The shitty thing was that Q had a boyfriend at the time – a ravishing, blond, public-school-boy wank fantasy of an actual, actual boyfriend. His name was Jeremy, he was an utter supercilious turd, and it gave Q the most massive horn.
One night they went out to the theatre in Drury Lane, picking their way across the wet cobbles with their elbows a hand’s breadth apart. Jeremy wore his charcoal herringbone with the collar turned up, and a glossy brogue with a dress sole that was slippery in the rain. Q, in his practical, rubber soles, had to make an effort to slow down and fall behind so that Jeremy could sniff and say, ‘Come on, Little Anorak’, like a house master in an indulgent mood.
Q darted sideways into his path, turned on his heel and stared at him hotly.
‘None of that, then,’ Jeremy said, and sidestepped neatly.
The rain gave up misting sideways and started to fall in earnest. Q flipped up the hood of his anorak – since Jeremy had started calling him Little Anorak, Q had been wearing it almost constantly. Jeremy sighed, opened his tall umbrella with a pointed shake, and began walking a step further away.
When the lights went down in the theatre, Q slid his knee slowly against the outside of Jeremy’s thigh. Jeremy allowed it a little while, then slowly but firmly pushed Q’s knee away with the back of his hand.
Q retreated for a minute or so, then did it again.
When the lights came up at the end, Jeremy stretched in his seat and said, ‘Has that cultured you up, Little Anorak?’
‘Oh, yes, sir!’ Q said. He pretended to have a lot of trouble climbing past Jeremy’s knees to get out.
As they pushed out through the crowded, perfumed foyer, Q was scheming enjoyably about how soon they could be alone.
‘Hello,’ a voice said from the crowd.
Q went through something like the stages of grief about it, in a split second in his mind. He replied, with cheerful surprise, ‘Hello!’
It was bloody Bond, twinkling at them both as he shouldered past in the crowd. Open-necked suit, very black and trim. His collarbones had a tan. Perhaps he’d been destroying million-pound technology in the tropics.
The roiling of the crowd would have made it hard to stop and talk, even if Q had wanted to. Bond winked, and pushed on. A woman standing next to Q saw the wink, and stood up straighter.
Outside on the cobblestones, Jeremy asked, a bit flatly, ‘Who was that?’
‘He’s just from work,’ Q said, zipping his anorak.
Jeremy arranged the collar of his coat. ‘Is he trying to pick up that woman?’ he said, amused.
Q craned over the crowd to peer back into the theatre. ‘I think he might be. He’s had half the admin girls.’
Jeremy raised an eyebrow.
Bond was leaning on the cloakroom counter, twinkling at full force at the woman attendant. If there was an operation going on in here that Q hadn’t been privy to, he would be livid.
On the tube home, Q tried to shoulder up against Jeremy slightly too much, but it was so crowded, the effect was lost.
‘What do you think it is about men like that?’ Jeremy said.
Men like Bond, he meant. Q was furious. ‘I don’t know,’ he said.
‘Of course you don’t,’ Jeremy said, with a touch of a sneer, and looked away.
They fucked desultorily over the back of the sofa at Q’s.
There was some enjoyment in imagining what they must look like: some boarding school porn. The golden captain of the cricket team, fully dressed for a night at the theatre but for the reddened cock erupting from his flies, was spearing his weedy little victim, who was stripped humiliatingly nude, his skinny body blue-veined and white.
The victim’s heavy-rimmed spectacles had fallen on the floor, an afterimage of violence.
In fact Q could not see anything, his face pressed in the seat cushions, held there by Jeremy’s hand braced heavy on the back of his neck. But these thoughts got his blood up enough that he threw Jeremy’s hand off and straightened up to get his own hand on himself.
Q really would have preferred to go back to Jeremy’s. There was a Chesterfield with a carved back that was enjoyably purgatorial against bare skin, and seemed to suggest a variety of imaginative scenarios.
Also, when you went to the other person’s house instead of yours, it was you who could decide when the night was over, by leaving.
On Sunday Q rang Jeremy’s doorbell to go out for brunch, wearing plimsolls.
‘What,’ Jeremy said, ‘are those?’
Q said, ‘How shall I be your Little Anorak if I’m taller than you?’
‘You’re not taller than me,’ Jeremy said.
‘Of course not – not when you’re wearing Cuban heels at ten thirty in the morning,’ Q said sunnily, and turned to lead the way out.
In fact, Q was perfectly satisfied that Jeremy had a good inch on him. As they passed some shop windows on the way to the brunch place, he was delighted to catch Jeremy assessing their figures next to each other in the glass.
Jeremy caught Q looking pleased.
Q wondered if he could get him to turn around and go home. He imagined Jeremy pressing him hard against something and hissing, You fucking little shit.
There was a short queue outside the place, which they joined. Immediately someone joined it after them. Q was obliged to accept that they were not going home.
Q liked to order the full English breakfast here, because it came with a fat, glossy sausage that he liked to spear and lift off the plate as if he was going to put it in his mouth whole, then look at Jeremy mildly.
On occasion, almost the whole brunch’s conversation was a silent one, in which Q interacted with his sausage, while Jeremy rolled his eyes discreetly.
They were seated, and ordered. Jeremy had what Q considered the only correct opinion about what to drink with breakfast, which was: both tea (earl grey) and coffee (café latte). They were to be ordered at the same time, so one would not have to catch the eye of the table service twice, but the tea was drunk at the start of the breakfast and the coffee towards the end. If the coffee had cooled a little by then, that was tolerable.
The tea arrived, in a pot to share. Q lifted the lid of the pot and stirred the contents briskly with a teaspoon, then replaced the lid. He poured milk in the two cups, then tea on top. Jeremy watched with approval. They were in accord on this, too: provided it was stirred to get some colour into it, an early, relatively weak cup could be enjoyed for its heat and brightness. A stronger flavour would appear in later cups.
They began drinking their first cups, gazing at each other.
One Sunday morning early in their acquaintance, Jeremy had got up to find Q with half Jeremy’s kitchen cupboards open, judgementally rejecting the teabags Jeremy left out for when he was in a hurry, and making leaf tea in a pot, unknowingly exactly how Jeremy liked it. Q was fairly sure that was the moment that Jeremy had decided he might like to actually go out with Q, rather than just text him occasionally to come over and drop his trousers.
Some children ran past across the glossy green tiles, shrieking. Jeremy gazed at them superciliously, and Q watched.
The coffee arrived, and they both set it aside without comment.
From the corner of his eye, Q saw someone stepping out of the queue of people waiting beside a brass rail to be seated, but assumed it was nothing to do with him. So he was startled when a voice said, ‘Hello! How good are the omelettes here?’
It was Bond.
‘I wouldn’t know. I’m not an omelette man,’ Q said.
‘James,’ Bond said to Jeremy, sticking out his hand.
Bond’s handshake was visibly firmer than Jeremy’s.
Bond wore slim-cut black jeans and a faux-military khaki shirt, untucked. He was given away as a real navy man by the sleeves being rolled up, regulation-style, to a deep cuff above the elbow, ironed in place. He did not look middle-aged at all, which Q had often comforted himself that Bond surely must when not dressed by the service.
‘Looking forward to Malta?’ Bond said.
‘Absolutely. Haven’t had a good sunburn in years.’ Q showed Bond his hand, which was very pale.
‘Well, you’re the brains of the operation; don’t wipe yourself out completely. Unless it’s with booze and I’m joining you.’
The food arrived. Q’s sausage glistened plumply on the plate.
‘All right, I won’t keep you from your breakfast,’ Bond said. ‘Have a good one.’
‘You too,’ Q said.
Bond edged around a few tables to join the woman he was with – they must have been at the head of the queue when Bond had stepped away, and she’d been shown to their table in the meantime. She was wearing what might be last night’s dress, with a clean face and scraped-back hair. Q did not remember the theatre cloakroom woman well enough to be able to tell if it was her.
Bond and the woman were only two tables away, so the cadence of their voices, though not the words themselves, carried over the background noise. Jeremy spoke with a lowered voice: ‘What’s this about Malta?’
‘Oh,’ Q said, with a smile that he hoped came across as silly, ‘it’s just the Wales thing. They found some money in a budget that had to be used or they’d lose it. So now it’s Malta. Should be nice. Have to find my passport.’
‘What does he mean, you’re the brains of the operation?’
‘Oh, it’s just because I have to do all the paperwork, while they get drunk and talk big.’
Jeremy tapped the butt of his knife on the table.
Q’s official cover at this time was a senior actuary, rather a boy wonder, in the London branch of a specialist Swiss re-insurance company. But he had told Jeremy he was an admin officer. Also, the upcoming conference, which was a cover for an operation, had always been in Malta. It had just seemed better to say it was Wales to Jeremy.
Jeremy ate quickly, in a business-like manner, as though he was alone. He did not look up to see whether Q was doing anything with the sausage at all.
Afterwards, they were waiting to cross the road. ‘You don’t have anything at mine you need to pick up?’ Jeremy said.
‘No,’ Q said.
The green man came up.
‘All right, then, see you later,’ Jeremy said, and walked off, leaving Q behind.
Q had not got a text from Jeremy in four days. He was livid.
It was the first day of an R&D trial with live subjects, and Q would be sitting in to observe the trial design being put into practice. He began the day with Higgins, the lead researcher, coming to Q’s office with coffee to brief him on the arrangements.
Higgins was in his late thirties, going to seed a bit. He’d been sceptical of baby-faced Q at first, but Q was used to that, and had immediately scrutinised every project Higgins had in progress, plus the last six months’ worth he’d thought he’d finished. Any scientist Q considered worth his time, he’d discovered, actually loved being corrected, once they’d had a moment to recover. Higgins had turned out to be worth his time, and they were very cordial now.
Q was impressed with Higgins’ trial design, but had some doubts about his strategy to mitigate the low sample size. Cleverly, Higgins planned to test each subject twice, in random order, with a gap of a day in between: once with the tech enabled, and once disabled as a control.
Q thought a two- or even three-day gap would give better assurance that having completed the previous test was not affecting current performance. Higgins agreed, but worried it would blow the timeline out. Q wondered if they could bring in a second, identical treadmill to test with, but neither of them knew what would be involved as far as calibration, so they agreed to revisit that another day.
They swilled off the rest of their coffees and went down to the training room they’d taken over for the trial.
Inside the training room was Bond.
Bond’s hands were shoved in his pockets with a careless vigour that would have alarmed his tailor. He was looking out the window.
Bond turned at the sound of the door. He startled affably and said, ‘Fancy meeting you here.’
‘Know each other?’ Higgins asked.
Q had not finished considering his answer when Bond scoffed, ‘Not in the biblical sense.’ He twinkled.
‘Shall I just?’ Bond said, and dropped his trousers.
‘There’s a dressing screen,’ Higgins said.
‘Oh, we’re all friends here,’ Bond said.
Bond took all his clothes off, barring underwear, then wandered behind the screen to hang them up. Emerging, he presented himself to Higgins, who had him move to the treadmill for the application of electrodes. At last, Higgins gave Bond the thing itself: it was disguised as a discreet gold signet ring. Bond put it on his little finger.
‘Right,’ Higgins said, ‘it’ll be a thirty-second walking warm-up, then off you go. I’ll set the speed – don’t touch the controls yourself, please, unless you’re in trouble for some reason and you need the stop button.’
Bond began to walk, prompted by the treadmill.
At once it occurred to Q that they’d failed to control for stride length – if the set speed was the same, the shorter-legged subjects would be working harder.
Perhaps Bond could be thrown out of the study as a methodologically spoiled result.
Bond began to run.
Bond wore low-rise, crisply black briefs with a Y-front seam piped in red and a white brand label sewn artfully off-centre on the outside – they looked like they cost a fortune. The cotton was thick; the effect of his running on the treadmill was not obscene. Also, Q suspected him of waxing. But then, age was often kinder to blond men in the body hair department.
He was a jowly old bulldog, and not Q’s type at all, but there was a certain compulsion in looking.
Did anyone really need stomach muscles that defined? Bond had a very physical occupation, yes, but he could have stopped several increments of effort sooner, if function were the objective. Jeremy did go to the gym, Q thought, but he had the taste not to rub one’s nose in it.
‘What is your cover name, in case I run into you again?’ Bond’s voice was barely strained. ‘I’ve only just got away without it so far.’
‘Why would you run into me again?’ Q said.
Bond knew very well that Q was young for the service and not a field agent, which made him unlikely to be using a cover name in civilian life.
‘Same reason I did before,’ Bond said.
This was not a denial that there had been a reason, Q noted.
Q’s question had already flirted too closely with an accusation he was not yet ready to make. He had seen Bond in public twice in a fortnight, after never seeing him before. But Bond needling him about it did not prove Bond had masterminded it.
‘Is it something dreadful? Algernon?’ Bond jogged, sprightly.
‘It’s need-to-know,’ Q said, with the voice he used to use on Higgins before they discovered they liked each other. In his peripheral vision, Higgins stiffened.
‘Well, I’ll need to know in –’ Bond checked himself with a wince and a grin. ‘In that forthcoming matter.’
He had been about to say Malta.
‘And that forthcoming matter, Bond,’ Q said, ‘is need-to-know for a group of people that does not include everyone in the room.’
Both he and Bond involuntarily glanced at Higgins. To Q’s shame, Higgins startled and looked mortified.
‘How fast does that treadmill go?’ Q asked Higgins.
Higgins looked confused.
‘And is there any chance of a pit of alligators being put behind it?’ Q said.
‘I’ve actually been in a pit of alligators,’ Bond said. ‘A certain kind of Colombian drug lord loves that sort of thing. Luckily they’re quite clumsy creatures, so when you’ve got a lot of them in a tight space, they’re pretty easy to dodge.’
‘Yes, dear,’ Q said.
‘How’s your heartrate going?’ Bond said.
On Saturday night, Q brought Jeremy out to The Stallion and Rider, which was where they had met. It was a Victorian terrace that styled itself as a nineteenth-century leather-upholstered gentleman’s club downstairs, and a sex club with a hose-able floor upstairs.
Q was at his best in a maroon velvet jacket, posing louchely on good upholstery, so never went upstairs. The night they’d met, he had been lounging alone on a studded-leather ottoman, nursing a pint and declining to bother looking at anyone.
Jeremy had sat down across from him, directly in his line of sight, and stared at him, as if in pompous distaste. A gorgeous blond arsewipe of a public-school boy, dressed like an out-of-court barrister but with breathtakingly tighter trousers.
They had stared so long, it had seemed the prelude to violence.
‘Do you want to go to mine?’ Jeremy had said, at last.
‘Presumptuous,’ Q had said.
‘Always,’ Jeremy had replied.
Q had allowed himself half a smile, before he got up, with some difficulty due to half a hard-on, and proved the presumption valid.
Tonight they sat in a booth, thigh to thigh. Jeremy stared out at the crowd.
‘Upon whom are you passing judgement?’ Q teased. ‘Do tell.’
Jeremy started. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that one.’
He meant a very twinky boy with glitter in his hair, not as pretty as he thought he was, laughing very loudly in a hideously cockney tone while sitting on someone’s lap – not entirely consensually, if the body language was anything to go by.
‘What about this one?’ Q said quietly, meaning a man at the bar who looked like he’d been slouching in a beanbag in the same suit continuously for a fortnight. ‘Do you think the iron his mum gave him for his first housewarming has ever come out of the box?’
Jeremy turned his head to smile at Q. They were sitting so tight against each other, their faces were too close for comfortable conversation. Q held Jeremy’s eye silently, and neither of them withdrew.
Anyone else would have leant in for a kiss.
Q curled his hand all the way around the inside of Jeremy’s thigh. Jeremy crinkled the corner of his eye, a little derisively, and looked away.
Q had got a horn. Jeremy was now ignoring him. It was delicious.
‘You two!’ Bond said, jolly. ‘Can I sit?’
Bond did not wait for a reply, but took the other side of the booth, sprawling, in blue jeans and a very white shirt with two buttons undone. He had a glass of white wine, which he probably thought was how you went undercover in a gay bar. Jeremy and Q were both drinking lager.
‘It was James, wasn’t it,’ Jeremy said.
‘Yes, and you were Jeremy,’ Bond said. ‘And of course I know you,’ he said to Q.
‘Anyone’d think you were stalking young Matthew, here,’ Jeremy said.
Bond looked at Q brightly. Q felt pure rage.
‘Who could resist stalking young Matthew?’ Bond said.
Jeremy looked off on the diagonal.
‘I’ve not been here before,’ Bond said.
‘No, I didn’t think you had,’ Q said. It came out combative.
‘Is it always so quiet?’ Bond went on. He swirled his wine in his glass, as if at a tasting. It was probably house white, and terrible.
‘Plenty of noise upstairs,’ Jeremy said.
‘I’ll have to check it out,’ Bond said, cheerfully.
There was a silence.
‘What line of work are you in, Jeremy?’ Bond said sociably.
Q was on a train, travelling at speed; he could not see how to get off.
‘I’m a photo-stylist,’ Jeremy said, ‘for an advertising agency.’ In fact it was a very famous advertising agency, but Jeremy did not like to name it.
‘What a pair!’ Bond said. ‘How on earth did you end up with an actuary?’
A moment’s blankness on Jeremy’s face.
‘Has he worked out when you’re going to die?’ Bond said.
‘Has he worked out when you’re going to die?’ Jeremy replied.
Bond beamed. ‘I’ll have a look in upstairs,’ he said, and got up.
When Bond was gone, Q was afraid to speak, or move.
‘Why do you keep bullshitting me about your job?’ Jeremy said at last. ‘I don’t give a toss, and I haven’t the foggiest why you’d think I would.’
Q tried to think of what to say, and did not succeed.
Jeremy scratched the back of his own head. ‘It’s just weird to lie about it, isn’t it? It makes me look like a right knob when this guy comes along.’ Jeremy gestured in the direction of Bond’s departure.
‘It is weird. It really is weird. I’m not going to tell you it isn’t weird.’ Q said.
Jeremy folded his hands.
‘I think I just came up with it the first night we were together because I thought you’d like it, for some… nebulous reason,’ Q said, limply. ‘I didn’t know we were going to see each other again, so I didn’t see any harm in it.’
Still Jeremy did not say anything.
‘Then I didn’t see how I could take it back without sounding like a nutter.’ Q was being disingenuous: he had never wanted to take it back.
‘It did put you in a weird position with him,’ Q finished, meaning Bond, ‘so: sorry.’
Jeremy was leaning his elbows on the table, staring out into the room, as if he was alone.
‘Are you fucking him?’ Jeremy said.
‘That would really be a fucked-up thing to lie about. We never said we were exclusive or whatever, so I don’t even see why you would. But I’m just telling you, that would be a fucked-up thing to lie to my face about.’
‘Before that time at the theatre, I never even saw him outside work!’
Jeremy did not speak to Q all the way home on the tube. He came back to Q’s, then gave Q a brisk hand job, verging on hostile, fully dressed and standing upright in the kitchen, his arms clamped around Q from behind. Q would normally have enjoyed it.
Q came with a weak cry into Jeremy’s rather beautiful, long-fingered hand. But Jeremy stepped away, leaving Q staggering, and went and rinsed his hand under the tap. He dried it – unhygienically, Q thought later – on a tea towel. ‘See you,’ he said flatly, and left, still with a tent in his trousers, before Q had recovered enough to speak.
Q was not sure whether he expected to see him again.
Changing the test interval in the trial meant Q had to come to work to help Higgins the next day, Sunday.
‘On my way up,’ he texted Higgins, from the front entrance.
‘Can you spell me when you get up so I can grab a sandwich?’ Higgins replied.
‘Y,’ Q texted back.
When he got upstairs, Q knocked on the training room door. Higgins emerged, said, ‘Thanks mate. Five minutes?’ and left.
Q went in.
It was Bond. He was running on the treadmill, covered in a light sheen of sweat, his hair standing up with it.
Of course it was Bond. Q had told Higgins to adjust the test interval to three days – three days ago.
‘Hello,’ Bond said.
Q did not reply. He sat on a stool and looked at the charts. He discovered that clever Higgins had not thrown Bond’s data out because they’d failed to control for stride length. Instead he had specified Bond, who was of just over average height, as the nominal normal stride length for the study.
Bond had sky-blue briefs today, with white piping and a black label. He was beginning to sweat through them.
‘Hope I didn’t drop you in it with your friend,’ Bond ventured.
‘If I’ve got my hand on his inner thigh at a gay bar – if we go out to brunch and share a pot of tea, for heaven’s sake – then he’s not my friend, Bond.’
‘Your boyfriend, then.’
Q had a sense of Bond’s game. Q was supposed to deny there was anything wrong. Bond would ignore him and continue to proffer his sympathy, buttery with concern, until Q was taunted into insisting too much.
‘You did drop me in it,’ Q said. ‘And I am extremely fucked off with you about it.’
Bond’s stride faltered slightly. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean any harm.’
‘I’m not sure I believe that,’ Q said. ‘Why are you following me?’
‘I’m not.’ Bond looked down. ‘I can see why you’d think so. Three times in a row! But no: it was quite an accident. I just couldn’t resist saying hello.’
It sounded plausible. Q could not tell, could not tell at all.
‘Obviously it’s none of my business,’ Bond said, ‘but why did you change your cover with him? He seems to think you’re the mail boy.’
‘Not obviously enough, apparently.’
Bond gave a small smile.
Abruptly, Q found he did want to answer after all. ‘How much time have you spent as the cleverest person in the room? I assure you, it is tiresome in the extreme.’
‘You’re the princess who wants to marry the baker.’ Bond laughed.
‘I hardly think one can call a gay man a princess in the modern workplace, thank you, Bond.’
‘No, fair cop,’ Bond said.
‘What were you doing there last night, then, if you weren’t following me?’
‘What do you think?’ Bond said. It was the same smile with which he said virtually everything.
There was a knock. Higgins had returned.
They carried on a while longer, till Higgins said to Bond, ‘Sorry, do you remember the conversation we had earlier?’
‘Oh, about the?’ Bond pointed at his lower body.
‘Yes, sorry. It does seem to be messing up the readings a bit,’ Higgins said. ‘I’ll slow the treadmill down for you.’
He slowed it till Bond was at a walk, let it carry on that way about a minute, then brought it to a stop.
Bond stepped off. He hooked his thumbs into his briefs, and looked Q in the eye, cheeks dimpling.
Higgins had been sufficiently implicated in this that it did not seem possible for Q to accuse Bond of anything.
Bond lifted the waistband of the briefs over his cock, slid them down his legs and tossed them aside.
It was a pleasing cock: moderately sized, thick shaft, narrow head, neat foreskin. Q could have wished it were small, or ugly in some way.
‘For heaven’s sake,’ Q said, ‘is that a solarium tan?’
Bond faced him, hands on hips. His cock jiggled. ‘Do I seem to you to be a man who would get a solarium tan?’
In the corner of his eye, Q saw Higgins take a step towards the discarded briefs, as though to pick them up and tidy them away, but then hesitate and decide not to.
‘There are some beaches on the Mediterranean I must introduce you to,’ Bond said.
Bond got on the treadmill, and Higgins set it moving.
Soon Bond was jogging again. Q put his hand over his eyes.
‘Very sorry if you’ve not seen one before,’ Bond said.
‘Thank you, I’ve seen a few, as I’m sure you can guess.’ Q could not bring himself to remove his hand.
‘Sorry, I do need you to…’ Higgins said.
‘You do need me to look,’ Q said, ‘at the equipment.’ He took his hand away from his eyes, and looked at the equipment.
The equipment was very near Bond’s penis. Bond jogged, smiling mildly into space.