It was 5.25am, and Ben was outside the Cokers’ flat, freezing his face off. It was supposed to be August, but that didn’t seem to be bothering the weather. He’d cut himself with his razor, and it still stung every time he poked the wound with a finger, which was more often than he should have been poking it because he was convinced Paul was going to laugh. It was funny; two weeks ago half of him had been scratched up a whole lot worse and yet this patch on his jaw, he was certain, hurt a lot more than that all had.
Of course, he still had the bruise around his lip that made him look lopsided. It was only just turning yellow. The rest of him was scabs, which didn’t hurt unless he caught them.
The road was empty, this time in the morning, but that was why it was now that Paul had asked him by. Ben hadn’t seen him all week, because – well, because Pam had gone back to taking pleasure in making his life a misery – and so here Ben was, on his own and waiting. He’d watched Pam leave not long before, heading off to the wholesaler’s a little late but otherwise on schedule, and then he’d come out of hiding.
At this time in the morning, the street cleaners were still to come round, so the debris from yesterday’s market trade was still in the gutters. Looking around his shoes, at the gutter, Ben could count up the rind of some kid’s satsuma, an old bag of crisps, one daisy head (or whatever it was) and a dead bottle of coke, alongside all the bin bits that had once been something, but weren’t anymore. Everything looked damp, for some reason; it hadn’t rained.
Staring at the rubbish reminded him of waking up in the midst of it, the rumble of the bin lorries just a street away and the ants crawling across him. It had been about this time he'd woken up, that morning, his head full of fog, something like pain in his hands and his arms and his legs; a feeling like he wasn’t in his body. And Paul – not there.
Had it only been a couple of weeks? Ben wasn’t sure he could remember what it felt like, to be the person he’d been before. He’d got used to the new glasses he was wearing, though the prescription wasn’t right and they gave him a headache after a day of working on engines. He remembered his old ones made him look better; less like an egg – but if he wanted to get new ones he was going to want to get the lenses thinned, and that was more money than he had at the moment.
Other things were different too. Mostly, he didn’t know what to do with himself. In another life he was sure he would have been angry about what had happened to him and Paul, swearing revenge and storming the streets. As it was, outside of a couple of moments’ hate, he found he didn’t know how he felt. Thinking of himself lying in that alley, the morning after – thinking of Paul getting delivered to hospital by some random’s tip-off, unconscious and alone and pale, like the scum had stolen that from him as well – Ben got this ache inside him that wasn’t entirely anger anymore. This August morning, thinking about it again, he just felt tired, and cold, and worn out.
Above Ben’s head, then, there was the sound of a window opening, the rising sash scraping out enough noise to startle the nearby birds.
Ben looked up, as jumpy as they were. After a couple of moments – a pause longer than it should have been – Paul’s head appeared, and there was a smile on his face that showed his teeth. Of course there was also a bruise that took up half his jaw, but who didn’t have one of those these days? Whatever else, he was smiling and his hair was tied back and he had his sleeping t-shirt on; it seemed rude for Ben not to smile up at him. “All right?” Paul called down, in something just above a whisper.
Ben nodded, pressing a finger to his shaving wound again, quickly. “All right?” he called back up.
It was going to be all right, wasn’t it? He’d done his shopping the night before, taken the bus to the CosMart MegaMart on the other side of the borough and found Paul a cheap stand-in pay-as-you-go mobile. It wasn’t going to hold him forever, but it was all in Ben’s name, so he could hardly have got him one with a proper contract. That would have been dead creepy; the sort of thing one of Roxy’s boyfriends would have done.
At the same time, it had seemed a bit sad, so he’d ended up buying this completely unnecessary cuddly penguin as well. He was going to blame the concussion.
Paul was shrugging, anyway, in response to Ben’s hello, like he’d been worse. “So, go on, then,” he said, changing the subject. “Where’s my serenade?”
“You what?” Ben wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Had he forgotten something at the supermarket? It was too early in the morning for all of this…
Paul just rolled his eyes. At the same time, though, he lifted up his hand. “Here,” he said. “Catch.” And then he was throwing down a set of keys.
Ben caught them, using both his hands and rustling the CosMart bag. For a moment he could only look at the things, three keys on a ring with a purple tag, like a spare set or something. One for the flat, presumably, and another couple for the funeral parlour. They were both silver and chunky; the flat front door’s was small and faded brass, just like the one Ben had seen Paul use a dozen times, too often with a wink.
Most likely, he wouldn’t get to keep them, but Ben still felt like he was holding something precious. “I’ll see you in a mo,” he said to himself, trying to ignore the rubbish as he headed to the front door.
It was more nerve-racking than seeing Paul in the hospital, somehow, letting himself into his house. At least, that was how Ben translated the sucking, still panic inside him as he slotted in the key and turned the latch. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He knew Paul was getting better, technically; and they’d been all right before Paul had come home, but Ben didn’t know what he was going to say to him now.
He was a mess, and the stuff with Pam and Jenny wasn’t helping. That was why he’d been kept away – he knew it was – and in his moments Ben could accept that it was probably half just the shock, why Pam was reacting the way she was. She couldn’t mean all of it. She wanted someone to blame – someone to lash out on – and Ben knew exactly how she felt because he was doing the same to her. But then she’d stop him seeing Paul again, and… And that led him to where he was now, sneaking in and awkward.
He didn’t know how he was going to explain how needy he’d been feeling. How he’d wake up in the middle of the night convinced Paul was still out there, dying in a gutter. The night before this one, Ben had woken up, reached out and unlocked his phone to dial 999 before he’d remembered he didn’t need to.
By the time Ben had made it up the stairs, each one taken with the lightest step he could manage, Paul was still struggling with the window.
Flaming hell… That put most things into perspective.
Rushing over, Ben tried to move with as light a tread as he could, but he didn’t manage much. “Here,” he said, with urgency, knocking Paul’s hands away from the lower sash. He tried to keep his voice low, so it mostly came out in a hiss. “I’ll do that, won’t I?”
“Cheers,” Paul replied in his own hushed voice, breathing hard and clutching his side. “It’s the spring,” he added, and Ben could see what he meant, as he had to lean pretty hard himself to get the thing down and closed up again.
Still, he couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Not the broken arm, then? he thought to himself. Or the other.
With the panic over, though, Ben tried not to think about that. He turned to look at Paul again, trying to feel the moment for what it was and not think about his own need to know Paul was all right. Of course, his boyfriend was smiling in a way that somehow didn’t reach his eyes, so it wasn’t all that easy.
What’s wrong? was what Ben meant to ask, but as Paul looked away again it was clear that would get nowhere. He searched his brain for something to say – found nothing – then opened his mouth and heard the words come out. “I bought you a penguin,” he stage-whispered, holding up his CosMart bag.
Still clutching his side with both hands, little stick legs poking out of his red shorts, Paul blinked like he didn’t know what to say. The sparkle flashed back into his expression, though, so that was all right. “A penguin,” he repeated, smiling like he couldn’t believe it.
“Yeah,” Ben confirmed. He pulled it out of the bag, for something to do with his hands. It took longer than it should have done, but after a long rustle of plastic Ben was showing him the potato-sized cuddly toy. “It’s stupid,” he said, waving it once, side-to-side, before stepping forward. “But – well,” he added, still whispering as he passed the thing over without meeting Paul’s eyes. “It’s yours. Get well soon, I suppose.”
“Thanks,” Paul replied sceptically, squeezing the thing like it was going to sing a song. They hadn’t had any singing ones. The expression on his face, when Ben dared glance at it, was mostly bemused. He was frowning like he was trying not to laugh and he was squinting at the thing with one eye. “Tell me the truth, though,” he said, his voice dipping into normal speech as he glanced up at Ben. “Do you fancy me at all, holding this thing?”
Ben rolled his eyes. It wasn’t like he had much practice at this stuff, was it? He should’ve known he’d get it wrong. “I’ll have it back, then,” he said, chalking the whole thing up to experience and reaching out a hand.
With what seemed like an unconscious reaction, though, Paul stepped away and clutched the thing to his ribs. “Here, hands off,” he said, definitely just talking now. “He’s mine, Perry the Penguin.”
Les probably wasn’t sleeping that heavily, so Ben tried not to laugh. He caught Paul’s eye – and the frown on his face – and when that frown turned into a grin it felt almost like things were going to be OK.
“Come on,” Ben said, wrapping an arm behind Paul’s back and steering clear of his bad side. He was warm and comforting and fit exactly how he should. And he was pretty much still A+ on the scale of fanciability. “You’ve been on your feet long enough.”
Paul snickered, but tossed his arm over Ben’s shoulder as he led them back towards the bedroom. “As the actor said to the bishop.” Even though there wasn't much chance of that.
The plan had been to have a conversation, probably, once they’d climbed into bed – but of course, they fell asleep. Either Les wasn’t paying attention or he didn’t want to know, but they slept right into Ben’s next set of dreams.
He was back in the hospital. He had a concussion, they told him, and that was what was making everything seem so weird. Nothing to do with his boyfriend lying, dying – somewhere. Somewhere Phil and Ian had seen him; abandoned him. Somewhere that wasn’t here in A&E.
Someone had found some spare glasses – not his – and they were close enough to his prescription to help, but they were still doing his head in. His hearing aid was done, so everything sounded wrong, like it was coming from behind him, just over his right shoulder, the way the voices had come the night before.
His dad hadn’t come back to the hospital, not to this sea of faces and green. Ian and his gopher – Steven – they were the only ones with him and they were yammering on, their heads bobbing like children’s TV characters. The police were there as well, asking him questions and peering at him, like they could see the gayness leaching out of his pores. Right now they were chatting over in the corner, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying.
It could take a few hours, sometimes, apparently, for your head to hurt the way it should when four blokes – or just one; it must have just been one – decided to try and kick it in. Ben was starting to feel it, but he was also lost, and all there were around him was chairs.
It took him a moment. Ian was going on about something and Steven was loitering. Ben leaned against the green-blue wall, then tried to remember what the woman in scrubs had said about the ICU. It was a walk, apparently: left at the end of the corridor and then down the long route by the café. Presumably there was some back route the doctors were allowed to take between A&E and there, because otherwise that bloke in the newspaper was right and these places were all death traps.
Leaving Ian and Steven to it, their yammering heads, Ben righted himself – squinting until the world righted itself too – and headed out of the back of the A&E waiting room, heading for the long walk.
When he passed the café, he was annoyed he didn’t have any cash on him, because he realised he wouldn’t have minded a cup of tea.
The woman in the scrubs – she’d warned him that it was likely Ben wouldn’t be able to see Paul until he was stabilised, if he ever was. He’d probably been moved from the room with the window, where Phil and Ian had seen him. He was probably up to all sorts, all alone and hidden away.
Your friend… He’s dead, his dad had told him, not a flicker of emotion in his eyes. Only he hadn’t; that was just what Ben had heard. Your [-]friend, his dad had said, with the space for the ‘boy’ there, but inaudible. He could’ve just said Paul, of course, but he hadn’t.
Paul, Paul, Paul…
“Your [-]friend… They got him in hospital. He don’t look good.”
Ben was trudging along, feeling all the stares of the people walking by. He wondered why they were looking at him so funny; why they were looking at him at all. He wondered if any of them would have helped out last night, or if they’d have stood and laughed. A woman with curly hair had her hips hanging out of her top – she looked like she’d have filmed the whole thing and happily put it online.
When he got to the next unit, then the next, then the next, they all looked much like the last, but there was someone at a desk and Ian was gone. Ben tried to focus on her, though he couldn’t quite place her eyes on her face. His head throbbed again. “Paul Coker,” he said, and it made one of his ribs scrape, but he didn’t wince. “Paul – Coker,” he said again, in case she hadn’t heard him.
“Just a moment,” the woman replied, and she was wearing the slutty nurse’s uniform they’d seen in the shop window by the club the night before. And there was music playing; kicking-out music.
She hadn’t been there – this was the dream talking – but Ben couldn’t see anything right.
The woman clicked something with long white fingernails; typed something like there were ants crawling across her keyboard, and then Ben had the ants back on him. They were crawling all across his hands and face, like they’d been that morning, that whole line of them, leading to the torn white rubbish sack by the side of that hot, stinking dumpster.
“No; sorry,” the nurse was saying, her eyes sad and round and then old, and then young, and then old again. “You’ve got to keep going.”
“But what’s happened?” Ben demanded, trying to shake everything off his hands. “What’s going on?”
“What are you doing here?” a voice interrupted him, and then they were in a different room; a waiting room. Blue, not green – or green, not blue.
It was Pam.
She looked – shaken. Les was hovering behind her shoulder, almost blending into the crowd of other waiting families. “Pam,” Ben said, relieved that there might be finally someone who understood this feeling he had, the way the world wouldn’t stop blurring out every time he looked away from it; the way it was never quite there in front of him. “I heard Paul was –“
“This is your fault,” she said, and Ben froze.
She knows. She saw it all. She knows. She knows.
”What was that you said?”
”Yeah; I’m talking to you. I want to know what you said.”
He was dreaming, wasn’t he? He was dreaming.
“I should never have let him…” And yet Pam was pointing her finger, long and withering, and they were still in the hospital. She was still looking at him, and everything was white and pale. “You always were a nasty piece of work. You’re the worst thing that ever happened to him.”
Les said something, but Ben didn’t hear what it was. It sounded angry; like he agreed.
“It should be you in there.” And Pam was crying; weeping. “I wish to God it was you in there.”
Maybe that was what this feeling was, Ben thought; the glass that was cutting him off from the world. It was some sort of divine punishment. “So do I,” he tried to tell Pam. He shouted it, and as the room spun again, he realised he wanted it with everything he had. So do I.
“Get out of my sight,” was all Pam would say back to him, fading into green. “Go on. I don’t want you anywhere near him.”
Ben was walking again, alone and in some other corridor. Someone was walking along with a clipboard – a large man in purple scrubs. When he passed by, Ben heard the sound of a bus going down Oxford Street, from the wrong side of his head, like the hearing aid that wasn’t there was playing him sounds still.
It was dark. It wasn’t that cold; just a little. They did say there was a heatwave on the way. Ben kept walking down the corridor, but there were voices behind him, laughing and joking and shouting.
“Oi, you two! Which of you wants to suck my cock?”
Ben’s shoulders clenched. He was hot suddenly, burning with anger. Paul. Where was Paul? Why couldn’t he find him? Wasn’t he in the hospital? Why were they on a road? Why was it so dark?
“Oi! I’m talking to you. Don’t you fancy me? Or is it you’re too sore from the last time?”
He needed to find Paul. Ben had lost him; his glasses were gone and he couldn’t see anything.
“You’re disgusting, you know that? You all make me sick. You make all of us sick. Don’t you got nothing to say for yourselves?”
It was getting desperate now; where was he?
“Come on; where are you? Come on, you faggots…”
Ben woke up with a jolt.
For a moment, he could only breathe, every muscle tingling as he took in the sun coming in through the window, his place on the good side of Paul’s chest, the heavy duvet that had covered them in sweat like they had actually done it.
His eyes adjusted quickly enough, but he could still hear it, that piece of scum’s voice in his head, shouting at them like they were…
“Ben?” Paul asked him sleepily, with narrow eyes.
The sound of his heartbeat was so loud in his ears, Ben wondered if Paul could hear it too. Else if he could feel it, hammering away with only skin and bone and Paul’s t-shirt between them.
It hadn’t happened quite like all of that, in the hospital. Ian and Steven had been there, but they’d come with him, been a bit more useful. Pam hadn’t said all of that stuff, he didn’t think, but she’d said some of it, and it had hurt like nothing else. She might have said more. He couldn’t remember the details, but he remembered the feeling. With what he realised now had been the concussion, that weekend and the next couple of days had all been something of a blur.
But the night – the night had been exactly like that. Somehow Ben’s head had kept it all preserved perfectly: all the voices and everything that had been said.
There had been a lot of dreams, afterwards – some detailed like this one, and some not quite so action-packed. Sometimes he was walking Soho, all the streets running together, looking and looking and looking while the sun came up, but unable to find Paul anywhere. In other dreams Paul was dead, and Ben was left without him, empty, and he never saw his killers again. There were too many dreams of Paul dying, considering how he was still alive.
Hoping to reassure himself, Ben shuffled his way up the sweaty sheets and kissed his boyfriend on the mouth, gingerly holding a hand to his bruised jaw and hoping to remember that they were both all right.
“Careful,” Paul murmured – but he didn’t sound that serious about it. Ben kissed him until he stopped talking, squeezing his eyes shut and ignoring the pain behind them, pretending like nothing else on earth that this was just another morning.
It didn’t quite work, but it was better than nothing.
Paul, meanwhile, mmmfed, and covered Ben’s hand on his face with his own, squeezing the scabs on his fingers just slightly. It felt a bit sad, that squeeze, and when they pulled back he looked sad, so there wasn’t much else to be done.
“All right,” Ben said, like he should’ve done hours ago. He’d had enough of all of this. He needed… “Now’s when you tell me what’s wrong.”
Paul frowned at him, clenched his jaw, then shook his head and looked away. He nestled his head into the pillow. “I’m just tired,” he said, like he always did. “Go back to sleep.”
Sometimes Ben wondered if Paul realised he was allowed to be in a mood. “Paul,” he said, with a sigh, rolling over to take his weight onto his own back. There was barely any space in the bed, but he managed to squeeze in. Perry the Penguin, of course, took a nosedive from where he’d been wedged between the headboard and the wall and landed on his face. He had to chuck the thing on the floor. “You’ve snuck me round your house at, I dunno, far too early in the morning,” he carried on, a bit irate. “We’re hiding in your room – things are flying at me – and you ain’t said one word about why.”
“Yeah, well,” Paul murmured, looking to where Perry had met his dismal end. The collar of his green t-shirt was all rumpled around his neck. “You know why.”
“No,” Ben reminded him – because he could guess, but he didn’t know. “I don’t.”
The silence was long after that, and with his eyes on the hollow of Paul’s jaw Ben thought there were a few things he was likely to say. None of them were especially promising.
Well, you never come round to see me, do you? I thought this way you couldn’t say no.
I’m on these new pills and they knock me right out – eight in the morning to ten o’clock at night, most days.
I’ve figured out my nan ain’t been letting you in.
But in the end, it was the worst of the lot, and not anything Ben had predicted. “I was there, wasn’t I?” Paul said, swallowing and rolling his head to face the ceiling.
He couldn’t mean… Ben shuffled over to an elbow, watching Paul’s face. He looked grim, glaring upwards, and Ben wished he could read all the other things going on in his expression.
“When you came by yesterday,” then Paul began again, “I was there. At the top of the stairs.”
He couldn’t mean… No. No way. This couldn’t be happening. “Paul,” Ben said quickly, not entirely remembering what had come out of his mouth. “I didn’t mean any of it. I shouldn’t’ve…”
“But it’s true, ain’t it?” Paul said, sniffing like he was going to cry. “Nan’s the reason my mum… And now she wants to take you away from me.”
“No,” Ben told him, brushing a hand into Paul’s hair not because it wasn’t true, but because he would give anything for it not to be. “No; that’s not… It’s my fault, innit, yeah?” He touched Paul’s face, but it didn’t turn back towards him. “I should’ve been looking out for you, and now you’re nan… She’s only saying what’s– what I’m thinking myself anyway.”
“What, so you reckon I don’t need you either?” It was sarcastic, how he said it, but he still turned his head to the wall.
“You know it ain’t,” Ben complained, annoyed at how it was all coming out. He leaned down so their heads were as close as he could get them, bumping his nose into one of Paul’s cheekbones, and smelling the smell of the stuff he never did put in his hair. “You ain’t getting rid of me,” he swore quietly. Someone had washed up a bit for their date, just like Ben had, and didn’t that say it all? “You know you ain’t never…”
Paul shivered, rolling back so they could kiss again, just about as urgently and just about as dangerously considering Paul was still the barely-walking wounded. He could wriggle his good arm well enough, though, and got that out from between them to drag Ben closer. There weren’t many angles for Ben to do anything, but he had Paul’s t-shirt in his fist and his shoulder in his other hand, and that seemed to go down all right. Their near legs wound up together while Ben stretched his sweaty, socky feet.
“Promise me you ain’t going nowhere,” Paul said afterwards, dashing the words in quickly between huffs of breath. He stared Ben in the face, serious, and his black eye was distracting.
“Don’t worry about me, yeah?” Ben told him, bringing up a thumb to brush Paul’s cheek, just underneath where the skin broke out into bruise. “Worry about yourself.”
“I am,” Paul said, still serious. “I need you to be all right.”
“Yeah?” Ben replied, not letting up. “Well, same. I am fine. You’re the one who’s…”
And then he swallowed, because he couldn’t say it.