When his phone goes, Robbie’s awake, though he hasn’t been for long. He’s comfortable and warm in bed, and so he’s just been lying there, listening to the quiet creaking of the house as the central heating comes on and starts to lift the night’s chill. He can tell without opening his eyes that it’s still properly dark outside, and he’s enjoying the feeling of not having to immediately launch himself out of bed and get on with the business of getting ready for work. It’s only one day’s holiday, but he’s glad of it, given that he’s had to work most of Christmas. He’s just starting to drift off again when his phone rings. Years of early morning callouts mean that his hand finds it without him even having to open his eyes. He knows it can only be James at this hour, today, but he glances at the screen just to make sure. Seven o’clock. Jesus.
“Morning, James.” He yawns as the words come out; his voice is sleep-rough and purposely quiet—he’s feeling reluctant to disturb the early morning peace.
“Happy New Year, sir. Are you alright?” James’ voice sounds hushed too, as if he’s trying to soften his interruption of Robbie’s peace and quiet.
Robbie yawns again. “Happy New Year. I’m good, just not quite awake yet. It’s a bit early. You OK?”
“I’m fine. Sorry about the early hour. I’ve just had a look at the weather forecast and it isn’t great. I wanted to see what you think before you get all your walking stuff on and make your sandwiches.”
“You’re up already then, are you?”
There’s a slight pause at the other end. “No, not yet.” James yawns. “You know, it is possible to get the internet on a phone in the comfort of one’s bed.”
“I know. It just wouldn’t have surprised me if you’d been up since the crack of dawn, that’s all.”
He hears James shift around. “You getting up now, James?”
“No, I was just getting more comfortable.”
“OK.” For some reason that pleases him. He gets an image of James in bed, face surrounded by a drift of snowy white sheets. He’s never actually seen James’ bedroom; in fact, he’s only been to his flat a handful of times. He finds himself wondering if James has a duvet, like everyone else, or whether he has old-fashioned blankets and a bedspread. Whatever it is, he’s pretty certain it’ll all be very plain and tasteful—no floral monstrosities for Hathaway. He smiles to himself in the dark.
“You still there, sir?”
“Thought you’d drifted off.”
“Still here. Go on then, tell me the worst.”
“The worst? About what? The year to come? Myself?”
“Well, I had the weather in mind, but if you’ve got some personal scandal to share, I’m all ears.”
There’s a muffled snort. “A bit too early in the day for confessions. The Met Office says grey cloud and between twenty and forty percent chance of rain most of the day for Swindon and its environs. The BBC says pretty much the same. Weather.com, as quoted by Google, says a high chance of rain about lunchtime, and the little cloud symbols stay a troublingly dark shade of grey all afternoon. I’ve tried to check the forecast for the villages around where we’d be walking, but they all just have the same forecast as Swindon.”
“You’ve been shopping around for weather, trying to find the best deal? I’m not sure it works like that.”
“Just consulting several sources to see if their stories match-up.”
“Your day job’s showing, Sergeant. What about temperature?”
“Fairly mild; well, chilly first thing but getting up to twelve degrees—that’s low fifties in old money.”
“I’m not that stuck in the past, thank you very much. Anyway, it’ll be a damn sight colder up on that ridgeway, if we make it up there. Especially if it’s breezy.”
“You’d better put your thermal long-johns on then, sir, if we’re still going?”
“You having second thoughts?”
There’s the sound of sheets rustling again, amplified by the phone to a loud crackling in Robbie’s ear. “I’m just quite comfortable here. Right now I’m struggling to picture myself striding up a muddy hill in the driving rain.”
Funnily enough, Robbie can picture James—all long legs and hi-tech backpack—walking a few steps ahead of him as they make their way along a narrow path up the side of a hill. “Well, it was your idea James—a bracing walk to start the year—it’s fine if you want to change your mind. I’m happy either way.” And he is. He’s been looking forward to the walk with James, to the two of them getting away from work for a day, blowing the cobwebs away. He can’t say that the clambering up rain-swept hills part of the plan hugely appeals to him, but having a bit of a laugh and seeing some nice countryside, maybe a pint in a country pub—he has been looking forward to all that. But right now he’s feeling no great urge to get on with it. There are definitely worst things than lying in bed, all warm and comfortable, quietly chatting with James before the rest of the world has started stirring. For a few moments Robbie listens to James’ breathing—he can practically hear James weighing up the pros and cons. Eventually, there’s a decisive intake of breath and Robbie knows they’re going walking.
“Let’s do it. It’ll be good to get out of Oxford; feel the wind in our hair.”
Robbie snorts, softly. “Those of us who’ve got hair.” James’ most recent haircut had been on the severe side, to say the least.
“You can be very mean, sir.”
“So can your barber.”
He can feel James smiling all the way down the line. “I don’t go to a barber, I go to a unisex salon, where I see Melanie, who understands my coiffureal needs perfectly, thank you very much.”
Robbie considers making some joke about bisexual salons but thinks better of it.
James continues. “Although I do have some unease about the term unisex; uni is obviously from the Latin unus, meaning one, whereas unisex salons cater for all sexes, not just one. I suppose there are links with united and universal, with the uni- prefix taking on the sense of shared or collective.”
Jesus, it’s only ten past seven. “James?”
“Let’s go for a walk.”