February rain beat blackly on the windscreen as James’ Porsche Boxster gradually clocked up the miles between Dunsfold Park and home. The forty or so miles from point to point should have been as familiar to him as that old back of the hand cliché, but there was always something on the journey that gave him a sense of unease. No matter how often he drove the route home: A-roads, two motorways and into London, there was always the doubt there. Was the junction he took off the A331 the right one? Was he going to miss the turning at Mytchett and have to go further north than he needed to get to the blasted motorway? Tonight, that doubt began creeping in from the moment he got into the car, and stayed with him, building with each mile.
Just outside Bagshot a creeping tide of anxiety began to lap at the corners of his consciousness with increasing intensity as the dissipated, watery lights of oncoming cars rushed towards and then over him in the liquid darkness. With it, splashing with greater significance in the back of his mind was the thing he’d been trying to suppress since the decision to go back on the air.
Clenching his hands convulsively on the wheel as yet another set of headlights flashed out of nowhere in the darkness, washing over him and dying away, James tried once again to push those intrusive thoughts away as he had managed to do successfully for months. Not for the first time that evening, he wondered what the hell was wrong with him tonight. If he was honest, not for the first time since that. The thing. The thing we’ll never speak of again.
He was not, by nature, a nervous driver. Cautious, definitely, but nerves didn’t play a part in that caution. Behind the wheel of a car was one of the places he felt truly safe; he was in control, it was he who made the decisions and he who took the choices. Even when he wasn’t quite sure where he was going, the mechanics of the process acted as a way of calming him, directing his thoughts. Feet and hands were in perfect harmony: he knew exactly when to change gear, he understood the quirks and eccentricities of the machine under his control. Hearing the throaty purr of the Boxster’s engine was usually enough to keep him focussed, on track, was usually enough to keep his mind away from places he’d rather not visit. Tonight, though, there was the persistent drip of memory, of thought, of things that made his stomach begin to turn just a little bit more than the prospect of missing a junction on the M3 probably should.
As the miles began to mount between himself and Dunsfold Park, James reflected on the afternoon’s recording. He’d known it was going to be a test for all of them, especially Richard. Their carefully scripted banter had all been checked and double-checked by Jeremy, Richard, Andy and himself, weeding out anything they felt would cross the line. James accepted without comment the fact that a number of his own lines had also been cut from the final draft. In a way he was relieved; it was going to be difficult enough recording the episode without having loads of interjections to remember. However, on a deeper level, it made him question just how much of a link he was in the Top Gear Trio. There had been no doubt, looking at the script, that Jeremy and Richard were the focal point of the series nine opener and he, once again, was just The Other One.
With the M3 stretching before and behind him, James could now acknowledge, if only to himself, he’d been more than a bit tetchy in the lead up to the opening of the new series and that part of his defence against the gathering tide of anxiety was beginning to erode. Jeremy especially had witnessed the raw end of James’ temper when his jokes had cut a little too close to the bone in production meetings, and even in off duty moments down the pub. James could still see, in his mind’s eye, Jeremy’s shocked and uncomprehending expression when he had reacted to a comment that six months ago he’d have let wash over him.
Two weeks ago they’d been sat in the pub. It was late one evening, and Jeremy, Richard, Andy and James had spent the day putting together the latest draft of the script for the upcoming episode. They were all tired, but had decided to have one last pint before calling it a night and going their separate ways. The decision had been Jeremy’s, of course, and quite a bit of the reasoning behind it had been to infuriate Richard, who was still on a Mindy-enforced drinking ban.
Jeremy had said something to James along the lines of ‘of course you wouldn’t know a fucking Fiesta from a Ferrari, the way you drive.’ Instead of laughing it off, or shaking his head in good-natured bewilderment, James had snapped a guttural ‘just shut your fucking face, Jez’, gulped down his pint and walked out of the pub.
He’d switched off his phone for two days after that and immersed himself in other work. When they were face to face again, across the table in a rather more official setting, James just acted as though it hadn’t happened. He couldn’t bring himself to admit what it was that was really bothering him; that it wasn’t the comment about the cars, but the fact that he’d carried something with him since the day of that cussed Vampire shoot. Something that resolutely refused to go away, no matter how hard he willed it to and no matter how much he tried to ignore it.
The incident in the pub was symptomatic of the armour that James had begun to construct around himself that he’d hoped would endure throughout the filming of what was arguably going to be the most difficult series yet. The ‘public’ James who everyone thought they knew, the bloke off the telly, Captain (fucking) Slow, had become the only person James was prepared to show to the world. It might have been emotionally dysfunctional, but it wasn’t like he hadn’t been accused of that before in his lifetime, and to his mind it was merely self-preservation. He couldn’t afford to let his guard down in front of anyone for fear that someone might actually twig the reasons for his guardedness. Not even Sarah had picked up on it. Perhaps, after all this time, she knew not to push him; or perhaps she hadn’t even noticed, like everyone else.
The insistent beat of the rain on the windscreen and his own reactions to the stresses of the day began to infringe on his mood once again. He found himself remembering details from the recording, and his own observations of it during the first edit. Never had his status as ‘The Other One’ on Top Gear ever felt so pronounced as it had today. Jeremy had masterminded the episode perfectly; keeping them all occupied enough, but scripting the ebb and flow to avoid any potential slip ups from tiredness or stress; giving himself the lion’s share of the anchoring, taking the responsibility for managing the situation.
James knew Jeremy felt the stress of this keenly, could tell from the way the man sat slumped, dog tired, when he thought no one was looking. However, being the professional he was, when he knew he was under scrutiny Jeremy kept his own fears and worries under wraps, joking to the last second, doing the Clarkson thing of blustering and fussing to distract attention away from whatever nerves he may have been suffering from. James wished he’d been able to offer Jeremy some support, some understanding, a hand on his shoulder, a smile that didn’t feel forced, but he’d too been preoccupied with trying to keep his own emotions on an even keel. The fear that Jeremy might pick up on what was going on under the surface, the currents that lurked below, was enough to make James hold back.
Despite his fervent desire to hide behind his ‘public’ face, his fear lingered, breaking at times in visible, audible ways; the clenching of his right hand, left one shoved out of harm’s way in his jeans pocket (an old broadcaster’s trick to avoid that obvious betrayal of nerves), a shake in the voice here and there, a moment of panic when he couldn’t find a prop for one of the few gags he’d been allowed to make. All of these were signs that were so obvious any idiot could have read them; all were glimpses of James’ total isolation from the process that afternoon. Up until that point, the point when it really mattered that he kept control of himself, he’d been able to do it. The second the cameras were trained on him, it was as if the lenses were seeing into his soul, laying everything bare for the entire world to see. But even though to him it felt like he might as well have been wearing a sandwich board that advertised his not-alrightness, no one chose to mention it to him during the edit. Almost as if no one cared enough to bother.
As he was overtaken on the inside by, chances were, yet another accountant in a BMW having his moment of glory cutting up a Porsche: ‘there was this tosser in a Boxster dawdling in the outside lane again tonight’, James forced his mind back into the present. He pulled wearily back into the inside lane, trying to remember whether it was the junction for Longshot or Lyne he was passing. He hated middle lane drivers almost as much as Jeremy did; for a moment he’d become one of them.
Moments later, location confirmed by way of the blue motorway signs, James’ mind began to wander again. All three of them had got through the show that afternoon; how he wasn’t quite sure. Even after the seemingly endless pre-production meetings, where they’d discussed every last shot of the filming schedule, been through every line, blocked every move and piece to camera, there was still a huge risk involved that one of them would blunder, miss a cue or a line and throw the other two out. In the course of a normal episode this wouldn’t be a problem – they’d cut, reshoot and get it right, but on this day, loaded with significance as it was, things had to be as perfect as they could be the first time. Richard wasn’t going to admit it in a million years, but they all knew he was on a knife-edge at the prospect of being in the studio again, and so they just had to get as much right as possible. Of course there were inevitable technical cock-ups, blocking, angling of cameras and suchlike, but for the most part the episode was shot uninterrupted.
Once the cameras were turning over for the first take, James had felt the adrenaline kick in as it always did. That was something that never changed, however long he had been involved with Top Gear. There was a definite frisson about filming in front of a live audience, and he knew he wasn’t the only one who still felt the gut churning tension, not quite fear, of this particular televisual conceit. Jeremy and Richard had been in television a fair bit longer than he had, though, and he felt the burden of his relative inexperience as the cameras rolled. He’d deliberately ignored Jeremy’s mouthed ‘OK mate?’ split seconds before the cue came, for fear of being caught with an odd expression on his face in the opening shot.
The rain was falling harder now, obscuring the road markings between lanes and forcing James to turn up the wipers another notch. He slowed slightly in response to the change, dropping down to a steady sixty in the slow lane. Jeremy would doubtless call this a travesty; a waste of a good car; Richard, with his love of Porches, admittedly the 911 versions (however many there were), would be much more vocal in his mockery. James remembered that he’d only driven the bloody Boxster today in the first place to avoid the ribbing he’d have got if he’d rocked up to Dunsfold in the Panda.
He hadn’t really driven the Porsche since last September; he remembered that decision as if it was yesterday. Something had made him take it down to Dunsfold today as well. A tribute to the importance of the occasion, a need to show a certain public demeanour, he supposed. The last time he’d driven the Boxster he’d been hammering it northwards to Leeds, praying for Richard to still be alive when he got there, unable to comprehend what on earth he’d do, what on earth he’d say, if Richard wasn’t. He could still remember the numbness he’d felt during the drive; the sense that if he didn’t think about it, if he didn’t allow himself to worry, then time would stop and allow Richard to recover.
He recalled in vibrant, chilling clarity how quickly that numbness had turned to terror as he pulled into the hospital carpark, both at the prospect of what he was going to find when he entered the hospital, and from the reporters and photographers who were gathered around the entrance of the place, desperate for the soundbite from him that would make their copy more interesting. There had been reporters outside the entrance to Dunsfold Park today as well, despite the press conference the BBC had arranged earlier in the week. It was a reminder James could have done without. He’d driven past them as quickly as he’d dared, not wanting to be confronted with unsolicited questions. It was cowardly, but again it was all about self-preservation.
The rain continued as James neared the Chiswick junction. The solid, reassuring buildings stood either side of the carriageway, signposting that he was back on truly familiar territory. As if on cue, before he could get too comfortable, police sirens rent the air and automatically James slowed for the junction, in case the panda cars shot the lights. Sure enough, fifteen seconds later they did just that.
As he waited for the lights to change, again he found his mind wandering. At the end of the main part of the show they’d all sat on the stage and watched the tape of Richard’s accident and tried to discuss it. Or, rather, Jeremy had discussed it, with the air of a man who’d done his crying, done his raging and was now out the other side and just passionately relieved his dear friend Richard was OK. Richard had responded to Jeremy’s honed and tested interview technique with his own happy-go-lucky Hamster routine, and even though there were one or two moments where their emotions bubbled a little too close to the surface, the audience had responded with empathetic indulgence, willing the two of them onwards through the interview, supporting them in their decision to be honest about it all.
For James, it had been a different story. Even though he, like them, had seen the footage about a hundred times during pre production, the uncomfortable irony of being part of and yet not part of the fourth wall: watching the other two watching the footage while being watched by the audience, knowing that later that week they’d all be watched by millions of people in the comfort of their own homes, told on him. Sitting on the far end of the sofa on the set, his separation from the other two as they’d discussed the accident had been emotional as well as physical. Richard was right next to him, but he was turned towards Jeremy who was conducting the lion’s share of the interview. James couldn’t bring himself to look at Richard until he needed to deliver his lines.
There were one or two moments when James couldn’t meet Jeremy’s gaze either: knowing as he did that if they made eye contact across the small stage, both of them would probably lose it, but Jeremy, at least, had managed to hold it together. James on the other hand knew from the way the audience had reacted that he himself wasn’t giving off that air in the slightest. He’d failed the other two in the most public way by not keeping it together when it counted the most.
Swearing under his breath as yet another twat in a company owned saloon shot past him, cutting him up once again, James reflected. From the moment Richard had arrived on set, fresh from the arms of the dancing girls and then Jeremy’s own, huge embrace, James knew he wasn’t going to cope. At all. Captain Slow’s carefully constructed persona was just that, a construct. It wasn’t going to work.
He’d botched the opener, for a start; at the last minute he’d flinched away from Richard’s effusive greeting, offering his hand when it had been scripted that he reciprocate the much more physically demonstrative gesture Richard had offered. Jeremy had justified this in pre-production by saying that the audience (especially those female fans who had notions about James and his leanings) would love to see the Hamster and Captain Slow having a cuddle. He’d completely ignored James’ rather embarrassed shufflings on the issue.
Jeremy’s tactility, his assumption that everything could be solved through touch, was something that James felt frustrated by at times, but at other times he was distinctly envious of Jeremy’s ability to reach out and connect with people. He’d never been comfortable with that kind of thing, except with the few people he was close to. Richard was a good friend, and off camera since the accident they’d certainly had an emotional moment or two, but on camera, he just couldn’t do it. Thankfully, the audience just saw James’ recoil as James-the-slightly-repressed-and-a-bit-out-of-his-own-time Englishman, and didn’t know it had been scripted any differently. Thank Christ Jeremy hadn’t insisted on a retake.
And then, as if filming the thing hadn’t been enough, they had had to watch the rough edit back on the monitors later that evening. Hands more or less glued, knuckles white, to the wheel, James flinched at the memory. He tried grimly to focus on the road ahead, but he knew this part of the journey too well, the road layout, the buildings, the likely traffic, and he couldn’t concentrate.
The rough cut had shown him just how much the other two had carried him through not just the last twelve minutes of the show but also the whole of it. Carried him. It had been Richard who’d needed his support, and yet Richard was the one doing the laughing, the joking and the discussing, while he’d just sat like some awkward teenager, clasping and unclasping his hands and hiding behind his hair. Not even one joke about the World War One fighter pilot could have saved him, in his eyes at least. And when that bloke had shouted out, James had had to tense every muscle in his body to maintain what he hoped was a convincing look of control. He knew, from looking at the edit, he hadn’t managed it. Finally, most painfully, even though he'd known it was coming, Jeremy’s ‘and it’s certainly not something he would have done’ comment at the close of the interview, still made him flinch. He hadn’t quite managed to keep his expression neutral for the camera then, either.
The atmosphere during the edit had been careful, controlled, somewhat subdued, but they’d managed to give the all clear to most of the footage, and left with the promise of an early meeting the next day to continue the work in London. James hadn’t been surprised when the suggestion of a drink hadn’t been suggested; Richard looked exhausted, and Jeremy had already said he had to get back to Oxfordshire for the night and spend some time with his family if he was going to spend “the next three days closeted with you twats trying to make what we did this afternoon look good”. Richard had just rolled his eyes at that, but James was sure he didn’t imagine the fleeting look of concern that flickered in Andy’s eyes as they flitted from Jeremy to himself and then on to Richard.
They’d said their goodbyes soon after, and all gone their separate ways: Richard, Andy and Jeremy towards the M40 and their respective families, and James back to London. James had been the first to leave: desperate to get out of Dunsfold Park and as far away as possible. He’d never felt so disappointed in himself, and so incredibly alone. As he glanced in his rear view mirror he’d seen the other three still chatting, sharing a last cigarette before they hit the road. He knew he was being paranoid when he remembered that moment, but he was sure all three of them had turned briefly towards the departing Boxster as he’d pulled away. They were a triumvirate he’d never quite managed to infiltrate: D’artagnan, indeed. More like the Queen of fucking Spain.
Pulling up the Boxster outside his house, he couldn’t even be bothered to celebrate getting a parking space outside at this time at night. He noticed, as he approached his front door that he’d forgotten to leave the hall light on. He usually did this as a precaution against burglars, even though if an intruder had chanced it, he’d have been met by a squawking, apoplectic Fusker. Letting himself into the house, as if on cue, the black and white cat appeared.
James bent down to stroke the vociferous feline as Fusker weaved in and out of his legs. Fusker certainly wasn’t going to put up with being ignored this evening, at least until he was fed, and as James wandered through from hall to kitchen, the cat reminded him in the most vocal possible terms of the long time it now was since breakfast. Scooping him up briefly, knowing that the only time the animal was likely to show him any affection was when he was hungry, he breathed in the scent of damp fur and felt the grumblings of a disgruntled cat.
This was another tacit reminder of the day’s events, being as he was a present from Richard’s wife. “Everyone needs a cat,” she’d said when she’d presented this black and white bundle of claws and bile to him one Sunday afternoon. James had been too polite to argue, suspecting that Mindy considered him in need of the company.
He dreaded to think of the stress of the past few months on Richard and his family; he’d seen a great deal of it at first hand. The strain on Mindy of watching Richard’s every move while looking after their two daughters had been painfully obvious at times. James noticed it when he had visited Richard at home in the weeks after his release from hospital: he’d seen Mindy’s sudden weight loss, the tiredness around her eyes.
One afternoon, after an amiable lunch with Richard and the girls, James and Mindy had shared a moment or two alone when Richard had been looking after the girls in the living room. Mindy was one of the few people he felt truly comfortable with, and as he’d wandered through from the hallway, the lighthearted offer of help with the washing up he’d been about to give had died on his lips. He’d caught her wiping her eyes on a tea towel as she finished the clearing away.
The realisation that this strong, capable woman was quietly falling apart, alone, in her own kitchen cut James so deeply it terrified him. He desperately wanted to do something to help her. If he had been Jeremy, James knew he wouldn’t have thought twice about crossing the kitchen, taking her in his arms and holding her tightly, giving her the support she so clearly needed. Jeremy would have known exactly what to say: offering Mindy the protection of his huge embrace, he would have made a gentle joke about how he could still smell the shepherd’s pie in her hair after the effort she’d gone to for that wonderful lunch. He’d have held her until she was calm again, murmuring the reassurance she deserved. But he wasn’t Jeremy, and because of that all he could do was hold out his handkerchief, painfully aware of his inability to react as Jeremy would.
As Mindy had reached out with a trembling hand and taken it from him, he thought he saw, just for a moment, the slightest of reproaches in her eyes. Then, before he could be sure, she’d playfully batted him away with the tea towel, wiping her eyes with the handkerchief in her other hand. “Get back and keep an eye on him, James," she’d said. “Or he’ll think we’re plotting something!”
For a split second in that kitchen James had wished fervently to be able to level with Mindy: to say how sorry he was that she was going through this terrible thing. He just couldn’t find the words for fear of how she’d react. It was another thing he felt a creeping sense of guilt over. If Richard had died that day, he’d have left a wife and two tiny daughters. If he himself had been in the car, there would have been far fewer complications. It was something that made him angrier the more he thought about it.
On autopilot, James got a can of cat food out of one of the lower cupboards in his kitchen, picked up Fusker’s bowl and emptied a third of the can into it. Checking the cat had enough water, he looked around the kitchen, trying to summon up the will to wash the dishes that lay, most uncharacteristically, discarded and piled up in the sink. The rest of the kitchen was spotless; the dirty plates incongruous against the backdrop of the immaculate worktop. The mugs on the tree were all arranged in order of colour, two red at the bottom, two yellow in the middle and two green at the top of the tree. There was still the faint, acidic aroma of bleach in the air from the kitchen spray. The teapot stood neatly next to the kettle and the toaster, the pot holding the cooking utensils was shining and spotless. A bottle of red wine, bought primarily for the next time he had company sat at the far end of the worktop, closest to the table. Everything was in its place, neat, tidy to the point of obsession. Likewise, the only thing on the scrubbed wooden kitchen table, lay a neatly folded copy of today’s Telegraph.
He couldn’t be bothered with dinner tonight; wine would do.
Grabbing a glass from one of the top cupboards, deciding that tonight definitely wasn’t a night for beer and its connotations of camaraderie and companionship, James unscrewed the cap on the bottle of red, ruminating on the fact that Oz would probably sneer at his choice of a screw top, and sat down at the table.
Pouring the wine into the glass, he unfolded the paper and tried to focus on the lead article. After a while of sipping wine and attempting to read, to get something to go in, James conceded defeat. It was no good; the words made as much sense to him as if they’d been written in Arabic.
He glanced at his watch. Somehow a whole half hour had passed. Had he really been staring blankly at the paper for half an hour? In front of him the wine bottle was virtually finished, but he didn’t feel drunk. He wasn’t sure he felt anything, really, except for...
James felt the icy current of repressed guilt trickling down his spine. Half an hour had vanished in the struggle to keep from thinking about the thing. The more he tried to push it away, the more it seemed to surround him, choking the air from his lungs, making it more and more difficult to breathe freely. This must be what it felt like before a tsunami broke.
Fusker, finishing his food, gave the table leg nearest to James a cursory scratch, and James jumped at the unexpected noise. Swatting the errant cat down mechanically, James earned himself a dirty look and a warning growl for the effort.
“Fucking typical,” James said, only afterwards realising how loud his voice sounded in the quiet of his kitchen. “I feed you and you repay me by crapping up my furniture.” Fusker gave him another disdainful glance and stalked off, tail in the air, to find a place to sleep.
The disappearance of the cat was yet another reminder that he was alone. Jeremy would be back in Oxfordshire by now, the way he drove, and Richard would be well on the way to enjoying the comfort of his family. It all came back to that, in the end; Richard’s life couldn’t be in greater contrast to his own.
Of course, he was mostly happy with his lot: he’d made choices along the way that had brought him here, but the brutal truth was that he was forty four years old, shared a house with a pikey feline and a bath full of engine bits, and there was not one person, not even Sarah, who knew what he was going through under the careful, controlled demeanour of James May, The Other One From Top Gear.
No-one got it; no-one realised that the day he’d turned down the Vampire shoot for a day doing some cover shots and voiceovers with Oz fucking Clarke for a poncey wine show he’d only agreed to in the first place because his agent had told him to, had turned out to have been the one of the worst days of his life. And each time he relived that decision, it haunted him even more. Oz had been off to America for six weeks the day after, and the producer was agitating for the work to be done that day before he went, otherwise post-production was going to run over and the show wouldn’t air when scheduled.
James had reluctantly acquiesced, regretful that he’d passed up the chance to drive the Vampire, but mindful that ‘the bloody wine thing’ needed to be wrapped as soon as possible. Later that day, after the thing had happened and he was tearing up the M1 to Leeds, he’d hated himself twice over; once for agreeing to the covers and the VOs, and once for remembering the momentary guilty, selfish sense of relief he’d also felt when Richard had agreed to take his place in the jet car.
Reaching out for the wine bottle, pouring the rest of its contents into his glass, James swore as his hand trembled so much he spilled red wine on the table. Richard should never have been in Yorkshire on that shoot, driving that that bloody car. James shouldn’t have let him. He should have put his foot down. It was a terrible equation: two hours of voiceovers and a few cover shots meant that Richard and his family were very nearly destroyed. Knowing that, living with that, how could he ever look Richard in the face again?
Going down that road, allowing himself to think about it only made the shaking of his hand worse. It didn’t matter how he felt; all that mattered was that he kept it to himself. It was far too late to go over old ground now. No one had guessed thus far, and no one would have cared anyway.
Exasperated at his own idiocy, irrationally angry with himself for allowing it, now, to dominate his thoughts, James leaned back in the chair and took a defiant gulp of the wine in the glass. There was more wine around somewhere, the cheap, crap stuff he’d hidden in case Oz saw it and derided his taste. He would find it, and drink and drink and drink until it all went away. That would be best for everyone.
Underneath the copy of the Telegraph, when James was in mid swallow, his mobile phone buzzed a greeting. Choking slightly, he put the glass down and reached under the pages of the paper, paused for a moment, seeing the familiar name flashing up on the screen. What the hell did he want now? Resignedly, he flipped open the lid of the phone, preparing himself.
“May? Are you there?” Jeremy Clarkson’s voice was unmistakable.
“Yes,” James replied tersely. “What do you want?”
“Your bloody stupid doorbell’s not working again. Get out here and let me in.”
James was sober enough to be just a bit surprised and afraid that a supposedly Oxfordshire bound Clarkson was now on his doorstep. It was the last thing he needed, given his plan to polish off the wine and probably pass out in a stupor. What did Jeremy want? On the strength (more likely, the weakness) of today’s recording had Jeremy come to give him the “chat” about his future?
“Aren’t you supposed to be in the country?” he asked. “I thought you’d buggered off home.”
James heard the rather brittle laugh. “I thought, fuck that for a game of soldiers; the kids have got better things to do anyway,” Jeremy replied. “So open this bloody door, will you?”
James pondered for all of a moment. The last thing he needed was a conversation.
“Not now,” he said bluntly. “I’m a bit busy.” He took another quick slug of the wine.
“Bollocks are you,” Jeremy countered. “Sarah’s out of the country and you’re never busy on a Wednesday evening. Now let me in before your neighbours call the police.”
“Why would they do that?” James said warily, feeling his shoulders tense and his hand clench around the wine glass. For God’s sake, Jeremy, take the fucking hint and sod off.
“Because it’s pouring with rain, your sodding cat’s just used me as a scratching post and I’ve been trying to get your attention by banging on your front window for half a sodding lifetime,” Jeremy replied.
James started, realising he hadn’t even heard Jeremy’s so-called attempts to summon him. “How long have you been out there?” he conceded, after a pause.
“Long enough for the net curtain twitchers to get suspicious,” Jeremy said. “So stop twatting about in there, and come and open the door.”
Sighing, James resigned himself to the fact that he was going to lose the argument. Jeremy clearly wasn’t going to just go away. He heaved himself up from the wooden kitchen chair and went through the hall to the front door to let Jeremy in. Hopefully he’d be able to get rid of him quickly. James was just about sober enough to make the right noises about the editing, and if Jeremy wanted to berate him for the hash he’d made of the filming, he was still just about able to tell him where to shove it. There was only so much of the patented Clarkson so-called ‘wit’ he could take tonight.
When James opened the door, he saw Jeremy clutching an Oddbins carrier bag, which, from the clink of it, contained at least two bottles of wine. He was still wearing the clothes he’d done the filming in, a charcoal grey shirt, black jacket and blue jeans. Without waiting to be asked, he strode past James into the hallway, and then into the kitchen.
“Jesus, May, don’t you ever wash up?” he asked as he surveyed the debris of last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast in the sink.
“When the mood takes me,” James replied, more brusquely than he’d intended.
“And wine? I thought I was supposed to be the one who foisted that on you,” Jeremy said, gesturing to the empty bottle with one hand and clunking his own Oddbins bag down on the table with the other. “Didn’t expect to find you already enjoying a civilised tipple.”
Jeremy strode across the kitchen and took a wine glass from the kitchen cupboard. With the efficiency of a man who drank at least two glasses a night, he grabbed one of the bottles from the carrier bag, opened it, poured himself a glass and then topped up James’. Then, without being invited, he took a seat at the kitchen table.
“Right,” he began. “Since you’re clearly well on the way to getting drunk, and since my liver came out waving a white flag some years ago, I’d better get started before we both stop making sense.” He took a large slug of the recently poured wine and set the glass down on the table. “Are you going to join me or just keep standing there like a spare prick?”
James said nothing, too tired and too anxious to marvel for long about how Jeremy could walk into someone else’s house and put himself so totally in charge, but he did sit back down in his chair. He took a gulp of his refilled glass and swallowed, barely tasting the liquid as it slipped down his throat. Glancing at Jeremy, he asked the question he didn’t really want to know the answer to.
“Because something told me I needed to be here,” replied Jeremy. “And considering you’ve already polished off one bottle by yourself, obviously my spider senses haven’t proved me wrong.” He grinned briefly. “But when are they ever?”
James grimaced. “I just felt like I needed a drink tonight, that’s all.” To demonstrate the point, he took another gulp of the wine. He was more than a bit unsettled by the fact that Jeremy hadn’t actually answered his question. Was he here to give James his marching orders? Had it finally occurred to Jeremy that in fact James May wasn’t any good at the so-called job he’d hired him for?
“All well and good, under the circumstances, but I thought I’d find you on the beer,” Jeremy replied. “Or has that jumped-up ponce Oz Clarke been trying to continue your education and defile you properly? Presumably you were going to mention at some point you’re off again with him in the summer?”
“Fuck off, Clarkson,” James snapped. “At least it gets me out of the way for six weeks or so.”
He ran a hand irritably through his hair, trying to figure out a polite way of asking Jeremy to leave so that he could just get down the rest of that bottle and pass out. There was a distinct and worrying pause before Jeremy spoke.
“And why would you want to get out of the way?” Jeremy asked.
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” James snapped again, irritated by Jeremy’s deliberately idle tone. “I’d have thought after this afternoon the answer was patently obvious. That’s really why you’re here, isn’t it? To say what a mess I made today?” Clenching his right hand around the bowl of the wine glass, he tried to maintain what little was left of his calm. The absolute last thing he needed was Jeremy’s own particular brand of cross-questioning; he had a snowball’s chance in hell of withstanding the onslaught tonight unscathed.
Taking another gulp of the wine, Jeremy spoke again. “We all did what we had to do, as we do every week and we came home again. Where’s the problem?” he said evenly. There was a pause while Jeremy carefully placed his wine glass down on the table. “You did alright.”
“If you say so,” James replied, aware that he sounded petulant. Careful, he thought.
“Oh for God’s sake, James!” Jeremy snapped. “How can you sit there now, all dog in the bloody manger? You knew how hard this was going to be from the start. Do you think it was easy, sitting there watching him work his way through that interview, seeing the footage for the hundredth time, seeing how hard it was for him to keep it together?”
James flinched at the memory. “I’m not saying it was easy for either of you, Jez.” He was more than aware he’d left himself out of the reply.
“So really, everything’s fine and you’re just being a morose, drunken git as usual then?” Jeremy said. “And all that’s bothering you is that fact that filming was shit and you think you look stupid?”
James said nothing, merely topped up his glass again, emptying the first bottle in the process.
“I mean, we got through it, didn’t we?” Jeremy pressed. James could hear the change in his tone. No longer idle, it carried something else with it. He wasn’t quite sure what. Desire for reassurance? No, this was Jeremy Clarkson, that wouldn’t even be an issue. Concern? Don’t be daft; again, this was Jeremy.
James took a deep breath, none the wiser. “Yes,” he conceded. “We got through it. But it isn’t alright, is it?” He was staring at the table. Still, he fixed his gaze on the one clear spot on the table in front of him, feeling the tide rising on the guilt and anger he’d tried so hard to suppress.
The silence in the room suddenly became oppressive. James could feel Jeremy’s eyes on him, and he was torn between wanting Jeremy to keep pressing him for an answer, and also wanting him to get the hell out of his space.
“James?” Jeremy said, breaking the quiet. “You’re not making much sense here. I mean, less than usual.” He sipped his wine again.
James shook his head, unsure whether it was frustration at his own inability to get to the point, or at Jeremy’s seeming inability to grasp it for himself. “We’ve been over and over what happened with that sodding jet car time after time, but it just keeps coming back to one thing.”
He paused, struggling for breath all of a sudden, realising just what he was trying to say.
“And what would that be, then?” Jeremy asked, a tone of gentle exasperation in his voice.
James felt his shoulders tensing, felt the adrenaline start to surge as he battled with the fight or flight instinct. It would be easier to make something up now, to fudge Jeremy with some convoluted explanation about having reservations at the prospect of watching the crash footage in front of an audience. He could bleat some pathetic noises about being angry that they had to be so bloody upfront about it all. Jeremy would take that; he’d just put it down to James being a cantankerous, repressed twat who was incapable of putting on a public face for the cameras. If he could convince Jeremy, then he might just be able to talk his way away from ever admitting his guilt. The irony of this course of action did not escape him.
“I don’t know, Jez,” James began. Then found he couldn’t continue. His throat was tightening, he was beginning to struggle for breath.
“You don’t know what, James?” Jeremy said, his voice sounding low, almost gentle.
It was his friend’s tone that eventually convinced James to level with Jeremy. He’d kept his feelings to himself to so long now; it would be so easy to carry on ignoring the guilt. But this was Jeremy, the man who’d taken a risk by bringing James back on board Top Gear. And Jeremy was more than that – he was the only one James could trust with it all. He’d no more be able to have this conversation with Richard, Mindy or even Andy than he’d be able to walk on water. If anyone was going to help him, to understand, it had to be Jeremy. Shaking his head, something inside him deciding that this could be the last chance he got to discuss it, James spoke.
“It should have been me. Driving the Vampire. I was the one who was supposed to be in there. I’m the one who should have been through all of…that. Not Richard. Not Mindy and the girls. I shouldn’t have…” He stalled at the next word, and took a long pull of the wine glass and swallowed frantically. Placing the glass back down on the table, he saw his right hand shaking and gripped the bowl of the glass harder, trying to disguise the telltale tremble. “I shouldn’t have let him do it.” Slowly, lifting his gaze from the spot on the table, he looked at Jeremy, expecting to see agreement on his friend’s face.
The pause seemed endless before Jeremy spoke.
“James, you’re being ridiculous,” he said finally, nothing but concern in his blue eyes. “That tyre blowing was a completely freak occurrence, a one in a million. Besides, if it had been you in there, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here tonight discussing it.” Risking the contact, he placed a hand on James’ forearm, squeezing gently. “You’ve heard what Hammond, his doctors and our techs said a thousand times – he only survived because he’s such a total short arse. If you’d been in there instead when it had gone, you’d be sitting here without your head right now. Which, admittedly, with that hair would be an improvement, but even so.”
Jeremy paused, leaving his hand resting on James’ arm. “Besides,” he continued eventually. “When was the last time Richard listened to either of us, especially you?”
James said nothing, feeling the warm intrusiveness of Jeremy’s hand on his arm, torn between wanting to wrench himself away and finding comfort in Jeremy’s gesture. His lack of response seemed to prompt Jeremy again. “OK, so it would have been a great joke, wouldn’t it, Captain Slow beating the land speed record and showing he’s not just a Christian motorist, but you couldn’t do it. You were already tied up with the wine thing. Hammond said he’d do it - end of story. It’s not your fault.”
Usually Jeremy’s somewhat simplistic reasoning was enough to at least make James concede, if only for the good of their friendship, but not this time. No matter how much he respected and liked Jeremy, no matter how much he craved Jeremy’s understanding, this time he couldn’t just sit back and accept Jeremy’s pedestrian, emotionally black-and-white logic. He felt the anger rising up inside him, felt the wave of it break over his head, and realised, with a blinding certainty that Jeremy, this time, couldn’t say anything that would actually help him.
Before he could stop himself, he’d pulled away from Jeremy and slammed his glass down on the table, breaking the stem. It was empty, but as he watched he saw a trail of red snake its way across the table, coming from his palm where the glass had splintered into it.
“You just don’t get it, Clarkson, do you?” James shouted, kicking back out of the kitchen chair and wiping his injured palm on his jeans, seeing the blood but completely unaware of the pain of the wound. “I went out there this afternoon, played along with the two of you, played that bumbling, silly Englishman role, messed around a bit like always, but not one of those buggers who came to see us was remotely convinced. It was my fault. And on the film, everyone can see it!”
Abstractedly he ran his uninjured hand through his tangled hair. “They were all looking at me like they expected me to crumble at any minute, and the fact I had virtually no lines during that whole interview must have confirmed what they all thought. On their faces, on your face, it was written as clear as day. It was James May’s fault that Richard Hammond ended up in a hospital bed.”
James chanced a glance at Jeremy, who was still seated at the kitchen table. His shocked expression did nothing to ease James’ anger. Perhaps Jeremy thought he’d covered his own disappointment with James well enough today, and was now just shocked that James had picked up on it. James didn’t give Jeremy any time to comment. Now he’d started talking, he felt like the Ancient Mariner at the wedding feast. He could no more have stopped than held back the tide.
He shook his head, trying to pace himself; trying to hold onto what little calm he had left. Drawing a shuddering breath, feeling himself starting to shake violently, he realised what he’d said. Suddenly the survivor’s guilt was all around him like a tidal wave, and he was being engulfed by it, clinging on desperately to the remains of his defences like a sailor to the wreckage of a ship. He was floundering, absolutely terrified, fighting for breath on the crest, alone.
“What happened to Richard should never have happened. I should have been in that car, it was supposed to be me.” He felt the tightness in his jaw and bit down hard on his lower lip, but the words, locked away inside him for so long, kept coming. “I was bloody useless when it happened, I was even worse today and I might as well just not have bothered being there for all the good I was to the two of you.”
As James clenched his fist in anger, in a peculiar echo of the gesture he’d used when the cameras had rolled earlier that day, he suddenly felt a stinging pain in his palm. Slowly he opened his hand, seeing the thick streak of blood welling out of the cut. The movement made the pain grow worse, bringing him back slightly from the terror, and it slowly dawned on him just how deep the cut was. “Fuck it!” He grabbed a tea towel from the kitchen worktop and wrapped it around his hand, trying to stem the flow of blood, which was beginning to drip down his wrist.
Jeremy rose and circled the table to where James was stood, his back against the wall, clutching the tea towel to his injured hand. Drawing closer, Jeremy dropped his voice a little.
“It’s you who doesn’t get it, James,” he said quietly. “I needed you to be there. God, I needed you. Richard did too. And you were there. OK so you said about as much as a Trappist monk on a sponsored silence but you were there, being you, and that’s what I…we…needed you to be.”
Reaching out a large hand, Jeremy touched James’ shoulder. For a moment, James stiffened under the touch and struggled with himself, trying desperately not to recoil as he had done when Richard had attempted to hug him at the opening of the show. But this wasn’t Richard making the connection, with his fragility and vulnerability, his air of both curse and blessing, this was Jeremy, strong, self assured, confident Jeremy, and just for a moment he battled between wanting to stumble away and wanting to cling to Jeremy to find the strength and reassurance he so desperately needed.
Slowly James raised his head, staring out from the long curtain of greyish brown hair that he so often used as a shield.
“Christ, I had no idea it was so hard for you.” Jeremy paused for a moment, looking at James as if seeing right into him. “All this time, I had no idea you really think it’s your fault.”
James could feel Jeremy’s hand radiating warmth through the fabric of his shirt, resting on his shoulder, his thumb just brushing the bare skin of his neck. Without thinking, he leaned into Jeremy’s touch, closing his eyes as he felt Jeremy’s hand move from his shoulder to the side of his neck.
“Jeremy,” James muttered. “I need you to take that hand off me.” He raised his eyes to look at his friend, faintly horrified with himself at the pleading tone in his own voice. In Jeremy’s returned gaze he saw only concern, affection and understanding; an understanding that he so desperately craved.
“I’m not moving,” Jeremy replied, more than a tremble in his voice. He moved his hand a little further until he was holding the back of James’ neck.
“Jez,” James could feel himself beginning to drown under the weight of his own emotion and Jeremy’s persistent touch. “Jeremy…” He closed his eyes again and reached his uninjured hand up so that it clasped Jeremy’s wrist. “If you don’t take that hand off me, I’ll…”
“You’ll what, exactly?” Jeremy replied softly, the hand staying where it was.
James felt Jeremy’s fingers move; but rather than releasing him, they were softly caressing the nape of his neck, stroking and soothing gently, trying to help. With his eyes still closed, James moaned, battling desperately with himself, feeling a gradual release of tension as Jeremy’s fingers continued their gentle ministrations. After the total isolation he’d felt for so long, Jeremy’s touch felt overwhelmingly intense. No one else had touched him so assuredly, offered him the sanctuary of such uncomplicated physical contact in a very long time.
“Jez…” It was a choked plea, but one that was losing conviction even as James spoke. And then it washed over him as the tears broke free at last; Jeremy knew exactly what he was doing, and James desperately needed him to do it. Turning his head slightly, he rested his lips briefly on Jeremy’s hand, leaning into his caress and trembling with a combination of grief and sudden desire. Closing his eyes, he relinquished what little control he had left.
James felt Jeremy moving closer to him, pinning him to the wall between his long arms, his other hand moving to touch James’ left shoulder and working up towards his neck. He knew he was shaking, losing control, and that Jeremy could feel it. His tears were falling hot and wet under Jeremy’s soothing hands; hands that were surprisingly gentle in the way they were touching him. He could feel the warmth radiating from Jeremy’s body and smell the familiar combination of cigarette smoke and alcohol. He thought he heard the slightest catch in Jeremy’s breathing as he moved closer.
There was very little room between them now; their bodies were getting closer and closer. Gently, James felt Jeremy draw him nearer, away from the wall until they were pressed together. As Jeremy slid his arms around James, James could feel Jeremy’s strong hands stroking his hair and back, trying to ease the grief flooding from him. James, freed from the responsibility of trying to keep his emotions in check, almost collapsed into Jeremy’s embrace, finally allowing the older man to take complete control, hoping against hope Jeremy knew what he was doing. He could feel Jeremy’s arms around him, the only safe port in a storm of emotion that he thought he’d traversed a long time ago, but now was threatening to shipwreck him once again. There were no more words; there couldn’t be, but there was sound, a kind of low, guttural moaning that James only eventually realised was coming from him. He was going under, but Jeremy was keeping him from drowning, even as he struggled for breath through his tears.
After a few moments of just holding each other, during which time James was almost certain the trembling he felt wasn’t just from his own body, Jeremy broke the embrace, shifted a little and, almost without thinking placed his lips to James’ forehead.
“You’re a stupid bugger, May,” he said softly, his voice sounding gruff to James’ ears.
James nodded. “I know.” He moved back slightly from the other man until he could see him properly, see the slightly reddened eyes, and the lines etched on either side of his mouth. Wordlessly he reached a hand around to the back of Jeremy’s neck and, before he could think better of it, pulled him closer, closer, until the lips that had been pressed to his forehead now met his own; something he’d been wanting to do for years, since that fateful night in ‘99.
Expecting resistance from Jeremy but finding none, perhaps it was surprise or at least acceptance that this had been coming for a long, long time, James deepened the kiss, sliding his hand through Jeremy’s hair until they were once again pressed close together. The sensation of Jeremy’s lips on his, his broad, solid body pressed so close, was no longer just reassuring, it was filling James with desire, yet calming the waves of fear and guilt that had threatened to overwhelm him seconds before. The pain of his hand forgotten, he allowed himself to remain in the moment, just for a while. There were no easy answers, no quick cures for the storm of emotions that he still needed to accept and deal with, but for the moment this was right, this was real, this just…was.
Eventually, James pulled away from Jeremy, breaking the embrace.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
Jeremy smiled back, his hand still tight on James’ shoulder.
“Like I said before, I’m not going anywhere. Not now. Not ever. Not if you need me.”