Disembarking in England’s grey, chilly autumn torpedoed Robbie’s already dour mood. Long distance travel does nothing for the soul of any traveller; leaving them weary, cramped and exposed to the bacteria of a million fellow-sojourners of the skies and grimy airport lounges.
It did even less for Robbie who neither wanted to remain where he had been, nor looked forward to his destination. The slate-grey afternoon sky seemed the final blow, so stark in contrast to the recent glow of New Zealand’s burgeoning summer. But the refuge of home was not a welcoming prospect as his next action would be to pack his possessions into cardboard boxes and move out, leaving the place free of any traces of his short, and with hindsight, misjudged time as Laura’s partner. He had no plans on where to go, but go he must.
Then there was James. Robbie wanted to see his old work partner and friend about as much as he needed air, but as he approached the Customs terminal he found himself feeling strangely reluctant to face to face with the man who had unwittingly played a pivotal role in the disaster that had caused Robbie to be heading home prematurely and alone, tail between his legs. Whether Laura had been right or not about Robbie's suppressed feelings was one thing. That did not automatically translate into James being of the same humour. However, when Robbie saw a shorn fair head poking out above the crowd in the Arrivals Hall he felt a gladness stir inside him for the first time in weeks.
The lad was carrying another hand-made sign with LEWIS printed carefully across it, a silly time-worn private joke between the two of them that James had obviously felt was worth recycling. Robbie barked out a laugh that came out almost as a sob, which was fortunately swallowed by the din of the crowd. When James spotted him, his long face was suddenly transformed by a grin of delight with no hesitating glance as to Robbie’s unexplained newly-solo appearance.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, lad,” said Robbie shouldering his heavy overnight bag and wondering whether it would be appropriate to hug James like the hundreds of people around them were doing, pulling their friends and family into their arms. Instead he clutched the handle of his case and shuffled his feet.
James beamed at him and reached for the wheelie-suitcase and the backpack. “Welcome home, Robbie; it’s good to have you back. Gosh, you caught the sun.” The lad’s evident happiness infected Robbie and he found himself smiling for the first time in more days than he knew. With initial greetings over, both of them were suddenly struck with awkwardness, and James said a bit more formally, “Let’s get you home then.”
It wasn’t until they were seated in James’s car and Robbie had thrown his head back in relief, closing his eyes and inhaling the suddenly welcome familiar whiff of tobacco from James’s coat that he considered the fact that 'home' wasn’t as obvious a direction it might have been.
“Um,” said James starting the car up. “You can tell me if it’s none of my business, but is everything alright, erm, with Dr Hobson?” The unasked questions were implied: are we heading to her home? Where is she? Why are you back from a six-month sabbatical on your own after only a few weeks, new life-partner mysteriously absent?
As they pulled into the slow-moving evening traffic James voiced none of these questions, but instead filled the silence with snippets of news of Lizzie and Moody and sundry new cases while LBC radio nattered in the background. As they hit the main artery feeding off towards Oxford, James shut off the radio and punched a button that fed his MP3 player into the car’s music system and let a guitar take over the task of background noise.
“Concierto de Aranjuez by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo,” he announced in lieu of actual conversation. “He went blind at the age of three and wrote all his musical compositions in Braille”. James slipped his passenger a worried side-eye when this elicited not even a grunt from his friend. Rain started to fall, heavy splats that soon turned into a deluge that obscured the outside world and turned the car into a self-contained universe.
Several miles down the road Robbie let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding.
“Laura wouldn’t appreciate it if you called her Dr Hobson to her face, lad.”
James acknowledged this with a silent huff of amusement.
“But to answer the question you are being too polite to ask; me and her, we’re over. Talked about it. Want to stay friends. But the couples thing, it just isn’t going to work for us. So, I’ll be packing up me stuff and be out of her place by the time she comes back.”
James instantly shot him a look of surprise and sympathy before focussing back on the traffic. “I’m sorry. I mean, I’m really sorry, Robbie. I really hoped you and Laura would be happy together.”
“Yeah, me too. Could be worse. Though right now I’m struggling to see how, short of me losing an arm or a leg.”
James snorted in response and then got a contemplative look on his face.
“Robbie, if you want, why don’t you stay with me until you find a new place? I mean, if it feels weird staying at Laura’s. There’s the spare room and we can go and fetch your mattress tomorrow. Well, we can fetch it today if you want, but with this rain it might not be a good idea.”
Robbie got a nervous side-eye glance again and once again mused about how glad exactly his best friend was to see him home. Was he glad about Robbie’s new single status? Indifferent to it? Sad for his friends falling out of love? Would it be wise for Robbie to confine himself to a living space with the one person he might want to avoid having certain conversations with?
Exhaustion rolled over him, and suddenly propriety and good sense became far less important than the need to be able to rest.
“I’d like that” Robbie said gratefully. “And I feel like I want to sleep for a year”.
Instantly a smile of utter delight lit up James’s face again. “Indian or Thai? I already have beer. Or have you been missing fish and chips?”
“They’ve got cracking fish and chips in New Zealand as it happens. Could murder a curry though.”
A couple of hours later and Robbie, showered and fed, was losing a battle with consciousness on James’s new sofa while James tried to bring him up to speed on a suspected fraud case that had turned bloody. He felt his mind melting like mist before the moon and after what seemed like aeons he woke to his arm being patted gently but persistently and James’s face swam into focus.
“Come along, you. Bed’s ready and you’ll be more comfortable horizontal than on the couch.”
“I’m already asleep,” he protested.
“Yes, and you’ll be asleep again in two minutes. Let me help you up, c’mon.”
Robbie felt himself supported by an arm around his waist and he half staggered, half floated down a corridor until gentle strong hands were lowering him into the most comfortable pillows in the universe.
And then there was blessed darkness.
The sun was high in the sky when Robbie woke again, roughly fifteen hours later if the little clock on the bedside table could be trusted. He padded through to the kitchen barefoot and a little groggy from sleep, and found the table set with plates and a mug and a piece of paper propped up in prominent view covered in James’s angular script.
Had to go to work.
There’s coffee and toast and eggs, sorry not much else. I’ll go shopping on my way home this evening.
Laura’s spare key set is next to my laptop if you want to head over.
My set of spare keys are next to them so that you can get back in here.
Your laundry should be finished in the drier if you are looking for your clothes.
Robbie felt a wave of affection for the lad who’d managed to cycle Robbie’s six-month supply of holiday clothes (admittedly meagre and summer-light) through the washing machine before heading out to work in the morning. He popped bread under the grill and after squinting at the industrial-grade coffee machine chuckled to find that James had left post-its on the relevant bits:
Fill this with water up to the line
Fill this (portafilter) to brim with coffee (in the black container)
Insert the portafilter into the brew head here and twist until tight
Switch to the wiggly lines until the light turns green,
Then switch to tap setting until enough espresso is produced
Milk in fridge obvs, sugar in bowl.
Use the black round cups,
- they’re the only ones that will fit under the spout.
Only James could turn coffee-making instructions into a piece of performance art. Nevertheless, the instructions worked and the toast was browning at just about the same time as fresh aromatic coffee was splooshing into the cup carefully placed below the nozzle. Robbie wasn’t in the mood for eggs, he was content with buttered toast and a cuppa, albeit quite a fancy cuppa of carefully selected and freshly ground coffee beans. After placing his used utensils in the dishwasher, he retrieved his laundry and carted it off to the spare room, dressed himself in clothes he judged warm enough to withstand the Oxford autumn air and located the spare key sets and let himself out into the day.
Forty-five minutes later he arrived at Laura’s house having had to bear the indignity of the snail’s pace of the public bus because his car was currently parked in Laura’s garage. He let himself into the silent house, and switched off the alarm using Laura’s ridiculously long medical mnemonic "Pvt. Tim Hall always argues, never tires". Essential amino acids Laura had said, but Robbie just remembered it as the one about the cranky guard.
The house smelt strange after all these weeks of emptiness in spite of James having dutifully visited every week to water the pot-plants and clear the junk mail from the letter box. Standing in the middle of a place where he had been both occupant and visitor Robbie could feel the morning’s chipper mood faltering. He sat for a while on the sofa where he and Laura had often shared glasses of wine and kisses and tried not to feel old and worn out.
“Right, get on with it,” he told himself and heaved himself off his behind and onto his feet. He located his mobile phone in Laura’s bedroom, switched off and stored these last few weeks in the bedside cabinet and booted it; then went about finding suitcases and boxes that he’d stored somewhere. By evening his back was sore and hunger was beginning to gnaw at his insides, but only the sudden squawking of his phone pulled him out of his reverie.
“Robbie? You coming home for supper?”
“James! Sorry lad, I got stuck into packing and lost track of time.”
“Just bring what you want for tonight; we can collect the main lot over the weekend when we’ve two cars and plenty of time.”
“Be there in twenty minutes. Just need to lock up again.”
Home. It was a word he hadn’t really had use for in quite a while. He’d slept more soundly in James’s spare room last night than on his first night in Laura’s place, truth be told. He’d maybe credit the jet lag for that except that the last time he’d had jet lag he’d lurched around sleepless for three days until he’d crashed face-down at his hard kitchen table, fully dressed and unfed.
Maybe he felt he was truly at home this time. Or, there was the other possibility; he was just an old and foolish man trying to detect a tell-tale trace of love in a young man’s simple offer of friendship.
He made it back in under half and hour and parked his car behind James’s in the driveway. The smell of something succulent and meaty assailed him as soon as he opened the door, and James greeted him with a wave of a cooking spoon and said “Good, it’s nearly ready.”
“It” turned out to be spaghetti bolognese laced with long melting strands of mozzarella and sharp cheddar as well as a bottle of red wine. There was a fresh tomato salad with torn basil and pepper to accompany it; all in all a fancier meal than most that Robbie had eaten in his life as a single man.
“Lad, you didn’t have to do this for me. I feel spoilt now. Be wanting this every day for me dinner.”
James just smiled beatifically. “Spag bol isn’t hard to make. Plus it isn’t every day your best friend comes back from the other side of the world.”
James immediately looked bashful, as if some words had spilled out there that maybe hadn’t been planned which raised Robbie’s hopes a little and suddenly made him remember.
“Oh! I nearly forgot. I brought you something from New Zealand.” He dashed off to his bedroom to retrieve a translucent green jade pendant carefully wrapped in tissue paper and bubble wrap and secured in stiff cardboard. “It’s called, here I wrote it down – ‘Pounamu Hei matau’, it’s a kind of arty fish-hook”.
James’s cheeks were definitely pink now, although that could have been the combination of the wine and the steamy kitchen.
“It’s beautiful Robbie, thank you.”
With a graceful movement he fastened the leather thong around his neck and the pendant nestled against his throat just below the hollow at the base of his neck.
“I thought you might like it, you being into World Music and the like,” Robbie said a little unsteadily.
“I love it, Robbie, thank you.”
James’s eyes shone with a happiness that made Robbie’s insides hurt, so he quickly pointed out: “Food’s getting cold,” and effectively derailed that part of the conversation.
Within a couple of days they had a routine established. They both rose at roughly the same time, James taking the bathroom first before sharing coffee and toast and occasionally, soft-boiled eggs at the breakfast table, conversation scant due to the early hour, just a peaceable silence as they blinked awake in the artificial light of the kitchen. James would head out to the station and then Robbie would shower and head over to Laura’s to pack the remains of his life into boxes and water her plants and mow her lawn and take her car for a spin around the block. Much of his stuff was still in storage along with Morse’s Jaguar as he and Laura had not yet come to a decision about future living arrangements when he’d moved in with her. Had that been serendipitous or a portent? As it was, it felt simultaneously liberating and pitiful to see how little his life amounted to in the material sense.
In the evening Robbie would make the reverse journey, stopping at Sainsbury’s or Marks & Spencer’s to pick up some vegetables and protein and attempt to have supper on the table for James when he came home. Lyn had to talk him through vegetarian lasagna over the phone (too much trouble for the result if you asked him) but he’d managed a respectable roast chicken one day and a roasted red pepper & tomato soup on another. Fortunately the soup kept, as James got stuck at work long into the evening and Lewis was forced to reflect on the many nights he’d done the same to Val. The look of gratitude on James’s face when he came back home shivering and tired to hot soup and toast done the fancy way he liked (ciabatta sliced generously and drizzled with olive oil) made Robbie feel like he’d conquered the world.
On Friday James was slightly late and came home staggering under a television. “So you don’t miss the football,” was all the explanation he gave for breaking his no-TV rule; Robbie’s own TV having been donated to a local youth centre during the ill-fated Laura-merger. Robbie was struck again by his friend’s generosity. It was not the material value of the television, but the thoughtfulness that Robbie might want something other than James’s esoteric collection of books, music CDs and the Internet to keep him entertained at night. Once again foolish hope stirred in him, and once again he allowed timorousness to prevent him from having The Talk with James.
As Robbie had finished packing all that he could call his own and had cleaned every surface in Laura’s house out of a misplaced sense of guilt and well-placed sense of duty; Saturday found them shifting boxes into cars and tying Lewis’s mattress to the roof of James's car after a worried discussion about whether it was right of Robbie to remove the mattress (it was his) as it had replaced Laura’s when he had moved in with her, and this was leaving her deficient in the mattress department.
“Don’t worry Robbie, we’ll get her a new one tomorrow.”
Lewis wondered briefly when exactly they had become “we”, but nodded and locked the front door behind him.
Lewis spent the evening cramming his earthly goods and chattels into the cupboards in James’s spare room while James put together an evening meal of pies, peas and mash, a time-honoured repast from the North of Robbie’s youth, and one he suspected Hathaway had specifically researched as he doubted that Hathaway’s own tastes ran to a meal of carbs, carbs and carbs. Again he felt a flutter of hope and again his inner coward told him that mistaking Hathaway’s kind gesture, no doubt intended to soothe the pain of moving out of his ex-lover’s house, would just be the folly of an old man.
When he went out to join James he found him bopping to something on his headphones while he added pepper and butter to the potatoes, singing a very curious melody to himself that didn’t seem to have any words. Robbie would never regard himself as an expert on anything classical, but years in the company of Morse and now James had endowed him with a certain residual knowledge. A few seconds of attention to the sound emanating from the headphones allowed him to identify the music as Mozart’s Unfinished Requiem, apparently a favourite of Hathaway’s as he’d heard it more than once back when James had been his Sergeant. How many people in the world bopped along to a two hundred and fifty year old Latin Mass for the Dead while wordlessly singing the cello line from the score while solemnly mashing potatoes? Daft lad didn't even begin to cover it. James looked up and smiled when he saw Robbie watching him and removed his headphones. “Supper’s ready,” he announced.
On Sunday they launched Operation Mattress and set out to furnish Laura with a mattress to replace the orthopaedic one now installed in James’s spare room. Lewis wasn’t entirely clear on how they had ended up agreeing to go halves on the purchase, but James was insistent that Laura be supplied with something high-end and Lewis found himself warmed by Hathaway’s loyalty to her. He felt a slight twinge of guilt as Hathaway bounced on shop-floor beds with childlike glee, that he still hadn’t told James of Laura’s theory. Lewis thought it would be unfair to let James in on that. He didn’t deserve to be dragged into their private misery, he had done nothing to deserve it. To the contrary, he’d gone out of his way to try to bring them together and ensure that they stayed that way. No, the fault had been with Robbie Lewis and the burden of that was going to stay with him. When they returned to Laura’s house, new mattress proudly sailing on top of Robbie’s car like a galleon on her maiden voyage, James noticed at least one curious neighbour twitching the curtains and he waved cheerily to her. Whatever the neighbours might think of the recent comings and goings, a new mattress being delivered could hardly rate as a particularly nefarious activity.
That night Robbie christened the new TV with a pint and the Match of the Day. James refrained entirely from making any facetious comments about football and curled up with a book on the other end of the sofa, looking up with the occasional flash of a smile at Robbie’s evident enjoyment.
Half-way through Monday morning, it became clear that Robbie had run out of things that needed doing, apart from finding a new place to live. He half-heartedly looked at some Property Listings websites James had bookmarked for him and made an appointment with an estate agent for later in the week. He also made a list of youth centres and local charitable foundations that might have a use for a volunteer; as it seemed that Moody could no longer be relied on to throw him a bone, especially as he hadn’t been expected back in Oxford until after the new year. Lyn had asked him to come up to Manchester but he wasn’t keen on the idea of being the third wheel in her house either, and he certainly had no desire to be the object of her sympathy and pity. At least he wasn’t underfoot here. He and Hathaway seemed to fit into each other’s spaces comfortably. At most he thought he might visit Manchester for a week or two. As far as living went, he didn’t see a reason to move out of Oxford. Thirty-odd years and counting, it was as much his home town as any he’d ever had.
On Tuesday Robbie paid James back by doing all their laundry and made lamb chops for supper. On Wednesday he did the groceries and tried his hand at macaroni cheese which won him a grin from Hathaway who delighted in the crunchy bits of crispy cheese and the slightly over-browned crust. On Thursday morning Lewis set off to his initial estate agent interview feeling a little bit like he was a house-husband. He’d caught himself whistling Beatles songs three times in the traffic and when he stopped at a coffee shop for a caffeine booster he saw a smile he couldn’t explain in his reflection in the glass counter-top. On Friday morning he went to water Laura’s plants and check her post and pretended not to see the neighbour who was trying to catch his attention with a dish towel. On Friday evening James came home just as Robbie was slipping a frozen pizza into the oven (there was a per week limit to Lewis's endurance for culinary creativity) and announced he had one, been ordered to take two weeks leave and could therefore help Robbie thoroughly investigate the potential of Oxford’s real estate; and two, had mentioned to Moody that Robbie would be available in a fortnight for contract work should the need arise. Lewis could have kissed him but settled for pouring him a beer.
On Saturday they went to view a Show House in a new estate development as recommended by the estate agency. The young agent in charge of showing prospective buyers around smiled brilliantly when she saw Robbie and James appear at the front door and launched into her sales patter about natural roof lighting, double glazing, fibre optic cabling for the fastest internet connections, good school catchment area and a progressive policy that ensured that this estate would be welcoming of all races, religions and lifestyle orientations. Robbie had no idea what she was on about until Hathaway gave him a triumphant grin and took his hand and led him up the stairs murmuring unsubtly, “Come along darling, let's see how big the shower is”. The Robbie of ten years ago would have shaken the hand off and rolled his eyes. The Robbie of today felt his face splitting with a smile and held on while he felt his heart try to escape his chest via his throat. He noticed that they were both not looking at each other at all.
All the houses were wrong. At first Robbie thought that maybe it was just him being difficult and unreasonable, or perhaps even subconsciously trying to thwart his own efforts to move out of James’s place. However, eventually he reckoned it couldn’t have been him after all, and that the places really must have been that bad; because James turned out to be just as critical and as the fortnight progressed Robbie began to wonder if the estate agent was offering small tributes to the demi-god of real estate that either Lewis would find something to his liking or fall down a mine-shaft, whichever came first. His smiles had become tighter and his eyes more glazed whenever Robbie turned up to view a flat or house with an immaculately presented James in tow.
The second place was too big for just Robbie, the third too small for when Lyn and her family (but mostly Hathaway) came to stay. Another’s kitchen didn’t have enough space between the work-surface and the cupboards above it to allow for a large espresso machine. Neither of them felt that it was necessary to explore why Robbie’s kitchen needed to fit a theoretical coffee maker that he technically didn’t have and was suspiciously similar in hypothetical shape and size to the one in James’s flat. It wasn’t as if the estate agent knew the difference anyway. Another flat didn’t have a front yard to allow for a quick nip out for a fag, nor did the driveway fit two cars. It was always useful to have space for an extra car even if a double garage added to the price of a property considerably. Ideally there also needed to be a small garden: a place for him to grow a few veg and a place to sit and read or play the guitar on summer evenings. Lewis knew that he ought to be feeling frustrated by the whole thing, but if he was going to be honest he was having far too much fun watching James survey each estate with a critical eye and then elaborate on its shortcomings.
By the end of the two weeks of James’s holidays they had seen nine houses, seven flats and a tiny manor on the edge of the city that Hathaway had pronounced perfect but for the fact that neither of them was a millionaire with a secret offshore hedge fund to draw upon. If Hathaway felt any regret at spending his precious time-off trudging around empty houses on a futile hunt he didn’t show it. He said, “It’s not like you have to move out by a certain date or anything, so you shouldn’t make any hasty decisions.”
Robbie thought that sounded like excellent advice.
On Monday James returned to work and on Tuesday Robbie was asked by Moody to help out on what appeared to be a serial poisoning case. The Great House-Hunting Quest was relegated to the occasional search on one of their laptops when one of them got bored with whatever they were doing.
When winter arrived in the early days of December with sleet and sub-zero temperatures for the first time; their routine had changed slightly. To accommodate the fact that often both of them had to get into work first thing, one or both of them showered before bed rather than in the morning. Whoever made it to the kitchen first started the espresso machine. Whoever made it home in the evening first decided whether supper would be cooked or ordered in, depending on factors such as what was in the fridge, what time it was, and when the other was expected to arrive. Dinner remains were cleared by a mutually agreed on team effort and then they would repair to watch the telly (Robbie) or read or pick out a tune on the guitar (James). On Tuesday evenings Hathaway would head out for band practise, on Saturday mornings they would head over to Laura’s to clean and tidy garden and home. On Monday evenings Robbie would watch QI and James would appear to read but answer too suspiciously high a number of the questions to be truly focussed on the tome in front of him.
A week before Christmas they both received an email from Laura saying she would be returning the day before Christmas Eve and would like to pick up her keys then please. Robbie felt himself freezing.
“I’ll go and get her,” said James noticing Robbie's expression, “in case you’re both not feeling up to seeing each other just yet.”