The Moon Under Water
Dakin and Irwin get the bus to the pub from one direction and Posner and Scripps from another. The four of them arrive, two by two, at the same time and spot each other across the road. Before they’re in earshot, Irwin grits his teeth and mutters, “Well, this is awkward”; Posner ventures much the same. Scripps and Dakin tell them both to give over, and they exchange a wave.
When they’re on the same side of the road, Irwin nods at Scripps’ hand and asks, “What did you do?” Posner, pushing ahead through the doors without making eye contact, replies on Scripps’s behalf, “He’s developing stigmata”.
“Ha, bloody, ha”, says Scripps and rolls his eyes. “Scalded myself making tea – it's nothing”, and, with that, their tumultuous day is hidden away under the dressing – not to be examined.
Earlier this afternoon, Posner had arrived in Scripps’ kitchen to find him tearful and wounded. Scripps had said nothing, but stood up and pulled him close and held him - leaving him perplexed and damp at the shoulder. Angela was close by, and yet this, and the hot tears and the melting puddle of ice – a conundrum. He’d waited it out, making soothing noises, and was rewarded for his patience with a simple, “I love you, David”.
And he replied, “Oh, thank God, is that all? I thought it was something serious”, which caused snotty, hiccupping laughter. And then, of course, “I love you too” - which didn’t. He took Scripps by the hand outside to where they sat at the garden table and he told him everything about his conversation with his mother. They’d suspected she knew, laughed about it, been even a little thrilled at the possibility. But the reality is a point of no return, the edge of the cliff – no choice but to jump and fall, the rocks mostly hidden and the temperature of the water as yet unknown.
Angela dried her own tears and gave herself a stern talking to. She tried not to intrude, but love and curiosity drew her into Donald’s room, wanting to know what wallowing in nostalgia would provoke – prodding at a bad tooth, to see if it still hurt. But she found it was the idea of a shrine to her lost boy that was most tooth-achingly cloying. She noticed a greasy Blu Tack mark from a sun-bleached, peeling poster and decided it was time to redecorate. He can do it himself, she told herself. Something cheerful… or maybe… or perhaps… No, if it’s to be his room a while yet, he can choose.
She resisted leaning on the sill, but not for long; the grass needed a cut – maybe she’d ask the boys to do it. And there they were - chairs pulled up, almost facing, everything leaning, straining towards each other. But not touching - as though touching were a provocation to the gods not to be risked. First one of them talked earnestly, staring at the ground, regarded soulfully by the other - and then positions reversed. They looked so… grave, she could hardly bear it; they used to run laughing round this garden. “Oh, for goodness sake”, she said, and went to make more tea.
She took a tray into the garden and pulled up a chair while they watched her like nervous cats. Feeling their eyes on her as she poured, she said, “Donald, I think your bedroom could do with a lick of paint and a general overhaul, it looks like a ten-year-old's room. And, as you’ve a bit of time on your hands, you can do it”. Then she paused and, looking straight at Pos said, “Would you be a love and help him, David? Can you imagine what he’ll come up with on his own?” Pos laughed and replied, “I dread to think”.
Scripps told his mother it could take a while, as, “David is very pernickety”, and she said if a job was worth doing, it was worth doing well and, with that, the long summer stretched ahead and Pos had permission to come and go as he pleased and be with Scrippsy - alone, in his room… oh God… maybe in his bed. He curled his toes tightly in his shoes at the thought and to stop the escape of a squeal. Although a paintbrush would have to be wielded at some point.
Tea was drunk and there was chit-chat about paint and new curtains and how are your parents, David - until they were dismissed with, “Don’t you have some practice to do? Leave me in peace”. When Pos turned back to collect the tray, he said, “Thank you, Angela” and she replied, “Be careful”. Just that - be careful. She might have meant be careful with that tray, for all he knew. But there was a smile, of sorts, anyway.
He went into the front room where Scripps was already at the piano. “What did your mum just do, Scrippsy?”, he asked, and Scripps replied that, much like God, his mum had worked out that if he couldn't have David, she couldn’t have him.
“And she really wants you?”
“Yes, she does.”
Pos plonked himself on the piano stool next to Scripps and said, “Me too”. And Scripps kissed him and laughed and played the piano for him - wounded hand or no wounded hand.
And so, here they are, arriving at the pub - to see friends - to talk, to laugh, to sing. As it ever was.
The Red Lion is a world unto itself, caught somewhere between the end of the war and the brave new world of the nineteen eighties. The carpets are a sick-making swirl of reds and greens - no doubt intended to evoke a homely front parlour but adept at hiding the stains of whatever causes that unmistakable sticky underfoot sensation. The ceiling is ornate and yellowed and the air thick with smoke. Regulars keep their own pewter tankard behind the bar but, regular or not, you will never be served beer in a handleless glass.
The clientele is a strangely mixed bag. Elderly men gather in groups of twos and threes - it pains them that women, young women, have begun to feel comfortable enough to arrive alone, or in gaggles, without sign of menfolk. Men of a more progressive persuasion, will occasionally sit with their wives in the saloon bar - their wives drink Port and Lemon or a Cinzano Bianco, if they’re feeling modern; their husbands wish they were in the public bar. In the holidays the students come, drawn by cheap beer and the pool table and dart board; the bar is mostly staffed by them then and the whole place grinds grudgingly into the young decade.
In the public bar, there’s a small, slightly raised, stage corner complete with ineffective microphone and not entirely in-tune piano. It’s seen everything from spoons players to school boys riding the new wave of British heavy metal - that was a night! The old men have no truck with it; they drink pints of Mild and smoke Woodbines - memories and fears of their own generation shared silently and contained within.
Tonight, a young woman will get up to sing and play a Cyndi Lauper cover and become paralysed with nerves. Pos will take pity on her, step up to put on a harmony and realise a small foray into modernity might not be so bad. She will be grateful and gushing and get entirely the wrong idea; Pos will be oblivious.
There will be a middle-aged man who styles himself a comedian but whose entire routine is based on finding anything that is neither male, nor white, nor straight, hilarious. He will take it as read the whole pub feels the same way and he will seriously have misjudged the zeitgeist. He will be heckled by Timms, who will raise considerably more laughs.
Pos will sing and Scripps will play and our boys will jostle for new positions, laugh and argue themselves into the new realities and find them not so very much unlike the old. Plus ca change...
As they push through the doors, they see Timms, Lockwood, Rudge and Akhtar sitting in a semicircular, leatherette banquette - no sign of Crowther yet. There’s a rousing chorus of “Stuuuuuuu” and “Siiiiir” and Timms raises his glass and chips in, “Our very own star-crossed lovers”.
Scripps isn’t convinced the remark excludes him and Pos, but he grimaces and says, “Sorry, I tried”. Irwin signals he’ll cope and perches as far to the outside edge as he can - so he can run, if he needs to. Pos sits at the other extreme, while Dakin and Scripps go off to the bar.
Lockwood, playing to the gallery, asks, “But which of them is Capulet and which Montague – that's what I want to know? Can you see Stu as Juliet?”
“Juliet was thirteen”, Akhtar says, “Stu’s a bit older than that, anyway - they’re a bit more May to July than May to September.”
Irwin is tempted to remind them he is, in fact, in the room. Having not yet managed to get a word in edgewise, he throws in, “I suppose it depends on which of us you think has the better legs for hose”. He’s quite pleased with that... but not for long.
Lockwood knocks it back, “We haven’t seen your legs, Tom, but we know Stu has les belle jambs”. And Akhtar picks it up and runs with it – he shouts over to the bar, “Stu? Whose legs are better, yours or Tom’s?” Irwin is both gratified and mortified at their casual use of his name.
Dakin grins and calls back, “Oh, he has very nice legs”. Irwin has to crane his neck round at him to shout, “Stuart, please” and Posner chimes in, “Ignore them, they’re very immature”.
Timms takes umbrage, “We’re not immature; it’s a rite of passage. Do you bite your thumb at me, David Posner?”
“I bloody well do bite my thumb at you, yes – pack it in; it’s not nice.”
While the others quarrel good naturedly over their heads, Rudge ducks down and addresses Irwin directly - he tries to be reassuring, “Think of it as an initiation, Sir; humiliation is part of the process”.
“I thought we’d dispensed with that part of the process some time ago”.
Timms, tunes back in, throws his arm around Irwin’s shoulders saying, “Oh, we dispensed with it with Mr Irwin, but not you, Tom; we have to start all over again now”.
Irwin cringes under the weight of both the arm and the suggestion and is enormously relieved when Dakin comes back with the beers; he’s grateful to have something to cling on to. Scripps leans against the banquette next to Pos - he wouldn’t want to trouble anyone to budge up – while Dakin perches on the other arm. He stretches his arm along the back – almost around Irwin, but not noticeably around him. The arrangement makes Irwin squirm: he can’t see Dakin’s face, can’t read him or anticipate his next move – he’s trapped. For reasons best known to himself, he has not brought his stick and he’s beginning to regret it.
Timms releases him - his arm having been superseded - and looks up at Dakin, “Stu. Were you flirting with the barmaid?”
“No”, he sounds affronted and then, “Okay, yes. But only because I need a job. Much as I’d like to spend the summer as Tom’s kept man, I have some self-respect. Not much, admittedly, but some”. He reaches out his hand and almost ruffles Irwin’s hair - but thinks better of it. “Picked the wrong one though – should have gone with the older one, jobs not being in the younger one’s gift. I’ll try again later. Flirting with the mothers is generally more productive than the daughters”. He grins at Scripps - who calls him a dick.
Rudge asks, “How do you put up with him, Sir?”, and seizing an opportunity, Irwin replies, “I don’t put up with him – he likes it that way”.
The others chorus, “Oooooooh”, and Dakin smirks – he's happy for the joke to be at his expense, besides – it's true. Irwin blushes, feels he’s scored a point – though he’s definitely not winning.
As the laughter dies, Dakin pipes up, “Anyway, stop calling him Sir, he’s not even a teacher anymore. He's going into television”.
“I can speak for myself, Stuart” and, muttering under his breath, “Thanks for throwing me to the lions”. Dakin punches him with his free hand, by way of apology.
“Ooh, Stuart – that’s very formal. I’ve never thought of you as a Stuart”.
Rudge says, “Shut up, Tony. You tell him, Sir – speak for yourself. Are you going to be on telly?”
Dakin, unable to resist a little more grandstanding, interrupts “He’s going to shag his way to the top, starting with the director”.
“Stuart! That will do. Though I might consider his offer it at this rate”.
Again, the others enjoy a laugh at Dakin’s expense and take Irwin to their side – they can’t both be allowed to win at once. Dakin was not aware there had been an offer. He’s not sure there really has been, but it shuts him up. Scripps frowns at him and shakes his head while mouthing, “Still a dick”. He knows his interjections are childish but, true to his promise, he is not ashamed - he may be making a ham-fisted mess of it, but he wants to show Tom off.
Irwin lights a cigarette and offers them round, to see who’ll take the King’s shilling. It’s a story teller’s trick - a gather round children, are you sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin - ruse. Thomas Irwin has got the conch, so shut up and listen. They quiet and settle and finally let him tell his own story and slowly, inevitably, the teasing falls away. Dakin bites his tongue against saying anything else crass. They listen and are impressed and…. it is so very grown up.
Akhtar whistles, “You’ve finished your gap year then; that sounds suspiciously like a life”.
“Yeah, you lot put me right off teaching; I want a nice safe wall of glass between me and an audience… I imagine part of this initiation involves buying a round does it?”
There is a general refrain of, “Does it? Lads, does it? It does. Yes. If Tom wants to buy a round, we’re not going to stop him, are we?”
Irwin goes to the bar and Dakin slips into his seat. Posner gets up, pushes Scripps into his spot and goes to help ferry beer silently to the masses. On the last trip, Irwin says, “David, may I have a word?”
David Posner is not comfortable with Tom Irwin calling him David, but he’s not comfortable with Posner either. He’s given David to Scripps but Posner makes him his teacher and Pos is far too matey, so, David it will have to be - he lets it go unremarked. He neither demurs nor acquiesces but waits to receive whatever the word may be.
“You haven’t said what you want to drink”.
“Oh, a Coke, I suppose - I don’t want a beer until I’ve done this thing”.
Irwin orders them both a drink and asks, “Are you nervous?”
“A bit. I’ve only ever sung in front of friends and family”.
“I’ve heard you sing and I’m sure you don’t consider me either of those”, he holds the door open...
...and Posner firmly closes it, “No, that’s true”.
So, he tries a different tack, “Thank you for standing up for me just now”.
“Don’t take it personally; it’s just I don’t like bullies”. Posner immediately regrets the acidity of this remark.
Irwin turns back to the bar to collect Posner’s drink and hands it to him saying, “David, if you were any sharper, you’d cut yourself”.
“Thank you...sorry”. Posner hops up on a stool, feeling he can’t walk off now - he’s here for the duration.
“Never mind. I don’t think they were bullying anyway, just teasing – but I appreciated the thought. He pauses...considers... ploughs on. “David… I hope Scripps passed on my apology, but I’d like to do it in person”.
Posner examines his drink, watching the bubbles race endlessly to the top and the condensation go the other way. He runs a finger around the rim. “Oh… it’s water under the bridge, isn’t it? Haven’t we all moved on?”
“It doesn’t sound like it”. He waits for Posner to stop contemplating his coke and look at him. When he eventually catches his eye, he says, “Scripps says you’re not very happy and I feel responsible, partly so anyway”.
“Not about Dakin! I don’t care about that” - this a little too shrill.
“No?” Irwin shakes his head in reassurance, “No, no, of course not. But that too, I wasn’t honest or even sympathetic. Oh, fuck it, David, I was cruel and I’m sorry”.
That “fuck it” - it softens him - moves him away from teacher and closer to friend and Posner softens with it. He lowers his voice and asks what he’d wanted to know the first time. “Were you in love with him then?”
Irwin, taken aback, takes some time to reply – sips his beer, studies a mark on the bar. Eventually, “Yes, I think so; I think... I must have been. It was… shocking. He was everywhere I turned… making me feel…”
“… Alive?” Posner leans in closer, looking at him all the while. Creeping up with his net, he feels he could spread those gorgeous wings, stick a pin in him and…
He moves a little closer still, “...and like you wanted to die?” Irwin purses his lips and nods without looking at him.
Got him! Pos whispers, “I know... I knew”.
“I had no idea what to do”.
But now what to do with his specimen? Carefully, with only a hint of studied sarcasm, Pos says, “How awful for you”.
But Irwin chooses to take it at face value, “Yes, it was rather”.
“Being in love with Dakin is awful, I wouldn’t wish it on my... anyone”.
Irwin laughs, noting the correction, “Yes… well, it has its moments”.
“Why did you tell me it would pass? Being in love with Dakin passed, but not the rest and you knew it wouldn’t”.
“I thought it was what I was meant to say – professionally. Funnily enough, that kind of thing isn’t on the teacher training course… I was somewhat unprepared. Oh... it was an idiotic thing to say. It was my first job and you all scared the living daylights out of me; you still do, to be honest”.
“We’re a bit intimidating, en masse, aren’t we?”
“Yes, you are. You’re intimidating individually”.
Posner has the decency to look sheepish, giving Irwin the breathing space to pull himself up and take charge. “But what about you - you’re not happy generally. I don’t think you should have been pushed into History – English more your thing?”
“Yes, Sir… Sorry! Tom. Yes”.
“Can I help?”
“No, I’ll sort it out myself, thank you”.
“Well, you wouldn’t want me to be too acquiescent, would you?”
“Touché. Look, I got you into this mess, I’d like to help. I know your tutor, you know”.
“I met her properly when I did my teaching course. But she was on my interview panel the first time round. She was kind enough to tell me I’d have had the place, if it was her choice. She’s a very reasonable woman and they are not going to want to lose you – I'm sure they can find some way around it. Let me contact her?”
It occurs to Pos he must have gone to some trouble to find out who his tutor is but, even so, he answers, “No… thank you, but no. I don’t need you to do that; I can deal with it. I’ll look silly getting my teacher to fight my battles”.
“I know you don’t need me to. But I’d like to and it can’t do any harm. And I’m not your teacher anymore...” He sighs, “Look, I’d like to say let me do it as a friend, because no one looks silly for having the support of friends but...”
Cutting him off, Posner says, “...Don likes you”.
Irwin smiles, remembering their impromptu soul-baring evening. “I like him... but that was a non-sequitur".
“No. No, it wasn’t, actually - I trust his judgement”. He gets down from his stool, “So, yes, alright then, if it makes you feel better”. He picks up his coke and walks away, but Irwin calls after him.
Posner replies, “You too. I think you’re going to need it”.
In which Irwin and Dakin have a misunderstanding - of sorts
As Posner walks away, Dakin comes into focus in the mirror behind the bar - black spotted and distorted but unmistakably him. He looks like he’s waiting for something. Irwin lifts a hand in greeting to the reflection and Dakin resolves into a more solid apparition next to him.
“Had a chat with Pos? You two okay?”
“Yeah, I think we are - I think we will be anyway… he’s a clever boy”.
“You knew that already”. Irwin hadn’t quite meant that kind of clever, but he lets it go. Dakin says, "I should probably have a chat with him too – maybe I will, later... I wanted to come over before but you were deep in conversation – didn’t think I should interrupt…Sorry, I sounded like a right arse over there”.
“You are an arse”, he teases.
“Don’t, Tom” He looks pained “I wanted to say... I was trying to sound proud of you… but… I don’t think that came over”.
“It worked out alright – I think they were suitably impressed”.
“Yeah. I think they’ve gone from wondering what Dakin’s doing with Mr Irwin, to wondering why the hell Mr Irwin’s bothering with Dakin”.
Tom smiles at him, “They don’t know everything though, do they?”
“No, they don’t... yeah, you’re right, the sex is good”.
“Stuart! That’s not what I meant; you know that’s not what I meant”.
“I know. But why would you...? It’s not just the sex... is it?”
“Stu, honestly – sometimes! This week… yesterday… everything we’ve said; I’ve told you things, I’ve never... You can’t possibly think that”. He sighs at his inability to form a coherent sentence. “No, it’s not just the sex. Not to me anyway. Is it to you?”
“Sorry… it was a stupid question - I just needed to hear it”. He sounds relieved but still a little melancholy. Tom looks at him sideways as they stand shoulder to shoulder at the bar and glances again at their reflections. He takes in Stu’s childish pout - when his façade crumbles, it crumbles badly - and he checks to see if his own reflection betrays how much he wishes he could kiss it better - really kiss it better. Instead, he jogs him with his shoulder and says quietly, “But the sex is very good...” He hopes for a smile, but barely gets a reaction. “Did it bother you, what I said about the Director? Is that what this is about?” Stu turns to face him and shrugs and Tom goes on, “Look, I’m not planning to sleep with him and he hasn’t said anything; I only said it to shut you up. Besides, he’s not my type”.
Stu doesn’t have to ask what his type is, but he does it anyway and Tom doesn’t let him down – he rakes him with an appreciative look. The warmth of it floods him - pools in his limbs, in his gut, in his groin – and he says, “Oh, I forgot, I’ve got something for you.”
“It’s…erm…just take it”. He reaches inside Tom’s jacket and puts something in his breast pocket. Tom takes it straight out again. He peers at it. It’s a small, plain white envelope – it feels overstuffed, as though there are several sheets of paper. On the front, it says simply, ‘Tom’.
“What is it?”
“Are you being deliberately thick, or what? Put it away”.
He does as he’s told, but looks puzzled, “I don’t unders…”
... “It’s a letter, from me to you… I… it’s just something I wanted you to have – to keep”.
“Oh, oh ... that kind of letter. Stu, that’s very... erm …unexpected. May I open it?”
“Why have you given it to me now then?”
“To be honest, because I forgot it was in my jacket. I wrote it yesterday after... everything, and I put it in there to hide it from you. But I just found it, so you may as well have it”.
“Why write it and then hide it?” He shakes his head incredulously. “You’re a strange boy”.
“I suppose I was waiting for the right time – but now’s as good a time as any. And do you have to call me that?”
“A boy” .
“Sorry. I think you’ll always be a boy to me, Stu – it’s not such a bad thing to be. Anyway, when am I allowed to open it then – it’s not, ‘to be opened only in the event of my death’, is it?”
Stu laughs, “Yeah, with hindsight, I should have written that on it. I don’t know, sometime when you’re on your own”.
“Is it embarrassing?” Tom grins at him, happy Stu seems to have snapped out of his mood.
“Disgustingly so”, he winces, “Think of it as an insurance policy - you could blackmail me for life”.
“Something to look forward to then”.
“I can’t think why I bothered”.
“Yes, you can”.
“God, I hate you” There is no hate in voice.
“No, you don’t. You wish you did, but you don’t”.
“True”. That much is undeniable.
Tom turns away and something holds his eye. Stu follows his gaze across the room to where Crowther has come in... “What are you staring at...oh..ooooh...wow...sly dog”. Crowther is accompanied by a young woman whose beauty is of the traffic-stopping kind - tall, blonde and imperious... “Tom?”
“You’re practically drooling”.
“Am I, fuck! I’m appreciating; I am allowed to appreciate women – aesthetically”.
“Yeah? I know what I see”.
“She looks like Grace Kelly...”
“...Oh, that figures”.
“Cool blondes would be your thing”.
Tom drags his eyes away to turn back to Stu with a grin, “Not my taste in men though, eh?”
“Variety is the spice of life...” Stuart, already regretting handing over the time bomb in Tom’s pocket, foolishly decides to try his luck. “You know, I’m sure I could find us a gorgeous ice-queen to thaw out together, if you like - being as your last experience with women was ‘not awful’. I’m sure we could improve on that”.
Tom raises his eyebrows, “Stuart, that’s a human being you’re talking about”.
Stu’s swagger is back and he encroaches on Tom’s space in an entirely more predatory way than earlier. He’s all smirk, and eyelashes and suggestion. “Not yet she isn’t – she’s our own little abstract concept; a thought experiment, if you will. And we’d be very nice to her - lucky girl”.
“You are completely incorrigible”.
“Thinking the unthinkable? I learned from the best... and... you... love... it...”
“Will you please stop purring at me?”
“No, I don’t think I will, I like the effect. You’ve gone a very pretty colour”.
“Stuart, stop it! Why do you always have to win? It’s not endearing, you know”.
“I don’t, not always. Not with you, at least. But I like to play and so do you, don’t deny it. You let me go to that interview thinking I might bring up Kneeshaw – I’m fucked if you don’t play to win”.
“You’re never going to let that go, are you?”
“Doubt it. I would love to be able to see the pictures in your head though… you can tell me later”.
“I swear I’m going to throttle you”, he balls his fists on the bar.
“Can’t do much else by way of getting your hands on me at the moment, can you?” Tom closes his eyes in annoyance or frustration or to block out something he won’t share. And Stuart, recklessly, pushes him a little bit further. “I bet you like to watch”.
“Fuck off, Stu!” This explosive enough to turn some heads.
And realising what they’ve done, they bring it down to whispers. “I’m sorry. I was only… I don’t know...”
“...No, I’m sorry. I over reacted. I know you’re only playing. But…” Tom stops. He doesn’t look like he has any intention of going on and Stu can't bear the suspense. “But what?... Come on, you can say it”.
And something in Tom’s expression snaps. “Alright, if you really want to know, here it is”. He sets his voice at a volume only Stuart can hear and speaks slowly, carefully, didactically… once a teacher, always a teacher. “I know I’m going to have to share you, you’ve told me so – though it is a bit rich as you seem disinclined to share me. But I don’t even want to think about it yet and certainly not tonight when I’m finding it hard enough sharing you with all of them”. He jerks his head over to the table where the Greek Chorus sits. “As for not making promises one can’t keep - I can’t promise I’m ever going to be able to deal with it; It fucking hurts, I don’t deserve it and, in the end, if you want me, you might have to choose”. At each of these percussive points he jabs at a damp beermat on the bar with his forefinger. “You might have to choose what you really want, Stu, because I can’t promise to put up with your shit forever. I might not be enough for you, but you might very well be too much for me!”
Truth is a naked, brutal thing. He lets the dust settle and adds, “Happy now?”
Stuart is not happy. He turns away and hangs his head over his forearms on the bar - feeling the weight of some unfamiliar emotions. “Oh, shit...shit... I’m sorry, Tom. Really – it was a stupid thing to say. I was just going for the reaction… I don’t know why”.
Tom is forced to address the back of his head from above. “For God’s sake, Stuart – haven't you noticed you don’t need to do that to get my attention anymore?” He gives an ironic laugh and adds pleadingly, “You never had to, Stu, you always had my attention. Can we please stop keeping score – I’d like to feel we were on the same side sometimes”. And then, because, when you’re on the floor, it’s best to pick yourself up and get straight back in the game, he smiles and says, “Besides, you know I’m not that passive”.
Stu can hear the smile and it’s enough to make him pull his head back up and look him in the eye. He wants to hold him and kiss him and say sorry, again – but that’s out of the question. He wants to say his thought experiment isn’t about Tom having to share him, it’s about sharing more of himself with Tom – something he could give him. But he takes the easy path: a nod to the past, a promise to the future, and the present mollified. He says, “Yeah? I’ll look forward to it”.
Tom shakes his head in laughter and defeat. “Give it a couple of years, maybe – ask me again, like an adult. Come on, we should say hello. Be good… I mean, nice… I mean… Oh God, you know what I mean. Behave!”
Stu follows him compliantly while thinking about how much is bound up in that “couple of years” and “ask me again”. And he resolves to be very good indeed.
While this conversation unfolds, the Chorus watch from their table. Pos and Scripps have disappeared somewhere together – making an excuse of going over something. They attempt all manner of conversational gambits but, one by one, are inexorably drawn to watching their classmate and erstwhile teacher. They watch them and their reflections and the resultant ripples on the surface of the room.
It’s Timms who first breaks ranks on what everyone is thinking. “Can you see those two? Does it look like that to everyone or just us?”
Lockwood agrees they’re hard to ignore. But people see what they want to see – or don’t and Akhtar admits he can’t keep his eyes off them. Timms says it’s giving him the heebie-jeebies and it doesn’t seem right, “I mean, Dakin... and Mr Irwin… you know”.
Lockwood asks, “What is it you don’t understand, Tony – it’s not fucking poetry”.
And Rudge, although no one asked for his opinion says, “I think it is quite poetic really. Only we didn’t understand the poem then and now we do…” They all turn and stare at him, all agreeing this unexpected musing is briefly more intriguing than the other sideshow. Rudge, as ever, can’t understand the fuss and returns their stares with, “What?”
Irwin’s explosive “Fuck off, Stu!” floats over to them and they’re drawn back. Timms exclaims, “Ooh, lovers’ tiff! What did Dakin say to get that reaction?”
Akthar says, “Something he thinks is outrageous but is probably just a bit twattish. He must want teacher to tell him off – the perve... it looks like he’s getting it too. Look at Irwin’s face – he’s going to do damage to that beermat”.
“Wow”, says Rudge, “look at Stu, hang-dog, or what? Mr Irwin must have wiped the floor with him - I never thought I’d see the day”.
Timms says, “Aww... they’re smiling again – how sweet. At least we won’t have to be subjected to the make-up snog”.
Lockwood, with a thoughtful air, “But they would if they could. Look at them - they can hardly keep their hands off each other. Now I come to think of it, don’t you think they always looked like that - only we couldn’t see what it was?”
At which, Rudge becomes understandably peeved, “That’s what I said! Only I said it better. Can’t fucking win with you lot”. They ignore him.
Timms asks, “What would you call it then? I’d feel better about it if I had a name for it”.
Akhtar defines it as, “Chemistry, mate...yeah, and maybe some poetry. Think you’re going to have to get used to it…”
And then he notices what Irwin and Dakin already have, “Fuck me, Crowther – look at that!”
In which Dakin has more revelations and difficult conversations and Timms is a bit of a hero
Sarah, it turns out, is neither thought experiment nor abstract concept – she’s beautiful, yes, but charming and a little shy; her apparent haughtiness caused by being somewhat short-sighted and having chosen, through misguided vanity, not to wear her glasses this evening. She’s a drama student - of course - an aspiring actress - naturally, and she is oblivious to Dakin’s charms – she has eyes only for Chris. She and Chris have been going out for a while and she’s visiting to meet his family. She has wrapped Chris’ father round her little finger, his mother is reserving judgement; it will take some time and a deal of heartache before she'll be able to take Chris to meet her own parents.
She tries to match names to faces and say something sweet and relevant to each of them and put up with their inanities and ribbing of Chris and the humiliation by association; she is Snow White surrounded by the Seven Dwarves and she is completely overwhelmed.
After a while, Tom, who has stood back and smiled and sympathised with his eyes, somehow separates her from the pack and leads her away to get a drink. Stuart watches them go, wondering how exactly he did that, as he hadn’t heard him say more than, ‘hello’. He’s beginning to wonder if Tom is sapping his powers.
He turns to Chris saying, “You kept that quiet”.
“Yeah, it’s difficult, we attract a lot of attention.”
Stuart grins at him, “You would, you’re a handsome couple. I can’t work out which one of you I fancy more, you’re kind of greater than the sum of your parts.”
Chris stares at him with an incredulous expression long enough to make him squirm. Eventually he says, “For fuck’s sake, Stu, really?” And, for the second time this evening, Stuart is forced to admit it was a stupid thing to say - the ground shifting unpredictably under him tonight.
“Yes, it bloody well was”. Chris pauses, appearing to gather his thoughts, “Stu, have you ever even noticed I’m black?”
Stuart starts to answer but Chris raises his hand to stop him, “if you could frame your answer without saying you like to imagine yourself colour blind, I’d be grateful. I’m sure you like to imagine it, but you’re not. And, anyway, don’t be”.
Stuart has no idea how to answer but is sure that whatever he says will be the wrong thing. He tries, “Of course I’ve noticed, I just haven’t thought about it much.”
“Why would you?”, Chris snaps. He shakes his head at him and adopts the exasperated tone one might use with a small child, “Stu, we attract a lot of attention because, as you don’t seem to have noticed, we are not the same colour. Some people get upset about that kind of thing”.
“I imagine so. I...”
“...Well, see if you can stretch your tiny imagination a little further to imagine what we get called. Can you even begin to imagine the names she gets called?” Chris stares at him hard while Stuart contemplates his shoes, intently, “Actually, mate, yes I can. Sorry”.
“She didn’t want to come tonight because she was worried about it – that’s why we’re a bit late. But there’s only so much hiding away at home you can do, isn’t there?
“Yeah”, Stu worries away at a mark on the carpet with his toe.
“I kind of thought, as you were bringing Irwin you might get it…”
“... Oh, so you told her?” Stuart looks back up at him.
“Yes, I told her – it was the only thing that persuaded her to come. I suggested the heat might be taken off by my, previously assumed to be a ladies' man, mate turning up with his boyfriend who just so happens to be our old teacher”.
“I see your point”.
“She said, at least that won’t be visible and I said, you obviously don’t know Dakin!” He laughs, “Weren’t you getting the usual reaction to that...” he waves his hand in the air... “thing you do?”
Stu laughs too, in relief “No, I was wondering where I was going wrong”. He puts a hand on Chris’ shoulder, “I am a first-class wanker, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you are. I’m hoping this thing with Irwin will force you to grow up a bit.”
“Yeah, me too.”
They glance over to where Tom’s chatting with Sarah at the bar. He’s smiling and animated, clearly enjoying himself – it makes Stu feel strangely weak. They’re both briefly silent, until Chris says, “I really like her, Stu, she’s not just a pretty face.”
Stu replies, “No, Tom wouldn’t look like that if she were”.
Chris stares at him again and laughs, “You should see your face – you’re in lurve".
"Fuck off. You should see yours!"
"Buy me a pint, you dickhead, I want to find out how your boyfriend’s nicked my girlfriend already”.
When they join Tom and Sarah at the bar, Chris puts out his hand to shake Tom’s and Stuart is struck by the maturity of it – something no one else attempted. Chris says, “Mr Irwin...Tom...nice to see you. Have you been telling Sarah tales of horseplay and hooliganism?”
Tom smiles and takes the proffered hand with obvious pleasure, he says, “Merely hi-jinks, Chris, surely? Don’t worry, your reputation is intact”.
Stuart expects Chris to make some proprietorial move – an arm around Sarah’s shoulders or her waist – a casually physicality at least. But nothing. They are as obviously together and as obviously trying not show it as he and Tom and it pains him to watch. In solidarity, he makes a supreme effort to drop his routine. He asks Sarah questions; he fakes being interested in the answers until he notices he is interested in the answers and is surprised to find that enjoying her company with no ulterior motive is pleasant and so much less like hard work. She’s still gorgeous though.
Tom gives him a well-done kind of smile that makes it completely worth it.
Over on the stage, the comedian has started up – he goes after the softest targets first.
The girls at the corner table giggle nervously into their drinks. As women do, they make themselves small – they roll over and present a soft, don’t-hurt-me, underbelly to the world. They will repeat some of the jokes to the boys they know in the hopes of being called one-of-the-lads, the highest accolade - women notoriously having no sense of humour.
After he’s humiliated half the room, he turns to the next obvious victims. Akhtar looks at the floor and shuffles uncomfortably while Rudge and Lockwood stand either side of him like bodyguards, tight-lipped and unsmiling. Over at the bar, Crowther raises his voice and makes conversation loud enough to drown him out – for Sarah’s sake; Dakin catches the ball and joins in with a round of noisy clowning. Tom and Sarah, bemused by the sudden volume shift and general boorishness, resume talking to each other with weary resignation; the distraction effect is the same – the people who love them are protecting them but they cannot be allowed to know.
As the jokes turn to homophobia, Posner has enough. Turning on his heel, he forces himself back through the others in a desperate flight. Timms grabs his arm as he passes and freezes him in the moment. He says, “David”, and locks eyes with him, then, “Sorry. I’m really sorry”. Posner isn’t sure who he’s apologising for but he smiles and says, “It’s alright, it’s not you”. Timms lets him go and Scripps goes after him, adding, as he passes, “Don’t worry, Tony, he’ll be alright... we’ll be alright – it's not your fault”.
With a hot rush of embarrassment, Tony remembers Totty and her railing against the injustices of history and his insistence that it wasn’t their fault - just the way it is. And that’s when he takes a stand, for his friends, for the young women in the corner, for Totty, Tom Irwin - even Hector. After a few well-timed jibes, he’s drawn all the fire to himself – the jolly, fat man in the room – a laughing stock and human shield. But as the game goes on, the room stops laughing at him and starts laughing with him - attack and counter attack, thrust and parry – until Funny Man withdraws wounded and defeated.
Timms takes the smiles and thanks and pats on the back in good part but his own cuts and bruises still smart.
What Timms doesn’t know, what he can’t know, is his future wife is sitting at the corner table. Helen - his wife, mother of his children, love of his life - is a student nurse who, at the tender age of 20, has seen the best and the worst of people already and knows a good man when she sees one. She notices David’s flight and Tony’s anger and concern; she watches him use himself to defend his friends and hers with grace, intelligence and good humour - even allowing the Funny Man a few wins - for dignity’s sake. Above all, he makes her laugh, which is priceless.
She won’t speak to him tonight, she’s too shy, but she will remember him and their paths will cross again. Later in life, she will be fond of telling her teenage children to mind how they behave because you never know who might be falling in love with you.
In which Lockwood and Akhtar set off on an adventure. (@StuartDakins - they will not be packing a kettle)
They're just friends! Stop that. What are you thinking? God, you have filthy minds. You're reading between the lines, aren't you? I can see you, you know, putting two and two together and making five. What is wrong with you people?!
I didn't intend to go off on a Locktar detour, but there you go, they insisted on speaking. Style wise, this is a bit of a departure. You don't get to see inside anyone's head - it's all show and zero tell. I went with it because I couldn't choose between them and I didn't want to head hop. Besides, what's in their heads is very muddled and it's probably clearer to the outside observer. I may have inadvertently referenced "Not Waving But Drowning" - it's hard to tell. Do with it what you will.
Posner isn’t the only one needing an escape. After he’s given Timms a grin and a slap on the back, Akhtar takes himself out the front where Lockwood follows and finds him leaning against the wall - one foot up against it, pint in one hand, cigarette in the other. “Adil... you alright?”, he asks.
“Needed a breather?”
“Something like that.”
“That was shitty”, Lockwood leans against the wall with him and mirrors his pose – his right foot lined up against Akhtar’s left. “Timms, though – classy.”
A silence falls until Lockwood glances over at him and says, “Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“No, not really.” He doesn’t return the look – he keeps staring straight ahead.
Akhtar launches himself off the wall with his foot, puts down his beer on a picnic bench, and offers Lockwood a cigarette. He lights it from his own, cupping his hand around Lockwood’s against the evening breeze. As the glow lights up their faces, he says, “Do you know what I am, Jimmy?”
“No... erm... how d’you mean?”
He pulls back, blowing a cloud of smoke into the air, "I am a good boy, James, a very good boy. And I’m sick to the back teeth of it”. He gives a short, angry sigh and begins to pace, “I’m a good son, a good brother, a good student, a good Muslim and, one day, I will be a good husband, father and model citizen. I am, in short, a good Indian”.
“Dead, you mean?”
“Feels like it. They're the only good ones, aren’t they?"
“I've heard it said. Except, you’re not. You’re Pakistani and I’m not sure that pint and fag shout good Muslim.”
“Maybe not, but you know what I mean”. He throws up his hands, “Anyway, I’m British”.
“You’re from Sheffield”.
Akhtar picks up his pint and resigns himself – he leans back against the wall, “Fuck, yes. Sheffield”. He raises his glass and Lockwood joins him with a laugh, saying, “Sheffield! And all who sail in her”, followed by, “Seriously, mate, what’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. Sorry…” He pauses and takes a long drag, “It's like… it’s like my whole life is mapped out for me and coming home… it’s… well, I’d sort of forgotten, but there’s no escaping it”.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I was looking forward to it, but it’s a bit… suffocating.”
“Everything would be fine if I’d just stop struggling.
“That’s what they say about drowning – it's a pleasant way to go, if you don’t fight it.”
“Oh great, that’s comforting. Honestly, Jimmy, I try, but sometimes… in the end, no matter how dutiful I am, no matter how good I am… that”, he points angrily behind him at the pub, “that’s what people think and I wonder what the fucking point is”.
Lockwood hangs his head and mumbles, “You know I don’t think that. Look, I’m sorry I didn’t do anything. I should have. I wanted to – I felt kind of frozen”
“I know, don’t worry about it. I’m just feeling sorry for myself - I’ll live.”
They drink beer and smoke in silence, until Akhtar asks, “Anyway, how does Dakin get away with it?”
“Doing whatever the fuck he likes and somehow always manages to come up smelling of roses.”
“Well, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks for a start.”
“The fuck he doesn’t. That’s all he cares about. You mean he doesn’t care who gets hurt.”
“That’s not fair, Adil, come on.”
“Oh, alright – I suppose. I’m jealous, that’s all.”
“He doesn’t have many people who give a shit what he does, so he does what he likes. I think...I hope , Irwin might change him. Because he really cares what he thinks. I’d never tell him, but I think it’s… I think they’re…. good together, good for each other. They sort of bring out the best in each other, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, you’re right – some people just do. Why couldn’t we tell him though?”
“Don’t know. It would be against some kind of code, though I don’t really know what it is… I can tell you though.”
“You have loads of people who care what you do. You’re lucky.”
“I suppose so. But, Jesus, Jimmy, the weight of expectation.”
Akhtar sighs and turns to look at him, eventually he says, “There’s a girl, you know; I’m supposed to marry her.”
“Oh... and... and you don’t want to?”
He shakes his head, “I like her. She's smart, funny – at Exeter doing Maths."
“That too. But...”
“No spark. I’ve tried – she's perfect really. There’s nothing wrong with her, she’s great... but, what I said in there about chemistry you can see a mile off”, he shrugs, “No chemistry.”
“Does she like you?”
“Well enough, I think but, the same – nothing sparky. It worked out for my parents though - they’re devoted to each other”. He wags his finger and lowers his voice, ‘ Love grows, Adil, it grows – you have to work for it. You don’t just get handed it. I’d hardly spoken to your mother when I married her. This romance nonsense - that’s not love, it’s the movies. The movies, Adil!’
Lockwood laughs, “He might have a point”.
“But they… it’s… different. We’re from different worlds, Jimmy. All this education has - I don’t know - there’s such a gulf between us we hardly understand each other anymore. I’ve got ideas above my station, apparently. Or just ideas – ideas are bad enough. Sometimes I think it would have been better to have left school at sixteen and worked for my dad.”
“I’m glad you didn’t; I’d never have known you.”
“Glad to have been of service.”
“I mean it, you dick. Anyway, you’d have been bored stiff.”
“I wouldn’t know though, would I? And I’d be more… accepting... contented... But, if there’s one thing to be said for the Asian immigrant, you value education .”
“Who said that - Felix? What a shit.”
“Yeah, he said it to me. He actually said that to me. One thing to be said for us. Just one. My mother though, Jesus - ‘You will go to university if it kills me’. By which she meant – you will go to university if it kills you. And I’m the first on both sides ever to - so, I’m a fucking pioneer. I feel like I’m carrying her entire village on my back sometimes.”
“It must mean a lot to her.”
“Yeah. I mean, I get it. I know why. I’d just like a say sometimes.”
“Can you say no to any of it? The marriage and... whatever?”
“Yes. But what would be the point? It’s going to happen eventually – barring accident.”
Lockwood snorts, “Ha! That’s a hostage to fortune, as we well know – anything could happen.” And then, more gently, “Or you could make things happen… if you wanted.”
“Things? Ah, yes, things - things I want - all kinds of nebulous things. If only I had any idea what they were. What about you? You haven’t signed up yet.”
“I don’t know; I keep putting it off.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I don’t want you to.”
Lockwood clasps a hand over his heart and sighs, “Oh, Adil, I didn’t know you cared”.
“Piss off – don't you start. I have a bad feeling about it. What if there’s another Falklands?”
“There won’t be.”
“Lockwood! Don’t do that. Fate, for fuck’s sake - don’t tempt it.”
“I know, I know. But my dad...”
“Oh, I get it - you too, carrying the weight. Army man, isn’t he?”
“Was - he’s out now. ‘But it’s a good life, James; they look after you. See the world, James. Respect, James. Discipline, James’ . And I’d be officer rank with my degree, which he could never do... so... He misses it.”
“He’s not you though.”
“No. But I suppose... I suppose I want to please him. I owe him.”
Akhtar looks aghast, “Oh, shit! Sorry – I forgot. I’m sorry – moaning about my mum like that.”
“It’s alright – I’m sure I’d do the same if she were here to moan about. When she died, I don’t know how he held it together - but he did” He twists his mouth in a quizzical smile, “He didn’t make such a bad job of me, did he?”
“No. He did a great job – you’re alright, Jimmy. Don’t join up. Please."
“I’ll think about it, Adil – just for you.”
Akhtar throws down the remains of his cigarette, stubs it out and finishes his pint, saying “What a pair!” Then, grabbing Lockwood by the upper arms and giving him a little shake, declares “James! We must be our own men! Or, at least have some fun before we have to go under. What are we going to do about it? Got any ideas?”
Lockwood laughs and shakes him off. “Fuck, Adil, you spilt beer on my shoes!”.
“God, you and your bloody shoes. Sorry.”
“It’s alright. Yeah, I might have an idea. Got any money?”
“Some. I’m working for my dad for the summer, of course.”
“Yeah, I’m back on the floats. But we could cut it short and bugger off somewhere. I was thinking Greece - bit of island hopping, but I hadn’t anyone to go with… before… before now. All we need is a couple of rucksacks and my two-man tent.”
Adil grins at him, “Sounds cozy”.
And Jimmy smirks, “Now who’s starting? Fancy it?”
“Yes! I do fancy it – you're a genius! Jimmy, put down your damn pint so I can give you a hug without damaging your fucking trainers.” Lockwood finishes his own drink, puts down the glass and Akthar pulls him into a delighted bear hug. He says, “Tell you what, my dad won’t like it”.
“Nor mine, he’ll call me a bloody hippy.”
“Oh well, indeed; I might even grow my hair.”
“Now that, I would like to see.”
“People will think you’re Greek”
“Why, because I’m brown?”
“No, because you’re a fucking Adonis, you moron.”
“Oh yeah, that, obviously.”
“And you’re brown.”
And so, the plan was hatched. They’ll fly cattle class to Athens, climb up to The Parthenon at dawn and stand together awestruck and speechless. From there, a jalopy to Piraeus and onto a series of increasingly unseaworthy vessels around the Cyclades. They will get to know a string of beautiful islands and beautiful strangers – some beautiful on the inside, some on the outside, a few of them both. They will return older, wiser, and considerably hairier. But, through adventure, misadventure and stormy Aegean seas - where the nearness of death tends to concentrate the mind and the conversation - they will get to know each other better than anyone else in the world. It will last them a lifetime.
In which Scripps and Pos take a bit of a breather in the Saloon Bar - after all the unpleasantness. They are adorable, of course.
As our adventurers make their plans, Scripps follows Pos into the lounge, where it’s quiet and sedate and they can catch their breath. A lady drinking Port and Lemon with her reluctant husband gives him a smile as he comes in and glances over to where Pos is huddled in a dimly lit corner of red velveteen, horse brasses, and dark wood. As he passes, Scripps hears the woman’s husband mutter, “Don’t be so bloody nosy”, and she replies, “I’m not nosy, I’m interested – unlike some people”.
Pos doesn’t look up as Scripps approaches, he’s sitting on his hands and staring at the table.
“Hello”, he glances up and Scripps is overcome by a wave of protective love for his small, brave boy.
He nods his head vigorously, “Yes, yes – I just needed to get away”.
“Do you want me to leave you alone? Are you angry with me?” Scripps has no idea what he’ll do if the answer is yes – he doesn’t know why he’s risked it, but the words are out.
Pos turns away as though looking for another escape route. He says, “No, of course not – why would I be angry with you?”.
“I shouldn’t have made you do this; it’s too much isn’t it?”
Pos tuts, roll his eyes and fixes him with a stare, “For God’s sake, Don, I’m not your fucking project; I don’t need fixing. If you want a soul to save, give Dakin a go”.
Scripps feels a visceral shock. He searches David’s face for a trace of sweetness, but finds nothing. His expression must betray him because Pos claps a hand to his mouth and, through his fingers, says, “Oh, shit... I’m sorry, Don – really, I didn’t mean that”. He holds out his hand and Scripps so wants to take it - but he knows they’re watched. Pos makes it a gesture for him to sit down, saying, “Forgive me, please. I just… look...you didn’t make me, I chose it… I won’t break, you know. Will you just sit down - please?”
Scripps sits and, pulling David’s other hand out from under his knees, holds it under the table – he can’t tell which of them is shaking, but someone is. He pleads, “Is that what you think; is that what I'm like? I don’t want to fix you; I just want you be happy - it’s me who needs fucking fixing. Oh, God, Pos, that was horrible – I'm so sorry”.
Despite next door’s throng, the Landlady finds time to walk in from the other bar and sets to polishing some glasses. She calls over, “You alright, love?”
Pos snaps, "Yes, I’m fine”.
Scripps whispers, “Be polite, David, she’s trying to be kind.” And Pos adds, in a gentler tone, “Thank you, yes, I’m fine. Felt a bit dizzy, that’s all”.
She comes over with a glass of lemonade for each of them and wipes the table. It’s already clean, but she wipes it anyway. As she’s wiping, she says, “Don’t worry, sweetheart, he’s a prick – I'm not having him back again. He used to be funny, but times change, don’t they? He upsets more people than laugh and it’s not good for business... Are you pair singing for us later?”
Pos replies, “Yes. Well, I sing and my...”, he stops and peers around the Landlady at Scripps – looking for permission perhaps, but making his own choice, “...Don mostly plays the piano”.
If she notices, she ignores it. “What you going to do - is it very modern?”
Scripps says, “No, not at all. We do Jazz standards mostly”.
“Oh, lovely – my favourite. I don’t suppose I could have a request, could I?”
Scripps cranes his neck round her to see David, “We can certainly try, can’t we Pos?
Pos, on more solid ground now, smiles at him and asks, “What would you like?”
She looks suddenly thrilled and girlish and pulls up a chair. She asks if they can do, I Could Write a Book. Posner laughs, “Really, Rodgers and Hart? That’s perfect”.
She blushes, “Is it? Do you know it? It’s very special to me.”
“Oh, I think we can manage that, can’t we Don?”
Scripps can hardly contain his delight at hearing David laugh. He’s brought him here tonight to convince him he’s so much bigger, stronger, and more worthy of adoration than he thinks. He wants to see him adored. He says, "Yes, it’s perfect. Just perfect”. He says he has the music but they haven’t rehearsed it, so it might be a little rusty. Though why they didn’t think of it before, he can’t imagine.
Pos sings quietly, his thumb gently stroking Scripps' hand under the table... “ Then the world discovers as my book ends, how to make two lovers of friends...”
As she stands up, the Landlady says, “Oh, that’s so pretty”. She holds her cloth to her bosom, and regards them both curiously – first one, then the other. She gives Pos’ arm a little squeeze and says, “it’ll all be alright love, you’ll see - I’m looking forward to it”, before taking herself back to the public bar.
“See”, says Scripps, “People are nice. Most people are nice when it comes down to it”.
“Well, I’m glad you think so - it must be such a comfort”. This said with a just a pinch of spite.
“David, that’s uncalled for – Bloody hell, your mood can turn on a sixpence!”
“Sorry”, David squeezes his hand. “But you see the best in everyone – I don’t know how. I think I’m a bit jealous of that.”
“So do you. You’re always kind in the end – in spite of that sharp tongue.”
“But I have to work on it. It doesn’t come naturally – I don’t always feel kind.”
“It’s worth more then, if you have to work for it. I expect I’ll get it knocked out of me – eventually.”
Pos is staring at him intently now, his brow furrowed in something like desperation. He says, “No. Don’t let that happen, Scrippsy, please, you’re so lovely; I won’t let it happen”. He stops - clearly holding back something more.
Scripps says, “David?”
Pos looks back at the table, “Don... I need to be clear about something... you do know, don’t you...this isn’t going to be easy?”
“Us. You and me. Are you sure you want to do this? It might... change you. That, back in there...” He nods towards the public bar, “...That’s what it will be like – that's everyday life and you don’t have to do it, not for me”.
Scripps shuffles closer and lifts Pos’ chin up with his bandaged hand. He says, “I do have to do it, I don’t have a choice about how I feel, Pos. And, if that’s how it is, I’m not going to let you do it alone”. He knows someone is probably watching. He knows what this looks like. It is what it looks like. He doesn’t care.
“I’m really sorry about what I said earlier. I suppose I can’t quite believe you want me… as I am”.
“Oh, Pos… You don’t have to test it...”
“… Tell me again”.
“What? That I love you?" Scripps leans back in the seat, laughing and thinks maybe that was a bit loud. He ducks his head and goes on quietly. “David, I’ve broken a long-held promise to the Almighty, for you – pleasures of the flesh, carnal lusts, all of that - what more do you want, blood?” Pos starts to giggle and Scripps says, “I love you – it's fucking painful, I think it’s probably going to kill me and, as for my immortal soul, that’s a lost cause. So, it’s a bit late to not be changed now, all things considered. Do you know your nose is peeling?”
“It's not?!” Pos shrieks and bobs up to try and see himself in the bar mirror. Scripps pulls him down.
“Ssssh… only a tiny bit! No one will notice - only me - and I like it, it reminds me of probably the best day of my life. Can we do it again soon, please – just you and me?”
Pos smiles and nods. He says, “It was the best day, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, and I won’t have to spend the whole time desperate to kiss you and terrified of what will happen if I do.”
“Of course I was, you pillock. My heart was in my mouth the whole fucking time. I just...” He sighs.
“I just wanted you to look at me like you used to look at Stu; I didn’t even know how much I wanted it... until you did.”
“Scrippsy, this is so much more than that, you have no idea”. Pos nudges his shoulder, “And you can kiss me stupid, if you want”.
“I think it would take a lot of kissing to make you stupid, David Posner, but I’ll give it a go. Anyway, I think you should stay at mine tonight”.
“Well, it’ll be late and you have to cycle and you’ll want to have a couple of beers… and…”
“… and? Pos gives him a coquettish smile”.
Scripps blushes, “Stop it. Yes, that too.”
“I’m not going to stop it – and you don’t really want me to, you don’t want me to at all”.
“True. Do you want to stay?”
“Silly question! Of course I want to stay, I need something to look forward to. What will your mum say?”
“I already asked her, before we left.”
“Oh, you... that was brave! Scrippsy, stop teasing me, what did she say?”
Scripps laughs, “It’s not the first time you’ve stayed at mine is it? She said she’d throw the put-me-up and a sleeping bag in my room, like normal. You can borrow my toothbrush.”
“Just like normal.”
“I love your mum.”
“Yeah, me too. You’d better let your mum know you won’t be home”. He lets go of Pos’ hand and fishes around in his pocket before slapping a ten pence piece on the table. He says, “There’s a phone box outside - here”.
Tomorrow morning, Pos will wake in his sleeping bag on the uncomfortable put-me-up where he has not spent the entire night. He’ll hear voices and laughter from below and realise Don is chatting to his mum in the kitchen. It will stir a comforting childhood memory of laying in bed listening to the low rumble of adults below - his mother’s laughter occasionally bubbling through in a higher register.
He’ll crawl out of the sleeping bag and back into Scripps’ bed – the crumpled, rumpled bed that smells so sweetly of Don. He’ll pull the covers over himself and lie for a while bathing in the joy of simply being here and remembering last night’s kisses and the whispering and laughing in the dark. In the dark it had been easy - easier anyway - for Scripps. Pos doesn’t mind, he’d happily have the sun caress Don’s marble skin as he touches it, but for now - for Scripps - the darkness helped.
Running his fingers over Scripps’ now stubbly jaw as he kissed him, he heard the rasp of it and felt it intensely in his fingertips. Those tiniest of vibrations thrummed all the way through him until he’d traced the whole shape of him with his hands and his teeth and his tongue and dripped honeyed words into his mouth. He said, “I want you” and, “can I?” and, “do you like that?”, and Scripps said, “Me too” and, “please” and, “Oh, God, yes” and then, at last, “...David”. And it was pitch perfect – in the dark and the near silence.
Scripps fell asleep, mid-sentence - he’d been saying how proud he was of Pos this evening as he curled around him in the bed that’s far too small for both of them. Pos waited for the end of the thought but nothing came except the sound of his breathing and the warmth of it on his neck. In time, Scripps will pull notes from him he doesn’t know he can reach yet but, for now, this half-formed tune is enough.
When he goes downstairs, he’ll say, “morning”, but will hover in the doorway looking from mother to son, watching and waiting for a signal while a triangle of glances bounces between them. To break the silence, Scripps will say, “I made you some tea - I was going to bring it up”. Eventually, Angela will pass a hand over her brow and say, “Boys, there’s no point pretending I don’t know; I’m just going to have to get used to it, aren’t I?”
For the second time this week, Pos will launch himself off the door jamb and head towards Scripps. But he’ll stop and he’ll swerve and, throwing his arms round Angela, give her a hug and a big kiss on the cheek. She’ll laugh and push him off and call him a daft ha’porth. While she’s still giggling and blushing, he’ll wrap his arms round Scripps’ waist, tuck himself under his arm and kiss him too – a gentle kiss, a quick kiss, but a lover’s kiss, nevertheless.
Because David Posner is a clever boy.
In which Dakin and Posner come to terms and Dakin says the right thing - for once.
Scripps wanders back to the public bar while Posner goes outside to phone his mum and have some fresh air. The lady in the corner smiles again as they leave and her husband says something inaudible that makes her giggle and slap his arm. He runs straight into Irwin, who asks if he’s alright.
“Yeah, that was difficult for Pos though. For you too, I suppose?”
Irwin raises an eyebrow. He says, “It can’t have been great for you either. I didn’t really hear it—I have the feeling Stu made sure I didn’t, which was... it was kind... Oh, imagine that”.
“I told you he was, fundamentally. But you must know that.”
“I know that he means well, even if sometimes...”
“...He gets it horribly wrong?”
“Yeah. But I’ve been filled in. Sounds horrific”.
“Sorry? How could it be your fault? Scripps... Oh, never mind. How are you, anyway?”
“I’m... yeah...thank you”.
“I think you know”.
Irwin smiles to himself, “I only gave you a nudge”.
“I was on the edge; a nudge was all it took. I knew, I just wasn’t admitting it. And, yeah, here we are…”
“Here we are, indeed—each on the other side of the Rubicon. Happy?”
“Um...don’t know which way is up. Working towards happy”.
“I know the feeling”.
“Are you coping with him?”
“I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. Stu never gets easier”.
“He’s the grit in my oyster. And I’m not sure I want easy; I’m not used to it—I wouldn’t know what to do with it”.
“I suppose not”. Scripps laughs, “I thought I was meant to be the one convinced of the redemptive value of suffering. Speak of the Devil...”
Dakin wanders over from the other side of the bar, looking puzzled. He says, “Where’s Pos? Aren’t you meant to be on soon?”
Scripps says, “He went to make a phone call”, he puts on his best Greta Garbo, “But he vonts to be alone. He’s outside having a bit of a wobble”.
Dakin puts down his beer saying, “fuck that”, and starts towards the door. Scripps calls after him, anxiously, “No, Stu, leave him”. But he’s already got the door open and calls back, “No, I want to talk to him anyway".
Irwin, seeing Scripps' horrified expression, smiles at him and says, “Let him go. Honestly, I don’t think he’ll mess this one up—he’s had a shot across the bows this evening about his... usual stuff. He’s on best behaviour”.
Scripps wags a finger at him, saying, “Okay, but I’m blaming you if he makes it worse—he's your responsibility now”.
Irwin laughs and suggests Stu’s like a grenade with the pin out that they’re tossing between themselves. Scripps can’t but agree.
Dakin goes outside to the beer garden. It’s grown chilly and there’s an incipient drizzle. He finds Pos sitting by himself at a picnic table. He’s facing outwards, shoulders hunched, hands thrust between his knees. He is a study in nervous tension.
“What do you want?”
“That’s nice. I wondered if you wanted a drink. Dutch courage.”
There’s a glittering hardness to Pos’ voice that is both warning and fear—hackles up, claws unsheathed. “Not now. You can buy me one after. I’m not in the mood for any of your crap, Dakin, I need to gather myself. Leave me alone.”
Dakin holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender but walks over to him anyway, “Okay, I’ll go in a sec. But I just wanted to say... No one’s here to see you fail, Pos. There’s a lot of good will in there. And you’ve got your own team of cheerleaders.”
“Good will? They’re pissed as farts and after blood. Did you hear that so-called comedian and his jokes?”
“Yeah, he was a bit of a dinosaur. But you should have stuck around, Tony took him to pieces—he was magnificent.”
“Bless him. He’s alright, isn’t he?”
“Salt of the earth, Pos. To be fair, the bloke didn’t get many laughs.”
“Because he wasn’t fucking funny. All that stuff...about... people like us”. He makes a gesture to include Dakin, which he finds oddly charming. “And poor Adil...”
“I know. I wanted to accidentally spill his pint over him, but Tom wouldn’t let me. He said, Stuart, I can assure you the man is not worthy of your attention and revenge is a dish best served cold.”
Pos laughs, “He’s too good for you”.
Dakin takes the break in hostilities as an opportunity to sit next to him. Leaning back with his elbows on the table, legs stretched out in front—filling the space Pos refuses to occupy. “Yeah, I know. Can’t quite believe my luck...You cold?”
“No, you’re not, you’re shivering. Here.” He takes off his jacket and drapes it over Pos’ shoulders. Pos shrugs it off, sneering, “Oh, aren’t you gallant”.
“Shut up, Pos. You’re cold; I’m not. Take it.” He puts it back over him. “Don’t be a martyr—I’m not about to put it in a puddle for you to walk over.”
Pos puts his arms through the sleeves and pulls it around him. It’s warm and supple from Dakin’s skin and too big for him. He leans forward, elbows on knees, chin in hands— where Dakin can’t see his face. He closes his eyes and breathes in the scent he would once have given his eye teeth to be enveloped by; he pulls it a little tighter and whispers a grudging, “Thanks”.
“This thing with Irwin—don’t fuck it up, Stu.”
“I’m going to do my best. Did you have a good chat?”
“Yeah, he’s all grown up. I have decided to forgive him.”
“You are magnanimous in victory—that’s an admirable quality.”
“Victory? What victory would that be then?”
“Oh, is it gracious in defeat—is that what I meant?”, Dakin teases.
“I am not fucking defeated!” He cranes his head round to look at him.
Dakin exclaims, “I know! I said that. You never are, Pos. You’re a brave little fucker and I’m proud of you.”
“Proud? What have you got to be proud of? Oh...you have naches.”
Posner sits back up and turns sideways, he gives Dakin a withering look. “Naches. It’s Yiddish—it means parental pride and joy in one’s offspring’s achievements…you patronising bastard.”
“Just the one word for all that, Dictionary Boy—nice. Seriously though, I am proud. I’ll be standing there thinking, those are my friends—doubtless looking smug as fuck.”
“Doubtless. How else would you look?” He looks Dakin in the eye and asks, “Are we, Stu—friends?”
Dakin smiles at him, “I hope so, Pos. I would like that. I would like it if you would consider me a friend. Scripps is my oldest friend in the world, I kind of come as part of the package, friendship wise. But can you just be... kind to each other, please? I need you two to be okay.”
“Anything for you, Stuart. Is that all—just be kind? I can do that. That’s not hard... though some people make it look challenging.”
Dakin sighs and splays his hand on Pos’ back. “Alright...alright, I’m sorry, Pos, I didn’t know. Fuck, I didn’t know what it feels like. I didn’t know how… desperate it gets. I’ll tell you what though, If I’d have known then what I know now, I might not have been so dismissive—you’re a dark horse.”
Pos wriggles away from his hand in irritation and spits out, “What has he told you? Fuck, he tells you everything doesn’t he? God, you think you can get anything out of anyone. You think you’re bloody irresistible, don’t you?”
Dakin sighs and looks away from him, “Not anymore, no. I am less and less convinced of my own infallibility; it’s a blesséd relief”.
“I’m so cross with him. I’m going to kill him.”
“Don’t. Anyway, I was impressed.”
“Oh well, that’s alright then. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but impressing you wasn’t my primary aim. You didn’t think I had it in me, did you?”
“No, I can’t say I did. Don’t chew his ear off about it, Pos. God knows I’ve burdened him with too much detail, he probably thought it was his turn. He just wanted to talk about you. He’s all…you know... he’s in love with you, he’s ready to burst with it.”
It’s hard to tell under the harsh, yellow, outdoor lighting but Pos blushes furiously. He stammers, “I... well... I love him too. And...and the truth is…” He warms to his theme, draws himself up and delivers— “The truth is, Stuart, darling , if I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have given you a second glance!”
Dakin pushes himself up off the table so he can properly see Pos’ face. There’s a playful smile flickering around his mouth and a light in his eyes absent a few minutes ago. He stares at him while a broad grin spreads over his face. He throws his arm round him roughly, pulls him close and lands a smacking kiss on his temple. He says, “That’s my boy, Pos. That’s my boy. Off you go now—sing your heart out.”
Pos, is grinning too, floating on adrenaline and the wings of a victory he’s been waiting for a long time. The sheer joy of saying that to Dakin. Stuart Dakin—God’s fucking gift. He gets up to go inside, alone. At the door he turns, puts his fingers to his lips and blows Dakin a kiss—a kiss he returns, naturally. Dakin sits for a while, contemplating—until he realises he’s cold and damp and Pos has swanned off with his jacket.
Swanning back inside in Stu’s jacket, Pos is greeted by Irwin and Scripps staring at him.
“Yes, hello, Don.” He nods, “Tom.”
Scripps asks, “Are you okay?”
“Perfectly fine, thank you.”
“What are you wearing?”
“What does it look like?”
“It looks like Stu’s jacket and it looks... odd.”
“I was cold, he leant it to me. What’s so odd about that?”
“Nothing, I suppose.”
“No, nothing. Honestly, anyone would think... are we going to do this thing or what? I’ll stash it behind the piano. Come on.” He walks towards the stage and Irwin and Scripps exchange a glance—a mutual, “your guess is as good as mine”. Scripps says, “I best do as I’m told then”, and follows him.
Stuart walks back through the door as Tom is coming the other way to find him.
Tom asks, “Everything okay?”
“I think so, yes.”
“What did you say?”
“I’m not sure, but it seems to have been the right thing, for once.”
Tom laughs, “That's progress - well done!”
In which Scripps and Posner do a few tongue twister warm-up exercises away from prying eyes and Dakin (or his jacket anyway) joins in.
I was going to move on to the singing and a Darwin, but that damn jacket cast a spell and demanded more attention.
Scripps runs after Pos and catches up with him before he gets to the stage. He grabs his arm and turns him—Dakin’s jacket feeling incongruous under his fingers.
“Pos... what’s wrong?” he asks.
Posner shakes him off, saying, “Nothing. But we should get on with it shouldn’t we?”
“What did he say to you?”
“Nothing. It’s fine. Dakin and I are fine; you and I are fine. It’s fine!” He throws his hands in the air and goes to walk away again, but Scripps steps quickly in front of him and blocks his path. He says, “David, come on, we can’t play with you like this. Something's obviously up.” Posner makes a half-hearted attempt to get past him and gives in.
“Well, alright… I wasn’t going to say anything, but… you told him.”
Scripps’ face falls and he looks at the floor. He says, “Oh”. He can’t remember why he told him—it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Yes, oh—you might very well say—oh. It was meant to be private."
“He promised me he wouldn’t tell. Bloody Dakin.”
“Well you shouldn’t have told him, then he wouldn’t have anything to tell. You know you can’t trust him further than you can spit…
… “And you know what he’s like; you know how he gets to you.”
“Yes, I do. But he doesn’t get to me anymore—like he clearly does you... you...you...” David searches for a name to throw at him. But Don looks so dejected. He relents and says, "Oh, Scrippsy, don’t look so worried”
Scripps looks up from his feet to find David smiling at him. He asks, “Are you laughing at me, Pos?”
“I might be teasing you just a bit. Maybe I think I should be cross, but... I can handle Dakin. The truth is, I’m kind of glad he knows; I’m kind of glad he thinks differently about me.”
He smiles back. “You’ll have to teach me how to get him out of my head. Why are you wearing that jacket anyway?”
“Honestly, it really is because I was cold and I kind of walked off in it. He was actually quite sweet and we had a talk and I think... I think we’re okay—I think we’re friends”. David leans in a bit closer so he can whisper, “Anyway, he told me not to be cross with you because you love me.”
Scripps slaps his hands to his cheeks in mock surprise, “He said what?”
David laughs, “I know! Stuart Dakin, Imagine! You know I really don’t want him anymore, don’t you?”
“Good. I mean...I know...I mean... shit, David, I really want to kiss you—it’s torture.”
David bites his lip, “Mmmm… me too”. He glances towards the door and sets off, “Quick... follow me.”
“Come on, don’t be a scaredy cat.”
Scripps follows him—out the door, around the corner, around the back, up an alley, behind the kitchen, behind the bins... “Pos, what the hell are you doing, it stinks back here”.
“Come here then and kiss me and you won’t be able to smell it. I’m sure I smell lovely.”
He does and David’s right, he smells great; he smells of Stu—it’s a heady synthesis. Don presses him against the wall and kisses him—relieved at the warm, forgiving, sweetness of him, the softness of his lips and his tongue and the hardness of his wiry body. He reaches under his T shirt and runs his fingers over his ivory ribs. David’s chest is pressed against his own where Stu left his brand in the graveyard; where Stu told him not to waste this God-given thing and pushed him away saying he might kiss him and, for a second—only a second—he wished he would. He’s grateful. Grateful and happy. Grateful for that maddening, incorrigible boy—for that one, and this one—for David.
David gives a little moan and pulls away, “Better?”, he says.
“Mmm... much. Though it’s a bit like having a threesome with you in that jacket.”
“Donald Scripps! I am shocked! Anyway, how would you know?”
“You’re not the only one with an imagination, you know. Besides, I don’t think you’re any more shockable than he is. Seriously though, what has this thing done to you, you seem different”. He plucks at the sleeve of Dakin’s jacket. “I think it must have magic powers.... why are you laughing?”
“I don’t know, Don, maybe it has—I feel different; I feel...free. And I'm laughing because he doesn’t know.”
“What doesn’t he know?”
“That I’m out here having a snog with you in his precious jacket...bringing him along for the ride.”
He feels as though David’s inside his head. He feels seen and known and loved. He says, “David, that’s...” He throws back his head and laughs and says, “Oh, fuck...David!”
“I know. Don’t you love it?”
“Yes, I have to admit I do. Poor Stu”.
“Poor Stu, my eye. He will be absolutely fine. He’s got us for a start.”
“Yes, he has, lucky bastard. Oh, come on, we need to go and sing. Though I think I’d stay here all night if it weren’t for the bins. What are we doing first?”
“Blue Moon. Everyone loves that.”
Scripps croons, “Blue Moon, you heard me saying a prayer for someone I really could care for...”
And David replies, “And then suddenly appeared before me the only one my arms will ever hold..."
And, in harmony, “I heard somebody whisper, please adore me. And, when I looked, my moon had turned to gold...”
Kissing him and giggling, David says, “We are fucking good, you know. Come on. Let's go and be fabulous”.
Blue Moon is a crowd pleaser. Everyone knows Blue Moon. Even the old men know Blue Moon. David picks up the dodgy microphone and says, “We want to do a song for the Cutlers Boys—all of them”. He catches Tom’s eye and smiles. The Cutlers boys raise a cheer and Tom raises his glass.
And David is fabulous. Maybe it’s that jacket, now under the piano, or maybe it’s the way Don’s looking at him, or maybe it’s because this is where he belongs—when he sings, he becomes, and what he becomes is confident and charming and charismatic. Everyone adores him, including Dakin who, as predicted, is proud and smug. Everyone adores him, including the girl sitting with Timms’ future wife, who has to go on next and is a mite intimidated. Everyone adores him—everyone—but most of all Scripps.
In which Irwin has to spell out the word N.O. , Dakin has an epiphany, Rudge is his own man, and a welcome guest arrives.
Everyone is very rude and talks over Pos & Scripps singing. I told them to shut up, but they paid me no mind.
Stuart watches Tom watching, he’s been watching him all evening—the watcher watched.
He’s never seen him this way. He’s seen him as a teacher, as a lover, watched him becoming a friend, but not like this, as a man. He hadn’t known how his face moves when he talks to other people—when he talks to equals—how intently he listens, how carefully he weighs his words. He's never seen what that smile looks like when he turns it on someone else. He seems alone, even in a crowd—self-contained, outside of everything, and Stuart’s struck by how much he wants to reach him there. He’s struck by how much he simply wants him. It’s not new, but he’s still surprised by it. It's an irresistible force.
A small crowd forms in the stage corner. A crowd dense enough that Stuart thinks he could insinuate himself in front of Tom and get close—unless he takes fright and steps backwards. He’s surrounded by the Cutlers boys, so how bad could it be? He tries it. Tom plants his feet and resolutely does not move and, once he relaxes, they’re touching at every point they could be—close enough to feel the rise and fall of each other’s breath. He closes his eyes and leans back, lets Tom take his weight and lets David’s voice carry him. Tom laughs quietly and whispers, “Do you have to?”, and Stuart grins and replies, “Oh, yes—yes I do.”
As the clapping dies at the end of the song, he hears, “poofters”, shouted from the direction of the bar. It’s the funny man—bitter and drunk. No one reacts, perhaps no one else hears, but Stuart bristles. He’s not paranoid enough to think it’s aimed at them, but he doesn’t like it hurled at his friends either. He must have flinched because Tom slips an arm around his waist and pulls him in—hard. He feels anchored, pressed fiercely against him like this; he grits his teeth, lets the wave of anger wash over him and is not swept away by the undertow. Tom nuzzles into the hair behind his ear and breathes, “you okay?” He nods, reluctantly, because the nod signals he can be released, for propriety’s sake. But he’s aware of an answering swell pressed against him from behind and he rocks his hips back against it, anger giving way to other passions. Tom says, “Stu, don’t, please ”, pushes him gently away with a little moan and, "later”, and steps back.
Tom squeezes his way politely through the others and walks towards the bar as Pos and Scripps start Secret Love. Stuart goes after him. When he catches up, he takes his arm and says, “Do you want me to help you deal with that?”
Tom seems surprised and puzzled. He says, “What?” And then, realising what he means, “No… Stu… no”.
Stuart attempts one of his trademark smoulders and walks his fingers up Tom’s arm. He says, “C’mon, I’m sure we could find somewhere more... private”.
Tom picks his hand off his arm and retreats. He shakes his head at him and says, firmly, “I said no. It will pass, if you leave me alone for a minute”.
“I don’t want to leave you alone”, Stuart whines. He sounds petulant, but he means it—he wants him, but, more than anything, he wants to be with him.
“Stu, please. It’s too risky and... I... I don’t want that.” Tom starts to walk away but he turns and comes back, pressing his fingers to his temples before saying, “Stu, there’s something I need to say…” He sighs, “You do know what we’re doing isn’t legal, don’t you? We’re not the same as everyone else. God knows I... but I’m not ready to be arrested for you. Look, it's not even why we’re here. We’re here for them, aren’t we?” He nods over to the stage and they briefly listen while David’s voice rises over them, singing...
“All too soon my secret love became impatient to be free...”
Tom says, “Learn to take no for an answer, would you?”
If Stuart Dakin could ever be said to have had a Damascene moment, it’s now. Just as he’s never considered how the world looks to Crowther, he’s never considered Tom. He had not considered the risk, the very real risk, he’d pushed him towards. He’d considered societal disapproval—couldn’t care less about that—but not career, not reputation, and certainly not liberty. In that moment, he knows no one has ever rated him or valued him or considered him worth the trouble nearly as much as that. He waits to feel triumphant but, those feelings fly over his head and, try as he might to catch them, he grasps only at awe and humility.
All he says is, “Oh…”
“What’s wrong? I’m sorry, Stu, I didn’t mean to snap.”
“No, it’s me, you’re right. Nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all… later though?”
“God, yes; I said so, didn’t I?” There’s an ache in his voice. The sound of a man who knows he’ll keep going back to his personal poison. An addict’s resignation.
“I know. Don’t worry. Really, it’s fine, you don’t need to look after me. My leg aches, that’s all. Go on, be with your friends.” Tom smiles and gives him a little shove saying, “Leave me in peace!”
“Okay, you’ll come and find me if you need me, won’t you?”
Stuart turns to go back to the others, feeling rudderless and knowing the letter burning a hole in Tom’s pocket is already in need of a postscript. He leaves behind a small chip off his youthful arrogance—so easy to judge the cautious when you have nothing to lose.
Tom watches him go, pondering the line between want and need and asks the Landlady for a glass of water. He can still hear the music and see them—perched up here on his stool.
A voice behind him says, “You alright, sir?”
“Oh… Rudge… Peter. Yes, I’m fine, thank you. Just resting my leg.”
“Can I? Do you mind if I? I’d rather watch from here.”
“No, please. Pull up a stool.”
“They’re very good, aren’t they? They seem different. Sort of… what is it, do you think?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“No... but Posner used to look at Dakin like that and now he...”
“Oh... oh… really ? Oh, that’s... nice.”
They listen to the rest of the song in silence, until Rudge says, “I think the telly thing sounds great. I think you’ll be good at it; I really do.”
“Thank you. I’m looking forward to it, but it’s a bit nerve wracking.”
“You’ll be alright, Sir—if you can manage that lot, you can manage anything.”
“Do you not consider yourself part of that lot then?”
“Sort of, but not completely. I have to find my own way around things… like you.”
“I suppose you do. How’s it going? Enjoying it?”
“I am, yes, more than I thought I would. I’m not on for a first or anything, like some of them, but I’m meeting lots of people.”
“Making contacts? That will serve you well.”
“Oh, I can talk to anyone, me. It’s a question of confidence isn’t it? You have to believe you’re as good as anyone else; they’re no better than us, are they Sir?”
Tom laughs. “No, they’re not. Do you think you could try not to call me Sir though, Peter?”
Rudge regards him curiously and looks away as if thinking about it. Tom wonders what could be causing the introspection. Eventually, he turns back to him and says, “No, Sir, I don’t think I could, if it's all the same to you. I know there’s you and Dakin and everything, and good luck to you both, but still, I’d rather not, if you don’t mind—it doesn’t feel respectful. Maybe in a while, but not yet.”
Tom takes in his genuine, uncomplicated words and his genuine, uncomplicated expression and thinks it’s as pleasant a reason as any. He says, “Fair enough, if it makes you more comfortable. Drink?”
A voice behind him says, “Gin & tonic, please. Ice and a slice”, and he turns to find Dorothy.
He smiles a smile of pleasure and relief and says, “You came”.
“I had the sense you were in need of a wingman. Thought I’d slip in at the back and not cause a fuss—sorry I’m so late”.
Peter is staring. “Rudge”, she says, “Do close your mouth, dear—you’ll catch flies”.
In which Dorothy gives Tom a piece of her mind.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Even she”. Rudge stands and offers her his stool, which she takes gratefully. He heads back to the others to impart the news while Tom orders her a Gin & Tonic and lights her cigarette. She takes a drag and says, “Well, Thomas, you’ve made a proper balls-up, haven’t you?”
“I imagine I have, Dorothy, yes”, he laughs.
“Did you listen to nothing I said?”
“I listened, but I failed to act.”
“One might rather say you’ve done a little too much acting. You can’t say I didn’t try.”
“You did your best with me. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.”
“Indeed...” She pats his arm and says, “Are you having fun?”
“Goodo. Where is he then, your young man? Oh, yes, there he is, as… distracting as ever, I see.” She waves to the boys over by the stage and they all wave back, laughing and shoving each other. “One can’t judge you too harshly… he really is quite…”
“… Difficult to ignore. I’m only human, Dorothy.”
“Horribly so, and you have entirely failed to keep it to yourself.”
On the stage, David is singing My Funny Valentine. They listen together, Totty smoking and smiling and sipping her gin. Pos and Scripps exchange loaded glances and smiles as David sings, “Sweet, comic valentine, you make me smile with your heart...”
Turning to Tom, she says, under her breath, “I see Scripps and Posner have realised they’re love’s young dream.”
“Dorothy, how on earth can you tell?”
She nods over to them. “Scripps always had that look of patient adoration, poor thing. But look at Posner—it’s not Dakin he’s singing to anymore, is it?”
“Your powers of observation astound me. It’s only you and me and our friend at the bar there, who’ve noticed—though his take is far less edifying”.
She looks over to where the Funny Man is muttering and scowling into his beer. “Drunk and cynical—the fate of all disillusioned romantics”, she says.
Tom stubs out his cigarette forcefully, saying, “Dorothy, the very notion that man has suffered heartbreak is romance itself—you’re not fooling anyone. The others seem oblivious...except Rudge—there’s more to him than meets the eye.”
“There always was. As for the others, that’s the solipsism of youth for you.”
He clinks glasses with her by way of agreement and they fall silent. Earlier in the week he had called her—in need of a confidant, an old friend, an older friend. She had been forced to stay on by his convalescence, but gleefully took retirement at the end of the academic year. He returned in September to take her place, just as the boys went off—he had spent the year trying to fill her rather too tight shoes, before coming to the conclusion he and education were not a good fit. But they remained friends throughout, finding in each other an old-world stoicism, a shared sense of humour, and a pomposity pricking perspective. He would call her just for the pleasure of hearing her call Felix a cunt.
He leans over to her and says, “Thank you for coming, it’s so nice to see you.”
“Thank you for asking me.”
“Seriously Dorothy, how are you? How’s Mary?”
“Mary is not here, Thomas.”
“I can see that, I thought you might…”
“… I think there will have been enough gossip for one evening, don’t you? And I am never less than serious, Thomas, you know that. I am seriously rather well and seriously rather happy.”
“I’m very glad to hear it.”
She takes a contemplative draught of her gin and a long drag on her cigarette and listens to David singing, “ is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?”, before musing, “It is rather unexpected, at my time of life.”
Tom nods, “These things are rarely expected but, in my experience, often timely.”
She barely contains her snort, “Your experience! Dear boy, you are quite wet behind the ears still—you have no experience. You have had experiences, I’m sure, but they do not as yet amount to experience.”
“True, Dorothy, all true”
“Talking of experiences, how is your journalistic adventure in The Smoke coming along?”
“You can ask Dakin about that—he seems to think I'm going to run off with the director at the first opportunity”
“Don’t let him know that.”
“Too late. I told him he wasn’t my type.”
“Oh, Thomas – it’s positively soaking behind those ears, isn’t it? That was a school boy error. What are we to do with you? Lust has addled your brain.” Tom looks sheepish and embarrassed and she laughs at him. “What’s that look? Not lust? Are you about to tell me it’s a grand passion? Un amour fou? Goodness me, Hector would be proud – the romance!”
“It is rather, Dorothy. I wish I could tell you otherwise.”
“Yes”. He makes no equivocation.
“Oh dear. Still, if it can’t be helped, I suggest you seize it with both hands and hang on for dear life.”
“I’m doing my best, but I think it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Love and lust—your brain is still sharp as a tack on it. Are you going to visit me?”
“Try and stop me.”
“I have the feeling I might be running a guest house. Will you bring Mary?”
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all. I would love to see you. Do you have plans for the rest of the summer?”
“Mary and I are planning a tour of the Italian Lakes in her Campervan. Down through Switzerland, maybe pootle down to Florence...”
“...Ah” He looks down at his feet resting on the crossbar of the stool and swallows a grin.
“No romance at all then.”
She laughs, “’Absolutely none”.
Dakin comes up behind her and, throwing his arm round her shoulder, plants a kiss on her cheek. She gives a little shriek, but her delight is obvious and he doesn’t let her go—their smiles could hardly be wider.
“Ah, Dakin. You still have the cheek of the Devil, I see. What have you done to Mr Irwin? He’s become a simpering idiot.”
“I’ve gobbled him up like the Big Bad Wolf, Mrs Lintott.” He squeezes her shoulders and breathes a stage whisper in her ear, “I’ve gobbled him all up.”
“Goodness, there’s more allegory there than one can shake a stick at. It’s a consummation devoutly to be wished, I’m sure.”
Stuart looks at Tom and says, “Where is your stick anyway?”
“Didn’t bring it.”
“Oh, Thomas—vanity—the male ego writ large”, she says.
“I’m sure you’re right. Pride. Foolish or otherwise.”
“Also, too much of a reminder for them”. He nods over to the rest of the boys.
“They don’t blame you. Do you Dakin?”
Stuart answers, “No, never did”.
“No, Scripps said as much”, Tom admits.
“But you feel it, nevertheless?” she asks.
Stuart adds, “And you limp anyway, so what’s the difference?”
Tom grimaces, “It feels... a weakness”.
Looking from one to the other and back, she says, “You are a sensitive flower, aren’t you? Dakin you are going to have to take very great care of him—he's really rather precious.”
“I know he is”. He smiles at Tom and, with his arm around Totty’s shoulders, feels safe enough to touch his knee – the aching one, the damaged one, the damage that might have saved his own life, for all he knows, and is written now in his bones and on his skin. He splays his fingers over it and applies a soothing pressure. He answers Totty but smiles at Tom when he says, “I’ll handle him with kid gloves, Mrs Lintott, honestly, kid gloves”.
On the stage, Pos and Scripps are playing I Could Write a Book—the Landlady’s request. She stands, rapt, behind the bar, occasionally flicking her tea towel at the Funny Man by way of refusing to serve him another drink while she’s listening—it does nothing to sweeten his mood. By the end of the night, the boys will have a summer residency at the Red Lion on Friday nights. They will largely be paid in beer, peanuts, and adulation. But they will love every moment.
I have made tiny changes to this whole series to move the timeline on a year because it was it was bugging me that I got it wrong. The whole thing now happens at the end of their first year - Summer '85. It doesn't make much difference, but it pleases me more.
In which Posner makes an impression (several impressions), Tom makes Stuart a promise, and the boys make ready to go home.
This is the penultimate chapter of The Moon Under Water (Friday night). They're all going home, but you didn't think I wouldn't follow some of them there did you? After that? Who knows? It's been a lot of words for one week.
At the end of the Landlady's song, there are whistles and cheers and calls for more. Timms shouts, "Speech", and Scripps glares at him. It's true they could go on longer, but he's aware of a fluttering presence at his elbow and a thirst both for beer and for being closer to David, for talking to him. He turns to find a tremulous young woman clutching sheet music to her chest—she all but curtsies when he smiles and motions for her to sit down.
She takes her seat at the piano and Scripps walks smiling over to David. He wants to throw his arms around him and kiss him and tell him he was brilliant, but he's too happy to mind that he can't. He says, "Glad you came?", and David replies, "Yes, it was... it was...", but he's looking past Scripps and back at the piano. He says, "Oh, that poor girl".
"What?", asks Scripps, and turns to see the girl sitting at the piano stool looking like a rabbit caught in headlights. David says, "She's completely frozen. I know how that feels."
"You could help her." Pos turns back to Scripps with a beaming smile, "Could I? Would that be alright?", he asks.
"Of course. I mean, she doesn't have the benefit of me, does she?", Scripps smiles back.
"No. No, she doesn't. Okay… if you think… will she mind, do you think? Do you mind?"
"Pos, it was my idea! I'm sure she'd be very grateful. Go on."
"Okay… alright… I will." He starts towards the piano but turns back and mouths discreetly, "I love you, Scrippsy".
Scripps watches him go up to the girl—he's smiling, and he sits with her, and they're chatting, and suddenly she's laughing and thawing and playing and singing, and her voice is higher than David's, and he joins her in a lower register while she floats above him. They glow. Scripps says quietly, to no one in particular, "I love you too".
He listens a while and is just about to head over to where the others are chatting with Mrs Lintott when he notices Tom trying to catch his attention from the bar. He beckons him over saying, "Scripps, a word".
"Yes, but you should know, Mrs Lintott knows."
"About you and David."
"Shit! Really? How? Did you tell her?"
"No. She worked it out. She looked at you."
"Looked at us? What do you mean, looked at us?"
"It was all she needed. She knew about me... and how...how I felt about Dakin before anyone, practically before me."
"Quite. Don't worry, she's perfectly relaxed about it. I just thought you should know."
Dorothy heads towards them, arms outstretched, smile a mile wide. She takes both Scripps' hands in hers and squeezes, saying, "Well done, Scripps. I think you can safely say that was a success. You were wonderful". Scripps gives a bashful grin. She goes on, "You look so well. Doesn't he Thomas? You look..."
"He looks happy."
"Yes, that's what it is, part of it anyway. Whatever it is, it agrees with you. Now, where's Posner, I could positively pinch his cheeks." Taken aback, Scripps says, "I don't advise it, Mrs Lintott. He might not take kindly. He probably thinks he's a bit grown-up for that".
"Yes, I dare say he does. And so he should, so he should. Yes, you're quite right, all my boys are young men, and I am a foolish old woman."
"You are nothing of the sort, Mrs Lintott."
"Not foolish perhaps, but an old woman certainly."
"You're in your prime, Dorothy", says Tom reassuringly.
"Flatterer! Yes, I'm the very image of Miss Jean Brodie without the regrettable predilection for Mussolini. Still, Mr Scripps, you and your young man are quite edible, the pair of you."
Scripps laughs and says, "Thank you, Mrs Lintott. I think".
"It's the gin talking, Scripps", Tom teases. "Cheeky sod", Dorothy laughs. "But he's probably right. It's best not to witness one's teachers in a state of lowered inhibitions."
“That may be true, Mrs Lintott, but you're not my teacher anymore."
"Quite so. And, on the strength of that, I think I'll have another. I would get you one, but it looks to me as though you already have one lined up." She nods over to where David is, unaccountably, sitting with the old men and their Woodbines and Mild—there's nothing to tell them apart except for a patina of age. Eventually, he stands and makes his goodbyes and walks over to them carrying two pints—one for Scripps, one for himself. He presents them with, "Courtesy of the gentlemen in the corner".
"How on earth did you get talking to them?", asks Scripps.
"Oh Scrippsy, one can find a connection with almost anyone if one tries hard enough," he says and gives Tom a little smile. Tom asks, "And what was it?"
"Doris Day. Beautiful girl, lovely voice—won't have a word said against her. And we did her proud, apparently." Dorothy laughs, "David Posner, you are what my sainted grandmother would have called a tonic".
"Mrs Lintott, how lovely to see you", says David, and kisses her on both cheeks—suddenly fully in possession of his adult self, entirely unselfconsciously himself. "And you, David", she says. Scripps boggles at her calling him David. The David he took for his own has become everyone's David and he could not be happier about it.
Tom notices a young woman standing behind David's shoulder, making tentative excuse me and sorry noises. "I think someone wants to talk to you", he says. David turns around, and the girl goes a delicate pink and asks if she can speak to him. He is entirely non-plussed as she leads him by the elbow, far enough away to be out of earshot. "Oh dear, Mr Scripps", says Dorothy, "I think you've got competition—I don't think old men are the only people with whom Posner's made a connection".
"What's she doing?", asks Scripps. Tom laughs, "Scripps, I couldn't be said to be the most experienced or worldly in matters concerning women, but it looks to me like she's giving him her phone number, encouraged by her friends over there". He nods to where her friends are giggling by the door. "She might just be asking if he wants to sing with her some more", says Scripps, clutching at straws. In unison, Tom and Dorothy exclaim, "Scripps!"
"What?", he asks indignantly.
"Fuck, you're worse at reading the signals than me. Of course that's what she's saying, but it's not what she means—look at her."
"… I… oh."
Dorothy puts a kindly hand on his arm and asks, "Is it so hard to imagine someone else might be attracted to him?"
"No. No, not at all. But… but… she's a girl."
"Well spotted", says Tom. "And he was kind to her. He was a knight in shining armour, and he sang love songs with her and, well, he's a good-looking boy." Scripps gives him the gimlet-eye, and Tom grins back. "Objectively…he is. I'm merely observing", he says.
The girl smiles and says goodbye—her friends are calling her—they've been egging her on to speak to him all night. David walks shyly back over—no one speaks until Tom starts laughing, swiftly followed by Scripps, despite his best efforts. David shoves first one, then the other. "It isn't funny", he insists. "Yes, it is", says Scripps, and gets another shove as reward. "Oh, David – that's where being kind gets you", says Tom, and David pulls a pinched face at him. "Leave him alone", says Dorothy. "I think it's utterly charming. Take no notice of them David, they are silly boys and most likely jealous".
"Yes, they are, thank you, Mrs Lintott. She only thought we might get together and do some songs. I might take her up on it. It was nice singing with someone whose voice is higher than mine—for a change", he glares at Scripps. Tom and Scripps are convulsed with laughter now, and the laughter draws over the others, who had observed the scene from across the room.
"I said you were a dark horse, Pos", says Stuart, ruffling his hair in as patronising a manner as possible. "Don't you bloody start, Dakin", says Posner. But he starts to giggle too after he's told them not to be mean—she's nice. Scripps puts his arm around him in as matey a way as he can manage. He says he's not laughing at her—she clearly has good taste, but he thinks he'll come along as accompanist, to keep him safe from predatory women. He whispers, "Just in case you decide to be a bit too kind to her".
Timms says, "I'm so confused, how has Posner managed to pull a bird?"
"World's gone mad, Tony. Mad, I tell you", says Akhtar.
"Scripps won't like that", offers Rudge.
There is a universal chorus of "Rudge!"
"What? What? I just thought…I assumed… did I get that wrong?... Sorry."
"Pete, mate, put down the spade and step away from the hole", advises Lockwood. But he ploughs on regardless, "Sorry, Scripps… Sorry."
Again, there's a cry of "Rudge!" But realising it's Sheffield's worst kept secret, Scripps laughs and shakes his head, and David says, "Don't worry, Peter, it's alright".
Stuart has the sensation of being both completely in this moment and somehow removed—containing, as it does, no sense of endings or beginnings, no sense of anything but now. He knows, beyond doubt, it will crystalise in his memory as one in which he was perfectly happy. All the people he loves are here in this room except, of course, his mother. And he's pulled back to earth by the remembered loss of her—the loss of being able to share this with her. Tom catches his look and asks if he's okay. He says he is, but Tom persists, and eventually, he admits he was thinking about her. "Be nice if I could talk to her", he says. "I would have talked to her about this when I got home, or in the morning—she'd have wanted all the details". Tom says, "It's nice you're so close, you're lucky".
"I thought we were."
"She hasn't left you, Stu, she needs to work this out on her own, and she's protecting you. Anyway, you're going to see her next week."
"Would you like me to come?"
"I... maybe. I don't know. I want to see her on my own, but..."
"Be nice if you were around. If I knew you were there."
"Done. Come on, cheer up. This has been fun; I've really enjoyed it. Thanks for including me."
"I think you have Scripps to thank really."
"True, I think I do." Tom moves closer, so that only Stuart can hear him, and says in his ear, "Anyway, you're not going home to mummy, you're coming home with me". Stuart grins, looks at his shoes and says, "Yeah. But are your intentions honourable, Mr Irwin?" Tom whispers, "Most certainly not, Mr Dakin; I intend to do very bad things to you". Stuart turns to him, and his face is so close and so tempting. He bites his lip and says, "Oh, good. That's a relief".
Scripps interrupts to remind them they have not, in fact, attained invisibility. "You can actually be seen you know, you two", he says. Stuart smirks, and Tom looks embarrassed and moves considerably further away.
Crowther leaves first, his arm around Sarah who says what fun she had and how talented Scripps and Pos are and she hopes to see them again soon and… Chris is clearly impatient to be alone with her and all but manhandles her out of the door to stop her striking up another conversation. She pulls a conspiratorial face at Tom as they leave.
As they go out, a woman comes in who beckons Dorothy and gives Tom a shy wave. He waves back and glances at Dorothy. For a moment, she hesitates. She says to Tom, "Should I?", and he replies "It's entirely up to you. I'm sure the boys won't mind. I'm sure the boys won't even notice, but Mary looks a bit uncomfortable".
"Yes, yes, she does." Turning to the others, she says, "Boys, I must love you and leave you, my friend is here to collect me. It's been a delight, truly—I am so very proud of all of you. She kisses Tom, and says, "See you soon", and leaves while the boys cheer her off.
Lockwood and Akthar leave together still making their plans—a tale that has grown bigger in the telling over the course of the evening. They go off chatting and laughing with their hearts full of future. Rudge, who has quietly had very little to drink, commits to getting Timms safely home—Timms has had enough for both of them. He slings his arm around Rudge's shoulders, gives him a slobbery kiss and declares to the world he's a good bloke and a good mate. As indeed he is.
The pub almost empty now, the four stragglers begin to finish their pints and gather their things. The couple from the lounge bar leave and smile at Scripps at the door. The wife looks like she wants to say something, but her husband ushers her out before turning and nodding and raising an appreciative hand to Scripps anyway.
Stuart asks, "What was that about?", and Scripps replies, "Dunno. I suppose they like a jazz standard".
"You're going to be proper local celebrities you two", Stuart says. And Scripps can't help but grin—Pos having told them of the landlady's offer of a regular, Friday night slot. Tom says, "Well, that was quite a night", and David agrees it was fun—in the end. Stuart and Scripps exchange a glance and Tom says, "Yes alright, you were right, it was fine—I didn't get eaten alive". Then, turning to Scripps, he adds, "I don't think I thanked you for asking me, for including me." Scripps says, "Welcome. I think you're one of us now", and Tom can't contain his grin either.
As they go out the door, Stuart asks if there's any chance he could have his jacket back, as David's still wearing it and carrying his own in his hand. Scripps laughs as though he's only just noticed, and calls him a little klepto. David takes it off and, holding it out at arm's length to Stuart by the collar, says, "Yeah, it's not really my style, is it?" Stuart laughs too and replies, "No, Pos, it really isn't".
In which Tom has a trick up his sleeve and Dakin is powerless to resist.
It's taken me a year to write this one week and it's been a blast! I may end it here. Or not. Maybe I'll carry on with this 'verse, but the week is finally over. Whatever, I've managed to start a couple of other series so I can keep hold of it - I'm scared to let it go. I have loved writing these boys, and all the associated mums and friends and lovers and passers by - they have filled my head and my heart this past awful year. Thank you for all your lovely words, you have no idea how much they've meant to me. XX
They part company outside the pub, Scripps and Pos going one way, Irwin and Dakin the other. As they walk out into the car park, heading towards the bus stop, Tom stops Stuart with a hand on his arm. “Do you trust me, Stu?”, he says.
“Trust you? Yeah... Why?”
“Okay”. Tom pulls him back behind a hedge that blocks the sightline from the road. In a voice of pure seduction, he says, “Let’s find out how much… Kiss me”.
“What, here? Now?”
Tom puts his arms around him before replying, “No one can see us. And you like to play games, let’s play one where we’re on the same team”. Stuart is baffled. “Are you insane? Someone is around”. He points back into the car park. “That bloke over there is the so-called comedian, and he can very much see us”.
“I know”. Tom maintains an inscrutable smile.
He holds Tom off with his hands on his chest but can’t escape the lock of his arms as panic begins to rise. He protests, “So, you want to get us beaten up. I thought you weren’t ready to get arrested?”
“There’s two of us, and he’s drunk… It’s a calculated risk. I thought you trusted me”, Tom replies, his voice still steady, still measured.
“I do”, he glances around nervously. “But he’s about to get on his fucking motorbike—he’ll probably mow us down”.
‘Maybe, let’s see”, Tom’s eyes are focused on his mouth now, and Stu is as turned on as he is terrified. “Just kiss me, Stu—think of it as a leap of faith”. Stu looks incredulous but gives him a brief, chaste kiss. Tom rolls his eyes, pulls him sharply closer, and there’s an unfamiliar edge to his, “No. Like you mean it”.
Stuart is Lois Lane dangling from the Eiffel Tower—about to drop. But he shuts his eyes and lets go, deciding to trust Tom will catch him. He threads his hands into his hair and kisses him—a deep, tongue tangling, unmistakably sexual kiss. It’s not so easy to close his ears to the vicious, slurred insults being hurled at them, but he screws his eyes tight and dives more fiercely into Tom’s mouth. The fear is exhilarating—he concentrates on the warm sensations of Tom’s tongue and the cold of his hands on his back. The obscenities keep coming... along with another sound now... something straining endlessly to connect; a desperate whine of mechanical frustration to match those of outrage and disgust.
Once. Twice. Three times. Nothing happens. It keeps on not happening.
And Tom has begun laughing into their kiss in a way Stu finds wholly disconcerting. He extricates himself to say, “His bike’s not starting”. Freed from the kiss, Tom laughs out loud, “That’s because I’ve got his spark plugs in my pocket… and there’s our bus. We’d better run for it”.
Stuart runs and asks the driver to wait while Tom hobbles behind. They fall gasping and laughing onto the bus, Tom saying, “I told you revenge was best served cold”. Stuart throws himself onto the seat, hooting, “You are a wicked, wicked man”, and Tom, with faux pomposity, replies, “No, he had no business getting on a bike drunk, I was doing my civic duty. We wouldn’t want an accident, would we?” Stuart, is suddenly aware there are other people on the bus, so he leans as close as he can and whispers. “No, I mean you’re wicked. Jesus, that was a turn on”. Tom smiles at him and raises an eyebrow.
“Where’d you learn that trick?”, Stuart asks.
“My sister. She had me do it to a boyfriend’s bike so he couldn’t go home and our mum had to let him stay the night.”
Stuart laughs, “I like the sound of your sister”.
“She’s married to him now, so it worked”. Tom turns to gaze out of the window, but he’s got tight hold of Stuart’s hand hidden under the jacket he’s thrown on the seat. He loosens his grip only to begin an exquisitely gentle, circling of his thumb in Stuart’s palm, taking it down to stroke the sensitive skin of his inner wrist. He doesn’t speak or look at him—simply reminds him he’s there.
They don’t speak for the rest of the journey, except once Stu asks, “You okay?” when he catches Tom wincing and rubbing his leg. Tom shrugs—he isn’t going to be drawn on it. They focus instead on the singularity—the concentration of connection between their hands. They leave the bus and walk the rest of the way in silence—what could there possibly be to say? And, despite having been here so many times this week and knowing beyond doubt what’s coming, Stuart’s heart is pounding, palms sweating, mouth dry with anticipation. He’s still reeling from the heady rush of entirely letting go, falling and being held up, and the knowledge there is plenty more to learn about Tom Irwin.
Key already in the lock, Tom says, “Do you know how many times tonight I’ve wanted….?” And the door opens, and they’re on the other side, and Tom is grabbing him—slamming him against it with a force he has neither the desire nor strength to resist. He breaks free of the voracious kiss and laughs and finishes the sentence, “...to kiss me?” Tom, whose hand is fisted in his hair, twisting tight enough to hurt, replies, “No, give you a slap… and kiss you”.
Everything in him says, give in, give up, let it be. So, when Tom growls against his neck, “what do you want?”, in the last vestige of the chivalry that forces him to ask before he takes, all Stuart can gasp out is, “anything… anything you want”.
And he lets go again, feels himself falling—trusts he’ll be caught.
As they’re falling asleep, Stuart says into the darkness, “You deserve better than me”. He’s met only with the sound of steady breathing but, eventually, Tom says, “I don’t want better than you”.
“I need to be better, then. I’m trying, Tom, really”.
Tom says, “I know”, and reaches out a hand to find Stuart turned away from him. He sighs and turns and curls around him, tucking his knees into the back of Stuart’s, tangling up their feet. He presses his soft, sleepy cock against the warmth of him and reaches around to gently stroke Stuart’s. Earlier, he’d been rough and unforgiving and had walked the finest of lines between passion and cruelty. He doesn’t think he strayed over it—he hopes not. Stuart had said “yes” and “please” and “don’t stop”, he knows that, but still, sadness nags at him—that this outburst might be born of shock or fear is unbearable. He kisses the warm nape of his neck in wordless contrition, and Stuart sighs contentedly, no recrimination in the sound.
In the pub, when Stu had leaned against him as refuge against righteous anger, he’d struggled with his twin demons, desire and shame, breathed in the scent of his hair, and promised him “later”. And now later has passed into earlier, and they’re sated and melancholic, and he wonders how this boy, who makes him brave and wise and so much more than he thought he could be, doesn’t know he’s enough. He says, “Anyway, likewise. You deserve better than me.”
Stuart reaches back to grasp him by the hip and pull him closer. He says, “I don’t want better than you either.” Tom says, “I’m trying as well, Stu. I’m really trying”, punctuating his words with kisses from ear to neck to tip of sharp shoulder.
“I know”, says Stuart.
In unison, they say, “we’ve a long way to go”, which causes much hilarity and a shower of kisses.
In the morning, over coffee and toast and the papers, laughter and gossip about last night, and making plans for the rest of the weekend, Tom will look suddenly worried and ask if he hurt him. Stuart will savour the warm glow radiating over his backside and secretly press a fingertip into the tenderness of a small bruise—provenance unknown. He’ll say, “No, I’m fine; I liked it. I trust you”. But Tom will apologise until Stuart loses patience, and they’ll quarrel and make up and have sex. Tom will call it making love and Stuart will cringe and call him corny. Tom will say, “It may be corny but it’s true, and besides, I read your soppy letter, so you can shut up”. Whatever they call it, it will be gentle and languorous—Tom will be reassured he is not, in fact, a monster and Stuart will love him a little bit more than he did yesterday.
But, for now, we’ll leave them there, our two young men, giggling, in love—their futures all in the subjunctive.