“Rotten old bastard.”
The words were delivered with their usual flourish, and Rufus didn’t have to so much as glance behind him to know that it was Bill who had kicked the door open, a drink in each hand, and come out to join him on the balcony.
“What is it this time?” Rufus asked, taking the offered drink. Bill came to join him at the edge, peering down into the garden below, and for a moment he was silent. Whether taken by the view or just for dramatic pause, Rufus couldn’t be sure.
Admittedly it was a wonderful view. They weren’t all that high up – just on the third floor of the sprawling Haydon home, but the garden seemed even further below them thanks to the many flickering lights scattered around, and the people flitting between them, drinks in hand, the bubble of chatter reaching them clearly in volume but incoherently in meaning. It was an odd feeling, Rufus thought: like being in a separate room, or perhaps the bathroom, hearing the party through the walls and feeling simultaneously like one belonged and yet was ostracised.
“Oh, you know,” Bill said, waving his free hand as he paused to take a sip of his drink. “The old man’s on the warpath, as usual. Can never please the devil. I socialise and I’m under his feet causing trouble. I make myself scarce and he’s after me, worrying that I’m up to something. So I saw you up here and decided I’d come join you. That way the old man can have a look up here and catch a glimpse of me whenever he wants.”
Rufus raised an eyebrow. “That’s awfully considerate of you.”
“And you sound awfully surprised,” Bill responded, a light teasing tone to his words. “Almost like you don’t quite believe I would do anything of the sort.”
“You’re not usually one to cooperate, Bill. Not as long as I’ve known you, anyway, which is a considerably long time.”
“Yes, well. Sometimes it’s nice to just have a quiet bloody drink.”
Rufus gave a small, amused smile, taking the moment to sip his own drink. The brief silence passed comfortably, and then Rufus finally broke it, turning slightly to face Bill and looking at him questioningly.
“Are you sure you’re not trying to give your father ideas?”
“Ideas?” Bill asked innocently. “I’m not sure what you could possibly mean.”
“Well,” Rufus said, “forgive me if I’m being indelicate, but you and I both know that there are certain… eccentricities of yours that you like to flaunt, for lack of a better word.”
Bill’s face was the picture of innocence. “I do not flaunt them, dear boy. I don’t think even I could get away with that.”
“And yet somehow you do,” Rufus said, shaking his head. “Lord, to have your nerve, Bill.”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you were insinuating that I was trying to strongly imply to my father that you and I might be up to something a little off the books,” Bill said evenly, and Rufus smiled again.
“Perhaps you don’t know me as well as you’d like, then.”
“Don’t you be a rotten old bastard as well,” Bill said, elbowing at him. “Besides, I know better than to make a move on a lovesick man.”
Rufus barely missed a beat, covering the brief moment he needed to recover himself. He groaned with mock frustration. “Really?”
“Really?” Bill repeated. He turned to look at him, his face lighting up as it always did when a new piece of information found its way to him. “Rufus Sixsmith, you old dog.”
“I do wish you’d stop calling me old.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Bill shot back, looking all the more delighted. “So it is true, then.”
“How do you find these things out so quickly?” Rufus asked. “It seems like if something is supposed to be a secret, you know all about it.”
Bill gave a small smile, the kind of small he always gave when someone had something that was undeniably true, and he didn’t want to do the polite thing and try to refute it. Bill was strange in that way, Rufus thought – and so different from Robert, a man with whom he had a fair bit in common. They both held that natural arrogance, that hint of hubris that so appealed to Rufus’s own more careful way of thinking; of living in general. But where Robert had never been one to shy away from singing his own praises – much to the annoyance of some, which only encouraged him – Bill was a different sort of man. Rufus found his brand of arrogance more worrying than he had ever found Robert’s grand displays of self-confidence; Robert had been young, after all, and sometimes Rufus thought he had caught a hint of self-consciousness under it all, as though Robert found himself unsure, or perhaps as though he was trying to overcompensate for some flaw or lack of something that only he could perceive.
With Bill there was none of this. He and Rufus were closer in age, meaning there was a fair deal more experience there, but he had the quiet confidence of somebody who knew what he was capable of. It was a particular brand of it, too – Rufus saw hints of it in academia, with those older professors who had defended their life’s work again and again and never missed a beat; who could answer criticisms and insults with the barely perceptible smile that Bill now wore on his own face. You don’t worry me, it said, because nothing worries me. Rufus knew that only people who had seen a great deal of stress could have such an air of confidence, and only people who knew they were going to have to face the same – and worse – again could wear the arrogance that suggested they knew they would make it out of that, too.
Come to think of it, Rufus had no idea what it was that Bill did with his life. He had never thought it prudent to ask.
“I suppose,” Bill said, as though sensing where Rufus’s mind was, “that it wouldn’t be prudent to ask.”
“No,” Rufus said, his throat slightly tight. He took a sip of his drink and watched the swimming lights of the party below them, and suddenly the most unexpected thought came to him: he could lean over too far, pitch right over the edge and onto the flagstones below. He straightened up abruptly, the small amount he had leaned over the edge to see suddenly feeling as though it was too much. Too late, he shot a guilty glance at Bill, who was watching him with a look of intense concentration.
“Rufus,” Bill said carefully, and Rufus took another, almost desperate sip of his drink.
“Apologies,” he said, a little too quickly. “I must have drank a bit more than I thought.”
“Unlike you,” Bill said neutrally, and Rufus couldn’t bring himself to look at him.
Rufus couldn’t remember much about the months immediately following Robert’s suicide. It had all been a blur. He remembered that he had had visitors, and that he had received many letters of sympathy – more than he thought he would have done, all things considered, though many people were delicate about the subject. He appreciated their efforts but at the same time he could barely stand to see Robert referred to as merely his friend, or companion; to hear they had been as close as brothers, and all the other relationships that were close in their own right but had never come close to how it had really been. Rufus was a scientific man, not one to give in to fancies about soulmates and the like, but at the same time he struggled to find a word that could encapsulate everything Robert had been to him, and judging from his last letter Robert had felt much the same. They had never discussed it, of course – Robert wasn’t one to give into speeches about those spiritual views he really did keep, and Rufus would have never entertained such a subject anyway – but he could find no explanation for how Robert had managed to describe the very essence of what he had felt despite neither of then so much as hinting about it.
And Robert had believed it. He must have done. Rufus could not think of a reason why he would have killed himself otherwise. Surely he would never have done such a thing, if he didn’t truly believe they would see one another again?
Under Corsican stars, he thought, and looked up at the stars above him now, blinking away the sudden moisture in his eyes.
“Rufus,” Bill said, suddenly, quietly. Rufus found he started slightly; he had almost forgotten Bill was there. He didn’t trust himself to speak, but thankfully Bill seemed to understand. “You don’t have to lie.”
“What do you mean?” Rufus finally managed, and as he had feared, his voice sounded strange to his ears; strained, too thick.
“I never thought you would find anyone else,” Bill said carefully, “and I don’t think that’s changed now. But I’m unsure as to why you’re dropping hints that you have.”
Rufus took a shaking breath, meaning to change the subject, excuse himself, anything but go through with the conversation he was having. At the same time, he couldn’t bring himself to. Who else would acknowledge it this openly but Bill? Who else understood what it was like? Who else could assign what he and Robert had had with the importance that it deserved? He had kept it inside himself for so long – years now – and while he knew he would never be able to discuss it properly with anyone it was an unbearable thought, to walk away from someone who was finally acknowledging it for what it had been; what it still was.
“Damn it,” Rufus muttered, taking another shuddering breath. “I can’t stand the pity!”
He had said the words without speaking, and while he immediately wished he hadn’t said it he was aware of the fact that it was too late now. The words seemed to hang in the air between them and for a moment Rufus stood frozen in their presence, as if they were something physical he could see before him. He downed the rest of his drink, setting it unsteadily on the stone he had only recently peered over, wondering. He didn’t let go of it, instead tightening his grip around it so hard that his knuckles shone white. He was terrified that if he loosened his grip it would clatter against the stone; that if he let it go the unsteadiness he could feel threatening in his hands would simply knock it to the ground.
“It’s been years,” he forced out. Every word seemed an impossible effort. “I don’t know why it still eats at me.”
“You know why,” Bill replied. “Don’t be an idiot, Rufus.”
“I’m not the only person on the planet to lose someone they love,” Rufus shot back. “Yes, yes, I know it never goes away, not really. But I thought it was supposed to linger, not bloody freeze time.”
Bill gave a sad smile. “I think you’ll find it does.”
“So why am I the only one I see going to pieces? Dropping hints that I might be moving on just to get those pitying looks off my back? I don’t understand it.”
“And you probably never will.” Bill drained his own glass and set it, much more carefully, against the stone. “I always knew you were scientifically inclined, so I did wonder how you would cope with something like this. But the fact of the matter is that there are some things you just can’t explain. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to be wretched, probably for the rest of your life. But my Lord, man, you have to keep living.” He shook his head, looking back out across the party. “If you don’t, then what’s the bloody point of it all?”
“Is there?” Rufus asked bitterly. “A point to it all, I mean?”
“Well,” Bill said, with a chuckle, “I’d like to think so.”
There was a troubled look across his face, Rufus thought, the same kind of thing that he could never place. He saw shadows of it in the earlier arrogance that had grabbed his attention, and he saw shades of it in a lot of these moments with Bill. In the same was that his confidence in himself seemed to come from somewhere, he thought that this – the distant look, the weight behind the words – probably came from the same place. Once again he wondered what it was that Bill did with his time, but knew better than to ask. He knew the bare basics – Bill was in government circles, because of course he was – but aside from that he got the impression that to ask him would cause him to retreat to a place where Rufus could never hope to get any clues. How strange that they could remember one another as schoolboys. They had been so innocent then; nothing shadowing their faces, nothing unspeakable weighing heavily between them.
“I mean,” Bill said, unexpectedly continuing with the earlier train of thought, “if nothing has a point, don’t you think it’s all a bit useless? I like to think there’s some grand design. Not in an overly spiritual way, I suppose – religious, I should say, but I must say I don’t believe in coincidences, and I do believe that sometimes things are simply meant to be. That there’s a driving force behind it all. Unseen connections.” He shrugged. “Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, something to comfort myself when I get a little too far into that existential dread. But I like to think someone or something has an idea, and that everything will fall into place, even if it doesn’t seem like it.”
Rufus thought of that final letter and found himself nodding, a lump in his throat.
“But right now,” Bill said, pushing himself away from the stone ledge and giving him a knowing smile, “I think you need another drink. A bloody strong one, too, if I dare say so.”
It wasn’t like Rufus to drink excessively, but he thought he could make an exception under such circumstances.
“I think you might be right,” he said, and took a deep breath and a final glance at the stars before following Bill inside. Was Robert looking at them too, wherever he was? After such a conversation it seemed a little more believable, and for once Rufus was not going to question it.