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Seeing as it was the end of the week, and the walls were starting to close in, Ray Doyle was packed up and out of the gates by five past five.

Manor Road School was quiet. The smell of cabbage and fried onions had more or less dissipated and the entire pupil population had abandoned ship for the weekend, streaming from every exit as soon as the last bell had gone at four. A good number of the teachers had followed with unseemly haste soon after.

Doyle, as was usual, had more to clear up than everybody else. And now he couldn’t wait to get out.

Mind, he had to admit that, for a Friday, it hadn’t been too bloody awful – as long as he took into account how grim Fridays had been thus far. Circuit training in the gym with the sulkiest of the fifth form girls had even had its humorous moments earlier, and for the first time since he began this new, second-best profession of his, Doyle’s artroom on the top floor had felt like something of a creative haven. Rather than a battlefield. Well, for about fifteen minutes just after lunch, anyhow.

The dragging new job/new city blues (which, truthfully, he’d begun to see as a more or less permanent state of affairs) had seemed a little more manageable today. There was a certain familiarity about the smoky fug of the staff room at last, he’d learnt where he could sit and which chairs were verboten, and he was beginning to get a handle on the few pupils throughout the school who seemed prepared to try for him.

Headway.

Doyle chivvied a bunch of aimless fourth formers hanging around just beyond the playground wall as he emerged out of the side gate. He suggested, with some snark, that they go and play football in the park.

“Sir.” A monosyllabic, guarded acknowledgement came, but not much of a response.

“Don’t like that idea?” he’d said over his shoulder as he passed them. “So get yourselves off the streets and go home. You know the next teacher out of the gates will say the same thing. And next time it might be one who’ll give you a detention.”

He was well aware they were probably saying all sorts of things about him as he walked away. Cocky little toe-rags knew full well all they had to do was not be caught leaning on the outside wall smoking and they could rightly claim not to be officially on school premises at all. Which meant that actually their scruffy northern git of a new art and P.E. teacher didn’t have a scruffy leg to stand on and could therefore keep his big, unwelcome mouth shut.

“Yeah, so less of the northern, I’m from the midlands,” he was continually telling them, and they were starting to enjoy the joke of getting it wrong. And maybe even learning some geography in the process – you could but hope.

A ‘problem’ school was Manor Road Comp. Had been for a number of years. The arrival of an inflexible new headmaster from far north of the border and a host of new, young teachers had only just begun to have an impact.

“’Night then, sir!” chorused some voices behind him. Some drawing out the ‘sir’, sarcastic, one or two halfway genuine.

Doyle smirked to himself. He thought maybe he was beginning to have some kind of relationship with the pupils here – even if it wasn’t always an easy one. Although of course he knew the whole thing would go spectacularly pear-shaped if they ever got wind of the fact he was an ex-copper. And, even worse, queer.

On the way home the southbound Bakerloo line was packed as usual but Doyle let it suck him in without giving it a second thought. He stood on the platform in exactly the same place as he did every day, waiting for the doors of the Hammersmith and City line train to open right in front of him, inhaling the cigarette smoke from the guy standing behind him. The route, the smells, the rhythm, the ways to keep your journey time to a minimum – it was all becoming more second nature now.

Once out of the station at Royal Oak he made straight for the nearest pub. It really was the only way to finish the week – fist curled around a warm pint in the Prince of Wallonia. His two flat-mates had said they’d meet him there at six, so he had just about enough time to sit quiet over his beer for a while and read the Standard. Or else his maybe too-aptly-named paperback, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting tucked into the tatty briefcase he flung on to the banquette seat next to him.

Doyle got an eyeful of himself in the big mirror over the fireplace as he sat down in their usual corner. Typical leftie teacher, some would have said. Jeans, granddad shirt, tweedy jacket. The only thing missing was a rolled up copy of The Guardian newspaper. He frowned a little at his shaggy hair. Mr. Cowley, the headmaster at Manor Road, had stopped him in the corridor two days ago and told him he needed to sort it out.

“I’m aiming for smart,” Cowley had said in his uncompromising Glaswegian burr. “As a good example to the pupils.” One sandy brow had raised. “And that includes the art teacher and the whole of the P.E. department. Do you think you can see your way clear to managing that, Doyle?”

Part of Doyle had immediately wanted to point out to the old goat that he didn’t really have any right to go around laying down the law about teacher hairstyles since this wasn’t either the flaming army or the flaming police force, but there was something quite compelling about Cowley’s manner. No getting away from that.

“I think I can,” he’d responded, deciding to be cooperative rather than bolshy – at least on the surface. He tested the humour waters. “Shall I bill the school for the hairdresser?”

Cowley had snorted. “Hairdresser!” he’d barked back, unamused but not angry. “Get yourself to the nearest barber, laddie. That’s all that’s needed.”

Doyle had squashed his compulsion to salute. He was still too new, too inexperienced. God knows he’d done enough butting heads with authority in the police force. Didn’t need to be doing it too soon down here yet. He’d been gobby enough in a union meeting already, and no doubt Cowley was the type to be all over that like a rash, but for the moment mild NUT militancy was Doyle’s limit.

His flat-mates arrived within a few seconds of each other, both late. He’d met them through a notice-board at the YMCA advertising house shares and bedsits. Both also teachers, both also queer. Doyle had warmed to London immediately he’d met them, having feared that, as in Derby, he was going to feel like the only one of his kind.

Suze, all blonde bob and big glasses, dumped her bag full of exercise books down on the banquette next to him.

“Evening all,” Doyle said, waving his mostly empty glass at the two of them.

“Evening, Plod.” Sam Murphy, dark-haired, twinkle-eyed, and, strictly speaking, his landlord, looked knackered. But then, he had been out on the Thursday lash last night with his fellow private prep school teachers. Rather a lot of that seemed to go on in the leafy surrounds of Holland Park Avenue. Murphy, when you got down to it, was not very committed to teaching. All he really wanted was to keep chickens in the countryside.

“And shag the local Young Farmers of course,” as he always added.

“Pint of Stones?” Suze hazarded, snapping her fingers and pointing at Doyle.

“Just a half in here,” he said, handing over the glass.

“Murph?”

“A pint in here,” Murphy said, patting his stomach. Then he pitched on to a stool opposite Doyle. They watched Suze march up to the bar, smart cream skirt swinging, shoulder-bag bouncing on her hip.

“So,” Doyle said, “How are you? How are the rich?”

Of course, they’d all three of them had one hell of a week. There really didn’t seem to be any other kind of week in teaching except a hell of a one, at least not until after a couple of pints. Once Suze was back with the drinks they spent a good forty-five minutes on it. Moaning and bitching and getting it all off their chests. Murphy’s sons of diplomats and Harley Street doctors could be just as challenging as Doyle’s toe-rags or the feuding girl-gangs at Suze’s school.

“Little darlings, the lot of them,” she said at last with an eye roll, and then looked at her watch. “Just off to powder my nose, then I have to go.”

“Hot date?”

“Very. Very hot indeed.”

“You lucky cow.”

When Suze had disappeared, Doyle did try and elevate the conversation from detentions, missed homeworks, and sixth formers bonking behind the bike sheds. He told Murphy about his pet project – a fund-raising exhibition of art from a group of local schools, including Manor Road, to be open to the public – and his latest thinking about Mr. Cowley’s edicts on the state of his coiffure.

“Sounds like a right martinet your Mr. Cowley,” Murphy observed. His own headmaster was sweet and posh and vague, and had been to Eton and Cambridge. He didn’t care tuppence about dress codes.

“Cowley’s an effective old bastard, but talk about living in the fifties. Had all those sodding rules in the force, don’t want them anymore. Although, you know...”

And Doyle floofed at his abundant hair, which almost touched his shoulders.

“Well if you want a recommendation.”

Doyle looked pointedly at Murphy’s head. “You are joking?”

“Ha bloody. No, I mean it.”

“Well in that case, darling, I’m all ears.” Doyle grinned at him, fond.

“Ledbury Road, near the Tabernacle, you know? Looks a bit scuzzy but that should do you. Not a Frenchified salon or anything. Just a plain old-fashioned barber-shop, no appointment necessary. It’s got a striped pole outside and everything. And not a blow-dryer in sight. Owner’s an odd cove, but he’s all right.” Murphy squinted at him. “Yeah, so I don’t know why I’d bother really. Someone needs to just get out the sheep shears and be done with it.”

“You’re not selling it, mate.”

“Well it’s up to you.” Murphy shrugged and tipped the last of the crisps down his gullet. When he’d wiped his fingers and polished off his beer, Suze was back from the ladies and they were ready to leave. Her girlfriend Sally was waiting for her in some other drinking establishment where, as she liked to say, ‘we lezzers are welcome’, Murphy would almost certainly head into town on the prowl, and Doyle would probably end up alone watching Starsky and Hutch over a bag of chips, a Twix, and a cup of cocoa. And then dreaming, messily, yearningly, about the blond one.

In the meantime, he jostled Murph as they went out on to the street.

“So, you going to be home at all tonight? Or tomorrow? Or are you going to be leaving me to do the week’s washing up again while you do... whatever it is you’re going to do. Which is what and with whom, exactly?”

“You’re such a copper. Such a bloody nosey parker.”

“I think it’s time you fucked off then.” Doyle was mock insulted.

“You want to come?”

“What, cruising with you? No thanks.”

Murphy was patient with him. “Listen, I know you don’t like the scene, Ray, but your Mr. Right isn’t going to just drop out of the sky into your lap you know. You have to be proactive.”

“Well thank you very much, Cathy and Claire. “

“Fine. Just trying to help.”

It was true that they did spend a lot of time discussing Doyle’s non-existent love life. Murphy galloped through casual lovers at a rate of knots and was happy with that lifestyle. Doyle hadn’t had sex for months but wouldn’t take Murph up on his offer to wander the bars and clubs of Soho to find somebody willing to scratch that itch. He’d been almost embarrassingly stubborn on that one, and wasn’t even sure why. Here he was in a perfect place to meet as many casual partners as he wanted, without the worry of his Sarge finding out and having him kicked off the force for being a ponce. He could let some of his guards down. And yet, although he’d dreamt of such apparent freedom, now he had it…

“Not looking, thanks anyhow.”

“You, petal, are a lying toad.” Murphy shook his head. “What are you so afraid of anyhow? Look, I know it’s not your cuppa, all that lovely one night stand fucking, but you never know. You might meet a potential other half. Which, deny it all you like, is actually what you want.”

“Dunno how you do it at the end of working week,” Doyle deflected. “I’m much too tired for any one night stand fucking.”

“Your loss.” Murphy gave a sad shake of his head.

And maybe he was right at that. Maybe it was.

*

On Saturday morning, Doyle had decided once again that Mr. Cowley was an interfering old goat and that he wouldn’t be bounced into having his hair chopped off just to please him. There was a dress code of sorts at Manor Road, which mostly required him not to wear string vests in the classroom, that sort of thing, but there was no word on hair length in it. In any case, he really hated, with a vengeance, having his hair cut. The battles he’d had with his mother about it in the long-distant past had been spectacular.

And it wasn’t as if he was a chemistry teacher in danger of going up like a torch after leaning too close to a bunsen burner.

The flat was quiet.

Murphy had not returned overnight, so Doyle supposed he’d hooked up with someone. In that way he had. Which made Doyle feel a latent twitch of desire for a decent fuck, in spite of himself, although not entirely for Murphy’s methods of finding one. Suze and Sally must have gone back to Sally’s, which possibly meant she wouldn’t be home until Sunday afternoon either, just in time to do marking for Monday morning.

He ate cornflakes looking at Tiswas. Then he switched over and glanced through the fixture list on Ceefax to see if he felt like going to a game, but it turned out he didn’t. Although he’d done it from time to time, going to football alone down here (Fulham, say, or Chelsea at a push) usually made him want to arrest people, or left him bitter and maudlin. No use appealing to his flat-mates either. Murphy, the git, said if he was ever forced to watch sport it would have to be rugby, because at least that offered the mental image of beefy, muddy, blokes naked in the bath together. And, although Sally was apparently an animal at Wednesday night netball under the Westway, both she and Suze thought football was a daft pastime for men with very small brains.

It was too easy sometimes, just to be all on your own. Doyle might have stayed on the couch the rest of the morning if his sister hadn’t rung and reminded him it was his other sister’s birthday in three days. She was half wheedling and half ready to give him a good telling-off.

“The big three zero. Don’t forget, Ray, please. A card at the very least. And a prezzie would be even better.”

“All right, all right. I will. “ He put his socked feet on the cluttered coffee table.

“Just as a matter of interest,” she said, hopefully taking him at his word. “Would you have remembered if I hadn’t called?”

“Of course I would have remembered!” Suitably aggrieved.

“Of course you would.” She huffed in disbelief at him down the phone. “So anyway, how are you? Job getting better?”

“It has its moments.”

“That’s what you said last time. But OK. Still no regrets?”

The familiar rage and resentment coursed through Doyle at that. Regrets? He had a bloody load of them. He wound a fierce forefinger through the telephone cord.

“Jesus Christ, I didn’t have a choice, you know th... bloody hell, sis, how many times? And anyway – again – shouldn’t you lot be pleased I’m not still out there freezing my arse off and getting duffed up by nasty villains?”

“Police pension," his sister said pointedly. Luckily it was a running joke between them. Wearing a bit thin now, to be honest, but he was used to it.

“You know what? Phone calls from you are getting like phone calls from Ma.”

She laughed. “Bet she doesn’t ask you how your sex life is though.”

“No, just about if I’m going out with anyone. She still hopes if I do it’ll be a girl.”

A little pause, then a slight giggle. “So how is your sex life, Ray?”

Doyle groaned. “In what way would I want to tell you about my sex life?”

“Oh well all right then, Mr. Private. Have you met any lovely new boys lately? Anyone nice? Interesting?”

He hadn’t.

No, he absolutely hadn’t, even though he did make a minimal effort sometimes. But in truth, the last time he’d been chatted up it had been by an annoying old queen in a Hampstead bar who’d rather taken a shine to him and his tight jeans. And... Christ, that was about it.

“It’ll happen,” his sister said.

Funny how everybody thought that. And funny how he didn’t quite believe them. And funny how much the idea of being on his own for much longer made his stomach clench sometimes. Even though he absolutely knew it was for the best.

After he’d wound up the call, dumped his cornflakes bowl in the sink along with last night’s plate which had been practically licked clean of its shepherd’s pie, he showered, got dressed and went out.

It was drizzling.

A light London drizzle that made you wetter than you were expecting.

Doyle walked as far as W. H. Smith’s on Praed Street and bought a birthday card with a cat on it. He rambled around Boots the Chemist, eventually picked out a gift box filled with brightly coloured shreds of tissue paper and two bottles of florally-decorated smellies. Not rose, and not lavender. Those were too reminiscent of Nan’s bathroom – he knew that much, and no more, about his younger sister’s taste in toiletries.

He bought a Guardian, rolled it up and stuck it in his back pocket, and then spent half an hour in Rocket Records on Westbourne Grove. During which time, rifling through both the Acoustic Rock and Punk LP covers, he decided that perhaps he didn’t like his hair at the moment. And then, being Ray Doyle, he decided to walk home the long way, taking in the market on Portobello for some fruit and veg, a can of Lilt and a Jamaican patty. He still didn’t know the area inside out, but he knew the best way to learn it was on foot. On the beat. And that, if any of the resident population knew he used to be a copper, he might just get his head kicked in. But also, that if any of them tried it he’d more than hold his own.

Round the back of Portobello there was a short parade of shops on a residential road full of run-down flats in Victorian villas.

Newsagent, caff, bookie, VG Food Store, barbershop. The usual.

Doyle did a double take.

Barbershop.

He looked back the way he’d come to find a street sign.

Ledbury Road.

He floofed at his hair.

Then he looked back at the barbershop. It most certainly wasn’t a Frenchified salon sort of a place, Murphy had been right there. Doyle had been to pick his older sister up from a ‘salon’ last time he’d been home. She hadn’t been ready so he’d sat to one side, waiting. ‘Hair by Robert’ had smelt of chemicals which had got him right in the back of the throat. The whole place had been noisy with the sound of blow-dryers, infusers, muzak, and an incessant chat which had numbed Doyle’s brain. Robert himself was camp as a row of tents, wore a shiny shirt, and called everyone ‘ducky’. Doyle’s sister had come out with her hair in Charlie’s Angel flicks, although bubble perms were also, it seemed, a favourite.

This place wasn’t like that.

This was old school. Bog standard, you could say. ‘Macallan’s Men’s Barbers’ was white on umber above the shop and on the sun-faded awning. And yes, there was a red and white striped pole outside.

“Oh sod it, you win,” he muttered, with a half thought about getting Mr. Cowley onside for his art project.

Wiping his fingers, still crumby and orange from the patty, on his jeans, he walked across the road and in through the door, which jangled.

It was a tiny little place.

Poky almost. Old-fashioned, a little down at heel, but squeakily clean. Doyle’s police brain couldn’t help cataloguing the surroundings to give him information.

A single burgundy leather and chrome barber’s chair with head and footrests was situated in front of a large mirror on a black and white tiled floor. There were four waiting chairs joined together across one wall with a pile of magazines and newspapers on a shelf to one side. In the back corner Doyle could see a black ceramic sink. A console table bore a white telephone, an ornament of some kind being used as a paperweight, and a large appointment book. There was a broom leaning against the wall next to the table, and a coloured strip blind across a doorway, leading who knew where. All the usual accoutrements were visible. Combs and clippers and folded towels and badger brushes. Bottles and jars with oils and unguents and colognes. Sterilizer and Steamer. Brylcreem and Pluko. And, as Murphy had also said, not a blow-dryer in sight.

Although, there was no actual person in sight either so maybe... Doyle, not a waiting around kind of a man, cast a look back out on the street. He could just leave again and nobody would be any the wiser.

But then the strip blind ribbons parted. And someone came through.

He was wearing sleeve garters, braces, and a starchy full-length apron. All Days of Yore like. Tall and broad and – Blimey o’Reilly – he actually had a cut-throat razor in one hand! Doyle blinked and then nearly laughed. The Demon Bloody Barber of Ledbury Street!

The man looked him up and down swiftly, appeared not to like what he saw. Or that he seemed to be a figure of amusement. “Can I help you?” He was deep-voiced and unfriendly. And he also seemed to think Doyle was in the wrong place. At that moment, Doyle thought so too.

“Nah,” he said, channelling his offhand inner Londoner, giving the shop a casual once-over. “You’re all right, mate.”

The cool expression didn’t change. Instead the unfriendly bugger trained his gaze on Doyle’s head. “Sure you’re not here for a trim?” His nostrils flared slightly in some sort of barely-disguised contempt.

Doyle didn’t like rudeness. Or arrogance, despite having had both scrawled on his school reports over a number of years. He’d hated it as a copper and he hated it as a teacher. His hand reached behind him for the door. But, on the other hand, he didn’t like running away from anything either. He’d rather be rude back to be honest.

“Well,” he said. “Depends, doesn’t it? How much you charge. If I have to wait. That sort of thing.”

With a very faint curl of his lip, the man indicated the empty line of chairs. “Not exactly queueing round the block, as you can see,” he said. “Two pound twenty for a full trim. Or I’ll do you four quid for a trim and a shave.”

Doyle found his hand going to his jaw. He hadn’t been anywhere near the ratty old Bic on the bathroom shelf this morning and was now faintly embarrassed about that. The head barber at Macallan’s – or, looking around, possibly Macallan himself – was close-shaved. He had sharp-cut dark hair and sideburns.

“Four quid?” Doyle echoed, thinking of the place his dad used to go for his Saturday morning shave before the pub and the races at Uttoxeter. Which, as far as he recalled, had cost about sixpence.

“Yeah,” the man said, faintly belligerent. “You get the hot towel and everything.” His voice was what the kids at Manor Park would call “posh”, although Doyle’s instincts told him it might be put on.

Doyle did a quick glance round again. And thought of Mr. Cowley and the advantages that might accrue from gaining his good opinion.

“Three fifty and you’re on,” he said. “Don’t need a hair wash.”

The barber chewed his lip. Then he shrugged and indicated the chair. Doyle sauntered over and dropped his carrier bags under the counter. He slid into the chair, and as Macallan came up close behind him and stared at him in the mirror he felt an unexpected heat on his cheeks. This retro-dressed barber was what his sister would call ‘a dish’. Rather too macho a dish for Doyle’s taste, however, and he could smell the sharp scent of some kind of cologne on the man’s skin which gave him an instant headache.

“So,” Macallan said, and his clipped tone annoyed Doyle all over again. “Mr…?”

“Ray,” Doyle mumbled.

“Ray.” Fingers carded through his hair, the lightest touch against the back of his neck, his scalp. Doyle felt it all the way to his toes and his hands tightened against the arm-rests, almost defensive. “So what’s it to be then?” The fingers were still combing through his hair as if they were reading him.

“Nothing too dramatic.”

One brow hiked. It was a distinct and expressive shape. “Yeah well, it’d be a shame to lose your natural wave. There’s a nice David Cassidy thing going here.” The tone, again, was slightly mocking.

Doyle gritted his teeth. Bloody nerve of the man!

“It needs to be neat. Ish. And natural. But not short.”

“Uh-huh.”

There was one last pass of the strong fingers through to the ends of his hair, and then the man moved away. Doyle heard the snap of a cover-all being shaken out. The crisp edges of shirt sleeves ghosted past Doyle’s ear as he was covered. There was the flash of a very sharp pair of scissors which made him flinch and grasp the arms of the chair again.

“Really,” he said, remembering with a stab of panic that he actually really hated having his hair cut. “I mean it. Nothing dramatic.”

“Of course not.”

As the scissors got to work, Doyle couldn’t help but give him another good look. It took his mind off the fact that bits of his hair were dropping in what seemed like great chunks on to the cover-all. And, it seemed fair enough to keep an eye on him, given he was flashing an offensive weapon around next to Doyle’s ears.

About Doyle’s age was Macallan, very upright and sure of himself, somewhat tense, hair very dark, eyes very blue. Not actually Ray Doyle’s type at all. Because he had never been drawn to the classically-handsome sort of man. Or, if he had, they’d be fair, open-faced, and have hair you could grip on to. So really he had no idea why the proximity of this glowering, macho barber was making the pads of his fingers sweat. When their eyes met in the mirror there was nothing but a cold fish sort of a stare.

Pillock.

“What do you do?” Macallan asked after a while. Not as if he was particularly interested in a human sort of way, more as a question to inform his next steps.

“Schoolteacher.”

“Ha. So, really do have to be neat and tidy.”

“Up to a point. I’m really not a short back and sides sort of a bloke.”

Macallan tipped his head sideways without warning, not very gentle. “You don’t say.” He didn’t ask any more questions. Not like other barbers Doyle had known, who might like a bit of inconsequential, manly chit-chat which would make him either uncomfortable or fuming, but at least showed friendly interest.

Then the chair was tilted without warning, and he was staring upwards while the most fantastic smelling gloop was slathered all over his face. He caught a glimpse of the cut-throat razor out of the corner of his eye, felt another little stab of panic. As the shave began – long, smooth passes across his skin, utterly confident – he became acutely aware that the top of his head was warm. It was touching Macallan’s body. Through the apron and shirt of course, but Doyle could feel him breathing. Steady, regular. Strangely calming. He didn’t really know at what point it stopped feeling like an invasion of privacy having a stranger so close – perhaps when the impulse to push out of the chair and strong-arm him against a wall faded.

“There we are then.” Macallan was brisk. He’d pressed the hot towel around Doyle’s face, moulded it, held it in place a brief few seconds, removed it almost ceremonially. Then the chair had been righted. “Think the girlfriend will approve?”

Doyle felt the usual resent well up at the assumption. His face was tingling.

Macallan’s angular brow went up at the lack of response. “Wife?”

“Neither,” Doyle said, teeth grinding together.

The door bell jangled at that moment and Doyle found himself abandoned.

“Hello, Jax mate!” Macallan said, tossing the used towel aside, and Doyle was almost shocked at how quickly his voice had changed from cool to welcoming. He surreptitiously looked at the new arrival in the mirror. Lean, casual in a bright shirt, black, good-looking. He and Macallan seemed good friends. Close, even. And Macallan’s whole demeanour shifted from tense to relaxed during the encounter. The fact of it made Doyle feel rather miffed.

It just seemed like a few minutes passing the time of day. The Jax fellow kept the door half open as if he needed to get back somewhere in a hurry. But he asked after Macallan with a concern and sincerity that had Doyle’s investigative antennae quivering. It wasn’t just convention. There was… something. Something under the surface.

When he’d left and Macallan was back behind the chair, his face seemed to retain some of the light and laughter.

“If you want a good cuppa tea after this,” he said, testing the shave with the backs of his fingers, under Doyle’s chin and down his cheek. “Pop along to Jax’s café. Decent brew. You know, leaves and that.” And then he smiled. An actual smile that crinkled his eyes, made them look almost warm. It changed his expression from storm to sunshine.

Doyle found his tongue not working properly. Rendered mute by Macallan’s fingers, sure and confident on his skin. Warm. Strong. He swallowed.

When he was on his feet again he felt light-headed, but that must have been because he’d been almost upside down a moment ago. Yes.

“OK for you?” Macallan was still just about in the friendly zone. “Not too Mick Jagger?”

There were brownish-auburn hair trimmings, bright curls, all over the black and white floor. Doyle stared at them, almost mesmerized. Then he looked back into the mirror. The cut was smart, unfussy, and looked to be just about the perfect length to appease Mr. Cowley and yet still give Doyle something to rake. Not naff either.

“Better that than Keith Richards.” His face was tingling from the hot towel treatment and whatever it was that Macallan slapped on his face at the end. “But yeah it’s great, thanks. Good job.”

“Excellent.”

As he was digging in his jeans for some cash, the door jangled open again.

Doyle glanced up, expecting another customer, and was jolted to see a uniformed copper coming in, helmet under one arm.

“Morning,” the PC said.

Macallan’s expression and stance changed once again. The sunshine dropped off his face and his jaw tightened so fast Doyle could practically hear the crack of bone.

“Constable.” The tone was unwelcoming, infused with a hint of sarcastic challenge.

“Just wondering if you knew the owner of the Hillman Imp parked outside on the double yellow, sir? Or if you’ve seen who left it there?”

“No,” Macallan said. He’d walled up quicker than Hadrian.

Not so much the Demon Barber, then, more like bloody Jekyll and Hyde.

The policeman looked around the shop quickly, then back to Macallan. There seemed to be no love lost. He gave Doyle a quick, apologetic nod.

“All right then, gents,” he said. “Sorry to bother you.”

Doyle found himself itching to ask what the problem was and why the car was of interest, but he’d sworn a pact with himself that, once out of the force, he would stay out. In thought and word and deed. Well, apart from upholding law and order at all times of course.

When he came to hand over payment he found Macallan resolutely closed off again, lips pushed forward in granite displeasure.

Moody bloody bugger! So he didn’t like the cops. Well bloody good for him. Half the population didn’t like them either, but there was no need to act like a fucking four year-old about it.

Doyle flicked at the fiver he’d found in his back pocket, irritated by Macallan, and irritated by his reaction to him. “Keep the change,” he said.

Macallan took the note. “Thanks.” Emotionless. Unfriendly. Despite the massive flaming tip. He took a stride to the back table, and moved aside the object on top of the papers to scribble something, back turned.

Before his view of the paperweight was obscured by the broad back in its old-fashioned shirt, Doyle saw what it actually was. Not a block of nothing as he’d first thought, but an animal - clear as day now he was closer. It was a camel of all things, which looked as if it was made of solid sand, sitting out in the desert with a faded painted rug across its haunches. The camel ornament was not beautiful, but both strangely exotic and homespun at the same time. It was something real most of all, rather than something from a trinket shop.

Doyle’s gaze returned to the shirt and braces stretched across Macallan’s back. Those too, he mused, had something of the real and the exotic. The pointedness of the stance returned him to earth with a bump, however. He didn’t waste more words, despite his curiosity. Seeing as he’d evidently been dispensed with, he swept up his carrier bags and left swiftly, without a backward glance. It was true that he felt pleasantly light, almost buzzed. And he’d enjoyed the poncey hot towel shave probably much too much for his own good. But he decided there and then as he crossed the road that he wouldn’t be back. Couldn’t be doing with it anymore. With people like him, Macallan, barely keeping a lid on their hostility.

Even so, glancing at himself in the window of the VG foodstore, he conceded that at least the haircut sort of suited him. And (because he was an honest sort who was not in the habit of deluding himself) bloody hell, yes – he did have a bit of a David Cassidy thing going on!

His little sister would approve at any rate.

*

As it turned out, Mr. Cowley approved, too. He approved very much.

“You smarten up surprisingly well, laddie,” he said on seeing Doyle in the corridor outside the staff room on Monday afternoon. “Off the shoulders now at least. I appreciate the effort.”

“Sir,” Doyle said. He didn’t ask to have a chat about the art project, not just yet. He’d give the old goat time to feel positive for a while first. Make sure he had the art room all cleaned up, shipshape and Bristol fashion. To show what sort of a fist he intended to make of it. Because he was pretty sure Cowley would be highly receptive to shipshape and Bristol fashion.

“So, you done the deed?” Murphy asked him in The Prince of Wallonia on Friday evening. He and Suze had spent most of the week taking the piss out of his hair and warbling ‘How Can I Be Sure?’, although Suze had softened up in private and told him he looked bloody gorgeous.

“Deed?”

“Got the go ahead for the Great Exhibition?”

Doyle nibbled his pint glass. He grinned then, self-satisfied. “Yes I have actually. Provisionally anyhow. Just need to get the right people on board and I can set it up. Nice display of all the work. Little talk from me about studying art. Bit of a whip round to help stock up the art cupboards. Offer of a trip to the Tate. Bit of tea and biscuits.”

“Tea and biscuits, wow,” Murphy had said, mockingly.

“Studying art,” Suze had said, even more mockingly. “Lounging about looking at naked blokes you mean.”

“I don’t know where you get that idea from, really I don’t. Although being a bloody philistine you’ve probably never heard of Still Life With Oranges.”

“You should feel sorry for him, Suze. It’s the only way he’s going to get near a naked bloke at the moment.”

Suze had looked at Doyle keenly, eyes big and cornflower blue through her glasses. “Nothing doing on that front?”

“There are no fronts,” Doyle said. “Or backs either. So just drop it. I’m fine, I don’t need it. Celibacy is a noble lifestyle.”

Murphy snorted. “You, my son, need to get your end away.”

“Don’t be mean,” Suze reproved. “Well, of course he does. Obviously. But I think our Raymond is also, although he’d never admit it in a million years, searching for true love and happiness ever after.”

“Well all I can say is he’s not searching very hard.”

“Give it a rest,” Doyle pleaded.

Really, the more they went on about it, the worse he felt. He’d actually been to this bar with Murphy during the week, on the promise he’d be bound to meet somebody fanciable, at least for the night if nothing else. And the evening had depressed him. It seemed that leaving his vocation had hardened his heart, made him determinedly picky. Eternally suspicious. And in any case he wasn’t a happy ever after type of a person. Never had been. Because people you could like that much, that you could trust that much... well, they always seemed to turn out to be complete bastards, didn’t they.

It was a fact of life.

*

So he didn’t do much going out over the next few weeks at all. It was busy at school, summer term, with exam invigilation and driving the mini bus for school outings, which always seemed to fall to him because he had an advanced driver’s licence. The headmaster has been very impressed by that nugget of information from his C.V.

“For pursuit driving,” Doyle had pointed out but that only seemed to convince Mr. Cowley even more.

Just one trip to the 100 Club for a South American saxophone gig a friend of Murphy’s got them into, and Friday nights in the pub. The Prince of Wallonia had become almost like a second home. The beer was cheap, for London prices, it was traditional and yet not one of those dark places where you could hardly see your hand in front of your face, and it was situated just perfectly between the tube station and the flat. Hellish weeks were nearly always successfully deconstructed amongst the crisp packets and fruit machines.

“You spotted a new Picasso amongst your lot yet?” Murphy asked a few weeks later when they were all leaning on the bar at six o’clock.

Doyle took a few gulps of beer. “No,” he said, wiping his mouth. “But one or two of them might know who he is, at a pinch.” Which, being as this was a total change from when he’d arrived nine months ago, felt like success.

“And is your headmaster any keener than he was?”

Doyle sighed. “Mr. Cowley’s a dedicated maths and history man. Algebra, trigonometry, and the fall of the Roman Empire. In that order.”

“Ah yes. Does he know you’re a poofter?”

“Only if he’s psychic. I haven’t exactly gone around telling everyone.”

“Think he’d chuck you out if he knew?”

“I dunno,” Doyle said.

He drained his pint, caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the cash register. Was it easy to tell? He had no idea.

“Well hello there,” came a deep and unexpected voice at their backs. “It’s Ray isn’t it?”

Doyle swung round and nearly dropped his pint. He heard a phantom shattering of glass in his imagination, felt his lunch plunge into his trainers and bounce up again.

It was The Demon Barber. Here, in the pub. Their pub.

He was wearing dark slacks, a white Lacoste shirt, and a black leather jacket. A jacket made of black leather. Leather that was black. It was shapely and faintly dangerous, not that Doyle thought such a thing of any intrinsic interest. Of course.

He rubbed a nervous hand up the nape of his neck. “Oh, hi,” he said. “Hello.”

Macallan flicked an amused look at his hair. “I’m open every day except Sunday. You know, if you were wanting another trim.”

Doyle had an unexpected flashback of the feel of fingers against his scalp. Palms cupping lightly around his jaw. And he felt his ears heat.

“Well I might,” he said, almost cross. “Some time.”

Macallan’s eyes drifted over to Murphy and Suze, curious. He tipped his chin at them.

“All right,” he said and Doyle caught the lilt of a slight accent he didn’t remember from last time. Northern. Maybe.

“Sorry.” Doyle remembered his manners, flustered all of a sudden. “These are friends of mine. Um, Sam. And Susan.”

“Sam and Susan.”

Macallan held out his hand to them both, one after the other, still seemingly amused, although Doyle couldn’t flaming well see what by. The lilt of accent had disappeared and Doyle thought maybe he’d been imagining it.

“Bodie Macallan,” the Demon Barber introduced himself, casual. “I cut hair.”

It seemed he was somewhere between the uptight, formal Macallan of Doyle’s initial, unfavourable impression, and the amiable, charming Macallan he’d briefly shown his friend Jax. Which made him someone to be very wary of in Doyle’s playbook. Unpredictable. Hiding something.

But… well. ‘Bodie’ Macallan no less. He had a name and that was his name. ‘Bodie’. Doyle wasn’t sure why that should make any difference to anything, but somehow it did.

“So you’re the one responsible for our new, improved Ray Doyle?” Suze said, brazen as ever.

Macallan’s eyes went to Doyle, apparently just as interested to hear hisfull name. “That’s me.”

“Well it seems to have had the desired effect.” Murphy was grinning like a ninny. Suggestive, too. Doyle wanted to punch him.

“Oh really?” That single triangular brow raised, and Macallan was looking at Doyle in a completely different way to how he’d looked at him thus far. As if he was, actually, seeing him. Almost right through his clothes.

“Long story,” Doyle muttered, glad his literally flaming ears were covered.

“Well,” Murphy said, giving Suze a huge and totally unsubtle nudge in the ribs. “I think we’ll leave you alone to tell it then, eh, petal?”

Doyle felt outrage bubble in his breast. What the hell did Murphy think he was playing at? With all his cod, campy, innuendo rubbish. Did he imagine Doyle was actually interested in this guy? Or, even more bloody daft, that a conspicuously hetero bloke like Macallan was interested in him? For crying out loud…

“It’s all right,” Macallan said, placatory. “You don’t have to tell me.”

And Doyle realized they were alone, standing at the bar side by side. Murphy and Suze were disappearing into a far corner already, highly amused by something.

“You have to excuse them,” he said. “They’re always trying to… well, it doesn’t matter.”

Macallan glanced at his almost empty glass. “You want another in there?”

Doyle stared stupidly at the dregs of beer.

“No,” he said.
Why on earth would they have a drink together? They hardly knew each other. The man was a barber – a manly man’s barber – and Doyle was his customer. That was all.

“Ah. I think by no you actually mean yes.”

Normally a bloody pushy line like that would have enraged Doyle to the limit. Something strange seemed to have hijacked his reactions, however. At the same time he was thinking ‘you arrogant prick’ he was also thinking ‘yeah, but so what?’

Very strange.

“All right,” he said with a casual heave of his shoulders. He gave his watch a pointed look. “Just a swift one.”

It was curiosity, he told himself. And polite friendliness. Just that. On both sides. He needed friends, acquaintances, a network. Gay or straight, it didn’t matter. With no ties to the police. He needed to practise getting to know people again without thinking everything that came out of their mouths was probably a lie.

Not that the next hour and several more pints exactly revealed very much. Bodie Macallan owned the barbershop on Ledbury Road, and that much Doyle already knew to be true. He’d trained in the trade as a teenager, set up his business a couple of years ago, and was cleverly cagey about the whole period in between.

“I did other stuff,” he said airily when Doyle asked.

“Here in London?”

“All over,” he said, which did seem to fit the camel ornament. “How about you?”

Doyle told him he’d been to Teacher Training College in Derby, his home city, but not about anything before. Having seen the bloke’s barmy reaction to a simple beat policeman popping his head round the door, he decided it would be sensible to keep his former profession firmly under his hat. Didn’t want to set him off again seeing as he was being quite pleasant and matey at the moment.

Macallan seemed highly amused that Doyle’s main teaching subject was art, but interested that he also taught P.E. So, Doyle, surmised, Macallan liked sport. Which actually wasn’t much of revelation seeing as, now he was right in front of him and the leather jacket was off, Doyle could see he was broad of shoulder and had muscles. Also arms that had gained their very pleasing definition by more than just swishing pairs of scissors at people’s heads.

“I box a bit,” Macallan conceded when the subject was raised, flexing one hand. “And play cricket.” He looked at Doyle appraisingly. “You teach cricket at your school then?”

“No,” Doyle said again, really trying hard not to notice the very long, black lashes.

“Well there’s a surprise. Cricket’s only for toffs, right?” Macallan’s almost non-existent accent, which Doyle still couldn’t quite get a handle on, had become slightly more refined. As if it was fun to drop in and out of his persona.

“No facilities, mate. Nah, the lads like football and the girls put up with netball.”

“You follow a team?”

“Derby County of course. You?”

“Liverpool, son, till I die.” And Macallan’s voice was suffused with a subtle but this time fully recognisable seam of Scouse. It could have been him just messing about, of course, or it could have been that he was reverting to type. He grinned, picked up his pint.

Doyle wished Bodie Macallan hadn’t grinned. He fervently wished not to be distracted by the supple strength of the man’s hand curling around the glass of lager, by his changeable Skies Over The Mersey eyes, and by the dark hair on his bare forearms.

His glance strayed to the corner of the pub and he was very disconcerted – if not annoyed – to see that Murphy and Suze had, apparently, gone. Gone and left him to it.

And, left him to what exactly?

“Well,” Macallan said, breaking in on his thoughts. He was suddenly all business. As if he suddenly wasn’t seeing him again. “I’d best be getting off. If you were planning to come in for a haircut tomorrow, midday’s not usually that busy.”

Doyle hadn’t been.

“No,” he said, “I can’t. Got to go into school.”

“What? On a Saturday? And there was me thinking that teachers were a bunch of lazy layabouts.”

Doyle accepted the jibe with a twist of his lips. Mr. Bodie Macallan really didn’t know him well enough to be taking the piss.

“It’s a special thing,” he said, vague. “I have to move a bunch of heavy stuff around from one place to another, do a bit of cleaning up. For a project. Yeah, long story. Boring, too. Anyway, headmaster’s not that convinced by it so said I’d have to do it on my own time. It’s going to take all bloody day, probably take two journeys. At least.”

“Just you?”

“Yeah.”

“Bad news. I’d be pleased to help out, you know. But, I’m working. Unless you want to go in after five.”

“No you’re all right,” Doyle said. He almost laughed.

“OK.” Macallan seemed a little stung. “Thought a lift might be welcome.”

“Oh,” Doyle said, because that sort of changed everything. “You’ve got a car?”

“Well I wasn’t planning to take you by bus.”

Doyle’s mind raced a little. A car! He could move so much more stuff with a car. Take a load of things from the flat. Get there and back so much bloody quicker.

“I suppose I could,” he said.

“Don’t force yourself. Just thought – well, if you want to come in around four. I’ll spruce you up and then we could go and do this school run business.”

A favour, that’s all it was. Human beings can be decent and just help one another out. Not everyone is a lying, cheating scumbag on the make.

Doyle told himself that more than once.

He told himself all sorts of things. The next day in Ledbury Road, for example, he told himself he wasn’t enjoying the haircut second time round. Well, all right, that was a lie. He was enjoying the haircut the second time round – very much, actually – but enjoyment and haircuts didn’t seem like two things that should go together. As a small child he’d always kicked up murder whenever anyone went near his head, and he’d given some kid in the fifth form a fat lip as a skinny, scrappy nine year-old, just for ruffling his hair in passing.

Macallan had those demon fingers though. That made Doyle’s scalp tingle, made him both boneless and very much the opposite at the same time. As soon as he sat down in the chair this time, Macallan switched the sign in the door to ‘Closed’, and something about that action made Doyle feel cornered, and strangely turned on at the same time.

The barber was quiet today. He didn’t seem so tense, was entirely focused on the job at hand. Almost as if it was a pleasure, a creation. Watching him work, Doyle could fancy Bodie Macallan a sculptor, honing his face out of bone ash and clay. The very real rasp of the razor at Doyle’s throat, however, made his nipples tighten. It was the first time he’d felt such an adrenaline rush since leaving the force.

When Macallan had finished off, flicking the towel away, Doyle struggled up from the pit of fanciful thoughts into which he’d fallen, just in time to get a whiff of the aftershave balm. He heard Macallan’s palms slide together, nearly shivered in pleasure as they pressed lightly around his jaw. The two fingers on the smashed cheekbone side of his face were conspicuously more gentle. Macallan didn’t say anything about it, though, and Doyle was always braced for the question.

Cor, looks nasty, how’d that happen?

‘Villains can be vicious when they’re cornered, you know,’ he’d always said when pressed to enlarge, but tended not to add, ‘especially when you thought they were on your side.’

“Shame you’re a teacher,” Macallan observed just then.

“Why’s that?” Doyle managed to ask, hoping he didn’t sound as spaced out as he felt, so starved of physical touch he was having to will away a hard-on.

“Well.” Macallan wiped his hands on his apron. He ran a speculative few fingers through one side of Doyle’s hair, let the waves settle. “If your Beak didn’t insist on smart, we could have great fun with this.”

Fun.

Doyle heaved himself upright. He snorted. “Do me a favour,” he said.

Bodie didn’t seem taken aback by the punchiness of Doyle’s tone. He just made a ‘get you!’ expression. “So, what then? You’d just let it grow, like Rapunzel?”

“I don’t like people faffing with it.”

“Yeah, yeah, message received.”

Macallan began to untie his apron. He left it over the back of the chair when Doyle was on his feet, moved to the table by the strip curtain. As he lifted the paperweight off the pile of what looked like invoices, Doyle said, “It’s an interesting piece, that.”

Macallan flicked him a look. “That’s Bodger,” he said, extracting a sheet of paper and dropping the object down again with a clunk.

“Eh?”

“Bodger. The Camel.”

“Right,” Doyle said, “Bodger the Camel,” and wasn’t sure why it made him smile. Perhaps it was some faint callback to nicknames in the squad room. Oddjob. Bilko. Tinkerbell. “Old friend is he?”

“Souvenir of sunnier climes.” Macallan scribbled something on the sheet, then turned to Doyle with a Cheshire Cat smile. “Right then. Cough up and we can be off.” The smile turned to a grin when Doyle gave him a goodly tip once more. “Ta very, mate.”

Doyle didn’t feel much like his mate. They still knew next to nothing about each other and it was all… strange. Unsettling. Probably all about the goodly bloody tips in fact. Perhaps Doyle represented a nice little earner. The car, though. The car turned out to be a boon. He had two heavy bags full of stuff he wouldn’t have carried on the tube. Multiple sketch pads, squares of canvas, paint pots, frames, T-squares and a tripod. With no comment Macallan picked up one of the bags and carried it out and up the road. Doyle grabbed the other one and followed after. The bags went into the boot of an old, but very shiny, blue Ford Fiesta.

Doyle, of course, didn’t have his own space in the tiny car-park at the side of the school. They had to leave the Fiesta about three hundred yards away in Manor Road. The back door of the school was open, so somebody was in. Cleaners maybe. Or perhaps there’d been a drama rehearsal or something.

“Gives me the creeps,” Macallan murmured as they walked down an unlit, scratched parquet corridor. Past Betty the school secretary’s office, past the peeling walls with their monochrome whole-school photographs.

“Didn’t like school much then?”

“No,” Macallan said, deadpan. “Too many teachers.”

There was greying, end of day light up in the art room. Macallan didn’t make much comment, took Doyle’s instructions without question. Between them they moved the first lot of all the work that was ready for the exhibition out and along the corridor to a couple of near-empty classrooms that needed some care and attention. They were generally used for non-curricular activities not requiring desks and yes, looked like the drama squad had been in. There were some abandoned scripts and a few empty cans of coke. The chairs had been arranged in a circle.

“So I’m going to display the work,” Doyle explained, suddenly embarrassed. As if it was all a really stupid, naff idea. “Like it was a gallery. All sorts of stuff the kids have been doing. And then have a kind of workshop set-up so people can try their hand at a bit of oil painting or what have you. The kids, or even their parents.” He looked around. “Yeah, I know. Needs some work. I’ll get some of the older ones to give us a hand at lunchtimes during the week.” He coughed to clear his throat. “And there’s um… more stuff to bring along.”

“Lead on.” Macallan brushed down his trousers, already showing a patina of chalk dust, quirked a brow.

It was dark by the time they’d finished.

Their footsteps echoed dully on the parquet as they walked back towards the entrance. Macallan seemed even more ill at ease, moving a little stiffly. Perhaps he really did find the place creepy. As they came down the main corridor, past the staff room and the headmaster’s office, Doyle, always alert, noticed a strip of light under the second door. He was just about to say something, when the door opened and Mr. Cowley himself appeared. Momentarily he seemed on the offensive, as if he’d suspected burglars.

“Good God, laddie!” he said on seeing Doyle. He was in casual trousers and what Doyle immediately thought of as a ‘weekend cardigan’.

It was no surprise at all really, that he was here. In their short acquaintance Doyle had learned how committed he was, how much hard work was like breathing to him. On the other hand, Cowley hadn’t put him down as a workaholic, obviously, given the frankly amazed reaction to his presence. Doyle wondered if it was because of his subject. God knows he’d been working his arse off since he arrived, although probably mostly under the radar. Aware of the oddness of having a stranger in the deserted school with him he quickly moved to explain.

“Just doing some of the exhibition setting up, sir. This is a… this is a friend of mine who’s been helping me. Bodie.” The name coming out of his mouth surprised him. He thought Macallan glanced over at him when he said it. “This is the headmaster, Mr. Cowley.”

“Good afternoon, sir,” Macallan said, very smart. Shoulders back. And ‘sir’, no less. Doyle wondered if he’d been to boarding school or something. “Just helping Ray out.” The ‘Ray’ was unexpected and made his stomach flip.

“Very good.” Cowley seemed very gratified indeed to be called sir. He seemed to respond well to the smartness, too, had given Macallan a distinct, almost approving once-over. “Are you in the profession too?”

“Not likely. I cut hair these days.”

“These days?“ Cowley was on to that in a flash. “Let me guess. You were in the services, am I right?”

“Sir.”

Blimey.

“Airforce?”

“Army.”

“Right, right. Excuse my forwardness. You just had that look about you. I served myself, back in the day.”

“Sir,” Macallan said again. He didn’t seem entirely pleased to have been outed, so to speak, although he clearly couldn’t help the deference. Doyle half expected him to click his heels.

“Well, well, pleased to meet you.” Cowley frowned slightly, as if aware of the slight displeasure. “And Doyle, I hope you’ve seen everyone you need to about this event of yours. The janitor, the drama department? I don’t want any complaints.”

“It’s all in hand,” Doyle said dryly.

“Good, glad to hear it. Keep me informed of your progress. Have a pleasant Sunday, gentlemen.”

He swung round into his office again, shut the door firmly. Doyle wondered if he’d imagined the faint waft of scotch fumes.

“The army, eh?” Doyle said as they got outside. For some reason it felt a little risky even asking the question. He hadn’t yet got his head around what might occasion a career move from the services to a barbershop.

“Yeah.” Macallan seemed a little short. “The past.”

“OK.” Doyle turned up his jacket collar against a gusty wind. He could relate to that. Could also recognize a ‘and mind your own bloody business about it’ when he heard it. “So, anyway, thanks. Really. You’ve been a great help. Let me buy you a drink?”

Macallan seemed to hesitate. His shoulder bumped Doyle’s accidentally as they walked back down Manor Road to the car. “That would be… “

“Yeah, no,” Doyle said quickly, alarmed at having given the impression of… something. “I’ve taken up enough of your time as it is.”

“Give over, I told you. Not a problem. Just busy that’s all. Having dinner with someone.” Macallan sounded more than short now. He sounded uptight for some reason. Not with Doyle, as such, but with something else. Definitely.

It was then, for the first time, that Doyle noticed he was limping.

*

The exhibition began to shape up after that. Actually having had a real person helping him out seemed to give Doyle the impetus he needed to get on with it. Not that he had much spare time. Mr. Cowley was increasingly the type of headmaster who was very keen to get all his teachers working their socks off, all the time. It felt as if weeks and weeks passed without Doyle thinking of very much except school and kids.

“OK, Raymond. Time to kick back. Got your weekend sorted,” Murphy said one night as the three flatmates and their girlfriend sat around the living room full of a cheap mid-week supper of cheese pie and beans. “Friday night, classy party, time to get your glad rags out of mothballs.”

“As if I would do that in a million fucking years,” Doyle said, pointed and ungrateful.

“Oh go on.” Suze batted her big eyes at him, persuasive. Sitting on the arm of the orange and brown plaid couch, one arm draped over Suze’s shoulder, Sally just smirked at him. “We’re going too. “

“Classy party? You?”

“Leaving our DMs at home and everything,” the red-haired Sally assured him, stretching out one booted foot. “Big house on the hill with a swimming pool in the garden, loads of money sloshing about, open invitation to Mr. Murphy and friends from a colleague whose father apparently owns a small country somewhere in south America.”

“And who more or less finances their music department,” Suze added.

“All true.” Murphy nodded, then shrugged at Doyle’s exaggerated amazement. “Yeah, I’ve no idea why anyone would want to invite me either but I’m not bloody turning it down. Could be a very promising event, Raymondo. If you get my meaning.”

“Promising how?”

“Well, you know, chance to see the rich at play. Which for an ill-educated tankie from the back of beyond like yourself… oh, and my colleague’s padre apparently hosts very gay parties. Very gay indeed.”

“Sounds bloody awful.”

“What else are you going to do? Come on. Give in to your fabulous side, you know you want to.”

Now Doyle thought of himself as only moderately sociable. The pub with Murph and Suze was fine, or with the Manor Road teachers at lunch-times. He could stand small group gatherings, had a few faithful gay mates back in Derby as well as one faithful straight mate who he’d visit to coo over the kids while his missus cooked a roast dinner. Parties, though. He didn’t like parties. And he was sure he didn’t have a fabulous side. Pretty sure.

In his experience, from school days onward, parties were full of the simmering threat of violence, dashed hopes, and the need, most of the time, for furtive behaviour. For never, under any circumstances, being seen kissing in public.

Somehow he ended up going. Not in his glad-rags though, because he didn’t have any of those, not really. Just a white shirt, a pinstripe jacket Murphy loaned him, and his best jeans. Only washed a few times and almost respectable. Plus, his favourite tartan scarf in the interests of being fabulous.

“Bay City Rollers!” Suze squeaked.

“Ignore her,” Murphy advised, flicking at the top button of the shirt, fastened chastely just under Doyle’s Adam’s Apple. “But how about you get your tits out for the lads?”

Doyle stopped his hand with some force.

“If I want to get my tits out,” he said, voice not as dangerous as it could have been, “I’ll do it myself.”

Murphy laughed, but he knew not to push it.

They had a pint in the Prince of Wallonia, then headed into the increasingly well-heeled streets of Campden Hill and Holland Park Avenue. There were bouncers at the grand front door Murphy led them into. And chandeliers in the hallway.

It was definitely what you’d call a classy do. Proper mansion, smart-dressed waiters and waitresses, huge garden lit with summer lanterns, actual cooked food on platters instead of a few bowls of peanuts. Not Ray Doyle’s natural habitat.

At first he kept accepting more glasses of champagne because he was uneasy. And then, as he began to enjoy himself more, it was because the waiters were pretty. Better still, they were pretty but primed not to engage in flirtatious behavior, so their combined prettiness and unattainability merely added to their allure. When he grew bored of that ridiculous set-up and his own reaction to it, he amused himself inwardly fuming about the conspicuous wealth on display.

Then came the doe-eyed blond beauty with the east European accent.

Doyle hadn’t been expecting that, or the kick of desire he felt when he saw him.

Andon Bathak was the name of the doe-eyed blond beauty with the east European accent, and he played the piano. Beautifully. Not just by reputation either. He actually did it, right in the middle of the party. Because there was a baby grand out on the lower terrace overlooking the pool. Of course there was. The host of the party was a patron of the arts, and music in particular. Doyle was losing count of the number of things he couldn’t wait to tell his sister.

Following some ironically jazzed-up Chopin, Andon the beautiful piano-player with the east European accent wandered down through the party towards the pool. He was attractively shy. Such beings did not exist in Derby. Doyle had installed himself somewhere he could avoid getting wet (because most of the guests seemed to end up in the water) and in order to decide if he was going to stick this weird, hilarious, event out, chat somebody up for the hell of it, or just go home. And noticing the faraway face on him as Andon passed he couldn’t help saying quietly, “I think we’re both thinking the same thing.”

“Excuse me?” Andon came to a halt, gaze seeming to snap back to reality.

“That we don’t know whether to enjoy all this filthy lucre or get the hell out to some sanity.”

“Yes, I understand you,” Andon said after a pause, as if to translate. He even smiled, then. Warm. Big eyes. Very blond hair. Could be Scandinavian if it wasn’t for the fact that it turned out he was a Bulgarian emigre.

“Careful, sweetie,” Murphy murmured in Doyle’s ear, passing abruptly on his other side. “Pick up all sorts of germs dragging your tongue on the floor like that.”

“Piss off,” Doyle hissed back. He prided himself on not being a tongue-dragging type.

But, chatting up blond bombshells did have its moments. Andon didn’t move on. His breath was faintly laced with vodka, he was highly receptive, and after a while Doyle didn’t mind the prodigiously talented hand that curled happily around his hip bone, at all. God, what was wrong with him? Did he have a fetish for hands all of a sudden?

They talked about Bulgaria and music for a while, and then art. Which had never happened to Doyle at a party before and was, he admitted, the kind of chatting-up he’d often fantasized about.

“I’ll go and get us a bottle of something nice,” Andon said eventually. He batted his big blue eyes. “Stay right here.”

Doyle snorted to himself as Andon, much less shy now, sashayed off through the party crowd. He leaned against the pillar at his back, realised that if he wanted he was likely going to end up in bed with a picture-perfect Bulgarian piano player tonight, of all things he wouldn’t have guessed at. Or else, alternatively, be left twiddling his thumbs while Andon got nabbed by someone else whose tongue was dragging on the floor and who probably wouldn’t bother wondering if it was the right thing to do.

Toying with the champagne more than drinking it, Doyle’s attention was caught then by someone else coming out of the house on to the terrace. Someone with a slightly ungainly stride, dressed in a tux and shiny shoes. The figure stopped at the balustrade with a rather haughty air, cradling a tumbler in one hand and glaring out across the garden and pool.

“Fucking hell,” Doyle said, straightening from his lean.

It was the Demon Barber again! Mr. Moody. Turning up out of the blue just when you least expected it. And looking both a good deal more and a good deal less comfortable in the environment than Doyle himself was by now. Bodie Macallan snapped his head to the side in irritation at the greeting, and then did a magnificent double-take.

“Ray,” he said, and his nostrils flared, as if he was annoyed.

Doyle felt oddly glad to see him. Bodie Macallan brought the real world in. The sight of him seemed to clear his head. Macallan gave Doyle’s outfit an odd look and then shrugged, mystified.

“What are you doing here?” His question was clipped.

Although Doyle could nearly always be belligerent if he wanted, it was the booze that made him jut out his lips. “Could say the same thing, no?”

“Yeah.” Macallan swung his gaze away again, over the people cavorting on the lawned area below. Then he looked back to Doyle. “Except I cut the Cabreras progeny’s hair. It’s kind of a sideline, you know. Tailor-made service for the rich and famous. Or people my old colonel knows.” Having released another nugget of personal information, Macallan managed to find his truculence again. “Well, I’m not proud. You, though. You are proud. What’s brought you here?”

“My flat-mate,” Doyle said, wondering why Bodie thought he was proud and not sure if he was pleased by that or furious. “Teaches at the young son’s prep school.”

“Ah.” Macallan swirled the clear liquid in his tumbler. He glanced at Doyle’s champagne saucer and an almost humorous look came to his face.

“I know,” Doyle said. “Think maybe I’ve had too much of this stuff.”

“It works though doesn’t it?”

“Works?”

“Makes the party sparkle.” And he mimed stardust. Doyle found a smirk coming to his face, and a rush of positive, appreciative thoughts.

Bodie Macallan wore a tuxedo well. He had a conspicuously frilly-fronted shirt on, too, and his bow tie was untied and dangling round his neck. For a change he was sporting stubble and he had little stress lines around his eyes as if he had a headache. They were strangely attractive. Doyle wondered idly if he had his cut-throat razor in his inside jacket pocket as well, and, just briefly, his stomach felt as if he’d just driven over a bump in the road.

“Yeah,” he said quickly, thinking of Murphy, last seen struggling gamely out of his chinos at the side of the pool. “It is rather fabulous.”

Perhaps it was the way he said it, but Macallan gave him another odd look. “I’m not much into the Great Gatsby scene myself,” he said. “Or swimming.”

“Really?” Doyle gave the tux another overcooked once-over, and felt some satisfaction at getting a grin out of him. “Left your bikini at home then?” Then he inwardly cringed.

But Macallan gave him a crinkle-eyed smile. “Wouldn’t you know it?” he said. “And it was the teeny weeny yellow polka dot one, too.” The moment of shared humour seemed to hang in the space between them for a moment, and then Doyle became aware they were being approached. It was Andon Bathak who appeared in his peripheral vision, weaving a way back towards him. And why wouldn’t he, seeing as Doyle had been so keen.

“Oi, oi,” Macallan said under his breath. “Here comes Liberace.” He watched Andon closely all the way over, the humour sliding off his face as he became aware of the bottle under the piano-player’s arm, the two champagne saucers between the fingers of his other hand, and – in particular – the fact that he was making a beeline for Doyle.

“Drinks,” Doyle said, trying to sound bright and inclusive but probably only succeeding in being lame.

“Boyfriend?” Macallan asked under his breath, unexpectedly sour, just before Andon reached them.

“I just met him!”

There, that. All in the open in a matter of seconds. The natural question about such a relationship from Macallan, no refutation of such a possibility from Doyle, the revelation without need for preamble, the defensive parry. Now Bodie Macallan knew which way the wind blew, and so did Ray Doyle. Or maybe it had been obvious all along.

Things moved in unexpected directions quite quickly after that.

Lying in bed thinking about it the next morning, Doyle couldn’t quite recall at what exact juncture Andon Bathak The Talented had drifted away. Only that he had not stayed with them, apparently realising that Ray Doyle The Teacher, whose spiky chat-up lines had clearly charmed, was suddenly... well, just not interested anymore. The withdrawal had left Doyle, after a few interruptions, with just Bodie Macallan The Barber. Who, at some point, had become just Bodie.

It had been quite the party.

What Doyle did recall (even through the sickly brume in his head) was that pretty much everyone still present after about one a.m. had ended up kissing everyone else. Mostly in the pool. There had been endless champagne, a decision to junk the piano music for much flamboyant disco dancing on the lawn, and a good deal of impulsive underwear.

“Are teachers’ Friday nights always like this?” Bodie had asked breathlessly at one point. He’d laughed, disbelieving, leaning into Doyle where they were standing, and they’d both reached out, simultaneously, to steady themselves, to tug each other in. A smooth, strangely coordinated moment despite the lack of forethought. Almost as if they were going to dance, not quite regular partners who knew one another’s moves, but finding the right rhythm nevertheless. Loose-limbed, unhibited from booze, touchy. “Or rather,” Bodie had gone on, “are gay teachers’ Friday nights always like this?”

Doyle had felt the body heat. He’d enjoyed the delicate touch of Andon’s hand on his hip earlier, but the firm touch of Bodie, a bloke who boxed and stroked sensitised skin for a living, made him, quite literally, sweat.

“Yeah,” he’d said, lips almost numb from the gutful of champagne racing around his system,“’course they are.”

“Well,” Bodie murmured, voice low, and Doyle hadn’t been sure who was leading this dance. If a dance it was.

“That was definitely smooching,” Suze had proclaimed later in the damp, three a.m. black cab. She had her head on Sally’s shoulder, blonde hair dark and limp with pool water, and Murphy was balled up on the bucket seat next to Doyle trying not to be sick.

Doyle remembered gazing stupidly at her as the lights of London splashed across all their faces.

“You reckon?” he’d slurred. “We were fuck’n drunk anyhow.”

Smooching maybe. And why bloody not. The Demon Barber was a handsome devil, amusing from time to time when he wasn’t being superior or looking pained, and there’d been an undeniable intensity about him last night, a new focus, all the more remarkable given the amount of rum he seemed to put away. Doyle remembered the utter clarity of the lash-fringed eyes on his bare chest as he’d impulsively accepted Murphy’s dare to finally get his tits out. A gaze both full of desire and laced with disapproval.

Desire.

“He din’ go in the pool though,” Murphy had murmured from the bucket seat, not opening his eyes.

No, Bodie hadn’t gone in the pool. He’d resisted with increasing irritation all attempts to get him to join the final cavorting leaps into the water that signalled the end of the party. In fact, he’d become abruptly scarce at that point. One moment smooching and hilarious, the next reticent and even angry.

Too much like hard work, Doyle had thought, but he’d been disappointed anyhow. Almost crushingly so. There’d been some genuine good feeling, some real momentum, right up to the moment any form of undressing had become the next step. Doyle had forgotten how good that unexpected meeting-of-minds could be, and for a while – maybe half an hour at least – he was sure Bodie had been right with him.

Bodie Macallan. Last seen exiting the party before carriages at two a.m., his stride not quite purposeful, and, to Doyle’s completely unexpected stab of concern, his limp more pronounced than ever.

*

They told him, during the following week, that he was mooning. Murph, and Suze, and Sal, all in it together. They told him he was clearly love-struck, smitten, and had it bad. All those things that amused the hell out of the fuckers but obviously weren’t true.

Doyle had decided that actually his new city/new job blues were back. There’d been a downturn in cooperation from several of his classes at Manor Road, followed by a heated staff meeting in which the Science Department, led by the oldest teacher at the school, had decided on a list of kids they wanted to be excluded from the labs, thus dividing the Staff Room down generational and political lines. The exhibition weekend was coming up and two of Doyle’s star fifth formers had decided it was all too much bother and they weren’t going to take part after all. And that without even so much as a ‘sorry, Sir.’ Doyle had tried everything save naked bribery to get them to change their minds. So far no luck. The sensation that everything was beginning to piss him off and that he wished he’d never gone into this bloody profession or down to this bloody city in the first place was returning.

And now these random, baseless, accusations, getting under his skin.

He hated random, baseless, accusations.

“Yep. Definitely smitten.” Murphy was confident.

“Who with though?” Sally wondered out loud. She was round at the flat again, seeming to have practically moved in. And when she was there nobody seemed to get any marking or lesson prep done. “The blond with all the flowy hair?”

Suze and Murphy howled down this suggestion so forcefully that Doyle winced.

“I haven’t got it bad for anyone,” he tried to insist.

“You do like pretty blonds with flowy hair though,” Sally said. “I’ve seen you. Bjorn Borg’s biggest fan.”

“Piss off.”

“Nah,” Murphy said, smug. “It’s that hairdresser. Who was at the party. You know, James Bond after a rough night. Bent as a two pound note.”

“No,” Doyle said. “No, no, no, no, no.” He even sounded quite convincing.

But it just made the three of them laugh like drains.

Doyle carried it around for a while, this niggling feeling of being annoyed. Or unfairly labeled. Or, alternatively, being read like a book when he thought he was so good at covering up. In the art exhibition rooms, seeking quiet at lunchtime, he wondered what he could put in the yawning space that had been reserved for his star pupils. His brain was turning. It was a muggy, pale blue day in north London and the faint sound of the kids in the playground below was wafting up to him. He’d been told to fuck off by an eleven year-old this morning and he was absolutely sure he’d smelt weed in the boys’ toilets on the ground floor. Mr. Cowley had asked for his help in drawing up a school drugs policy for next year, and he had God knows how many reports to write before the end of term.

Kevin has shown little enthusiasm for the subject this year.

Michelle could make more progress if she was less easily distracted.

It would have been nice to have seen Shemar in lessons from time to time.

Doyle felt he could actually do with something diverting. Like some of that lovely one-night stand fucking that Murphy was always going on about, something with no strings. Or a new friend. Or just, to be honest, an actual going out and getting-to-know-you date, an exchange of telephone numbers, and safe home in bed alone by midnight.

“It seems to me you’re a risk taker, Mr. Doyle,” Mr. Cowley had said in some admiration at his interview for the Manor Road job. “I like that.”

Doyle recalled the efficient, unfussy way Bodie Macallan had assisted with everything that Saturday afternoon when he’d given him a lift. How he’d done what Doyle wanted, kept his own bright ideas to a minimum, deferred to the expert. Just out of helpfulness, apparently. Or even admiration. Which seemed odd now and had seemed odd at the time. Because Macallan didn’t really seem like a Good Samaritan for no reason type. And yet he’d been there.

So, a spark then? Something worth pursuing?

There really wasn’t much to go on in terms of compatibility. There’d been plenty of spiky moments since Doyle had first walked into the shop on Ledbury Road, and some drunken connection at the Cabreras party once it was obvious there was no raging heterosexuality going on. But then again, maybe asking people out was often like that? More hope than sense. Doyle couldn’t remember, it had been so long. And in any case, maybe it was just that he really, really needed sex, with someone who looked as if he knew his way round a bedroom, who he didn’t need to like or even want to spend too much time with. Because that had been so long, too.

He had a late start on Wednesday morning, so took a roundabout way to the tube. For about thirty seconds he thought about going into the Ledbury Café first to ask Jax what he thought, but then decided firmly against it.

You’re not a bloody teenager, Ray, he told himself as he pounded along the pavement. You don’t need help. You can take knock-backs and rejection. God knows you can take those.

It was coming up to nine thirty when the red and white striped pole came into view.

Heart going like a bass drum, Doyle opened the door of the barbershop and put his head round, as he’d seen Jax do the first time he’d been there.

“Ray,” Bodie said after what seemed like much too long a beat of silence. His voice was a little higher than usual in surprise.

He was gartered and aproned up, poised behind a customer, a man in his fifties who’d clearly decided to abandon his comb-over and was staring transfixed into the mirror from under his coverall. The customer’s eyes darted to the door and back again. Doyle was sorry to be doing this while there was someone else present but it couldn’t be helped.

He locked eyes with Bodie in the glass, not sure whether it was nerves or determination making his gut hurt.

“Friday night,” he said, his own voice suspiciously tacky. He felt like his fourteen year-old self being puppyish around the school football squad. “Um, fancy a drink?”

A minute flare of those expressive nostrils. Doyle couldn’t tell if it was irritation, derision, or pleasure. Bodie turned his attention smoothly back to his customer. He regarded his handiwork in the mirror, snagged a lock of hair between his first two fingers and snipped at it. Careful. Thoughtful. Not showing much. “Sure,” he said, eventually.

Doyle swallowed. Not a knock-back at least, although there wasn’t much enthusiasm on display. “I’ll be here six thirty then.”

Bodie didn’t look at him again. He nodded, eyes trained firmly on the customer.

So, apparently Doyle had just asked someone out. On a date.

They started in the café across the road. And Doyle noticed once again how strangely protective Jax was of Bodie in his friendship. Almost like an old lover. The bacon sarnies were good, even though Doyle didn’t do bacon sarnies as a general rule. General rules seemed to have been ditched, however. Normally casual about such things, he’d prepared himself for this night out with assiduous attention to detail, had sought advice on the best outfit that didn’t make him look like a teacher, which turned out to be a plaid cotton shirt tucked into tight brown cords. He even dug out his mostly-unused bottle of Blue Stratos.

“Well,” Bodie said when they got to their first pub of the evening. “I wasn’t expecting this.”

“Neither was I.”

It had become obvious to Doyle very quickly that an exchange of telephone numbers at the end of the evening and being safe in bed alone at midnight was just not going to do.

Bodie was dressed as casually as he ever was, which is to say, not very casually at all. He was in a black Lacoste shirt this time, which suited him, a brown jacket slung over one shoulder. There was no sign of the limp. They sat in a tiny, squashed little pub up the slope from the main drag of Notting Hill and progressed quickly from beer to rum. And from the details of their work weeks to the un-nerving reality of what they were doing here together at all. Clearly Bodie Macallan was here because he wanted to be. Because he wanted… well, apparently the same thing as Doyle. The intensity of Bodie’s gaze on Doyle’s face from time to time left him a little breathless.

“Listen,” Doyle said at half ten. Now he was here, and since he’d initiated the whole evening, it felt only right that he should take the lead. He’d never liked sitting back and being wooed. They’d not exactly been chattering all evening, finding the easy connections and amusements of a fledgling relationship. In fact, several times the atmosphere between them had foundered on an odd, loaded silence that Doyle could feel under his shirt collar. Almost as if there was nothing to say because the end game was already decided. “Do you want to come back for coffee? My flat-mates aren’t in.” Suze was staying over at Sally’s tonight, and Murph had said (with suitable accompanying facial expressions) that he wouldn’t be back until very late, if at all.

Bodie didn’t reply at once. He pressed his lips together for a brief second. Then, absent, he rubbed one knee under the table. His other hand reached for his almost empty glass.

“OK,” he said. “Why not.” His eyes flicked up to Doyle’s for a second and although they didn’t linger, there was a scintilla of something else behind the blue. Almost like fear. Maybe Doyle wasn’t the only one with trust issues.

His pulse began to pick up pace on the way back to the flat. Their hips bumped once on a narrow stretch of pavement.

“Those kecks of yours,” Bodie said into the warm night. “They’re very tight.” It was hard to tell if he was messing around or not. Their arms bumped this time. And Doyle felt what could have been almost an accidental brush of a hand under the curve of his arse. Almost.

So, the something was definitely sex. And it was on. Less date then, after all, and more one night stand perhaps. Which gave Doyle a rush of filthy anticipation, and then a twinge of regret.

The regret dissolved pretty quick – as soon as they were through the front door of the flat to be honest. As soon as they were instantly all over each other in the dark hallway.

Doyle had been a big fan of heavy petting in his youth, in those heady days after he’d first abandoned the idea of girls forever. And just like back then, tonight there was of course never any intention of coffee, not so much as a single grain of instant. Doyle reached instinctively for the light switch when he had Bodie’s back against the gloss-painted wall. He found his hand batted away, fierce, forgot why he wanted the light on as soon as their mouths met.

Bodie Macallan, it turned out, was a courteous kisser. It suited him, of course it did, but Doyle wasn’t having any of that. He wanted an overload of sensation, now. Taste, tongue, skin, arousal, relief. Not bloody courtesy.

“Go on then,” Bodie said when they broke apart for a second, and it was so dark Doyle couldn’t see his eyes. There was the sound of him licking his lips. Doyle homed in on them, kissed him hard, pressed him into the wall again. He felt the pleasure of his own lean, tensile strength gaining the upper hand, setting down a marker. It was a strength Bodie would have to work very hard to counter, if he even wanted to.

Bodie might have been courteous, but even solidly trapped in place against a wall, he didn’t seem very submissive. And his hands, as might have been expected from a Demon Barber, got to work very bloody smoothly. He had the plaid shirt unbuttoned and out of Doyle’s cords in no time, humming in pleasure as he threaded a way through his chest hair. Tits out for the lads all right, Doyle thought, arching helplessly, almost wantonly, into the touch. When Bodie thumbed his nipples it made Doyle as ragingly hard as his knees had gone soft.

“Fuck,” he panted into the open mouth under his, hips jerking out of control when he was unzipped. He wanted to tell Bodie to just get him off, rough as he liked, because he was so, so ready. But somehow, as soon as the cords were open, his briefs nudged aside, he’d lost what little coherency was left. It felt as if Bodie could shatter him into teeny, tiny pieces with a single twist of his wrist. Desperate to reciprocate somehow he slid his way under Bodie’s Lacoste. Perfectly warm and smooth it was under there. Back, belly, chest.

“You feel,” he stuttered, arousal spinning through him. “You feel...” and then his fingertips snagged. Bubbling up through the satiny surface by Bodie’s ribcage there were ripples. Shocking, angry ripples, damage purled into the skin. Bodie almost rattled as the contact stalled, spine tensing as if he’d been given an electric shock. Doyle felt him trying to push out some of his own words.

At first Doyle thought he was saying no, but his processing couldn’t catch up with the thundering gallop of his desire. He wasn’t being stroked anymore, and his balls ached.

“No, Ray,” Bodie was repeating, insistent, and Doyle thought his head would explode in the resulting combination of guilt, denial, resent, and mortification.

Almost at the same moment he realized it wasn’t ‘no’ that Bodie was saying, he heard the ringing sound of the ‘phone coming from the living room.

“Fuck,” he said, and staggered backwards.

Given he wasn’t a detective anymore, there could only be one reason a phone would interrupt any attempts at having a normal life at this time of the evening. He stuffed himself back into his cords with a wince. Then he felt his way along to the living room door, patting about inside for the light switch, blinded by more than the dark.

Receiver pressed against his ear, his blood was still thumping inside his temples. One hand raked his hair, vicious. Bodie hadn’t followed him, seemed still to be out in the hallway, frozen in place by the front door.

“Is there any way you can get home, Ray?” Doyle’s older sister’s voice said down the line. She sounded both scared and needy. “Now?”

*

He had to take the whole of the next week off school.

Mr. Cowley hadn’t hesitated in agreeing to his request for compassionate leave, made, to be fair, when Doyle was already halfway to St. Pancras.

“Och, go,” he’d said down the phone line. “Your mother is the most important thing, Mr. Doyle. Take all the time you need. Your classes will survive and the exhibition can wait.”

Well, it would have to. Ma had decided her periodic bronchial illnesses were going to be even more serious than usual this time. The ambulance in the night and getting ready for a farewell scene type of serious. Oxygen masks and failing lungs. Doctors wagging their heads.

“She won’t give up the cigs,” Doyle’s younger sister said in despair when she picked him up from the train station in their mother’s Austin Minor. “We’ve been on and on at her. Can’t you talk sense into her, Ray? She listens to you.”

“I can try,” he said, fearful of what he’d find when he went to visit.

Everything else flew out of his head while he was back home. It had to, and in order to function he made damned sure it stayed out. The art exhibition, the kids, school, his social life. Bodie Macallan stroking him in the pitch dark hallway and disappearing before he hardly had time to explain why he had to leave. Before he had been able to ask all the questions he was burning to ask.

Doyle spent four days shunting different groups back and forth to the hospital twice a day for visiting hours in the Austin. One or other of his sisters usually came with him, then sometimes one sister’s outspoken new boyfriend, or else the other sister’s miserable husband and the two grandchildren.

“I’m going to die, son,” his mother said when he first arrived. She’d clutched his hand.

It certainly looked like it, more than ever before, but still Doyle wasn’t so sure. Ma had a real stubborn streak. And she’d often declared her demise was imminent. Turned out he was right to keep faith in her innate ability to keep going.

“Tell me something cheerful,” she asked when she was on the mend. That was almost a week later, the day they got her home from the hospital, installed in state in her favourite chair by the fire with a rug, an Eccles cake, and a cup of tea.

“OK,” Doyle agreed, picking up the cup and saucer to hand to her. “Well, you’re not going to die for a start.”

“Tush,” she scolded him, not being a fan of sarcasm. She stirred her tea, a little quavery. “I mean something about you, something good about you. Come on, son. Tell me about your friends and your school. Tell me about your girlfriend.”

“I told you, I haven’t got one.”

“I don’t believe it.” She didn’t either. Never had, maybe never would.

Doyle had always thought he’d tell his mother he was gay when he actually had someone worth telling her about. Someone rock-solid and permanent that he wanted her to meet. But not before then.

“But just girls then,” she persisted. “Have you been out for a drink or the cinema with any nice girls?”

“No.”

“Not a single date?” asked his younger sister from the other side of the old-fashioned lounge, eyes innocent and round.

“Well, OK.” Maybe he could say something, just to cheer his mother up. “I might have been out on a date when you called me up here. Like, right in the middle of one.”

“Well that sounds promising, love.” His mother did sound happier at that.

“So go on then,” his little sister said, catching him in the hall once ma had gone for a nap in the bed they’d set up for her in the dining room next door. “Is anything going to come of this date? Is he gorgeous? Have you had sex yet?”

“No and yes and no.”

“What, just because you got interrupted?”

“No. Just because. I don’t think he’s really my type to be honest. And I’m not sure I’m his either.”

He knew Bodie hadn’t been saying no, and yet somehow it felt as if he had.

“Oh Ray.” His sister was cross with him. “Why can’t you give anyone a proper chance? Let it go, forget all those arseholes. So they fucked up your career, but they were bloody wrong about you, weren’t they? And the right people know that. You can’t do anything about all the others and you can’t let what happened here stay with you forever. Or, you’ll be alone forever.”

“Don’t speech me,” Doyle said. “I’m fine. This is nothing to do with that.”

Of course, he knew, deep down, that almost everything in his life right now was to do with that. With being under suspicion, opting to take the high ground and give it all up, with having to leave when he hadn’t done anything – not one single official thing – wrong.

Sis was right though. Of course she was. If he let anger and betrayal run his life he was going to end up what he dreaded. Alone, single, a man unbalanced, lopped off at the roots. He thought about such a life in the train coming back to the capital. Of art and music and if he should try and find Andon Bathak again, of miserable, moody Bodie Macallan, there one minute, gone the next.

Back in London there was a lot waiting for him. While Murphy and Suze seemed to be coasting towards the summer holidays, at Manor Road the toe-rags were in the ascendance and some of their parents didn’t much like Mr. Cowley’s tough new rules on time-keeping, smartness, swearing, and noise. In the staff room the talk was of treacherous O’Level exam boards and an alarming spate of fights in the dining hall.

The art exhibition day, for all his careful planning and secret hopes of shining a light into dreary north London suburbia, was to be postponed. Indefinitely. His disappointment was visceral. It made him want to take all the work he’d accumulated, chuck it in the incinerator, and watch it all go up in black smoke.

“I’m really, really sorry, Ray,” Betty the school secretary said when he popped into her office next to Mr. Cowley’s with his registration book. “The Head just doesn’t think it will fit in. Not until September. I know you’d put a lot of work in to the planning. And it’s such a terrific idea.”

Betty, with the shiny brown hair and efficient telephone manner, was always comforting. And Betty had a soft spot for Doyle. It had been obvious since the day he’d come for his interview, been delayed by a derailment outside Bedford, and arrived two hours late, disheveled, raging, and convinced he’d blown it without shots even being fired.

“Thanks,” he said, trying not to give in to the desire to just forget the whole thing and go back home. Where OK, he might dread who he’d meet around any corner and what the neighbours tattled, but at least could be of some use to his family. He suspected, once the new school year started, he’d find it hard to get the exhibition re-activated. Already he’d been informed by Mr. Cowley he was in line to be form teacher for one of the new-intake first forms. A promotion, in effect. Thirty shiny new eleven year-olds who he knew would take up all his spare time. He plonked the book down on the edge of her desk, watched her add it to the pile she already had.

“But, on the subject of planning,” she said. “You know I’m getting hitched and all that?”

Ah yes, the wedding. Betty was marrying her childhood sweetheart in a couple of weeks’ time. A traditional service in some picturesque Norman church in a Surrey village, followed by a jolly reception at the little pub on the green.

“You’re not getting cold feet are you?” he said, tone heavier than he meant it to be. “Because I might not be the right person to help.”

Betty, he suspected, was one of the only people at Manor Road, who had any inkling why marriage wasn’t ever going to be part of Ray Doyle’s life-story. She hadn’t said anything, but she never mentioned girlfriends to him when they were in the pub at lunch-times. And she’d met Murphy.

“No.” Betty smiled, sweetly excited. “The invitations went out while you were away. It’s all very informal and I’ve kept yours in my desk instead of sending it.”

Doyle hadn’t expected that, even though he and Betty seemed to get along. He hadn’t been to a wedding since cousin Marty shocked his mother giddy by marrying a Hindu woman in a community centre in Leicester. Those few people he knew who were settling down were mostly settling down by co-habiting, and his younger sister had decided to fall hopelessly in love with a bloke who openly declared, to her eternal pain, that he was never going to give in to poxy, out-dated religious and establishment norms like marriage, so she’d just have to lump it.

That, Doyle decided, was probably the real definition of non-compatibility.

He looked over his handwritten invitation card. To his utter surprise he felt a lump in his throat. The acceptance and normality of it rather blind-sided him. Ray Doyle, wanted as a guest. Not Ray Doyle the dirty copper who it was better to avoid, or Ray Doyle the scuzzy, whistleblowing git who’d ruined countless lives.

He looked up to see Betty regarding him kindly. “Please bring someone,” she said. “A friend, a flat-mate, whoever you like.”

“No,” Doyle said to Murphy when he showed them the card later. “Not you.”

“You lousy, miserable, fucker,” Murphy said, cheery. “And after all I’ve done for you!”

“Do you need a cover?” Suze asked from beneath her fringe.

Yeah, he’d been there before. Taking a gal pal to police events to throw everyone off the scent.

“What, and leave Sal all on her own of a Saturday night? Nah, thanks, love, but I’ll be fine on my own.”

“Oh Christ, spare us the violins, you silly arse.” Murphy was trenchant. “What about the dreamy piano-player? He’d jump at the chance to get romantic in the shires, you know he would.”

Doyle thought about it, quite tempted by the daft idea of romance and those soulful blue eyes, but didn’t do anything.

“Not bringing anyone?” Cowley said, outraged, on the Friday afternoon before the wedding weekend. “Well that will be very miserable and unsociable of you, Mr. Doyle. What about that helpful young man that I met? Your soldier friend?”

And Cowley looked at him over his spectacles.

Doyle looked back, momentarily caught in the headlights. It didn’t seem possible that Mr. George Cowley, martinet and cardigan-wearer, was suggesting what it appeared he was suggesting.

“Well I’m not sure he’d want to,” he got out eventually, voice on a peculiar register, but Cowley continued to regard him as if he was, after all, a complete idiot.

Which is why, despite having obliged himself to think of Bodie Macallan as nothing more than an explosively effective trigger to his regular mastubatory rituals in the shower, Doyle found himself turning the corner into Ledbury Road early the next morning.

He was not the first customer, and had to wait on the line of chairs.

Macallan, who’d barely registered him when he came in, was busy buzz-cutting a young man with tattoos on his neck. When the door jangled for the newly skin-headed young man’s re-entry into the world, Bodie slung a look over his shoulder.

“Where’ve you been?” he demanded, straight off, and Doyle was shocked to hear how disappointed he sounded under the curt question. How hurt.

Doyle wasn’t brilliant at apologies. He knew it was one of his faults. “I did tell you why I had to go home, Bodie,” he said, bristling instead of mollifying. “And you did just run off without a word.”

“Yes,” Bodie said. He had that look of moody displeasure on his face that tended to get Doyle’s back up.

“I didn’t enjoy breaking it off either, you know.” He really hadn’t. It had made everything hurt and his balls hadn’t stopped throbbing for what seemed like bloody hours. “But I had to go.”

“I know you had to go, you told me. I’ve got a bloody mother too. You could have rung me.”

Doyle was blind-sided all over again. “I didn’t think…” he began. “To be honest, mate, I wasn’t sure you…”

Bodie gave an exaggerated sigh. “Oh never mind,” he said. “As if I go round unzipping every bloody queer’s trousers in town. You’re here for a haircut I presume.”

“If you’re free.”

“Take a seat.”

Bodie moved away from the chair to get the broom, and Doyle felt a pang to see the awkwardness of his gait. The way his breath suddenly seemed to catch and his jaw to tighten.

“Your leg,” he couldn’t help saying.

Bodie swung around with the broom, began to deal with the pile of grey hair clippings on the floor under the chair. He glanced up once, impatient, jerked his head at the seat.

“Go on, sit down.” The broom clattered as he pushed it back up against the wall.

Doyle slid into the chair. When Bodie was standing behind him he stared straight into his face in the mirror. A little paler than last time he’d seen him, with those tiny lines of tension more noticeable around his eyes.

“Well?” he said.

Bodie appeared to swallow. “Wish I could give you a romantic storyline for it,” he said. “It’s shrapnel damage. Made a bit of a bloody mess. Not just the leg either, as you discovered. I was a little too near an unexpected nail bomb when it detonated. Could have been worse. Just get a little lop-sided some days.”

“OK,” Doyle said. “I’m sorry. Thanks for telling me.” He felt a weight lift off him at the knowledge. At the same time as a profound hurt in his chest. He guessed it was why Bodie hadn’t wanted to swim at the Cabreras party. Why he’d been so keen to keep them in the dark when he’d been up against the wall in the flat. Why he’d expected the worst under Doyle’s questing touch.

“No connection to Bodger then?” he asked, trying to lighten the tone.

“Nah. Did some training exercises in the desert once and Bodger somehow found his way home from the nearest souk with me.” Bodie threaded his fingers through Doyle’s hair, gentle. “So, the usual?”

“Listen,” Doyle said. “I’m going to a wedding. So might need the full works, you know.”

“Very nice. Not yours, I hope?”

“A colleague from school, the headmaster’s secretary, lovely girl.”

“So you’ll be wanting to look nice and handsome then, which might be a bit of a challenge.”

“Funny.”

“To go with the good suit you’ll be trying and probably failing to wear.”

There was a suit, in fact, hanging up in the wardrobe, ready to go. Doyle had hired it from Moss Bros, actually thought he looked rather swish in it.

“Bodie,” Doyle said, voice a little shaky as he tried to shift the tone from jokey to serious. “I don’t really know if this is a good idea.”

“The hair?”

Doyle dug his fingernails into the leather armrests. “No, not the hair, you plonker. I mean, I asked you out before because I wanted to go on a date with you. And I’m sorry it didn’t work out. But, look. OK. Would you, I dunno, do you want to come to this wedding with me?”

There, he’d said it.

“What as?” The eyebrow went up.

“What do you mean, what… as my fucking hairdresser!” Doyle burst out. “What do you bloody think what as?”

Bodie’s lips quirked at that. He shifted stiffly to one side to grab a cover-up, shook it out and draped it over Doyle’s chest. “Just checking,” he said.

“You don’t have to be anything.” Doyle tried not to be too earnest.

“What if I want to be?”

Doyle’s face flamed. Why did he have to make everything so bloody difficult?

“So that’s a yes then? You’ll come?”

“Yeah, why not.” He was annoyingly blasé. “Long as there’s not too much walking involved. When is it?”

“Well it’s this afternoon actually. In Surrey. Cowley’s driving.”

Bodie let out the bark of a laugh, the first Doyle had ever heard from him. “Oh right,” he said. “So has someone else let you down? It’s not that poncey piano player is it? Am I last-minute desperate second choice because he’s bailed on you?”

“No,” Doyle said, and he didn’t try not to be too earnest this time. “You’re actually the only choice. The only possible bloody choice.” He shrugged. “To be honest, I didn’t want to fancy you.”

“Yeah well,” Bodie said, eyes slitting slightly in concentration. The scissors nibbled meaningfully past Doyle’s carotid. “Didn’t want to bloody fancy you either.”

And they stared at each other in the mirror, rocked once again by the sheer inevitability of it.

“What did you mean by that?” Doyle asked him much later at the reception.

By then it all seemed to Doyle very far from London and reality, although really it was only about forty miles. The Crown Inn was chocolate-box pretty and across the road from its mullioned windows there was a duck pond and cricket on the green. They’d had to drag Bodie away from the boundary on the way past from the church.

Lazy now on a good three-course meal and the remains of all the wine the rest of the table had abandoned, the two of them were jammed side by side under some very low beams at the back of the room.

“Eh?” Bodie sloshed some more red into his glass. He was a bit of a drinker, which was somewhat worrying. Doyle supposed the leg had something to do with it.

The meal and speeches were finished, and the bride and groom were busy perambulating around the pub before making their grand exit. Bodie was wearing a nice grey suit but hadn’t had time for much of a shave before they’d left, giving him a rather dissolute air that Doyle found he didn’t mind at all. He himself was smarter (thanks to Bodie’s last-minute ministrations and shirt advice) than he’d probably ever been in his life. Betty had appreciated it. Mr. Cowley, too.

“What did you mean by you didn’t want to fancy me either?”

“Well it wouldn’t do my business much good if I wanted to undress every pretty backside in tight jeans that came waltzing in, now would it? Work and pleasure need to be kept strictly separate. What’s your excuse?”

“No excuse,” Doyle said, and grinned at him.

He liked the fact that, now Bodie was surer of himself, he wasn’t holding back on expressing his feelings. Space was at such a premium at the Crown Inn that Bodie’s thigh was sealed against his. Warm, firm, secure. It was one very good reason why they seemed not to have budged from their table although most other guests were mingling. It felt to Doyle, eased into relaxation by the happiness of someone else’s day and the smoothness of the Merlot, as if it could have been the right moment to mention why he’d cordoned himself off from emotional dangers over the last few years.

“But you did fancy me?” Bodie said. “You do?”

Such a turn-on, that little touch of insecurity.

“Would have shown you how much if me old ma’s lungs hadn’t threatened to give it all up as a bad job.”

“Well, you know, not wanting to assume anything.” Bodie leaned forward as if he was going for the remains of someone’s bread roll, breath gusting against Doyle’s cheek. “But, you could always show me again tonight like.”

Doyle’s blood raced under his skin.

All he had to do was admit it. He wanted to, he really wanted to. There could be a tonight, and maybe a tomorrow. Skip the one-night stand. Make it a two-night stand. Three nights. More.

“Oi oi,” Bodie said then. “The bride seems to be signalling to you.”

Through in the main bar area, Doyle could see Betty, all white fluff and lace, beckoning crossly. He slid a hand along Bodie’s good thigh from groin to knee. Just to underline his intentions. “Right,” he said. “Better go and be sociable. Not sure I want everyone whispering about us anyway.”

Bodie held both his hands up above the table. “I’m innocent, mate,” he said. “Strictly talking football and cars, that’s us.”

He mostly leaned against the bar watching while Doyle chatted to the groom and the other teachers. Betty had disappeared, and Doyle knew enough to recognize she was changing into the mysterious thing called the “going-away outfit.” His older sister’s had involved a daft little peach hat with a feather on it.

Weddings. They could be seriously fraught. That he knew from his own family experience, and from the number of lairy, reception-related punch-ups he’d attended as a young copper. This one, however, was different. Doyle had a warm feeling in his stomach about it. About even being here.

He wound his way back to Bodie eventually.

And then Mr. Cowley came over, just as they were about to get into talking about tonight again. He’d been strictly teetotal during the meal since he was driving, but he was clearly in need of something for the road. After leaning between them at the bar and scanning the bottles he asked for a small Glenfiddich.

“Ice? Splash of water?” the barmaid asked.

“Ach,” Cowley said. “As it comes.” He indicated Bodie and Doyle. “Gentleman,” he said. “Can I get you anything?”

Since the only time Doyle had been in the pub with him Cowley had managed not to buy a round at all, it seemed chary to refuse.

“I’ll have what you’re having, sir,” he said.

“Very good. Mr. Macallan?”

“Same same.”

When they had charged glasses they chinked, full of a sudden bonhomie.

“Nice wedding,” Cowley said. “Betty’s a good girl.”

Bodie’s eyes crinkled. “And her parents have got a bob or two,” he observed. Normally such barbed humour would have made Cowley testy, but he smiled, benign.

“So,” he said, gesturing at their surroundings. “Long way from the constabulary, eh, Doyle?”

Oh, Christ.

Doyle went hot and then cold. He took a slug of Glenfiddich, tried to cough but couldn’t. The scotch was scorching his throat.

Bodie frowned, as if he hadn’t quite caught something that had been said. “Constabulary?” he repeated.

“Well,” Cowley went on, oblivious. “Army to hairdresser is quite the career change, Mr. Macallan, but policing to teaching is another I’d say, wouldn’t you?” And he looked at Doyle rather proudly.

Bodie put his glass down on the bar top slowly. He seemed quite calm, although the attractive crinkles of amusement around his eyes had quite gone. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose it would be.” He looked to Doyle. “So how come I didn’t know you were a copper then, Ray?” His voice was chilly. It made Doyle’s stomach feel chilled, too.

“Well, well,” Cowley said, perhaps catching the froideur. “Both part of serving the community. Lots of crossover.”

There was some hubbub across the bar room then, the sight of Betty in her mint green suit and white fascinator. Cowley had already pushed away from the bar to go towards the crowd around her.

“Go on,” Bodie said. He was standing up straight as if at attention on the parade ground. And he was walled up again. Gone.

“I suppose I should have said.” Doyle wasn’t even sure if that was true or not. The problem, he felt sure, was with Bodie and not with him. “Are you coming over to say goodbye?”

“Course,” Bodie said, downing the scotch. He seemed very focused. “Just need to take a slash.”

Doyle knew, all the time he was kissing the bride goodbye, wishing them a great honeymoon, numbly thanking the bride’s parents for inviting him to such a lovely occasion, that Bodie wasn’t going to come back.

Maybe not ever.

*

As well as hurting like hell, it pissed him off, truth be told. Royally.

God knows he was used to people’s negative attitudes towards the police force. He had the shattered cheekbone and career in tatters to prove it. And he knew, first hand, just how dirty some coppers could be. But Bodie Macallan’s reaction seemed ridiculously out of proportion. Especially as things had been going so well between them up until the revelation. It was almost wilful. As if, after all, Bodie had been waiting for something to latch on to that would make him able to run away.

Or maybe that was Doyle.

Fuck, but it was too dispiriting trying to set your cap at someone so cross and mercurial. He opted to feel rightfully angry at the Cinderella rejection and be done with it. Not that it changed the persistent way Bodie’s face went on popping into his head, or his increasingly heated morning shower routine.

Murphy and Suze were quiet about it, too. Which just seemed to suggest that it was big fucking disappointment all round.

And now he had a summer in London without work to distract him. A summer in which he could probably be bloody lonely if he wasn’t careful. The end of term came up on them all quickly. He received presents from a few of the kids which lifted his spirits, and took a peek into what would be “his” form-room in a few weeks’ time. Form 1A, Mr. Doyle’s Form. It should have felt good, like progress, but somehow it didn’t. There had been the briefest promise of someone to share all of this with, at least for a while. Now, nothing. No holidays planned except for a week at the usual Normanby Terrace B&B at the top of Whitby. Him, his bossy big sister, the kids, and his mother who would cling to him like a limpet all the way down the hill and all the way up again, stopping only to look in every single shop they passed. Huge breakfasts, airy walks, fish and chips on the quay, a game of cribbage before bed. Nice, but not what he really needed.

“You could always go round and see the guy,” Sally eventually suggested. She wasn’t generally the type to be soppy, but she did seem worried about him.

“I think he’s made it pretty clear he’s not interested. Not anymore.” Doyle didn’t even like saying the words. They scraped on him, painful. Made him feel pathetic, rejected, and furious all at once.

“Just because of the police thing?”

“Who knows.” Doyle shrugged, feeling his throat close up. “Doesn’t matter anyway.”

“It does matter,” Sally said.

“His loss, Ray.” Suze cuddled his arm.

Murphy looked between them all as if trying to decide if he was going to venture an opinion. He’d been conspicuously treading on eggshells for days which wasn’t his usual way.

“The handsome ones are always shits,” he said in the end.

It was so very much not what Doyle wanted to hear that he almost laughed. Almost.

Sally, tired of sympathy, pointed out that although she hadn’t known him long, Ray Doyle had never seemed to her the type who gave up on things. The sentiment was welcome enough, but Doyle felt he could have pointed out in return that perhaps he wouldn’t be down here in London at all if he hadn’t been the type who gave up on things.

But he decided to go to Ledbury Road anyway. Because it ached, constantly, like a wound that wouldn’t heal, this feeling that there was unfinished business, something unavoidable, an imperative he mustn’t ignore.

The shop was closed.

There was no apparent reason for it, and for a second Doyle had the horrible feeling that Bodie had shut up for good and gone away. But, cupping his hands against the glass he could see that everything inside was where it should be – the chair, the sink, the table, Bodger the camel. But no Bodie.

Turning on his heel, Doyle set off up the road for the café. The place was a fug of steam, smelled, as usual, of fried eggs and tea leaves. The yellow formica tables were all empty although there were plenty of plates and cups to be cleared up. Morning rush recently over, Jax was busing drying glasses on a striped tea-towel behind the counter.

“Hello, Ray,” he said, not that surprised when Doyle came in. A little hesitation. “What you doing here?”

Doyle closed the door and came over to the counter. He was a long way past beating about the bush. “I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me where Bodie is would you?”

Jax gave him a guarded look, went on drying glasses.

Doyle put his hands on his hips. “OK. Well in that case, I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me what his problem is?” He waved a hand over his shoulder. “And why isn’t he working on a weekday morning?”

Jax set down the glass next to a row of already sparkling ones. “He had a fall,” he said. “Couple of weeks ago.”

It was like a kick in the gut. A serious kick from nowhere that almost winded him. “Fuck,” Doyle said, hand going to his hair. He grasped a handful of it, agitated. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“Leg gave out on him, went arse over tit down a couple of steps at Waterloo Station. Don’t look like that, he’s not too bad. Banged up his banged-up knee and clonked himself on the noddle but he’s hard as nails your boy.”

Doyle blinked at him, stupid.

There was the faintest smirk from Jax. “I’m not dim,” he said.

“So, what? He in hospital?” Doyle still felt as if he had hardly enough breath to speak.

“Nah, we haven’t anything as dramatic as that for a few years, thank God. He’s probably at home now. The shop’s only been shut an hour or so because he was going to the GP to have a moan about his war wounds. He’s fine, back to normal really.”

“I don’t know his address,” Doyle said, helpless.

Jax glanced up as the café door opened and a bloke in workmen’s clothes came in. “Be with you in a minute,” he said, and then looked back to Doyle. “Bodie’s a good mate of mine. Had some knocks but, you know, always been here to give a helping hand around the neighbourhood. Wouldn’t want anyone messing him around, know what I mean?”

“You mean, like, what are my intentions towards him?”

“Something like that.” Jax turned his attention briefly to his customer “You know what you want, mate?”

The bloke had been studying the menu listed in uneven magnetic letters on a white board behind Jax’s head.

“Large tea,” he said. “Large sausage sandwich. Brown sauce.”

“Coming right up.” Jax scribbled on a pad, ripped off the top sheet and put in on the shelf of the hatch through which Doyle could see and hear a little kitchen. Then he set off to clear the table full of plates and wipe it down with a cloth. Finally he came back to Doyle.

“Look,” he said. “Bodie likes you a lot, I can tell. Like really a hell of a lot. But things aren’t always that simple for him if you know what I mean.” A pause. “He said he’d told you about the leg.”

“Just that it was shrapnel. I was fine that he didn’t want to tell me any more.”

“Well I guess you would understand, being, as it turns out, a copper and all.” The rebuke was there in his voice.

“An ex-copper,” Doyle said, hanging on to his patience. “And what’s his thing about the police anyhow?”

“He’d have to tell you that himself, Ray.”

Like a bloody guard dog was Jax, and flat-out unwilling to give him Bodie’s address. Ray Doyle knew all the ways to get information from people, but however strong the impulse to find out where Bodie lived and go marching round there, he let it drop. Invading Bodie’s privacy in his home, or breaking Jax’s loyalty to him, wouldn’t help.

A phone call at the shop didn’t seem to be the way to go either. Doyle couldn’t stand that he couldn’t get past it, couldn’t get it out of his mind, couldn’t forget the sharp shock of learning Bodie had fallen.

“Ray, mate,” Murphy said to him in the end, patting his cheek as he sat at the kitchen table with a mug of tea and the paper one morning, mostly just staring into space. “I know I’m no good at this sort of thing, but just go and get yourself a sodding haircut would you?”

“Yeah,” Doyle said, floofing at it, automatic. “Yeah, good idea.”

He chose the end of a hot, summery Friday. The day before going to Whitby.

“Oh God, if this is another last-minute wedding,” Bodie said when Doyle came through the door of the barbershop. The dig seemed to come out too fast.

He was perched, uncomfortable-looking, on a high, bar-stool with a back, and Bodger had been pushed aside so he could get at the accounts. Dressed in his usual Demon Barber ensemble, he was looking a good deal less crisp than before. Positively crumpled to be honest. The high chair was a new addition, and Doyle didn’t much like what it said about the state of him.

“You all right then?” Doyle remained half in and half out the open door. “I heard you took a tumble.”

“Like I said, I get a little lop-sided sometimes.” Bodie paused, pursed his lips before continuing. “Thanks for asking.”

Doyle let the door go, heard it click shut behind him. He turned around to switch the open sign to closed, and then turned back to Bodie again.

“I was a policeman for nearly nine years,” he said.

Bodie looked at him, wary. “Good for you.”

“Yeah, good for me, because I bloody loved it, being a copper. ‘til I got shat on by people I thought had my back, that is, until I was accused of corruption. Even when the accusations were shown to be false, my good old oppos wouldn’t have it, you know? No smoke without fire, they said, and everyone listened. So, although it was the hardest, and maybe stupidest, thing I ever did, I decided they could stuff their job. Because I knew I’d never outrun that, no matter how good I was. Not that and being a bloody queer.”

It was some time since he’d told the story, even in such a distilled version.

“Probably would have done the same thing myself.” Bodie was non-committal.

“Well that’s why.” Doyle spread his hands. “Why I’m here, in this city, having this different life than I ever thought. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, OK? I mean, I saw you with that PC, but I didn’t know you hated us – them – that much.”

“As it happens, I know all about dodgy coppers.” Bodie shifted on the chair, rubbed his bad leg. “It was a bunch of them caused this, gave us bad intel. Would never have happened if they hadn’t fucked up.”

“A bunch?”

“Well, OK, a couple. But I had to lie in a bloody hospital bed waiting to lose my leg while the fucking cops blamed everyone else but themselves.”

“You didn’t though,” Doyle said, “lose your leg, I mean.”

For a moment Bodie looked as if he might hit the ceiling. “It went to court,” he said, jaw tight. “They still wouldn’t admit it.”

“There are good coppers too, you know.” Doyle hadn’t said such a thing for a very long time, had almost forgotten that he believed it. “In fact, most of them are.”

Bodie narrowed his eyes. “Well the more of the good ones that leave, the more the bad ones get to run the show I guess.”

And that hurt. As Doyle knew it was meant to.

“Fair enough,” he said, as evenly as he could. “Didn’t feel like I had much choice at the time.”

Bodie shut his eyes for a moment, as if he was pained. When he popped them open again he said, “Well, I’m not as high-minded as you, but I suppose hating an entire profession because of one balls-up just makes me a bit of a pillock.” He shifted again on the chair, that look of stiff-jawed irritation back on his face. Doyle was coming to learn what it meant. That it was physical, and not about him.

“Yeah maybe,” he said, and that got the edges of a grin.

Bodie swiped his scissors from his apron pocket and waved them. “You here for this?”

“No. Well, yes. Yes, I was. But now, no.” Doyle could feel an odd drumming sound in his ears. “I came to say sorry. To make sure you were all right. When Jax told me you’d gone down I… yeah. Well, anyway. Glad you’re not too bad.”

Bodie stared at him. As if he was deciding something. “It’s not very pretty,” he said at last, and a muscle jumped in his jaw. His hand paused above his leg although he didn’t touch it. “A bit mangled. And the scarring – well, you found some of that. It makes me a grumpy sod, Ray.”

“I’m not afraid of grumpy, sunshine.”

That seemed to amuse Bodie. He slipped the scissors back in his pocket. “So,” he said. There was a short, meaningful silence. “Are we going to do this then? Try again? A drink or two, night out?”

“Well OK,” Doyle said, moving across the black and white tiles. “I suppose we could give it a go. If you like.”

“Sure?” Again, that hint of insecurity.

“Listen.” Doyle reached the chair then, put his hands on Bodie’s thighs. “I don’t care about your gammy bloody leg, or your scars.”

He slid his hands up to Bodie’s hips, sucked in a breath as Bodie cupped his arse in return, eyes crinkling. “Drinks,” Bodie repeated. “Nights out.” He frowned. “Nights in?”

“Definitely nights in. Lots of sex. Me on top.”

“Oh no, no,” Bodie said, stroking both hands down his backside and then up again. “I get to have a go too.”

“Fine. Whatever. Just so long as there’s lots of it.”

He studied Bodie’s mouth as he leaned in, looked into his eyes just before their lips met.

Perfect. Matched.

Inevitable.

Epilogue – some years later

“Your hair,” Bodie said in wonder.

The pads of his fingers were so familiar against Doyle’s scalp, so grounding. He smoothed out the newly snipped strands, proprietory. “It really is a bloody crowning glory. Still.”

“I’ll bloody crowning glory you if you don’t hurry up,” Doyle returned. Although he caught hold of one of Bodie’s hands as it fell away, lifted it to his lips.

There was morning sun splashing across the carpet in their bedroom.

Doyle looked at Bodie in the mirror, standing behind him, scissors in his top pocket. Such a well-known, well-loved ritual. How long had they been together now? Doyle did keep having to repeat it to himself because it was unbelievable to him, immense.

Thirty eight years. Nearly thirty nine. All that time and all those moments. Slogging at it sometimes, for sure, clinging on with mutual obstinacy each time the other wavered. They’d seen Betty get divorced – twice. Kept Sal and Suze together somehow. Seen Mr. Cowley slip his moorings with near faultless, crusty stoicism. Moved flats about ten times. Taught kids, cut hair, painted pictures, set up exhibitions, visited Murphy’s farm in Ireland, had grim sessions of physio, learned to cook, rode motorbikes in Africa, beat illnesses, hauled each other back from the brink. Retired, shared, saved, spent, endured. Every single second perfectly worth it, and leading right to this day. This marvel.

“Got it all straight then?” Bodie asked, when Doyle was on his feet. He plumped Doyle’s tie for him, gave him a kiss. “Your lines? The old call and response?”

“Just watch me, sunshine.”

Bodie’s eyes crinkled. He reached out to snag his stick, spoke in mock serious tones. “I dunno, Ray. You look a bit nervy to me. Think you’ll carry through?”

“I will,” Doyle promised him at around midday.

His heart was beating so very hard and fast in his chest he thought the entire room at Westminster Registry Office would hear it and call an ambulance.

It had been a long time coming – almost four decades – but oh God yes, too right he would.

At the top of the steps above the slow-crawling traffic on the Marylebone Road Bodie looked at him, eyebrow hiked in faint challenge. Or mischief, it was always hard to tell. He chucked his stick, Fred Astaire-like, at Jax. Then he reeled Doyle in, chest to chest. Laughed at him.

Mischief, then. And Doyle knew what was coming.

A kiss, in public, for almost the first time, in front of what felt like the whole of west London.

Not just one, either. Another kiss, and another, holding on to each other like crazy, two old blokes moving slowly round on the spot under a light London drizzle that made you wetter than you were expecting, while people lower down the steps applauded, and bawdy car horns sounded on the street.

God knows Doyle had cared about a lot of things over the years, but Bodie trying to wind him up wasn’t one of them.

Because this was really it.

This was them.

 

-The End-