspapers found out about it, weeks before Johnny's wife had found out about it, because he'd still done it.
"Yeah," he said, a little quieter. "I'm sorry."
"Well then," Harry says. "That's a start, at least."
"Is it? I don't even know anymore."
Harry pats him on the shoulder. "I'll get your special. Have something to eat, dry off. My mum always says, this is the first day of the rest of your life. People make mistakes, you know. It doesn't always end with them. You get to be sorry and make amends and move on."
Nick tries to smile. "Maybe," he says, although he's not sure there's anyone left to forgive him. "Maybe."
His first week in Cradlington is dreary and wet and miserable, and that's just Nick's mood. Uncle Tom's solicitor is based in Scarborough, so Nick drives along the coast road three times to go through papers that still don't make any sense. His car is in the garage until the end of the week, and he's got a little courtesy car for the interim that's approximately the size Nick is, so he drives round with his knees up round his ears and the seat as far back as he can get it. The house is too short for him, and he has to duck to get through each of the doorways. There's not that much in it, which has its benefits; Uncle Tom clearly hadn't hoarded piles of stuff for Nick to go through. There's a bookcase of war books and thrillers and a shelf full of Dick Francis novels; he gives one of them a go, but he doesn't give a shit about horses, and his text to Jane to see if she wanted them just comes back with a sparse no, so he walks them down to the charity shop on the sea front for the local hospice. There's a lad in there behind the counter when he goes in, clearly more interested in his phone call than in the donations Nick's trying to give, but he takes Nick's carrier bag of Dick Francis novels and coats that are no longer waterproof with a halfway attempt at a smile.
He finds the local supermarket and stocks up on frozen pizzas and spinach and he fails to find the boat when he wanders up and down the little harbour, so he gives it up as a bad job and goes back home to try and find something on the telly that looks like a crap reality show he can get behind.
And that's it, really. He's left London behind him, and his friends who aren't his friends anymore, and the stalled radio career that had rather petered out at some point eighteen months ago and never picked up again. He eats pizzas and packets of crisps and watches endless TV, and it's a thoroughly crap experience for someone who craves human interaction like breathing.
In the end, Tuesday rolls around again and Nick finds himself outside the chip shop at twenty past twelve.
Harry unlocks the door with a rueful half smile. "You again."
"Me again," Nick says. "You put the friers on yet?"
"Just put them on," Harry says. There's a pause. "Do you want to eat in the restaurant? I painted a wall on Sunday. Well. A bit of a wall. Liam sort of painted the rest of it." There's another pause. "I fell over a can of paint, basically."
"Before or after the painting?"
"Sort of during, really. I'm not actually as clumsy as that made me sound."
"I am," Nick tells him. "I played footie last year for the first time since PE, and ended up in hospital. Strained a wotsit, you know. Had to wear a robot boot."
Harry makes a face. "Rubbish," he says. "Did it hurt?"
"Yes. They gave me painkillers which made me high as a kite. Cheapest drugs I've ever taken. Only had to pay eight quid for them. Or however much a prescription costs. I don't know. I just hand over my card and expect them not to rob me blind. But I think they're cheap."
"Cheap as chips," Harry says. "Well. Not actually. My chips are cheaper."
Nick laughs at that. Fuck, he's missed talking to people. And Harry is so cute too, all broad shoulders and narrow hips and the most ridiculous boots ever for someone who works in a chip shop with appliances that spit hot fat. He's even cute for someone wearing a hat, and one stop away from a hair net.
"Do you want the special again?" Harry asks, pushing open the door to the restaurant. There's an aroma of fresh paint, somewhere underneath the cloying scent of an air freshener. "And you should be grateful, not everyone gets offered the restaurant option."
"You've only got one table and chairs," Nick points out, since Harry does only really have one set of tables and chairs in here, although there's room for about five more. It's a reasonable sized room, with windows at the front that have the blinds pulled right on down, and windows at the back looking out onto a little yard or something, Nick can't see. It's clearly been a shop of its own at some point, and the chip shop's knocked through to make it its own.
"Ah, but I'm going to have more. Hey, have you ever had poutine?"
"Dunno," Nick says, sitting down. "What is it?"
"Come back another time, and I'll make you it. Special treat. Welcome to the village present, you know?"
Nick tries to smile at that. He's sitting by himself in a half-decorated, soon to be chip shop restaurant in a grotty little village in North Yorkshire; a few months ago he'd been at the fashion shows and in the magazines and hanging about with his friends at concerts. There was still talk of the radio station rearranging their schedules and having him back, before the station controller had decided that the specialist output shows needed more mileage than they currently had, and the kind of show that Nick had had was scaled back until Nick wasn't really needed anymore. There was a lot of stuff going on, and none of it involved making decisions about curry sauce and mushy peas at half past twelve on a Tuesday.
The problem was, he couldn't really remember why Johnny had ever been worth the risk, but that didn't make any of it better; it just made everything worse.
"How's this house you've inherited, then?" Harry asks, when there's a lull in people wanting chips and Liam's holding the fort out front. He sits down next to Nick and steals a bit of bread.
Nick shrugs, and dunks his chip in the curry sauce. How do they get it so neon? "It's all right, I suppose. Haven't really—I don’t know. I've mostly just watched telly and eaten frozen pizza."
Harry bumps his knee into Nick's under the table. "Sounds like you're feeling sorry for yourself."
"I did fuck everything up," Nick says.
"I don't think unfucking it all comes with a side order of sitting around all day feeling miserable. Or scratching your balls."
"You're not the boss of me," Nick grumbles, eating another chip. He's so bored and restless and alone and bad tempered, and he still has no fucking idea why on earth Uncle Tom left him anything, let alone everything. "Anyway, why are you being nice to me?"
"I like people," Harry says. "I'm a good judge of character. Anyway, it's autumn, we get the same people in and out of here all the time, and half of them I've known my whole life. I like it when things change."
Nick looks down at his plate. "How are the courgettes?"
"Louis's still telling me he can't get me any. I think it's just because he doesn't want me to make him try courgette fries."
Cradlington is a village with not that much going on. Nick isn't entirely sure there's a market for a courgette fry.
"He'll change his mind though," Harry goes on. "I've got this amazing veggie tempura thing I want to try."
"Right," Nick says, since Harry seems to like the idea of deep frying vegetables. "What do you do for dessert?"
Harry's eyes light up.
Nick suspects that was a bad question to ask.
After he's presented with pieces of deep fried banana to follow up his chip shop special, he's one hundred per cent convinced it was a bad question to ask.
"Well?" Harry asks. The shop's still quiet, and Liam's out front talking to a couple of old gents whilst they wait for chips. "What do you think?"
"They're bananas," Nick says. "But deep fried."
"Wait until you try the courgettes," Harry says, and he steals a bit of banana. "Look, I don't know if you fancy it, but my friends and I usually go to the pub on a Tuesday nights."
Nick has never, ever missed people more. "Yeah, okay," he says, and maybe the bananas don't taste so bad anymore.
Harry's friends include Liam, who he's met, Niall, who has a farm and is supposed to provide Harry with stuff to batter and deep fry, and Louis, who delivers Niall's veg, and is the barrier between Harry's frying dreams and a vegetable reality.
"No," Louis says, shaking his head and keeping a strong hold on his beer. "I won't have it. You're not frying a courgette. Five seconds and you'll be trying to make me eat that instead of chips. You're never taking my chips."
There's a spare chair at the end of the table. They make Nick pull up another one rather than sit there.
"That's Zayn's," Liam says. "He's gone off to do his masters."
"Course," Nick says, staring at Louis. "You were in the hospice shop last week." He'd been more interested in his phone than in Nick's donation.
"Yep," Louis says. "I do a few shifts there."
"And you deliver veg."
"Yep," Louis agrees. "Veg, and the hospice shop, and a few other bits round and about. How come you've moved to Cradlington, anyway? What's round here?"
"Inherited my uncle's house when he died," Nick says, ignoring the pang when he says that. His uncle's illness had been swift and fairly deadly, all things considered, but nothing had prepared Nick for the guilt of knowing his uncle had gone through it alone. "There's a boat, too."
"Sweet," Niall says, leaning in. "What kind of a boat? I've always fancied doing a bit of fishing out there."
Nick fishes out a picture from his pocket. "The solicitor gave me this. I dunno, I don't know the arse end of a boat from the front. I drive an automatic. It does fishing, I think."
"Sick. Would you consider renting her out?"
Nick frowns. "Don't see why not. What am I going to do with it?"
"Learn to fish?" Liam looks disturbingly enthusiastic.
Nick doesn't do well with hobbies. "Maybe I could just sit on it. Like a patio, but not in my garden. The mooring fee's are all paid up for another eleven months, so it's not like it's costing me anything."
"Here," Niall says, and he passes Nick an actual, in real life business card. It's got pictures of vegetables on it, and it says:
Organic Veg Boxes and more!
Delivered to your door
It's possible Nick's stepped into a parallel universe.
"My number's on the bottom," Niall adds, pointing. "Give me a ring, we'll talk about me renting it. I always wanted to take up fishing."
"All right," Nick says, and he spends the rest of the evening fitting right on in.
He ends up sitting on the front with Harry after the pub's closed. There's a biting wind coming in off the North Sea, but Harry is bundled up in nine hundred layers of down jacket, whereas Nick is being kept warm by the beer alone. He's fucking freezing, and the only reason he's putting up with this is that Harry is super hot, and super lovely, and something about his voice makes Nick's insides want to curl up tight like a little hamster in a bed of fluff.
"I never wanted to leave," Harry's saying. "I like it here."
"Suppose," Nick says, who had liked Oldham but not enough to stay, and who had liked Liverpool, but not enough to finish uni, and who had liked London, but not enough not to fuck everything up. "I miss my friends."
Harry's nose gets all wrinkly when he tries to look rueful. "Sometimes stuff takes time," he says. "Maybe they'll come round."
"Maybe," Nick says. "I just—I let them down and I know it, all right? That's the worst bit. Not Johnny or anything. Just letting people down. Letting my mum down. She's really ashamed of me. Never done that before."
"I went to uni, you know," Harry says, after a pause. "I went and I lasted about ten weeks. I wanted to come home. I missed my mum."
"Did you go back?"
Harry shakes his head. "Nah. I just thought I wanted to be a lawyer or something. I came back home and went to college in Scarborough instead. Did all this cooking stuff and saved up and everything, then got the chip shop. My step dad helped me a bit. I take pictures too. Not as much. It's nice round here. Lots to take pictures of."
"It's your chip shop?"
"Yeah," Harry says. "It does all right. I've had it about a year, now."
"I was going to be on the radio," Nick says finally. "That's all I ever wanted to do. Talk about music all the time. And I sort of did it, you know? I was on it a bit. But I got in a bit of a mess. Partied too much. No wonder they didn't keep me on. Properly mad at myself though. It was all I wanted to do. It's not an excuse, you know? For falling for Johnny. Was only doing a couple of shows a week and at the start he was lovely. Properly lovely. No one's ever been properly lovely to me. I'm more like a shag 'em and leave 'em kind of a guy. Sorry. I just never tried at anything. That's probably it. I just didn't try."
Harry lets out a breath. "You been thinking about this a lot?"
"Kind of. Watching telly and going over stuff. Plenty of time."
"You should stop that. Wallowing."
"Maybe," Nick says. "I thought I might get a dog."
"There's an RSPCA place in Scarborough, I think. Probably some other places, too. I'd go with you, if you wanted. Keep you company."
"Yeah," Nick says. "That'd be nice."
"Cool. Have you figured out where you've parked your boat yet?"
"Nah. I've got a picture of it, though."
Harry just laughs at that. "Let's go find it."
The Calpurnia is parked against the pier thing in the harbour. Harry does an ungentlemanly leap onto the deck, and Nick would have refused except that Harry is hot and laughing at him in the moonlight, and there's a spark of life inside of Nick that he hasn't felt for ages. He hops onto the boat–which wobbles, which cars don't, so right now he prefers cars—and everything smells like fish.
Harry laughs again. "I don’t even smell it anymore."
"Right." The boat is nice, not that big, but with a little inside bit and a sort of a downstairs and a deck. There's a lot of stuff which is probably useful if you knew anything about boats or fishing. Or cared. Nick's been carrying the keys with him all week so it's easy to get inside.
It's dark, so they don't bother exploring all that much. There's only the light of their phones to guide them, and secretly Nick's a giant scaredy cat.
They sit on the deck instead, staring up at the moon.
"When did you tell your parents you were gay?" Harry asks eventually, leaning back so he's laid on the deck.
Nick shrugs. "GCSEs, I think. That summer."
"Were they surprised?"
"My mum was, which she shouldn't have been. She still was."
"Mine was too," Harry says finally. "I haven't told the lads."
"I think they just think I'm celibate or something. Or they've guessed, I don't know. I'm twenty two."
"Successful chip shop owner and you're only twenty two."
"Something like that."
Nick glances at him. "Has there been anyone?"
"Not really. Not nobody, but not, like, anyone proper. I wanted it to be real."
There's just the noise of the boat rocking on the waves. There's a breeze but nothing to write home about; it's just cold. It's so cold.
Nick lies back so that he's next to Harry on the deck. "Should have brought gloves," he says finally.
"Here," Harry says, and he reaches for Nick's hand, lacing his fingers through Nick's but never once looking at him. "There."
"There," Nick echoes softly, and they stare up at the sky and don't say anything else.
Nick brings home Pig at the beginning of the following week. She's a little bull terrier with the kind of bright eyes and big heart that Nick can't even try and resist. She sits in his lap and licks his face the moment he gets her home, and then after two seconds of that she's off round the house to nose in every nook and cranny.
There's a lot of nooks and crannies to nose in; Nick really has got to make a start on going through Uncle Tom's stuff. It's a nice enough little place; an end terrace on the hill above the harbour, a cracking view out to sea from the back garden and a spare bedroom upstairs. He's been here over a fortnight and not done anything other than get rid of a pile of Dick Francis novels.
"Are you going to help, Pig, are you?" he asks, when she's busy running in circles round his sofa. "Help make this place look like mine?"
She barks, which he's taking as a yes.
He texts a couple of his friends later on; Collette and Gillian and Henry and Pixie. I miss you and I'm sorry and how can I make it up to you? and I let you all down. He sends Jane and his mum a picture of Pig in his lap. My new friend, he captions it. Meet Pig.
Then he texts Harry. They've only seen each other once since the handholding incident of last Tuesday night; they'd driven up to the RSPCA in Scarborough to see the dogs there on Thursday in between lunchtime and tea time, but then Niall had rung to say that a mate of his had another mate who was moving to a place that didn't take dogs, and was Nick interested?
Nick had been interested. Pig had been the result.
Pig's settling in, he texts Harry. Look at her happy little doggy face.
You brought her to yours then?! She looks very happy to be home x
She's the happiest dog in the world x He adds the x carefully. His stomach sort of skips a lot when he thinks about Harry; Harry who held his hand and who smiles at him and makes him chips and has curly hair that Nick just wants to run his fingers through.
Does this mean I can't tempt you to the pub tonight? ☹☹
Prob shouldn't not when she's so new. Wouldn't want to leave her or bring her into the pub until I'm sure of her. Maybe next week? X
Ok but we'll miss you x
Nick's heart stumbles. He's half way through trying to figure out what to say in response when another text comes through from Harry:
Would you like to bring her over to mine for dinner tomorrow night? I can make stuff other than chips and I'll get something nice for pig to make her feel at home. X
Nick closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and texts back yes.
Nick had thought that Harry might live above the shop, but instead he lives just on the outskirts of Cradlington, in a big-ish house with his mum and his step-dad.
"This is Pig," Nick says, when faced with meeting the parents of someone he wasn't even dating but there was a minute possibility he might want to. "She's new and I don't know how she is yet with strangers, so—"
"She's a darling," Harry's mum says, crouching down to say hello. Pig is on her best behaviour, still on her lead, and Nick is very proud of her for behaving so well. Harry hovers in the background, wearing an apron and a ridiculous jokey chef's hat. "Aren't you a darling?"
"She is," Nick says, trying not to grin so obviously at Harry over his mum's shoulder when he should be shaking hands with Harry's step-dad. Harry grins back, which feels rather nice, and quite exciting. "It's very nice to meet you."
"New to the village, are you?" Harry's step-dad, Robin, asks. "Nice place it is here, you'll soon get the feel for the place."
"I will," Nick agrees, although he's none too sure of that. "Still settling in." He pauses. "Are you cooking again, Harry? Every time I see you, you're cooking."
"I like it," Harry says, and Nick could swear he sounds embarrassed. "I've just got to stir the sauce."
Harry's mum looks at Nick with a twinkle in her eye. "I hope you're going to be impressed," she says, and she may be smiling but Nick's aware what this looks like. Harry's gay and quiet about it, and here he is having a guy round for dinner. He rather thinks that this might be the first time.
"I will be," Nick says. "Promise." He raises his voice a little. "He does make a very good chip, let's face it."
"Best in the village," Harry calls back. Robin's making friends with Pig now, and Pig barks at him, excited.
Nick grins. He could get used to this.
The house is quiet when Robin and Anne leave for dinner with friends. At Harry's instruction, he lets Pig off her lead and she scampers into the kitchen, nails tapping against the tiles, then bounds out again to run down the hall and in and out of each of the rooms.
"I can stop her," he says.
"Nah," Harry says. "She's fine. She can probably smell cat. Dusty's always out in the evenings, though. She'll be back soon." He's at the stove, stirring something tomatoey that smells amazing. "How's the settling in going?"
"All right," Nick says. He's brought wine; at a nod from Harry, he opens it and leaves it to breathe on the counter. "Got loads of stuff for the charity shop, books and that. And trousers. You could fit three of me in some of them trousers. I could probably set up my own charity shop with all this stuff. He had, like, proper thighs and stuff. Not like me and my chicken legs." He pauses. "I'm keeping the jumpers, though. They're well good. All knitted and stuff. I could start a new trend." He doesn't think about his old life in London. He's had texts from his friends, which was a start, but it doesn't feel like it used to do. There's only so many times he can tell himself, give it time. At least they're talking again.
"If you're short of something to do, you could always help Louis in the shop," Harry says, passing Nick a couple of wine glasses. "He's always short of volunteers."
"He's always short? Is he in charge of it, then?"
"Kind of. He does a lot for the hospice when he's not working for Niall. Charity stuff, and fundraising mostly, but he entertains the kids, too. If you stay around, you'll be roped in too. It's like, part and parcel of being friends with him."
Nick pours out the wine. "Isn't it hard?" he asks finally. "All those sick people?"
"Yes," Harry says, after a moment. "Sometimes it's really sad. But sometimes it feels like you're making someone's day better, and that helps."
"I don't know if I've ever really done anything that's sad."
"Now's your chance, then," Harry says, and Pig darts in, running in circles around their feet and barking happily. Nick can't help but smile. "I hope you like arrabbiata."
"Totally," Nick says, coming to peer over Harry's shoulder. "What's in it?"
Harry just laughs. "Tomatoes, chilli, garlic, basil, olives, few anchovies for flavour. We're having it with chicken and pasta."
"Sounds perfect," Nick says, and he can't help but glance at Harry's neck, and the wide neckline of his jumper, his collar bone on show. Harry's been nothing but kind to him, and had held his hand in the dark, and Nick wants to kiss him.
He steps back instead. "Better go and check that Pig isn't destroying the place."
Harry rolls his eyes. "Take the wine through. We're eating in the dining room."
Nick finds the dining room. It's a nice room with French windows leading out into the garden. Pig's sitting by the window poking at a cat toy and looking bemused. When she sees Nick, she bounds right on over and runs around his feet.
"Hi, babe," he says, putting the wine on the table and crouching down to play with her. "Aren't you the best thing ever, huh? The best thing ever."
Dinner is just—nice. Harry has, for no reason whatsoever, a copy of The Sound of Music on vinyl, and side A accompanies their starter of buffalo mozzarella, mango, and ham salad. Harry sings along a bit, pouring out more wine, and Nick joins in with the tuneless accompaniment, even Pig wanting to bark along although she's much more interested in the bone Harry's got for her.
They wait until side A has finished before moving onto the main course, and Harry sits down with their plates before dropping his fork.
"This is a date, right?" Harry says quickly, flushed red. "I mean, it's fine if it's not. But I just wanted to be clear, you know."
Nick swallows. He can't remember the last time he went on a date. His relationship with Johnny had been guilt and secret assignations. He'd been in a pretty bad place all round, looking back. "Yes," he says, because Harry is lovely, and kind, and hot, and because he owns The Sound of Music on LP. "If you're happy with that, I mean."
Harry's smile really is the greatest. He has dimples. He reaches for Nick's hand over the table and curls his fingers around Nick's. "I was hoping you'd say yes," he says, and Nick is happy for the first time in forever.
Dessert is homemade tiramisu with coffee chocolate crumble, and if Nick wasn't entirely sure tiramisu was something that could be made at home, then he doesn't particularly let on.
"You must have been cooking for ages," he says, when Harry brings dessert in.
"Well, a bit," Harry says. "It was okay because Liam said he'd do the tea time shift with Niall." The chip shop opens between half twelve and two, and five and seven every day. Harry slides the plate in front of Nick, and sits down. "I told them last night, you know. That I'd asked you out on a date."
Nick pauses. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. That's why Niall said he'd help in the shop. We were googling recipes last night because I didn't know what to cook."
There's a tight feeling in Nick's chest. "A group effort, then."
"Zayn suggested tiramisu. I text him last night."
"Good choice," Nick says, even though he hasn't taken a bite. He bumps his knee into Harry's under the table. "Was it all right? Telling them?"
Harry nods. "I don't think they knew. I think they just thought I wasn't that bothered about relationships at all, or something. I don't know. But they were good. They want you to come to the pub again next week."
"All right." He waits a moment. "And are you? Bothered about relationships?"
Harry looks at him. "Yeah," he says. "Mostly. When they're with you, I am."
"All right," Nick says again. "This has all been really nice, you know. You'll have to come to mine one night so I can reciprocate. Not that I'm that great a cook. It takes me ages. What do you fancy eating?"
"Pie," Harry says decisively. "Some kind of pie."
"Okay," Nick says, even though he's never made anything like a pie in his life. "You're on. How about Friday?"
"Deal. Now eat your dessert."
The tiramisu is delicious, and so is the coffee Harry makes for afters. Nick leans up against the counters in Harry's kitchen and they wait for the second cafetiere of coffee to brew. Pig's asleep in the living room in front of the fire.
"Thanks for this," Nick says, as Harry finishes loading the dishwasher. "For giving me a chance and everything."
Harry stands next to the sink. His toes bump into Nick's. "I don't think we're defined by what we did in the past. I think we're defined by how we deal with it and move on, you know? It's not about making mistakes. It's about dealing with them."
"I'm mostly dealing with it by eating frozen pizzas and hanging out with my dog."
"You're talking to your friends, though, aren't you? And you're going to help out in the shop with Louis."
"I want to be better," Nick says softly. "I want to put it all behind me and start again."
"You're here, aren't you? You've made a start."
It doesn't particularly feel like it, not really. It feels like he's fallen on his feet with Harry and his friends, with the house and the boat in the first place. It doesn't feel like he deserves it. He really, really wants to deserve it. "I'm really glad I met you," he says finally.
"Yeah," Harry says, and his gaze drops from Nick's eyes to his mouth and back up again. That hamster burrowing inside of Nick is back; that warm, fluffy, safe feeling he hasn't had in so, so long. "Me too."
Nick reaches for him then, inviting him in for a hug, and Harry goes easily, pressing himself to Nick's front and burrowing his face into Nick's neck.
"I've never done this before," Harry says, his voice muffled from where he's hidden his face in Nick's neck. "I don't know what I'm doing."
Nick has no idea what he's doing either. He's never done a relationship, which he's fairly sure is the only thing Harry's offering. Other than Johnny – which doesn't count as a relationship – he's never done anything that isn't some variant of turn up, fuck up, and bog off home, so just being offered something more feels overwhelming. His heart's pounding. "I don't know what I'm doing either," he says. "I don't know how to do any of this."
Harry surfaces then. Close up, he's even fitter. Nick desperately does not want to fuck this up. Harry feels like the first good thing in a very, very long time. "Maybe we can just take it slow," he says, and Nick wants to agree with that, but he also wants to kiss him.
"Does slow include kissing?" he asks.
Harry's smile is slow and sweet and Nick could get very used to this, very soon. "I think so," he says, and Nick leans in to press his mouth to Harry's.
"I could get used to this," Harry says afterwards, and Nick thinks, so could I.
They're watching 17 Again on one of the Sky channels when Robin and Anne get back. Harry has his feet over Nick's lap, Nick's hand wrapped around his ankle, and Pig is curled up on the sofa in between them, soliciting scritches from each of them in turn.
Part of Nick freezes up, but Harry gives him an infinitesimal shake of his head. It's okay, it says. Stay.
"How was your evening?" Anne asks, taking her shoes off and sitting down in the armchair. Robin's already in the kitchen, putting the kettle on.
"Lovely food," Nick says. "Harold here pulled out all the stops."
Anne smiles at that. Her expression is so desperately fond when she looks at Harry. "I'm glad," she says. "Doesn't get the chance to show off his skills all that much."
"He's excellent at chips," Nick says loyally.
Harry goes a bit pink at that. Anne just laughs, and goes off to make them all tea.
"That went okay," Nick whispers to Harry.
Harry finds Nick's hand and laces their fingers together. "It did, didn't it?" he whispers back, and they don't let go until it's time for Nick to walk himself and Pig home.
He finds the box the following morning, with Pig passed out asleep on her bed in the living room. It's a little wooden chest, like a treasure chest, but the lock isn't even supposed to work. It just looks like a padlock. It's not even real. It's the kind of box Debenhams sell in the odd things to put in your living room for no good reason section.
Inside is a picture of a young man in RAF uniform, with golden, 1970s hair, and a framed picture of Uncle Tom and another man, older this time, but smiling at the camera. They're on top of a hill, the sun shining behind them. Underneath the pictures are a stack of other letters and pictures, but tucked into the back of the frame is an envelope with Nick's name on the front.
The letter is longer than Nick's expecting.
When I met Mike it was 1979 and I didn't want to be one of those gays that everyone made fun of. In fact, I didn't want to be one of those gays at all, but it didn’t stop me falling in love with Mike, or Mike falling in love with me. It did stop me being brave enough to be with him though, something which I will forever regret because I loved him very much indeed but I was still very scared. I don't regret marrying your Auntie Pam in 1984 because she was a lovely lady and we had a few very good years, but I don't think it was ever fair on her. Not with how I still felt about Mike, even though I hadn't seen him since before I even knew Pam. I don't think your mum and dad ever knew how low I'd got by the time the divorce came around and I came to stay with you all, and I hope you never picked up on it.
You were a good kid and a tonic to someone who hated everything they'd become, and I watched you grow up into a young adult who was a great friend to everyone and a kind person. I could also see you coming to terms with your own sexuality and I did not want you to have the same adulthood that I did or make the same mistakes. I know that things are very different now and that you can have a boyfriend and even get one of those civil partnerships and hopefully soon marriage and I know that Eileen and Pete and your family have always treated you exactly the same as Jane and Andrew but I still can't shake the feeling that there's some way to go before everything is the way it should be in the world and the way I never dreamed it could be when I was twenty and it was all such a secret. I know it might not seem fair to your brother and your sister but in a lot of ways it is still difficult to be different and I wanted to give you the security to be your own person the way I couldn't be when I was your age.
I met a man when I moved here. His name was Jeremy and he was a lovely man. We used to drive to York and watch the races. He made really bad rice and really lovely curries. He taught me to fish and it's his boat that he left to me that I'm leaving to you. Jeremy sadly passed away in 2008 and I have missed him every day since. There are no restrictions on what you do with what I have left you. if you wish to share it with your brother and your sister then please do but I have been very happy here and if you wanted to make your home here and make use of the boat then you should do that. But if you want to sell up then that is also fine.
There are not many memories in this box but I didn’t share much of my life with my family and in a way I wish I had been able to. I would have been very proud to introduce Jeremy to you all and I'm sorry that I never did.
With love and best wishes,
Your Uncle Tom.
Afterwards, Nick sits on the sofa with Pig on his lap, the wooden box open beside him, and cries.
His mum cries on the phone when he reads the letter out to her, and like a dam breaking, it's like everything that was tense and awful between them for weeks and weeks just melts away.
"Why didn't he tell us?" she asks over and over, half to Nick and half to Nick's dad in the background. "Was he scared of how we'd react?"
"I don't know," Nick says. He doesn't. He'd been out and proud in 2008, when Uncle Tom's partner had passed away. He'd been out and proud for some years before that, when Uncle Tom and Jeremy could have come over for Easter, or for a barbecue in the summer, or any number of family occasions where they would have been welcomed. It's all so sad and confusing.
"What do you think you're going to do with the house, now that you're staying there?"
"Keep it," Nick says, after a moment. "At least for now. I like it here."
He does, he realises. He likes it here.
He does his first shift in the charity shop on Friday morning, and has to put up with Louis teasing him about him and Harry for three and a half hours.
That should have annoyed him, but the difference between this and his undercover, guilt-ridden affair is astounding, and he revels in being able to say it out loud. He has a crush. He likes someone who likes him back, and that someone is Harry Styles, who is lovely and makes perfect chips and thinks Nick can make amends. He can take any teasing that comes his way.
He can even take Louis taking him to one side at the end of the shift, and telling him he knows who Nick is, that he'd seen Johnny's band live three times, that he reads the papers. "Harry trusts you, and I don't think he's done this before," Louis tells him. "You can't mess him around. He doesn't think it's okay to carry on behind someone's back. If you want to do that, you can't do it with him, all right?"
"I wouldn't," Nick says. "What I did was shit, all right, and I know it. I shouldn't—it shouldn't have ever started, but it did, and I'm sorry for it. I'm so incredibly sorry, but I've learnt. I won't ever put anyone through that. I couldn't. Least of all Harry."
"Fine," Louis says, after a moment. "I need someone to cover the mornings in the shop all next week whilst I do the veg deliveries. Mary normally does some of them but she's going to the Costa Del Sol. Can you do them?"
"Yeah," Nick says. "I can do them." It's a far cry from London Fashion Week to doing five mornings in the hospice charity shop, but he's got nothing else to do with his time until he figures out what he's doing with his life, so he may as well do something. At least this way he can bring Pig to work, and there's so much vinyl in the boxes under the DVD shelves that he's going to end up taking most of it home, he knows. Uncle Tom had left him a record player, in amongst everything else.
"Good," Louis says. "If you fancy it, we're having a kickabout in the park tomorrow afternoon."
"Pig will end up wanting to play."
"She's bound to be better than Harry, she can be our new midfielder."
"Fine," Nick says, and maybe, just maybe, it's starting to feel like things are going to be all right.
Nick's spinach and feta pie on Friday evening takes a good, solid five hours to make. He doesn't attempt a homemade dessert, relying on a lemon drizzle cake from the bakery on the front.
The last two hours of the pie cooking he does with Harry by his side, both of them peering into the oven at regular intervals like they're contestants on Bake Off. Pig gives it a go too, but Nick's worried about her burning her nose on the oven door so they ship her back off to the living room to play with her new doggy toy dinosaur that Harry had brought with him when he came over.
"You didn't need to bring her anything," Nick says, when they're both kneeling on the floor in front of the stove, and they're sharing a can of Diet Coke.
"You bring a gift when you're coming over to dinner," Harry says, determinedly facing forwards. He's already sat and read Uncle Tom's letter, and has held Nick's hand ever since.
"Where's mine, then?"
"Here," Harry says, and he leans in and kisses him, hand to Nick's chest. It feels like there's a whole squadron of butterflies inside his chest, clamouring to get out.
Harry smells quite a bit like chip shop. Nick could get used to that.
"Nice," Nick says, afterwards. "If I get presents like that, I'll do this more often."
"Good," Harry says. "I'll make sure to kiss you a lot, then."
When they kiss this time, they're both flushed, and Harry's hand trembles in Nick's.
The pie turns out to be delicious.
They have a picnic on Monday, the chip shop's one closed day in the off-season. They eat on the deck of Nick's boat, wrapped up warm against the cold, making their own sandwiches out of fresh baguette and packets of ham and cheese and bags of salad and tomatoes. Pig, unnerved by the motion of the boat, moves round carefully, nosing at everything until she comes back and flops down on the edge of the picnic blanket, wanting a treat. She gets a bit of cocktail sausage.
"How do you feel?" Harry asks, after a while.
Nick looks at him, and then at Pig, and at the village, spread out in front of them across the bay. He doesn't know quite what he's going to do with his life yet, but for the first time in a while it feels all right. "Happy," he says. "I feel happy."
Harry smiles at that. "Good," he says, and when he leans over for a kiss, Nick smiles against his mouth, and kisses him back.