Although the warren of laboratories and workshops that comprise Q branch have a hi-tech air conditioning system which is one of the best in the world (engineered by Q Branch’s own experts, of course), it is not always the most comfortable of places to work. The Gordian knot of air intakes and cleaning units can be eccentric. Without any explanation, some days the whole state of the art system will pump out air that smells like wet dog. On others, it is, bizarrely, the fragrance of cheap ginger biscuits. Extensive investigations can find no reason for this.
It is one of the reasons why, even on cold winter days, Q likes to take his packed lunch and walk along the Embankment.
It is well known that Q is something of a workaholic. He thinks nothing of sitting or standing at his desk or workbench for 50 or 60 hours at a time. He focuses his enormous brain until the job is done, the problem is solved, however long it takes. But he also knows that fresh air and exercise can bring new perspectives on all kinds of problems, and there is something about trudging along the banks of the Thames that cleanses his mind.
Today is a day of dreadnought skies and threatening rain. The wind is full of a kind of fine drizzle that is not quite heavy enough to be rain, but gets Q thoroughly wet even so. Its not that cold for November, so he doesn’t care. He is off to find his favourite haunt.
Behind the Houses of Parliament there is a little sward of green, an oddly shaped wedge of grass and trees that huddles up against the embankment wall. Q is always amazed that someone has not built on it, since it is prime real estate, and even the oddest shaped plot in a city with a medieval street plan will be cobbled into something eventually. But no, this small park remains untouched. Perhaps, he observes, it is because it has become the clandestine meeting place for MPs and journalists engaging in shady briefing sessions, in the same way that St James’ Park is for foreign diplomats intending to swap secrets, but without the accompanying ducks. There are invariably pairs of rather shifty looking men hanging around, and they clearly aren’t in it for sex. Q notices one such couple as he approaches his favourite bench. One man, a distinguished looking figure in an obviously expensive navy cashmere overcoat, looks embarrassed to be seen with the other, whose balding pate is shaved, and who sports thick, black, trendy spectacles perched on his nose, a designer leather jacket and a man bag. The pair of them are a cliché on legs.
Q’s bench is in front of the embankment wall, and is placed on a high mound of steps so that anyone sitting down can see over the top of the concrete barrier. Today the river is choppy, the colour of milky instant coffee. Barges and tugs ply their way up and down. The ferry that connects stops all the way down to Greenwich slides by, dual bows slicing the water. There is always plenty to watch on the river. On the other side there are cranes working on new high rises, their loads swaying slightly in the wind, and traffic passing, stop start, stop start.
Q pulls out his Tupperware box and opens it with relish. He’s hungry today, which is rare for him. Maybe it is because he has made his favourite for lunch, cheese and pickle sandwiches. They remind him of Christmas, and school lunches. He loves the mix of flavours, tart, sweet, spicy, against the creaminess of the cheese. Here is all that is good in life, pressed between two slightly dry slices of bread.
He is halfway through his second triangle when he becomes aware of a figure standing by the wall, looking out over the churning water. It’s a stocky, pugilistic figure, dressed in a black wool overcoat, a man with a pugnacious face and an incongruous tan. A man with a profile Q would know anywhere.
Q’s stomach does a back flip, and his mouth goes instantly dry.
The man clearly knows he is being watched. He turns to face Q, leans his hip against the wall. A slow smile slides over his wide lips, a knowing smile. He is a bad man, and he knows exactly what he is doing.
When he approaches and mounts the steps to stand in front of the bench, in front of Q, poor Q is still frozen to the spot. His cheek is still full of half-pulverised cheese and pickle, and the sandwich itself hovers halfway between his mouth and lunchbox. His heart is pounding so hard he can envisage himself falling sideways off the bench and down the steps without any effort at all, nor any effort possible to prevent it.
James Bond reaches out and takes the sandwich from Q’s skinny fingers. He crams the entire remaining corner of the triangle into his mouth and doesn’t for a second take his eyes from Q’s, holding his gaze shamelessly. Q watches his mouth work steadily, knowing that Bond knows exactly, exactly, the effect the thought of that mouth, its capacious possibilities, is having on the Quartermaster. When Bond swallows, that slow, wicked smile slides on to his lips again.
‘Cheese and pickle,’ he says. ‘Mmmm, my favourite.’
Which seems preposterous coming from the lips of a man more used to a lifestyle of caviar and champagne.
Bond sits down next to Q on the bench, just a little too close, so that their shoulders and thighs brush very slightly.
Q finally remembers himself. He manages to finish chewing the mouthful of sandwich he has had packed into his cheek like a hamster for the last few minutes, and swallow it.
Together they sit there, looking out at the Thames, watching the boat traffic, eating humble cheese and pickle sandwiches. Every now and then, Bond’s big hand will delve into the lunchbox that sits in Q’s lap, right over the erection he is desperate to hide but which Bond clearly knows is there, and fishes out a morsel.
‘I have a thermos of coffee,’ Q eventually manages to croak. His mouth is coated inside with more crumbs than a chicken kiev, and he is desperate for a drink.
‘You may be the only person on the planet left who still uses a Thermos flask,’ Bond points out, amused, while Q pulls the tartan-patterned tube out of his rucksack.
‘Shows how much you know,’ Q snaps back. ‘They are enjoying a renaissance, thanks to the backlash against disposable coffee cups.’
‘I’m sure,’ Bond says. Q suspects this is a man who has never had to queue for a cup of coffee in his life. No doubt the crowds part in deference every time he walks into a Starbucks. Flash bastard.
There are two plastic cups inside the flask, a feature Q never imagined he would need, given his solitary lifestyle. He balances the cups on the top of his lunchbox and pours coffee into each. Steam curls up. The coffee is about the same colour as the river. He hands one to Bond, and they resume their silence, and sip.
‘Its good,’ Bond says after a while.
‘Back then,’ Q asks, because he cannot contain his curiosity anymore. After all, you don’t get to be a world class engineer without a sense of curiosity the size of the entire North American continent.
‘Something like that.’
‘Retirement not suiting you?’ What Q means is, well, is the new girl not suiting you? Because he and his raging erection need to know urgently.
‘You can’t get Branston in the Caribbean,’ Bond says, by way of explanation. By way of avoiding the issue, too, of course.
‘What’ll you do now, then?’
‘I was thinking of setting up an importing business. The people of St Kitts need Branston to brighten their lives.’
Oh, very funny, Q thinks. And of course, MI6’s amusing cover in the old days was always as an import/export business. Which was ironically what they were actually up to, in a way. Every conversation with Bond occurs on so many levels that even Q’s mammoth brain sometimes gets fuddled. He wishes Bond would say what he means sometimes. Maybe its about time someone did, and it might as well be him. With a sigh, he turns to Bond and steels himself. Steels himself to do the thing he should have done all along, right at the word go, on that shabby leather bench in the National Gallery. He has promised himself for so long that he wouldn’t. That he would resist. But in the end, you can’t cheat Fate. She has a way of getting you eventually.
So he does it.
Reaches out. Grips his hands around the back of Bond’s closely shaven head. Leans in. Meets his lips. And plunders his mouth mercilessly.
And oh, the joy of it! The relief!
And Bond lets him. Q can’t imagine Bond being the kind who fails to take the lead in any interaction, least of all this sort, but he allows Q to ravish his mouth. He actually lets out a small groan of pleasure. When they come up for air, Q looks at him and sees a man thoroughly undone, his mouth red and lopsided, lips open, as if he is panting for more. Its absolutely bloody wonderful.
Bond blinks, slightly dazed, then seems to come to his senses somewhat.
‘Don’t suppose you could work at home this afternoon, could you?’ He manages to whisper, looking into Q’s eyes as if he is hypnotised. ‘Only I really need you to take me to bed.’
Christmas has arrived in Q’s pants. There is much rejoicing.
He fumbles his mobile out of his pocket and rings his assistant, who is somewhat non-plussed by the news that his normally predictable boss is planning to take some ‘idea generation time’, as Q carefully puts it. Beside him, Bond is grinning like an idiot as he finishes his coffee and screws the cup back into the lid of the thermos.
As they get up to leave, Bond says, ‘Do you think that Branston might be an aphrodisiac?’
‘It is now,’ says Q.