Johnny fumbles his alarm into silence and yawns. The air in the bedroom is cool but it’s lost the sting of winter and Gheorghe radiates heat. He’s pressed up against Johnny’s back, one arm slung around him, holding him close, as if to stop him from leaving. Johnny doesn’t think he could leave even if he wanted to; he’s never felt so warm and content.
Gheorghe yawns, stretches, presses a kiss to the side of Johnny’s head, pushes back the covers and climbs out of bed. When he hears the toilet flush, Johnny does likewise.
He comes downstairs to the kitchen to find Gheorghe holding out a mug of tea. It’s strong, sweet and milky. They drink together in silence.
Even in the grey, muted light of pre-dawn. Gheorghe’s beautiful. Johnny looks at him and thinks, I love this man. I love him and he’s here. He’s here because I love him, and because he loves me.
“I want to look at that fence in the south-west field,” says Gheorghe. “We can do that after we’ve fed the animals. And you need to show me what you’ve done with the antiseptic.”
“Alright,” says Johnny, and he finishes his tea. They pull on their boots and coats and head outside, and as they make their way across the yard Johnny sees the faint pink-orange glow of sunrise creeping up over the horizon.
They’re up in the top field repairing the broken wall of the lambing shed under the blazing July sun. There’s not much needs to be done with the sheep at this time of year so they’re getting ahead on jobs for the winter. The farm’s doing - well, not well, but not currently on the verge of collapse, which is nice. Johnny should be happy.
Johnny’s fucking miserable. His nose and the back of his neck are glowing hot in a way that tells him he’ll be peeling and sore tomorrow because his pale Yorkshire skin can’t hack a bit of sunshine, he’s got a pounding headache, and he’s got a blister on his thumb from all the sawing.
“So, I was thinking of getting some chickens,” says Gheorghe.
Johnny takes the excuse to pause for a moment and look up. For someone who’s spent the past three hours hammering boards into place, Gheorghe looks surprisingly content. He’s wearing the sensible shorts Johnny’s nan bought him for his birthday last week and a pair of wrap-around sunglasses he swapped for a block of sheep’s cheese at the market the other week (Johnny still can’t work out if that was a good deal or not). No shirt.
“Chickens,” says Gheorghe. Holding the board in place with one hand, he fishes a nail out of his pocket, holds it in place with the forefinger and thumb of his splayed hand, and deftly hammers it in. “We could get some chickens, put them in the barn, have eggs for breakfast. They’re easy.”
“Foxes’ll get them.”
“Perhaps. You would not mind?”
“Do what you like,” says Johnny, and he wipes the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
Gheorghe gives him a glance at that. He puts the hammer down and stretches. “Lunchtime, I think. You want to cool off?”
They take the bike down to the river and ten minutes later they’re bollock naked in the cold water, gulping it down and splashing each other and laughing like twats. Johnny stretches out naked in the sun afterwards to dry off and Gheorghe fetches the plastic bag with their lunch.
“Here,” says Gheorghe, also naked, handing Johnny a thick, rough-cut sandwich.
Johnny sits up to take it. “Cheers.”
The bread is fresh; Gheorghe made it yesterday. Johnny realises abruptly that he’s starving and he practically inhales it. His skin prickles and tingles as it dries. The air hums with heat and the sound of insects buzzing in the fields. At his feet the river gurgles past, cool and inviting.
“You’re an asshole when you’re hungry,” says Gheorghe in an observational tone, as if he was commenting on fencing or the weather.
Johnny turns to look at him. Gheorghe’s sitting cross-legged on his shorts. The dark wet curls of his hair are plastered flatly against his head. He’s different shades of brown all over - darkest on his arms and neck and face, lightening on his chest, pale on his stomach and arse and inner thighs. His cock and balls hang softly, shadowed between his legs.
“You’re an asshole all the time,” says Johnny.
Gheorghe smirks at him. “Lucky for you I like your asshole.”
And Johnny suddenly wants him, badly, and he rises up on his knees and leans across to kiss him on his mouth that tastes of clean cold river-water and fish-paste sandwiches, and it’s a long time before they make it back up to the top field.
Tea’s ready by the time Johnny gets out of the bath. He can smell the rich peppery scent of ghoulash drifting up the stairs, and he dresses quickly before leaping down them two at a time.
The question of cooking has been a thorny one. Johnny’s nan refuses to accept help with running the house, hates a mess being made of her kitchen, and mistrusts all foreign food on principle. But with Johnny’s dad needing ever more help, it had made sense for one of them to take on some of the cooking, and it wasn’t going to be Johnny unless they wanted the food to be inedible. Besides, Gheorghe missed food from home, and as Johnny lived in fear of the day Gheorghe decided to return to Romania, he was strongly in favour of anything that might reduce his homesickness.
A compromise had eventually been reached. Gheorghe is permitted to cook dinner once a week provided that he and Johnny clear up afterwards. Foreign food may be introduced on a trial basis provided it’s not too spicy. Most of the dishes Gheorghe tried had been met with disapproval but ghoulash with reduced paprika had been deemed acceptable and had the bonus of being easy for Johnny’s dad to eat, so it has become a regular fixture. (Johnny suspects Gheorghe of gradually increasing the quantity of paprika each time he cooks it, but as Johnny’s found that he likes it he’s opted not to say anything).
Johnny helps his nan get his dad sat down as Gheorghe’s dishing out, and they all tuck in. It’s dark outside now; the days are getting shorter, busier, and colder. He’s glad of the warming food.
“Fat?” says his dad.
“Aye, not bad,” says Johnny. They’ve been keeping an eye on the ewes - too fat or too thin, and they’re less likely to conceive. The sheep have been separated into groups according to whether they need to be fed up or slimmed down in preparation for being put in with the rams next week. “Reckon they’re ready for tupping.”
“They’re in good shape and all.”
Johnny’s dad nods and lets himself be fed. It’s a slow, messy process that Johnny’s nan tackles with infinite patience. Looking away, Johnny finds Gheorghe giving him a look.
Johnny clears his throat. “I looked at those leaflets the doctor gave us. About carers.”
“We’re not putting your dad in a home,” says his nan, hard as flint and twice as sharp.
“I didn’t say that.”
“I know what that doctor’s like, saying we can’t cope. He’s better off at home.”
“I know,” says Johnny. He hates this. He wishes he was out in the fields or getting blind drunk or fucking; anything to avoid having this conversation. But he’s done ignoring facts, and the fact is that his dad currently needs all the help that they are capable of giving. If he has another stroke, which the doctor seemed to think was likely, they won’t be able to cope. Johnny’s dad is ill, and his nan is old, and Johnny is likely to outlive them both and he needs to prepare for that. Those are facts, true as a barren ewe isn’t worth keeping. “They have people who can visit us, help look after him.”
“And how would we pay for that?”
“It’s means-tested. And we’ve not got much money so it’d be probably be free for us. We could at least apply and find out.”
His nan narrows her eyes at Gheorghe. “I suppose this was your idea?”
“What do you think, dad?” asks Johnny before Gheorghe can reply. Gheorghe only brought it up because he has a friend of a friend from Romania who's working as a care worker, which is unlikely to endear John's nan to the idea.
His dad screws up his face in concentration. “Worth. Asking.”
Johnny sits back in relief as Gheorghe starts to clear away the plates. They don’t discuss it again until they’re alone in the kitchen and they can hear the telly blasting away.
“I thought that went well,” says Gheorghe as he dries a plate.
“She didn’t smack me, you mean.”
Gheorghe comes closer, wraps his arms around Johnny from behind and rests his chin on Johnny’s shoulder. “I’m proud of you.”
And Johnny stands there, his hands plunged in soapy water, Gheorghe’s hot breath tickling his ear, and is grateful.
Gheorghe’s already tucked up in bed by the time Johnny makes it upstairs. He’s huddled under the blankets, sneezing and coughing away, tissue box close at hand.
“Alright?” says Johnny, closing the door behind him and setting the mug of honey and lemon down on the bedside table. “Brought you a drink.”
Gheorghe emerges from his cocoon with a piteous moan. “No. I am not alright. I am dying. Fuck your country and its shitty fucking colds and its shitty fucking weather.” He managed to sit up though and wraps his hands around the mug as if its warmth alone will cure him.
“Ah.” Johnny undresses and climbs over Gheorghe and gets into bed on the far side so the Gheorghe can stay close to his tissue and hot drink. It’s boiling under all the blankets. He finds the hot water bottle and kicks it down to the foot of the bed.
Gheorghe inhales the steam and sighs. “This is good. Thank you.”
“S’alright.” Johnny burrows closer, rests his head on Gheorghe’s stomach and closes his eyes.
“How are the animals?” One hand comes down to rest on Johnny’s hand, stroking his hair absentmindedly.
“Alright.” Johnny yawns. “Lots of twins, I’m thinking. Booked the vet to come do scans week after next.”
“That is good.” Gheorghe’s hand is warm and gentle, the rhythm soothing. “I think next year will be a good year.”
“Aye,” says Johnny, hovering on the edge of sleep. He’s thinking of lambs, and money, and care for his dad, and of his grandad’s wedding ring that he’s got hidden in his sock drawer, waiting for the right moment. Tomorrow, maybe, if Gheorghe’s feeling better."It'll be lambing again soon enough."
"Wonderful. We can freeze and eat terrible food and fuck in the mud again."
"Weren't all bad," says Johnny, and he catches Gheorghe's free hand in his own.
"No." Gheorghe tucks a stray strand of hair behind Johnny's ear. "It was not."
“Goodnight,” says Gheorghe, and his hand is still moving as Johnny falls asleep.