A rush of icy rain came in from the east, cutting through the shape of a lonely figure which stood on the sideline, as it blew en route to the Thames. Spattering against the bridge, large dark patches began to appear in the stonework, a considerable contrast to the original sandy tones. He was wet, and he was alone. And with the drumming overhead, of water topping a smart black umbrella, the shower seemed to be getting heavier by the second.
The south bank of London was at its most grim, and for Ian that couldn't have been more apt. No more were there entertainers to lighten the mood, street bands playing a soundtrack to life, and the paint would have long since washed off the skins of human statues, spoiling the trick for those who watched. There couldn't have been another stupid fool to stand out here in this.
"Well this was a brilliant idea," he sighed to himself, "It's no wonder you can't win the game." It was too cold to move - where even the unfolding of arms would have risked losing all warmth. Besides which, where would he have gone to? The studio was a no-go area after his little outburst, his train wasn't for hours and, if one more person recognised him on the tube, the once calm hand of autograph signing may have curled up to show a clenched fist.
He didn't get angry very often, and he would rather have had no-one see him that way. Instead he clutched the wooden handle to his chest, and hoped that the storm would subside, or that the flooding around his feet would soon flow to some nearby drain. If there's one feeling worse than sadness, it's surely to be sad and have wet woollen socks as well. And he couldn't have that.
His jacket tightly closed, to preventing it from flapping wildly in the wind, he leaned on the bridge to keep the heat in. Why couldn't it have been a sunnier day today? If only he could have chosen a week more wisely, one in summer perhaps, or the height of the holiday season, to take a stand.
Firstly, he assumed they would be continuing filming the show without him. But secondly, he couldn't believe that those working back at the studio wouldn't send at least someone after him - and he was correct. Surely enough, a little spy was following, and had been doing so for the last ten minutes. "Merton," he let out a curse from under his breath, spotting a man over by the theatres. And should he have been so surprised to see the seemingly-lost surrealist walking up the Waterloo backstreets? No - because Ian wouldn't have taken orders from anyone else and the production company knew it.
With no shelter from the rain, he was soaked from head to toe. Docker boots sloshed around in puddles, while a flimsy Hawaiian shirt stuck fast to his frame, as if coated in PVA glue. Had the older man owned a brolly, then it would have been pink with purple spots, jazzier and altogether larger than life. Because that was who he was - a kook, an extrovert - and that was why Ian loved him.
Paul always wanted to be noticed; always wanted to be the clown. In fact, the open raincoat was boring for his current attire. Having said that, for all the protection it gave him, he might as well not have bothered. Only tall men could wear those kind of macks anyway - else they looked shady, like criminals, or flashers, or 1950s detectives. Paul was well over six foot, a strapping, handsome lad and everything that Hislop wasn't. And Merton couldn't have cared less that every inch of himself was dripping wet, precipitation running down the cheeks of the miserable, deadpan expression he had become so famous for.
Opening water-clogged eyes, he gave Ian the nod. He approached with caution, a cocky half-smile playing on his lips, as he set foot onto the bridge. "Ian," he called out, distant in the force of these strong gales.
"What do you want?" he asked him, "The producer sent you, I suppose."
"Of course he didn't," Paul replied, joining him, "It was my idea to come after you." The two men stayed silent and, without words or explanation, attempted to huddle together. It was rather toasty under Ian's umbrella, compared to the harsh, outside world. Once they were settled, with minor fidgeting and a few embarrassed glances when they got too close, he felt fine to carry on.
"So, you wanted to take a walk, then?" Paul asked, clearing his throat. He placed a hand on one of Ian's suit shoulder pads and squeezed it gently. This line of questioning was getting him nowhere, and that he knew, so he thought he might rephrase it in the hope that it would get through. "Why did you walk out the recording, Ian?" he repeated, "What's the matter?"
It didn't take a genius to work out that something was wrong. It didn't even take a middle-aged stand-up comedian, with metalwork CSE ungraded, to know something wasn't right. His friend hadn't been the same for weeks, months, and that snide comment from Peter Stringfellow was, sadly, the straw that broke the camel's back. But usually a thick-skinned sort of bloke, he couldn't understand what had brought about such a change in him. He loosened his grip, and brought his arm around him fully, a friendly embrace. "He didn't upset you too much, did he?"
"It's not that," the bald man sighed, "Just, you know - it feels like the show's spark has gone." He peered over the side, avoiding eye contact, to see all the boats and river cruises beneath. Despite the typical weather conditions of a late British spring, their happy and blissfully ignorant faces showed that even the tourists were having a better time than he was. And at this time of year, that was no mean feat.
"Is it Deayton that you miss?" Paul chanced his luck, knowing that he didn't want to talk about whatever it was. On the one hand, it was sort-of true for them both. Angus might have been a smug bastard, who got what he deserved, but that didn't make the after-effect any easier on the rest of them. At least when he was at the helm, he kept the programme together, and Paul and Ian felt some sense of family there. Now it was in pieces and, with a different host every week, they didn't know if they were coming or going - hiring clueless celebrities for the laughs, game show hosts for the silly mini-games, and bringing in Boris Johnson every time things started to look bleak. It became more and more difficult to see the point.
"Not really," he shook his head, still turned away. That was his first obvious lie - the second was upcoming, and would relate to how he really felt about his fellow team captain.
"Or is it me?" Paul then added.
He didn't love him in that way or, more precisely, he'd never told him that he did. They weren't exactly the same problem, as Hislop well knew. So the silence went on. It was as if they weren't even standing there; the people continued to pass them by, those odd couples who had braved the rain, strolling along the bank to take their flash photos of buildings and popular landmarks. But Paul was much cleverer than Ian had initially thought. Paul knew exactly how to bring the answer out of him and he would put it into practice, regardless of his protests.
The editor lurched so far forward that he feared he might fall over the bridge's edge, as their mouths met in the middle. With a slow and painful kiss, they clumsily banged their heads and, for the first time in Ian's life, he had a male tongue inside his head and he didn't know what to do. He yelped and pulled away, a muffled moan which sounded like get off but far more likely meant keep on, as he wriggled in his grasp.
"For God's sake, it's okay - you don't have to pretend!" the older man shook him until he remained still. The colour ran from Ian's face as he realised his automatic reaction had been a violent outburst at the one man who had been with him throughout all of these years on HIGNFY; the one individual that he loved. He stumbled into the comedian's arms. 'It's alright,' Paul said again, "You know I feel the same..."
By now Paul was drenched from the kiss in the rain, his lips were parted slightly and glistening, water pooling in the dip of the bottom one. He'd been pushed out from under the shorter man's umbrella long ago. Sodden strands of fringe flicked before his face, bouncing heavily between his eyebrows - and what was left of Ian's hair was damp, from when their foreheads had been pressed together. Merton looked like some kind of 90's throwback. And it could still be like it was back then, if they tried.
He leaned back as a stray hand explored inside his coat, fondling the soaked palm-tree-covered shirt as it felt at his chest for comfort, feeling the contours, nipples raised from coldness and arousal. Having seen the moment take him, it was practically no time at all before he felt Ian reach down, pulling onto his belt, squeaky and wet.
"Steady," Paul spoke camply, "You're a live one - I can see I'm going to have trouble with you!" Both men laughed nervously, holding each other close in what seemed like the slowing of this May shower. The heavens were now closing, the brolly was down, and the breaking of grey cloud on the horizon told them that the storm was nearly over. They had made it, through so much more than this.
"Seventeen years is a long time," the older man acknowledged.
"I know it is," Ian mumbled, "But not nearly long enough." He smiled.
The two washed-out, star-crossed lovers covertly held hands as they walked back to the studio gates. It was getting late, but they knew the show would wait for them. What choice did the producers have, anyway? Paul and Ian were going to take their time - after all, who knew how much of it they had left - who knew how much longer the show would go on for. All they could be sure of was the great task that would be ahead of the make-up artists when they finally returned.