Part Two: John
Even in July, Hector’s house oozed damp and cold. The rooms had that unmistakable smell, too long unaired. Wardrobes bulged at the seams with musty clothes, piles of yellowing newspapers and unexpected grim stores of food tins and packets long past their sell-by date. (John remembered his mother twenty years ago, going through the Fife larder like a small blonde tornado as Hector protested: “They just make that date nonsense up so they can sell more. Put it back, Jean, it’s perfectly fine.” “It is not fine, Hector, it’s fermenting.”)
He scrubbed the kitchen floor and work surfaces with industrial quantities of disinfectant – at least he’d be able to walk across the room without sticking at every step, and throw together something to eat. The conservatory was freezing cold, but smelt less bad than the bedrooms, so he set up camp there, blessing the instinct that had made him pack his sleeping-bag. He wolfed down the doorstop sandwiches he’d made and sat staring out at the harbour, drinking his tea.
The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in Northeast Scotland, he thought, grinning wryly. He wriggled into the sleeping-bag still wearing everything but his boots, and wishing he’d brought a woolly hat. Wondered how long ago Hector had stopped even trying to look after himself. Still, when you’re 96 you can do what you like, at least if you haven’t got kids to interfere and put you in a home.
Was this what his life would be like, if he survived long enough?
Shut up and go to sleep, Watson, for fuck’s sake.
For once, he didn’t dream of Afghanistan, but of a storm at sea, a boat poised on the edge of a whirlpool, held in place by fraying ropes. Something from an old black-and-white film he’d once seen.
He woke at 4 a.m., sweating buckets and with a raging thirst. Drank some water and fell heavily asleep again, waking to find it was gone nine already.
Late morning, and he was still sitting on the clifftop behind the house, staring mindlessly at the puffins wheeling and skittering through the air. He knew he ought to go indoors, do some more cleaning, but the thought of those moth-eaten garments and slippery eiderdowns made him feel itchy all over.
For a moment he’d thought it was a man swimming down there, and then he realized it was a seal. Grey seal, from the size of it. The sight gave him an odd feeling inside, a lift of the heart, Hector would have called it. So beautiful, solitary and strong, this sleek dark creature raising its head now to stare at him.
It’s not really staring at you, he told himself. Just an optical illusion. But it felt real, for a moment – and then the seal disappeared into the waves. John strained to catch another glimpse of it, but it was gone.
Better go back and face the house anyway.
The rest of the day was spent throwing things into binbags, till John was aching all over and covered in dust and cobwebs. The cranky boiler grudgingly produced enough water for a bath and a hairwash, and with clean clothes on he didn’t feel so bad. He made himself dinner – pasta and tomato sauce, pretty basic but the hot food was comforting – and then settled down to read himself to sleep with one of Hector’s books.
In retrospect, reading about how Slains Castle had inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula probably wasn’t such a good idea just before bed. He tried to scream but couldn’t make a sound; he woke up shaking and whimpering. Put the light on, needing to see for himself that he wasn’t really covered in blood. Felt his neck: no wound there. Just his mind playing tricks on him again. Fuck it.
He didn’t know what made him decide to go down to the sea in the dark, lie down on the slipway with his head hanging over the side, for all the world as if he wanted to get washed away. He’d had enough, that was all. Nothing worked. Nothing was any good. He felt the tears run down his face, couldn't even be bothered to feel ashamed of it any more, lying here crying stupidly into the sea.
A strange sort of howling from further along the beach made him scramble to his feet and peer into the darkness. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, then rubbed them, not believing what he saw.
What kind of idiot would go skinny-dipping in the middle of the night off the coast of Scotland?
A bloody gorgeous one, apparently. He'd seen more than his fair share of naked male bodies – that went with the job – but never a man as beautiful as this.
Maybe it was just the moonlight; but the way the man’s skin shone made John catch his breath, made him want to stretch out a hand and touch. He was close enough now, close enough to feel the heat coming from the other man’s body, the warmth of his breath as he leaned closer still, their faces almost touching.
I’m dreaming, aren't I? I’m still fast asleep on that bloody sofa and any minute now he’s going to turn into another sodding vampire –
The kiss was like falling through clear water with the sun in it, dizzy and plummeting. His hands clutched and scrabbled, tangling in dark curls as he pressed into the embrace. Must be a dream but the body in his arms was so warm, warm and dry, how was that possible? The man’s lips and tongue teased and caressed, making him moan with longing.
But he didn’t do this, he’d never –
“Shh,” the man said. “It’s all right.”
Hands, sure and strong, stroking John’s hair and his neck, running down his spine, holding him together and he needed something to hold him together because kissing this man was going to shatter him into a million tiny pieces and he’d be lost forever. He was drowning in it, gasping for breath, sinking into the depths, clinging on to this man like his only hope of rescue, his legs buckling under him, the strength of those hands holding him up as he shuddered and cried out, shaken to his bones.
The hands relaxed their grip and John pulled back from the kiss, feeling the chill of the night air as pleasure ebbed, leaving him sticky and ashamed.
“Sorry,” he muttered, hardly daring to open his eyes.
“Are you?” the man said. “I’m not. I don't think you should be either.”
The intimacy of that voice in his ear made his hair stand on end. Pressure of lips on his neck, a lingering kiss just light enough not to leave a mark. There’d be no trace in the morning to prove he hadn't dreamt the whole thing.
“You’ll see me again, though,” the man said, as if he could hear John’s thoughts. “Once it starts it can't be undone, and it's started now.”
“What – how –”
“The usual way, of course,” the man said. “Look it up, if you can’t remember. Go back to bed.”
John stared at the pale figure walking away along the beach till he couldn't see it any more. Then he stumbled back to the house in a daze and collapsed on the sofa, tumbling into sleep as if sandbagged. He had no more dreams, or none that he remembered.