Robbie’s to-do list looked like this:
Speak to Laura,
Tell Lyn and Mark
(but not in this order).
House-hunting 3.0 was proving to be different from the previous attempts Hathaway mused as he negotiated Oxford lunch-time traffic. For one, he supposed, this time he actually wanted to find a place for himself, (or to be more precise: Robbie and himself) although he still found it difficult to keep his need to make silly smart-arse comments in check. First time around Lewis had all but encouraged it, apparently both of them had been determined to sabotage the search. This time Lewis was trying to pretend that house-hunting was no place for a running commentary on the failings of previous occupants to approach anything like tasteful decor, but was largely failing to impress this upon James.
Hathaway’s second problem, and there was no denying it: James’s own sergeant had been sending enough grins and comments his way just to underline the point in case he tried to pretend otherwise – he was in such a good mood that he was incapable of preventing himself from beaming at the world at large. He smiled at co-workers whom he’d previously barely glanced at. Sgt. Lizzie Knox had more-or-less guessed what was up with her guv, but he knew she could be relied on to say nothing and keep it to herself. It wasn’t that it was a secret that needed to be kept highly confidential. It was just that in his late thirties Hathaway, a man who assumed he would live a life of solitude and secret loneliness, had found himself giddily in love. He’d been quietly in love for years, but it was an un-communicated and suppressed love, certain as he was that his affections could never be returned. He’d been wrong and now the decade-long habit of repressing his feelings and carefully filtering his speech around his best friend had been made redundant. Being this horribly in love, as Shakespeare had put it, meant that he required a moment before he got out of his car to ground himself and pull his head back to the task at hand. At this rate they were likely to buy something utterly unsuitable at a price that was utterly indefensible because Hathaway currently had the self-control of a puppy faced with a sea of cushions. He took a deep breath, put on his best blank face and got out.
Lewis was already waiting, having arrived in his own car, and smiled at Hathaway’s approach. “James,” he said, “this is Mr Lynes; Mr Lynes, me partner James”.
“Please, call me Max,” their new (and Lewis’s third) estate agent said eyeing them with surreptitious curiosity and bestowing on them the obligatory smile of all good estate agents everywhere. The looks that Hathaway and Lewis received these days had taken some getting used to at first. Lewis was sure that it was less that they were two men (this was Oxford after all) than that there was a notable difference in age between them. Hathaway shrugged and said that it didn’t really matter what people were looking at, “the only people who get to have an opinion on this are you and me.”
That was pretty much how things were being negotiated between them. For the most part neither of them was much into public displays of affection, perhaps a product of years of walking abreast of each other without any touching; or perhaps it was simply a need to be private. Nevertheless, nowadays Lewis would sometimes put his hand on James’s back as they walked and sometimes Hathaway would barely touch Robbie’s hand when they stood together talking. They were tiny little gestures of intimacy, hardly there; and yet it instantly marked them as a couple if anyone noticed.
Even were it not for the obvious giveaway clue that they were buying a house together, Mr Lynes had definitely noticed, but if Lewis was any judge then Mr Lynes was gay himself, just a mite flamboyant – if that meant anything these days. Lynes was watching Hathaway intently, which Lewis supposed was natural enough, being as James was tall, elegant and always pristinely dressed and as a result tended to stand out from the crowd. Lewis felt the tiniest frisson of possessiveness, not that Hathaway was going to be remotely interested in anyone else nor that he wasn’t well able to refuse unwanted advances himself. The realisation of what he had just felt startled Lewis, it had to have been well over three decades since he last felt the need to posture at a rival, real or imaginary. He conjectured that senility may have finally set in just as Hathaway gave Lewis his little private smile and touched his arm. Lewis felt himself relax immediately and caged his inner caveman.
“Ah, good to meet you, Mr Hathaway. I rather think that you might like this place. Mr Lewis said you would appreciate a decent-sized kitchen. Let’s take a look.”
James was a little awkward going through the house, constantly checking Lewis with a glance to see what he was thinking about the big-enough shower and the too-cosy second bedroom and the very-lavender snug (Lewis scowled at the room and implied it was built by people who had no idea what a snug was). If Mr Lynes was disconcerted by the silent conversation going on between his companions, he appeared not to show it, but did eventually say he would wait outside for them to take a look by themselves.
“Well?” said Lewis.
“Kitchen’s alright, but there’s no garden. You wanted a back yard. For growing of carrots and parsnips and letting me help you dig trenches by getting me to do all the digging on the aforementioned trenches and so-on. Sir.” James was doing that thing with the secretive teasing smile again and Lewis found himself falling for it, which meant that by the time they joined Mr Lynes at the front door both of them had smirks on their faces.
The second place they both liked, except for the main bathroom which James decreed was nice in a hideous kind of a way; but conceded that it could be repainted and re-tiled, or gutted and set fire to. Then he was needed back at work and left Robbie (with a brief kiss to his lips and a very quiet “sir”) to inspect the third place of the afternoon by himself.
Max Lynes watched Hathaway drive away with a sad smile on his face. “You’ve got yourself a good one there, Mr Lewis, if you don’t mind my saying. Such a sweet boy. Really loves you.”
Lewis thawed, earlier fit of jealousy forgotten, and said “Yes”.
“Does he always call you sir?”
Lewis started and then realised what their earlier fooling around must have sounded like. “Eh, no. That’s a joke. We used to work together. When I get ‘sir’d’ like that he’s taking the piss.”
“I apologise if I’m being overly familiar. It’s just, he reminded me of my Freddie. It was long ago though”.
“Freddie? Was he your - partner?” Lewis wasn’t sure what the right word would be.
“Just my boyfriend. Was back in the Eighties. There was no such thing as civil partnerships or marriage equality back then. Then my beautiful boy went and got himself AIDS. Poor boy died a year later. I never could bring myself to love someone again.”
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” said Lewis. AIDS had been a death sentence back then and society had been callous and cruel in its panic to understand how to prevent the killer virus from spreading. “Really, I – well – I lost my wife some years ago, it’s not the same, but I understand a little of what it feels like to lose the one you love.”
“And then you found love again.”
“Yes,” said Lewis. “This kind of blind-sided me, I never saw it coming and he was right there in front of me face all the while.”
“It makes me glad to see couples like you now. Freddie would have loved how things are now. Getting married, being Out even when you have a respectable job. Having friends and family who just treat you like a normal person. Anyway, your James reminded me of him. Such a beautiful smile.”
Lewis felt his throat tighten around a lump.
“Houses don’t come with cats.”
“I’ll bet you two Sunday brunches this one comes with a cat.”
“Was it starving?”
“The cat? No.”
“Well then it doesn’t come with the house. In any case, since when was ‘comes with stray cat’ supposed to be a selling point for a house? Was that a feature we particularly wanted?”
“Just come and see the damn house.”
Lewis kissed Hathaway and backed him into the kitchen wall. Of all the people (okay, women) he had imagined backing into walls in the last decade of his life, this was the one person who had never featured in his fantasies. But here it was now: Robbie Lewis had James Hathaway smashed up against a wall while they stared into each others eyes and smiled secret smiles at each other and ignored how both of them should have abandoned this sort of behaviour decades ago (lots of decades ago). Lewis had a hand wrapped around the back of Hathaway’s neck and the other one cupping the back of his skull. James was smiling dopily at him, like a teenager in love. This shouldn’t be happening, not at Lewis’s age – not in the life of a man who has retired and should be done with the romantic bits of life.
“’Kay” said Hathaway, sounding almost entirely unlike a man with a degree from Cambridge and a slightly scandalous history in a seminary.
Lewis did the only thing that could be expected of a man in this position and kissed Hathaway until they were both reduced to utter incoherence.
And so Robbie found he could cross the first item off his list.