Chapter 1: Christmas Day
In olden times, Christmas consisted of singing carols, having a mug of mulled wine and attending a church service. Children would find pencils, small home-made toys and a few tangerines in their stockings. Affluent families would give their servants yards of cloth on Boxing Day, intended for new work clothes. Horribly feudal, but better than nothing.
Modern humans spend two days slaving away in the kitchen and/or driving around the country to visit relatives, and for the past few years, blatantly ignoring the Covid rules. No government is powerful enough to stop its citizens from going all the way at Christmas, and I cannot but understand them.
My mother was recovering from cataract surgery and could not drive. On Christmas Day, Anne and I picked her up at her flat and had a lovely lunch at Pippa’s house. That evening, she had dinner with us at our place.
Maurice and Alec went to the Burger Vomit on the M4 for their midday meal. Alec came home wearing a cardboard crown and happily playing with a plastic figure he’d found in his kiddie surprise box.
Mum laughed when she saw him and gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘I say, is that a ballerina?’ she asked as he held up his gift. His answer was lost on all of us. It was probably an action hero – notably wearing a miniature face mask. He had always been a sucker for meaningless movies.
Maurice had told me a few days earlier that he and his lover would not join us at the dinner table downstairs. ‘You ought to spend some quality time with your family and I’ll have a long haul to Oxford and back the next day.’ Christopher Hall, Maurice’s old father, and his wife Terry had invited him and Alec to a brunch.
Mum was sad that our two friends would not join us for the famous Durham turkey with its stuffing (our secret family recipe) and all the trimmings. They disappeared upstairs.
When dessert was served, I grew worried. They had not mentioned any dinner for themselves. You must be starving I texted Maurice. When I got no answer, I sent the same line to Alec. No probs, we’re getting high as fuck he replied. Then I looked at the orange-meringue pie and china dishes of chocolates, suddenly feeling lonely. ‘That’s your second glass of Grand Marnier in ten minutes, Clive dear,’ Mum admonished kindly. Anne grinned. She knew.
The dining room had double doors that led to the conservatory. They were closed now and its curtains were drawn. ‘What’s going on in there?’ Mum asked.
Anne grinned again and explained there was the sweetest little hole in the ceiling. Some roof tiles needed replacing, but it was rather hard to get a repair man at short notice in the middle of the pandemic.
‘We keep a saucer in there now to catch the rain water,’ I added. Mum laughed. Perhaps she was on to us.
It was all a lie. The roof was fine. I just did not want to spoil the surprise.
At half past nine, Mum yawned discreetly and asked Anne if she could drive her home.
When I went into the hallway with them, I tried to detect any sound coming from upstairs. All was quiet. That is, until Mum roared: ‘I’m going now, boys!’
Presently, Alec rumbled down the stairs, wearing an old bathrobe. She hugged him and wished him a merry Christmas again. ‘Same to you, love,’ he smiled warmly. He treated her like his own mother, and she liked it. She ruffled his hair.
Maurice followed a minute or so later, looking dazzling in his grey silk kimono.
When she asked him if he was going to bed early, he nodded and explained to her that he and Alec would drive all the way to Oxford and back the next day. ‘I never had the honour of meeting your father and your stepmother,’ she beamed, ‘but do give them my regards, Maurice dear.’
It was all too logical. Both Christopher and Terry were professors. She would not have sent her holiday greetings if it had been Alec’s mum Jenny and her boyfriend hosting the party.
After more hugs and goodbyes, the front door finally closed. Alec dashed back to the attic. Maurice lingered on the staircase, gripping the handrail and staring at me with eyes slightly out of focus.
‘You’re high,’ I observed. ‘Very much so, old chap,’ he giggled.
‘Who’s driving tomorrow?’ I asked. ‘Not you in any case,’ he chortled, thinking himself funny.
Then he rushed upstairs with a light step, humming and talking to himself.
I remained in the hallway, breathing in the faint smell of Dutch weed, wondering which one of them would get his license suspended for zigzagging on the M4 the next day.
I was still standing in the hallway when Anne got home. She talked to me but it all went past me.
Instead of clearing the dinner table, she grabbed some cans of beer from the fridge, got out her cigarettes, slumped down on the sofa in the lounge and switched on the TV.
Betsy and Lily joined her, probably purring loudly and expecting some leftover turkey.
That’s an idea, I thought, suddenly awake. I went to the kitchen, cut up the meat and whistled my ‘come and get it, kitties’ signal. To my surprise, Clivie was the first to turn up. He was an old cat and barely left the attic. Furball followed and howled as if she were starving.
I watched them gobble up the treat until some noise could be heard from upstairs.
There was shouting, about beer being spilled on a carpet and making a mess in the loo and about committing the carnal act with oneself. Doors were slammed. This happened more often, and on those occasions Clivie always fled the scene.
It was then that I took a can of Carlsberg from the fridge and downed it in practically one swig. When I had opened the second one, I went out into the garden, lit a cigarette and stared at the sky, which was so hauntingly quiet now that air traffic had become restricted.
Chapter 2: Nightwatch
Clive is restless and seeks solace.
I woke at three in the morning in the master bed with Anne’s soft body pressing against mine and Furball Two, Furball's oldest child, wedged between us. Anne was snoring.
I had no recollection of how I had gotten into bed and what had made me decide to wear boxer shorts and a t-shirt. Sleeping naked had been a habit of mine for well over twenty years.
Very softly, I detached myself from Anne, who wiggled her bum in protest. Furball Two whimpered. Neither of them woke up.
In the bathroom, I peed and brushed my teeth. I had a notion that I would not fall asleep again so soon. It was astonishing that I had slept at all.
The fact that I did not go back to my own bed will of course not astonish you, dear reader.
I tiptoed up the steps to the attic, nearly tripped over Betsy who was crouching on the landing and found the door to the bedroom ajar with a beam of light coming from it. It was inviting, even though I knew all the doors in the house were usually open for the benefit of the cats.
I went in and found Maurice and Alec awake. Both the beds in the attic were broken – the one in the bedroom after Alec and I had had the romp of the century a few days earlier, and the one in Maurice’s home office after Anne and I had crashed into it while he and Alec were in it. They had piled one mattress on the other.
Maurice was lying on Alec and kissing him slowly and languidly. The air smelled of Eau Sauvage and weed. I could tell they were into their foreplay and wanted to leave, but then Maurice looked up and smiled. ‘Hi,’ he said softly. ‘Don’t go…You’re not interrupting anything.’
‘You are,’ Alec remarked. ‘But you can stay. Just don’t take any pictures.’
All three of us laughed. Then Alec shifted to the edge of the mattress, skillfully moving Maurice in the same direction, like a forklift.
I crawled under the duvet and lay my head on the pillow that smelled of Alec’s shampoo.
‘You’re welcome to join us,’ Maurice whispered. ‘But something tells me you’re not in the mood.’
Then he grinned. ‘We’ll give you an appetite yet, honey.’
While I was lying on my side at the edge of the bed, I watched him kiss Alec deeply. Their tongues met and they both groaned and undulated under the duvet. Whenever their mouths drifted apart, Alec looked up at his lover with slightly parted lips, smiling and with a glow in his dark-brown eyes.
Maurice smiled back, imbibing his very being with a sweet, clear-grey look, and kissed him again.
They whispered to one another, so softly that I could not hear it. Then their breathing grew heavier.
Alec uttered a sweet cry when Maurice entered him and he ran his hands over his lover’s back on which I could see every precious freckle.
You might remember the very first love scene between the stockbroker and the under-gamekeeper in the film. Hall’s surprise at the young man’s initiative suggests slightly succumbing to unexpected violence, even though the viewer knows that they are both enjoying it.
I saw nothing like this now. Maurice and Alec were uniting in paradise, blissfully in love as if they had only just met. When Alec felt his orgasm surge, he let his left hand wander towards me and when I took it, he squeezed it. He understood.
He understood until it hit him like a bolt of lightning, making him freeze and then burst into tears as he grew soft and mellow. I closed my eyes and breathed in their smells of sweat and perfume.
I did not need to keep my eyes open to see what happened after they had both calmed down: Maurice lying with his head on Alec’s chest with Alec stroking his blond hair, with both of them enjoying the tranquil intimacy that had outlasted their intercourse. Alec’s hand was no longer in mine. I waited for Maurice to whisper: ‘Alec, did you ever dream you had a friend? Someone to last your whole life?’
I remember dozing off and half-registering the words that were actually spoken. Perhaps it was the aftermath of Grand Marnier and Carlsberg, but I believe I heard: ‘Will you marry me for real?’
I could not tell which of them uttered these words, but at some point I felt Alec snuggling up to me, still naked and with a slightly sweaty skin. His lips touched my chin and my sideburns. ‘It’s O.K,’ he whispered. ‘Rest your head on me a bit…yeah, like that…Do not worry.’
I woke to the feeling of warm fingers gently brushing my hair from my forehead. When I opened my eyes, I looked into Anne’s, which were shining and brown and full of joy.
‘Good morning,’ she said, kissing me lovingly. Then she gave Alec, who was still in my arms, a peck on the ear. ‘Fuck, it’s Sunday,’ he murmured. Anne and I giggled.
I sat up, looked around and found Maurice gone. Alec grabbed his reading glasses, put them on and checked his phone. ‘Bloody eight o’clock,’ he sighed. ‘And it’s Sunday.’
Anne sat down and told him that Maurice must be up already. Now he grinned. ‘Oh yeah. I reckon he’s taking his sweet time on the shitter. His holiday routine.’
‘We’ll still have plenty of time for the revelation of our secret project,’ Anne said. ‘You can use our bathroom now if you want, Clive. I’ve already had a shower.’
A little later, I found myself washing from head to toe in a halo of perfumed soap, trying to concentrate on what I would have to do before Maurice and Alec left for Oxford.
I had seen them making love that night with the sweetness I knew so well. I had alternately slept with them ever since they had moved into my house. My private time with Maurice had been intimate and joyful, love to its fullest extent after twenty-five years of separation. We had not been like this since early October, but we’d had two blissful weeks in Spain in September.
Sharing a bed with Alec was slightly different. He was usually wild and lecherous, loudly demanding that I nail him to the fucking wall and do him real good, which we both enjoyed immensely.
I had discovered the other side of him, too, his receptive sweetness when I made love to him, wrapping him up in my cloak of infatuation and adoration. It had made me understand that I loved him as much as I loved Maurice.
Thanks to the lockdown, bad booze and good weed, my house had turned into Sodom and Gomorra. I had watched Maurice and Alec in bed, either of them had done the same when I was sleeping with the other. We had discovered that the spectator only felt love and serenity, no arousal.
But last night had shown that the three of us were far from equal. The looks they had given one another showed how much they were two halves of a whole. I felt left out, which was nonsense, because I was still their lover, too, but I could not suppress this alarming feeling. It told me that they would eventually move back to their own house in Essex. I loved Anne more than life itself, I had only laughed in endearment when she had told me that she had spent the night with Maurice in an airport hotel in Luton, I had repeatedly told her that I need not forgive her for she had done nothing wrong and she had appreciated this.
And still, I felt that this bubble of love and satisfaction could burst at any moment. Moreover, I must have sensed it all along. It explained why I had resorted to this secret project of which only Anne and Alec knew. They thought it was a super idea.
This will be a test, I thought as I put on my clothes. If it won’t work, it will prove that the happiness we all experienced since the autumn of 2020 was not meant to last.
Chapter 3: Surprise
No, I'm not telling you...find out for yourselves!
Maurice was having a cup of coffee and a slice of brioche in the kitchen when I got a dish towel and beckoned him. ‘We need to talk,’ I said.
He grew pale and followed me to the dining room. ‘Take off your glasses,’ I ordered, and before he knew it, I had tied the cloth around his eyes. ‘Filthy Shades of Durham,’ I could hear Alec say to Anne in the lounge. ‘God knows where that rag has been.’ They stayed put, knowing that this moment was only for Maurice and me.
I took Maurice’s hand and gently led him across the room to the double doors of the conservatory. I opened them and told him to stop on the carpet. He sniffed, probably because the blindfold smelled bad indeed. He cringed as I untied it and then he went rigid, digging his heels into the rug. His mouth opened, but he was speechless.
In front of him was the Steinway grand piano that Mum had bought for her own home in 1990. When she had moved to a flat in 2012, we had it stored in a deserted part of the warehouse, hoping to pass it on to one of her grandchildren, but none of them showed any interest in music.
I had bought it from her and she had tacitly understood the purpose.
‘What happened to the old one?’ Maurice asked. ‘I mean, it was out of tune, but no one played it anyway.’
‘We donated that to the church,’ I said. ‘This is yours now.’
He laughed. ‘Don’t fool me, Clive. I’m horribly out of practice. I’d be delighted to give you some musical entertainment, but…’
I grabbed his hand again and led him to the long side of the instrument. ‘Look there,’ I whispered. ‘The badge.’
On the inside of the casing there was a neat copper plate with To Maurice with all my love – Clive on it.
I felt his hand tremble in mine now. Then he hunted for a tissue. He could not find one and so his tears wet my cheeks as he took me in his arms. We stood there for quite some time, with him whispering ‘I’m so happy…I really am’ until Anne and Alec turned up cheering and applauding.
He understood that they had been in the complot as well and hugged them, still sobbing.
Then he sat down and played an etude by Chopin, hesitantly and all thumbs, but I could tell that he only needed a little warming up to become the marvelous pianist he had been at uni.
Anne’s face was flushed with joy. Alec, who was standing beside her, looking absolutely stunning in a black polo neck, a grey tweed jacket and press-fold trousers, rolled his eyes.
‘Yuck, so it’s going to be like this every night from now on…I’m gonna start the Jag if you don’t mind.’
When our techno enthusiast had gone outside, Maurice rose from the piano stool and adjusted his burgundy-red tie with trembling fingers. He was an absolute god in his dark-grey three-piece suit and black loafers. Anne saw it too and bit her nails. ‘I’ll get you sheet music,’ she promised him.
Maurice glided to the hallway, where he put on his black winter coat. He said that he was looking forward to seeing his father and his stepmum and Alec’s mother and her boyfriend after that, but he would not be back until gone eight o’clock and that sucked royally. He wanted to play the piano.
Anne and I stepped out, watched him get into the passenger seat of his own vehicle and waved until he, Alec and Pussy (the nickname of the Jag) were out of sight.
When we closed the door, I felt Anne’s eyes on me and burst into tears. She held me and whispered that the plan had worked. Maurice and Alec would stay.
She and I were actually supposed to pop in at Emilia’s place opposite our house. Emilia was Italian and needed some help with the preparations of a real English afternoon tea for her in-laws.
‘You’re in no state to go, Mr. Muddle,’ Anne said to me. ‘You’d be hawking snot and drool all over the crumpets and the sandwiches…I’ll go and tell Emilia you’re not feeling well.’
She wouldn’t leave until she saw me safely sitting on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Then she put her apron in a shopping bag, kissed me and left.
I was all alone now in my eight-bedroom house. I turned on the TV and found nothing but crappy holiday shows, so I switched to Spotify and looked for a mellow Boiler Room session.
Greenwood, I thought, or else I’ll be prancing up and down the walls until it’s time to prepare dinner. I dashed up to the attic.
The landing smelled of instant coffee and Eau Sauvage. I burst into Maurice’s office and found a little bag, tobacco and papers. My fingers trembled as I rolled myself a blunt, but as I lit up and poured a glass of Armagnac, I felt better.
My eyes wandered over Maurice’s books, the pictures, his belongings carelessly shattered here and there to mark his domain. Pointy shoes with gold-coloured buckles, some ties he must have tried on, his elegant toiletries and cufflink boxes and knick-knacks. I felt unbelievably happy for having the most beautiful, desirable lover in the world, a man who would never leave me, my salvation after twenty-five years of confusion.
I was floating among pink elephants and naked fauns when I heard a faint, jangling sound. The bloody doorbell.
Durham, you’re high, whoever would come and see us now, I told myself, we’re not expecting anybody.
But there it was again. Probably a neighbour complaining about the cats using their gardens as litter boxes or…Anne, who had forgotten her house key. She must be done prepping at Emilia’s.
I rushed down two flights of stairs and the signal wailed again. That was not like Anne.
When I opened the door, ready to tell any neighbour with shitty complaints to piss off (pun intended), I saw a tall figure, dressed in a grey overcoat, standing on the flagstones.
‘I had to ring twice,’ the man complained. ‘Twice. Or more often even. But I reckoned someone must be home. There are four cars in the drive, so…’
He spoke no more, and I was at a loss for words anyway. No weed could be strong enough to create this illusion, so this must be reality. The man who was standing opposite me was Claude Risley.
Chapter 4: A Man in Pain
Risley reveals why he showed up at Clive's doorstep.
You may think that living in a filthy, glorious mess like I have done since 2020 has endowed me with supernatural powers. I may have thought thus and angered the gods. Whoever tried to usurp their power was slain. Prometheus stole their fire and introduced it to humanity and that’s why the almighty rulers tied him to a rock. Problem solved.
A man looking his worst foe in the eye in times of reason and logic, however, is defenseless, for no god will save him by feeding the other guy to the dolphins. Mythology has always been disinclined to take living in an up-scale neighbourhood in Buckinghamshire into account. No suckerpunching, no flame throwers, no setting of Staffordshires on any unwanted intruder. And a million eyes watching me because everybody was at home.
‘How can I help you?’ I managed to utter, pretending I didn’t recognize him. I had not seen him in person in years and the last time he had appeared on TV had been in the early 2000s.
‘Clive, I’m sorry,’ he said. Then his lower lip started to tremble and just as a Jane Frampton, our next-door neighbour walked by, with her dog on a leash and waving a merry salute at me, he burst into a violent fit of tears. Jane stopped and gave me a mesmerized look. The dog sniffed the rear wheel of a BMW 8 coupé, lifted a hind leg and left a generous mark. Jane wouldn’t move, so all I could say to Risley was: ‘Come in then.’
When I led him into the kitchen to have tea, I suddenly remembered it was Christmas. A time for peace, hope and forgiveness. Risley has come to apologize after twenty-six years, I thought. After all, it was because of him that Maurice had broken up with me at Cambridge in 1995. Maurice and his friend Arthur had caught Risley and me in my room having a romp against my desk, and that had ended my romance with the only person I had deeply and truly loved at the time.
‘How did you find my address?’ I asked. Sobbing, he said that he had gotten it from an acquaintance of his. ‘And to what do I owe the unexpected pleasure of your visit?’ I was cynical, but he ignored it.
He then told me he had nowhere else to go. His parents were no longer alive, he had no siblings, his friends would not see him. He had become a sitting duck for the authorities and the press. Again.
‘After the scandal at the House of Commons in 1999,’ he said, ‘my political career was over. I became a professor at Cambridge.’
To all of you who don’t know: in that year, Risley was on a vacation in San Diego and got arrested for performing lewd acts with other men in a public toilet. The court tried to charge him for assault and such, until it turned out that all persons involved had consented and were over twenty-one. The verdict was narrowed down to indecent exposure, which he could deal with by paying a five-thousand dollar fine. The House of Commons, his professional domain, did not press any charges against him. After all, he had not visited California as a politician, but as a tourist, and it had not taken place on British territory. However, he had blemished himself for life, so they coerced him into resigning.
Of course, he had been all over the tabloids for months, until all died down and he was enabled to work as an inconspicuous anthropologist at his alma mater.
‘I met Sandro three years ago,’ Risley said. ‘His parents are English but they gave him this wonderful Italian name. I was his mentor in his first year and he took extra classes with me in his second. It was love at first sight. Picture any Mediterranean beauty, Clive, and multiply it by ten. He’s tall, slim, he has a delightful mop of black curls and the sweetest brown eyes. He’s very sporty, he loves marathons and mountain bike riding and taekwondo. Perhaps that’s why he has been a scholastic disaster from the very beginning. No time to study. He’s highly intelligent, but he dropped out in the end.
I helped him, tutored him at my house, even hinted the answers to questions on upcoming exams. And he loved me. At least I thought so. I was fifty-two when I met him…By the way, how old are you now?’
‘Forty-nine,’ I said.
‘You look a lot younger,’ he smiled. ‘But I digress…Clive, have you any idea how blissful it is to hold a young creature in your arms, to feel soft skin and muscles and to listen to his moans of pleasure? A god, the very paragon of Hellenic beauty, even more so because all the Greeks left us were mere ideas and cold marble statues…I was past my prime, nearly bald, not much to look at, and I had never expected to be granted this wonderful gift ever again…You understand, Clive.’
‘To a certain extent, I do,’ I said. Then I pointed at the teapot. ‘Would you like another cup? By the way, my wife is visiting a friend across the street. She may be back any minute.’
He grinned. ‘You’re dodging the subject, aren’t you? When I saw your drive, I knew. Whatever is to remain undisclosed to unpleasant visitors becomes manifest as soon as they cast a look on the vehicles on the premises…That Audi A7 sportsback is yours, of course. You always had good taste, dear. The Volvo must belong to your spouse. Ladies need cars with boot space for their shopping bags, and women are more climate-conscious by nature than men. Yours is a diesel – shame on you, Clive! Hers is a hybrid, so there…’ He accepted another cup of tea and giggled.
I grabbed my pack of Marlboros. ‘Would you have one?’ I offered.
He shook his head. ‘I quit twenty years ago. It’s a bad habit.’ Then he sniffed and grinned.
‘I say, Mr. CEO Durham Logistics, is that weed I smell? Good heavens, do you know how detrimental that is? The human body is the temple of the spirit, you are never to disgrace it.’
‘Look who’s talking,’ I growled, blowing a plume of smoke into his face.
‘I was young at Cambridge,’ he smiled. ‘We all were. Booze and weed and fags – ha ha, fags…Youth is wasted on the young, my Apollo…But I digress again…As for that sweet, souped-up Lancia, that is your daughter’s car. She’s home from uni for the holidays, of course. And so is your son, the one that drives the Ford Focus. Of course, they are in their rooms now, pretending to study, but in fact escaping the obligatory family festivities…And of course, you and your wife gave them all that talk about no booze and no drugs. I don’t believe you set a very good example, Clive. Your pupils are dilated. Make sure you hide your stuff well. If your children want to get high, they are supposed to do it on campus without their old folks knowing. A reversed war of the Titans, so to speak…’
I felt like I had been run over by twenty trucks. ‘My wife and I never had any children,’ I murmured.
Now his hand was on mine. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Clive,’ he said sweetly. ‘I should not have brought it up…I had no intention to insult you, dear.’
‘The Lancia and the Ford belong to friends of mine who are visiting,’ I said to prevent myself from sinking into an ocean of kindness that beckoned from the other side of the table.
‘They’re not in,’ I went on. ‘But I expect them back presently…’ Then I felt my bourgeois self resurge.
‘It’s lovely that you popped in, Risley, and I hate being such a rotten host, but I’d like you to leave before they get back. If you wish, we can meet in London for lunch one day.’
He put down his teacup and sniveled. ‘All that must be tomorrow. Or whenever. Not now. I’ve nowhere to go.’
‘Check into a hotel then. There are several around Luton Airport and they’re not overcrowded. Have you got your booster jab? Is your Covid app up to date? If so, it won’t be a problem.’
‘Can’t be done,’ Risley said. ‘I’d have the press on me in no time.’
It turned out that Sandro had moved in with him in 2019. Only the faculty office knew that his address and Professor Risley’s were the same. Risley had rented out a room in his house to American college girls before that, so this was rather inconspicuous.
‘Sandro got a student loan, but he usually spent it within one week. He bought endless designer clothes and Nike trainers. I ended up giving him money. I even got him a car so that he could visit his parents in Watford. He thrashed it within a month. And of course, he neglected his studies. I constantly coerced him into attending lectures and turning in his papers on time, but to no avail.
He dropped out in April of this year. No more student loans, and he would not look for a job. He’s completely fog-headed. He lost his passport and his driving license and his Covid pass and even his health insurance card. Applying for new documents was too stressful for him. I had to do it…And I did…out of love. Daytime was hell, but the nights were heaven, until…’
In October, Risley got home from work and found Sandro in the master bed with two girls. They were drunk. ‘You’re going,’ Risley had told him after the visitors had left. ‘I’ll pay for your train ticket to Watford. You should go back to your parents and grow up.’
A row had ensued, and Sandro had packed his bag and ordered a taxi to the station.
‘He’s lived with his parents for a few months now, ‘ Risley said. ‘He would sometimes phone me and apologize for his behaviour and tell me that he wished for us to remain friends…But then the faculty board got official complaints from him. I had allegedly given him higher marks for his exams in order to keep him as a lover…He even told them how I smoked weed and drank too much, which were all lies. He must still not have a job now, because he’s been demanding horrendous sums.
I was stupid, I transferred some monex to his bank account once because I could not bear the thought of him wanting for anything. He used this as a proof that I sent him money to prevent him from telling the world what had been going on between him and me. He contacted the press and shortly before Christmas, the first articles appeared. Former MP has gone astray again, an allusion to my conviction in San Diego in 1999. Academic lockdown fun - why attend lectures online if you can get good marks by bedding your teacher? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I’ll lose my fellowship. I’m done for, Clive, I’m done for.’
‘Sue him for libel, then,’ I remarked.
He shook his head. ‘If I do, he’ll upload compromising pictures of me onto his Instagram account. He has gained tens of thousands of followers over the past weeks.’
‘I do hope you have a good solicitor,’ I said.
‘Even if this were taken to court and if I won, I’d still lose all, Clive. No one would ever offer me any employment again, not even at a fast-food drive-in.’
‘There are always means and ways to part with it,’ I told him.
‘Not in my case,’ Risley stammered. Now tears were steaming up his glasses. ‘Because…I still love Sandro…oh, how I love him!’
He wailed so loudly that I did not hear Anne come in. She walked into the kitchen and froze.
‘Oh, fuck,’ was all she said.
Chapter 5: Come Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen
Risley gets to meet the rest of the team.
A little later, Anne and I were at the kitchen table, chainsmoking and drinking beer while Risley was bawling in the downstairs bathroom.
‘He’s got to go,’ she said. ‘I feel really sorry for him and I understand why staying at a hotel is not feasible, but I don’t want him here and neither do you.’
‘True,’ I nodded. ‘If you can tell me how we can make him leave.’
‘I wouldn’t know, love,’ she sighed. ‘It’s not your fault, but how the fuck are we going to deal with this? I’m clueless.’
‘We’ll have the press on our doorstep by the end of the day,’ I said. ‘His BMW attracts too much attention.’
She laughed. ‘Not in a neighbourhood like ours.’ Then her face sank. ‘The press won’t get him. He’ll be unrecognizable by then.’
‘Maurice will kick the shit out of him and then strangle him. Have you forgotten?’
Oh, fuck. She was right. This was not about her or me, but about Maurice. He was forty-eight but heavy. It would be the easiest thing for him to tear Risley apart, the man who had caused the breakup between him and me at Cambridge. There was a literary, feminine side to Maurice. He was atrociously unforgiving, bearing his scorn like a sacred shield until the day came when he could finally settle the score.
‘We’ll have the police on our doorstep,’ I said.
‘And an ambulance before that,’ Anne added.
‘There goes the neighbourhood,’ I moaned. ‘We’re fucked.’
Risley would not leave. He was too nervous to drive anyway. Anne and I tacitly exchanged glances while we were sitting in the lounge and having more tea.
He went to the loo often, presumably to pee or to throw up or to dab his swollen eyes. These were the moments when Anne and I talked.
I remembered it was my turn to make dinner. ‘We’re having roast beef and he’s a vegetarian,’ I said to her. ‘The very sight of meat makes him nauseous. He’ll go then, I’m sure.’
We told Risley when he came back. He smiled. ‘In fact, I turned vegan a few years ago. I appreciate your concern. I’ll have potatoes and vegetables then and there are bags of rice crackers and dried fruit in my car. No problem, my dears.’
‘Oh yeah, and I believe he’s horrendously allergic to cat hair,’ I said to Anne during his next bathroom session. ‘He’ll start sneezing soon enough, and then he’ll leave.’
Fifteen minutes later, Clivie and Lily walked into the lounge and greeted the gest with question-mark tails and rubbing against his trouser legs. ‘Hello, kitties,’ he smiled. ‘You’re sweet, aren’t you?’ He petted them.
‘I thought you were allergic,’ I remarked. He nodded. ‘I was,’ he said. ‘I had some homeopathic treatments years ago. It cured me to a point where I could take in cats myself. I had to give them away when Sandro moved in, because he was allergic and he would not respond to any medication.’
So we were fucked. There was no way we could get rid of him.
‘There is,’ Anne said. ‘We’ll tell him who lives here now. I reckon he doesn’t want Maurice to kick the shit out of him, even though it’s Boxing Day.’
So we told him as soon as he was back from the loo. His face lit up. ‘Maurice Hall? The campus Apollo? He must have aged beautifully…I mean, I don’t expect a cordial reception from him, but time heals all wounds and it would be heaven if I could shake hands with him.’
‘Wouldn’t bet on it,’ Anne grinned sourly.
‘I would,’ Risley piped happily. ‘Youth is prone to useless displays of passion…I looked him up on LinkedIn some time ago. There was no picture, but I learned that he’s running a rather successful business now. He always had the makings of a gentleman. I do hope that Ford estate outside is not his. A plummer’s car, really.'
‘It’s his,’ I confirmed, secretly pissing myself laughing. ‘But his boyfriend drives it most of the time. He’s staying here too, and he’s the owner of the Lancia.’
I had hoped this would prompt Risley to leave. The very idea of his former idol at the wheel of a suburban vehicle, now a man who was in a steady relationship with a guy who drove a working-class lemon must be the biggest turn-off ever.
‘That’s very nice indeed,’ Risley said. ‘I’d love to meet them both.’
I wonder if you ever felt so fucked as Anne and I did at that moment, dear reader.
We drew all the curtains to prevent anyone from peeping in. We let Risley have the spare room at the back of the house. It was full of boxes of stuff that had been used by our foster children and it had a very uncomfortable fold-out single bed. He loved it and thanked us warmly.
I made dinner, a side of roast beef with all the trimmings and apple pie for dessert. Risley complimented me on the potatoes and the broccoli and generously offered us some vegan treats he had taken from the boot of his car. He kindly declined wine and explained how alcohol, even when taken in moderate quantities, was harmful, but he said he hoped that Anne and I were enjoying our meal.
She and I had tacitly decided not to text Maurice about our visitor. He would probably be the one driving back from Oxford and then from Alec’s mum’s house and we feared he might get into an accident.
We were having apple pie (it had butter and eggs in it, so Risley was munching his own non-dairy carrot cake) when Alec came into the dining room, looking nervous as if he sensed what awaited him.
‘This is Professor Risley,’ I said. ‘An old college chum of mine…Risley, this is Alec Scudder, Maurice’s boy-‘
‘Fuck this,’ Alec interrupted. ‘We’re in a pandemic so I wouldn’t shake hands with you anyroad, Claude. But you and I are going to have a talk outside, mate. No social distancing then. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, pal…Come on, stop eating, we’ll settle this before Maurice…’
At this moment, Maurice came in, wearing his overcoat and taking off his driving gloves.
He was unbelievably compos mentis. It only took him a second to review the situation.
‘Alec, please calm down, love,’ he said softly. Then he looked at me.
‘You might have told me, Clive.’
Then his eyes met Risley’s. ‘And now to you. I won’t degrade myself by doing what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’m in no position to tell Clive and Anne whom they can receive, since this house is theirs and not mine.’ He drew a breath. ‘But I take the liberty to warn you to protect yourself from bodily harm, Risley. Be sensible, get into that idiotic petrol-guzzling BMW of yours and take your leave…Come on, Alec, let’s fix ourselves some plates and have our dinner upstairs.’
‘Not hungry,’ Alec burbled. Then he yelped as Maurice drew him out of the room by his polo collar.
There was silence now. Anne ate her pie undisturbed, clearly enjoying it.
I looked at Risley. He was beaming as if he had seen Paradise.
Only when Anne cleared the table and went into the kitchen to make coffee, he sighed.
‘Well, that’s a surprise. Maurice has changed beyond recognition…His voice is still the same, though…He was incredibly beautiful as a young man, a precious pearl, slim, muscular, supple…Good heavens, he must be weighing a ton now and his hair has turned from gold into moldy straw. His glasses…ridiculous! Horn-rimmed if you please…Yuck, I see why he took to driving a Focus estate…No taste, no glory, just suburban rot. I ought to feel sorry for him.’
‘Risley, that’s quite enough,’ I said angrily.
Risley, not in the least insulted, smiled. It almost made him handsome.
‘But I say, that Alec…What a voice, what a body. Wonderful black hair and elegant grey patches at his temples. In his forties, I presume, but the spitting image of my Sandro.’
‘He’s going to kick your arse,’ I pointed out.
‘No, he’s not,’ Risley cooed. ‘That’s just talk-talk-talk. He’s natural, that’s a quality that wears off as you rise socially and professionally. Now there’s a man who incorporates Rousseau’s ideals.’
‘He’s an electrician.’
‘So what? He’s heaven to me.’
I was fucked, royally so.
Chapter 6: Fleeing the Battlefield
Maurice makes a decision and Clive sees an opportunity.
We had coffee in the lounge. For some strage reason, Anne warmed towards our guest. He told her about his work and vegan cuisine. She gave him some recipes that her mother had handed down to her. Her parents had been hippies, Risley had heard of them and was all ears.
In the middle of this, I got a text message from Maurice. I’m leaving.
When I heard steps on the staircase, I left the room. Maurice was at the front door, holding a suitcase and a laptop bag.
‘We’ll kick him out tomorrow,’ I said. ‘No need for you to…’
He laughed. ‘No, you won’t. Just look at yourself in the mirror, Clive. Your eyes are shining as if you just won the sweepstakes.’
‘I don’t want this any more than you do, Maurice.’
‘I appreciate that, but spending the night under the same roof with Risley will get me and Alec arrested by tomorrow morning at the latest.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Don’t know. I’ve got a sleeping bag in the Ford, I shall be all right.’
‘What about Alec?’
‘He’s in a muddle, bless him. When we were having a brunch at my dad’s, he got a text message from TNC Logistics. He was a forklift driver at their warehouse a few months ago, remember? It turns out that they are short of one truck driver. They want him to haul a load to Chester tomorrow.’
‘He may have to stay there overnight to observe resting hours.’
‘I expect so. At least he won’t be here to cause any trouble. Little bird tells me you won’t be rid of your Regal Risley anytime soon, Clive.’
He read my eyes and responded with his characteristic softness.
‘Don’t take this too hard, love. I have to do what has to be done. We’ll be in touch, won’t we?’
I watched him get into the Focus, wondering why he did not use the Jag. Then it dawned on me. The Ford was a diesel and therefore much less expensive to take on a long journey. And it had more boot space.
He backed out of the drive, kindly sounded the horn and disappeared into the evening mist.
I closed the door and went back to the dining room, feeling relieved that no suckerpunching had been done.
I woke at seven the next morning. Anne was in the kitchen making coffee and ready to leave for her office in Croydon. When I heard Alec come downstairs from the attic, I put on my kimono and rushed out. He was wearing work clothes, steel-capped boots and carrying an overnight bag.
‘I heard you’re taking a freight to Chester today,’ I whispered so as not to wake up Risley.
Alec nodded and said he expected to be back the next day.
‘Maurice will be here then too,’ I rather hoped than confirmed.
‘Fat chance, Clive. He wouldn’t even tell me where the fuck he was off to last night. Probably crashed at his office in London. As long as that wanker is staying here, Maurice would rather freeze to death in the car than come back.’
At that moment, said wanker opened the door of the spare room and came out wearing an old dressing gown. ‘Sorry, gentlemen, good morning,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I’ve got to go to the toilet. I had too much tea last night.’
‘You’ll be sucking it through a feeding tube when I’m done with ye, mate,’ Alec said. Risley laughed and disappeared into the bathroom, leaving a trail of alluring, smoky perfume.
‘I’m off,’ Alec said. He kissed me and rumbled down the stairs.
My staff knew that I would not be at my office until after New Year’s Day. Anne was in Croydon and leaving Risley alone did not seem like a good idea to me. It’s odd, but I caught myself thinking he might steal Anne’s antique ormolu clock or our silver-plated cutlery.
He came down to breakfast, had a cup of coffee and some raw vegetables and barely spoke. His eyes were never off his phone. ‘That’s him,’ he said with difficulty, pointing at some pictures.
And there was Sandro, a beauty indeed, clad in tight boxer shorts and flexing his incredible muscles and giving the photographer sweet looks. His likeness to Alec was uncanny, with the distinction that this young man had snake tattoos on his forearms. ‘Awfully anti-social,’ I remarked.
‘Ink is only skin deep, my love,’ Risley said. ‘Any person from any background can rise and educate himself…Sandro has the makings of a scholar. He’ll discover his higher self yet.’
‘With your aid,’ I quipped. To my astonishment, Risley nodded.
‘I loved a moving man once,’ he said dreamily. ‘He was mesmerized by my surroundings, he wanted to be like me. He went to college, got a degree and is now a manager at a temp agency.’
I thought of Alec, who had never wanted to become more than an electrician and who didn’t give a shit about the fact that Maurice was an internationally acclaimed businessman. Maurice never stimulated Alec in any way and loved him for who he was.
‘Listen,’ I said to ward of the haze off pity and kindness that rose within me. ‘Maurice left yesterday because he wouldn’t be anywhere near you.’
Risley nodded. ‘Yes, I thought so. Must be hard on him. I had a look around the attic this morning. One room was locked, but the other wasn’t. I thought that they were guests at first, but it’s obvious that they live here.’
‘What business have you poking your nose in Maurice’s and Alec’s belongings?’ I snapped. ‘You’re a guest, so I expect you to behave like one.’
Unaffected, Risley smiled. ‘Maurice uses Eau Sauvage, doesn’t he? I spent quite some time in their little bathroom with my nose buried in a towel. His towel. His natural smell is just like twenty-six years ago. The olfactory outlived the horrid process of aging.’
‘Leave him alone, will you? You’re an intruder.’
‘Got you!’ he grinned. ‘You and Maurice, eh? And you and Alec, eh? I detected a faint whiff of your perfume in the attic too. So who are you to judge me? You are living in your very own Sodom and Gomorra.’
‘Risley, take your car key and leave. Leave now or you will be sorry.’
‘You would feel sorry, my dear. Who pretended to be heartbroken when Maurice dumped you at Cambridge? Not me. You all to eagerly came back to me for seconds after the first time. I knew you did it out of despair, but, dear me, you were a blissful piece of cake.’
‘Well, that’s true. You’re sleeping with a woman. Don’t get me wrong, I think Anne is fabulous, a find in a thousand. But the thought of you sharing a bed with her is utterly revolting.’
‘So what keeps you here then? Not Maurice, not my wife, not me.’
His triumphant look told all.
Poor Alec, was all I could think.
I got an idea when Risley announced that he would be off to Tesco’s in the car to get some toiletries and more vegan goodies and some nice treats for Anne and me. He would be unrecognizable under a face mask and wearing sunglasses, so it was safe for him to go.
As soon as the BMW was out of sight, I put on my overcoat, grabbed the key to the Audi, activated the alarm system and locked the door. Five minutes later, I was gunning it on the motorway to London.
What had Risley and Maurice been up to when we were friends at Cambridge? Probably more than Maurice would ever confess. I had seen them kiss once at Glastonbury, a brief episode that had ended with Maurice elbowing him in the stomach. Arthur, who saw his best friend being disgraced, had challenged Risley to a fight. It was Maurice who had made him leave after that.
We had all been young then. And drunk. And high. That is why I believed that more must have happened between Risley and Maurice, with mutual consent.
I stayed on the motorways for hours, speeding and overtaking trucks and giving any traffic camera the finger until I got tired and hungry and went home.
It was well past sundown now and jolly cold. I had hoped that Risley would decide to move on to a hotel after finding the house locked and deserted,
But the BMW was parked in Alec’s spot now and Risley was standing under the awning, holding a Tesco bag and shivering and talking to Jane, our neighbour who was out walking her dog.
She gave me a devastating look as I got out of the Audi. Her dog barked at me. ‘You’re some host, Clive,’ she hissed. ‘I was about to invite Professor Risley to tea at my place to keep him out of the cold. Couldn’t you at least have notified him or given him a spare key?’
‘It’s most kind of you,’ Risley said to Jane. ‘But as you see, Clive is back now. Not a minute to soon. I really have to…’
By now I had opened the door and let him in. He rushed to the loo.
Jane’s dog was still barking in our drive when I used the bathroom after him and then went to the kitchen to put on a kettle.
Chapter 7: Trucker Crap
Alec makes a very surprising move and Clive has a slightly intimate problem.
When Anne, Risley and I were having supper, I got a text message from Alec asking me to contact him when the coast was clear. After the meal, I went to the study and phoned him. ‘I’m staying at a hotel in Chester,’ he said. ‘Everything is O.K. and I hope to be back tomorrow afternoon…Just wanted to tell you that I’ll be back on the road the day after that. An emergency haul from a warehouse near Orly Airport. Fifty pallets of champagne. I spoke to Maurice just now and he’s not happy. He wanted to spend some time with me.’
‘Champagne?’ I asked. ‘Bit of a short notice, isn’t it?’
‘True. Could not be done otherwise, nearly all the drivers are on sick leave or in quarantine. I’ll stay in France overnight and I’ll be back on New Year’s Eve by the end of the afternoon. Might as well do it. That idiot hasn’t left yet, has he?’
‘No, and I wouldn’t know where Maurice is now.’
‘At his sister Kitty’s. Bit of a mess. She’s at home giving her students some extra online tutoring for the new term and he’s got to work from home as well. Her flat is mighty cramped, they’ll be at each other’s throats soon.’
So Maurice was still on speaking terms with Alec. He had not even read my text messages.
When I took some clean towels upstairs, I found Risley on the landing juggling miniature plush footballs. Furball Two and her brother Benny and her sister Jiffy were jumping up and down.
‘Catch the ball, Messi,’ Risley squealed. Benny chased it and ran it home between Risley’s legs.
‘Goal!’ our guest roared. ‘Encore!’
He liked cats and he was having a good time now. It was almost nice.
The next morning, he complained about a stiff neck. He had slept in an uncomfortable position because Clivie had claimed the pillow.
Alec got the tale first-hand as soon as he came home. ‘Nice one,’ he said. ‘Clivie usually sleeps in my bed. He must like you a lot, Claude.’
Then things got worse. Alec grabbed a well-deserved can of Carlsberg from the fridge and offered some to Risley. ‘No, thanks, dear, I’d rather have some water,’ the professor said.
‘Yer not much of a party animal, are ye?’ Alec grinned. ‘Fuck me, how can you stand it? Being vegan and all? Nothing wrong with a good take-out kebab and chips and vinegar with lots of garlic, as long as you don’t run out of bog rolls to deal with what comes after that.’
They both burst out laughing. I left the kitchen and found Anne in the drawing-room downing a glass of pinot gris and smoking her umpteenth cigarette. ‘They’re totally getting along,’ I said as I sat down next to her. ‘Alec even gets to use Risley’s first name. He never grants this privilege to any other man as far as I know.’
She was as lost as I was. ‘I wish Maurice were here,’ she mumbled.
Dinner consisted of pasta in a creamy blue-cheese and bacon sauce. Risley had his spaghetti aglio e olio and nibbled celery sticks, offering some to Alec, who crunched along happily.
Risley had now taken to praising Alec’s beauty and wit. I could tell Anne was about to throw up.
‘Maurice is a lucky devil,’ our guest said. ‘He’s got a godlike creature for a life partner.’
‘No, an electrician,’ Alec protested with a grin.
‘A trucker,’ Anne added.
‘No, love,’ Alec corrected her sweetly. ‘Only a guy who happens to have a heavy transport license. Real truckers are motorway cowboys, always away from home, sleeping in their cabin bunks and eating roadside junk food.’
‘Sounds divine,’ Risley said approvingly.
Alec patted his hand. ‘Well, I was gonna ask you anyroad, but if you like it, why won’t you come with me tomorrow? I’m due to load a freight outside Orly. It’ll take yer mind off things a bit before your term at the varsity starts in January.’
‘I’d be delighted, Alec. Are you sure it’s no trouble?’
‘Nooooo, as long as your Covid jabs are up-to-date and you don’t mind not seeing any sights. It’s a straight run from Slough with an overnight stay in France and back. We’ll take my Lancia to the yard where I pick up the truck. Just be ready to rock and roll by five tomorrow morning.’
‘As I said, I’d be delighted.’
Risley finished his water and gave me a sweet look. ‘Will you look after my BMW, Clive?’
I nodded, too dumbfounded to protest or to figure out why Alec had grown to like Risley.
Anne must have been shaking me for God knows how long, because when I opened my eyes, I read panic in hers. ‘Good heavens,’ she whispered. ‘You were so far gone and having nice dreams by the looks of it.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Half past four. Alec and Claude are leaving soon.’
We got up yawning and tottering, hunted for our dressing gowns and our slippers and went downstairs. Alec and Risley were having coffee in the kitchen. Risley was wearing a pair of old jeans, a polo jersey and a fleece cardigan with a hoodie. Their bags were in the hallway.
Anne produced some Tupperware boxes. She must have filled them the night before. ‘There you go,’ she said to Risley. ‘Carrot and celery sticks and some leftover chick pea salad.’
He thanked her with a kiss, which made her grin.
Then she hugged Alec and ran her fingers through his gel-drenched hair. ‘Take care,’ she said, her voice sounding warm and desperate. ‘And please text me as soon as you come out of the Chunnel.’
He promised her and held her in his arms.
Ten minutes later, she and I were in bed again, listening to the reluctant starting sounds of the Lancia.
We remained silent for some time. She did not protest as I snuggled up to her and hugged her from behind. Something was going on in my boxer shorts. She felt it and showed no response.
Risley had driven Maurice out of the house and was about to have a big adventure with Alec. It therefore surprised me that she did not reprimand me for my state of arousal.
‘All this must be tonight, love,’ she sighed. It was an unspoken rule between us that sex was only to be had after work and never before.
Chapter 8: A Sinner in Hell
Clive finally admits what he has been thinking.
Shortly after one, my phone rang. Alec’s number. He was driving. ‘Hiya,’ he shouted. ‘We’ve just gone past Boo Long.’ He meant Boulogne. ‘Claude and I had a cracking lunch at a roadside restaurant.’
It turned out that the two of them had joined the ‘truck drivers only’ cue. They got their meals no questions asked. Steaks, oven-roast Roseval potatoes, grilled Mediterranean vegetables, and tarte au citron for pudding.
‘Risley?’ I roared. ‘At your service!’ I heard. ‘What nonsense is this?’ I snapped. ‘You had beef? I thought you were vegan.’ ‘I made an exception today,’ he laughed. ‘It would be unfair to Alec if I didn’t join him. I even had a fairly good Burgundy with it. One can’t be a teetotaller when one is visiting La Douce France. I’m having a marvelous time.’
‘Me too,’ Alec cried. ‘Oh come on, you wanker, overtake me or stay in the right lane…Where did you learn how to drive?’ He furiously sounded the horn.
‘No need to explain we’re indeed having fun,’ Risley said. Then the connection was cut off.
When the afternoon slowly turned into evening, I got messages from Alec. The champagne pallets had successfully been loaded into the truck and now he and Risley were off to an airport hotel to have dinner and stay the night.
Anne came home and shook her head as I told her the news. She was not in the mood for a full meal, neither was I. We made peanut butter sandwiches and had them in front of the TV.
I got some pictures from Alec showing Risley making funny faces and raising his wine glass and enjoying coq au vin (no pun intended) and stewed vegetables. It went on like this forever until he was done eating his feuilleté aux amandes which he washed down with brandy. The final scene was him outside the hotel, next to the Scania, smoking a cigarette and with unfocused eyes.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ Anne said at half past ten. ‘I’m tired.’
This had been our secret code since our first days of courtship. She wanted me. And I wanted her.
We showered together, kissing and teasing each other and making a mess and then we sank into each other’s arms on the master bed. She explored me hungrily, making me come many times until she finally allowed me to slide into her, I held her in an angle so that my clean-shaven lower body massaged her clitoris until she erupted in a magnificent orgasm, laughing and crying and wailing.
We had some brandy after that, huddled together, glowing and naked and happy.
‘We’ll have our twentieth anniversary next year,’ she said, stroking my chest. ‘I’d like us to renew our vows. Not in church, we’re both outlaws now, but in a romantic, private ceremony.’
‘On a tropical island,’ I promised. ‘We’ll be barefoot on the beach and present each other with flower garlands…Yes, we shall do that. I love you, Anne. How I love you! I could marry you ten times over and that still would not be nearly enough to show how you and I belong together.’
She fell asleep with her head on my chest.
It was shortly before dawn when I woke up. Anne and Furball were sleeping peacefully beside me.
I could detect Clivie’s silhouette on the windowsill behind the curtains. He was overlooking the garden, his domain that any alien cat could only enter at its own peril.
My thoughts were suddenly twisted. I had not been in contact with Maurice for two days now. The fact that Alec had taken off with Risley must be hard enough on him.
I now had to admit that I had seen Alec and Risley leave without blinking an eye. It would mean the end of Maurice and Alec. Maurice could forgive a fling with someone he himself loved and cherished, but not with his nemesis of twenty-six years. Risley was now in the process of educating Alec on the right dishes to choose in France. Risley had taken a tumble. He had resumed eating meat, smoking and drinking, thus stepping into Alec’s universe. This balding nobleman had a quality that no one I knew possessed. He could cast spells on anyone he happened to fancy. He had cleverly shown that I was in no position to argue, lest I should admit that I was as bad as he was. One could not fight fire with fire.
And what had I been thinking? Well, Alec would be with him now, leaving Maurice no choice but to come back and become all mine. I was wicked enough to sacrifice one lover for the other.
Yes, my happy kingdom had ceased to exist, and it had all been my own doing.
Feeling rather groggy, I waited until Anne had left for work at half past seven. When the sound of the engine of her Volvo had died down, I phoned Maurice.
‘Good morning,’ he said in a businesslike tone which made me break down. I cried and asked him if he was feeling devastated, too.
‘I did at first,’ he said kindly. ‘But then I remembered a German saying. Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.’
‘What the hell does that mean?’
‘It means that you should not stop a traveler. Who am I to tell Alec what he can and cannot do? He’s his own man, he can make his own decisions. So can I, by the way.’
I understood he was not inclined to come back. ‘Are you still staying at Kitty’s?’
‘I am,’ he said sadly. ‘Oh, she’s ever so good to me, my dear sis. But she lives in a street where only residents can park. I had to leave the Focus in an underground car park three blocks away, at a rate of four bloody quid per hour in daytime. I say, that sucks.’
‘Your Jag is fine,’ I said feebly.
‘I know it is, dear…Well, I’m going to get dressed and then I’ll take the tube to the office. We’ll remain in touch. Give my love to Anne and the cats.’
Chapter 9: Cowboys on the Continent
So what has Alec been up to? Reed it and weep!
Since it was New Year’s Eve, Anne got back at three in the afternoon, hauling two large shopping bags. She had bought French bread, assorted cheeses, smoked salmon and marzipan cakes.
‘No use to sit here moping,’ she told me. ‘And Alec will be back by the end of the day. He deserves some nice treats, too. But why on earth has he not replied to any text messages since yesterday?’
We did not know. We checked the news on various TV channels and found out that all was well in France. No bad weather, no traffic accidents.
Shortly after six, I opened a can of Carlsberg. At a quarter to seven, I remembered the bottle of brandy. Anne was in the kitchen preparing snacks and swilling Heineken. ‘Bonne année,’ I belched to myself.
You’re stinking drunk, Durham, I told myself when I woke from a snooze to the sound of a car horn outside. The Ford. It could never be the Ford. I’d never lay eyes on the Ford again.
‘Hiya Maurice!’ Anne called from the kitchen. Then there were kissing sounds.
And there he was. He walked to the sofa and sat down next to me. He smelled of cold winter air, cigarette smoke and Eau Sauvage when he took me in his arms. ‘I’m back,’ he whispered.
He wanted to dash upstairs to get changed, but Anne stopped him.
‘I say, what the hell is Alec up to? He would not reply to my or Clive’s text messages.’
Maurice smiled and got up. ‘I’ll get a goddamned brew from the fridge first if you don’t mind…Oh well, Alec is in Slough now, waiting to get the delivery papers sorted. He told me there were rows of vans waiting to load the champagne so that every last-minute customer could get a bottle. Must be a madhouse.’
He returned from the kitchen frowning. ‘Only Heineken left…yuck! I ought to educate you on Continental beer culture, darlings.’
He flopped down on the sofa, opened his can, drank, belched loudly and lit a cigarette.
‘What are you guys staring at me for?’ he asked. ‘It’s not like I just farted.’
‘Where the hell is Risley?’ Anne snapped.
He drank again, cringed and smiled.
‘Alec returned from France without him, that’s all I know.’
Maurice was halfway down his second can of Heineken when the door was opened, bags were banged down and someone yelled: ‘Breakey breakey, Rubber Duck reporting.’
Maurice flew up from the sofa, rushed into the hallway and presently returned with Alec, who was proudly holding up two sixpacks of Jupiler. ‘Bought these in a roadside supermarket outside Calais. Belgian lager. Better than the stuff we keep here.’
We peppered him with questions. Only when he held up his hands and gave us a pleading look did we understand that he was dead tired. He had been at the wheel since six o’clock that morning.
He went upstairs to shower and get changed. When he was back in the living room, Maurice told him to sit on the sofa, covered him with a fleece blanket and brought him a plate of sandwiches.
Alec drank two cups of strong tea. The colour slowly came back to his cheeks.
We were all sitting around him, staring at him like the Three Kings at baby Jesus. And finally he decided to reveal the Miracle.
‘So here’s my story. Maurice, honey, would you get me my fags? And brace yerselves, it’s a good one.’
This is what Alec told us. I won’t spare you any details.
Alec was actually quite happy to have a companion who could keep him awake with his constant talk-talk-talking while he drove. Risley was a learned man who knew a lot of stuff. Not your average truckstop wanker who has nothing but chopper bikes and nudie tattoos on his mind.
Risley never hid his admiration. ‘You’re stunning, Alec. You have an elegance about you, even in your work clothes. Were you never scouted by a modeling agency?’
‘Thank fuck I wasn’t,’ Alec answered. ‘I’d be a real poof if I did that, wouldn’t I?’
They laughed a lot and both agreed that the radio music on any station sucked. Risley hooked his phone to the dashboard and looked up better stuff, such as Waiting for the Bus by ZZ Top and I Love Rock and Roll by Joan Jett. When they entered the Chunnel, Risley remarked that this was so Freudian, whatever that meant. Being sucked into a long hose and then being spewed out on the other side where everybody suddenly drove on the right and talked gibberish.
Risley was a godsend. He spoke French quite well and knew what to order at roadside restaurant.
If it hadn’t been for him, Alec would just have contented himself with a cheese sandwich and a can of coke, even for dinner.
And Risley was a funny one, especially after some glasses of wine. The French must have thought he was just another crazy Brit when he pranced around the Scania singing Fortunate Son outside the hotel.
TNC Logistics had booked a room at Orly Airport, and thank goodness, it had two double beds.
They both slept well and left at six the next morning. They had breakfast in a roadside café, truckers only, English muffins, scrambled eggs, rashers. Risley said that being vegan could sometimes be boring.
‘And then he heard on the radio that there had been an accident on the A16,’ Alec said to us. ‘He understood French. I decided to take the northern route. We were in Paris and had to stop because we both had to pee very urgently. We found a petrol station in Klingon Port or whatever it’s called. Sounded just fine for a Star Trek fan like me.’
‘Porte de Clignancourt!’ Anne, Maurice and I yelled. ‘Dear me, that’s stinkytown,’ Maurice grumbled. If you stop at a red light, your hubcaps will be ripped off.’
‘It was bad,’ Alec said. ‘ But, like, in a good way.’
They got into a chat with a French truck driver who was on his way down from Rotterdam to Marseilles.
‘Ask him if he’s got…you know,’ Alec said to Risley. And so Risley did and presently bought a little green bag and some papers. They had no tobacco, so they just ripped open some Marlboros.
‘Of course I didn’t smoke,’ Alec said to us. ‘I was driving. But man, Risley was talking about pink elephants and naked guys on unicorns when we got back to the motorway.’
By the time Calais came into sight, it was time for Alec’s mandatory break. He parked the Scania in a row of trucks near a service area. They got out and Risley smoked some more. ‘Very nice,’ a Dutch driver remarked. ‘I’ve got some more if you want.’
The guy had just picked up a load of meat and was due for a warehouse in Dordrecht in Holland.
He did not speak English very well, but well enough to keep up a conversation. Soon they were joined by some Romanian truckers who offered home-made cheese fritters and plum brandy.
Alec left Risley outside to doze a bit in the cabin and to report to Slough. When he opened his eyes thirty minutes later, he got out again because he had to pee.
‘Where’s my co-driver?’ he asked a Romanian who was sitting on a bench. ‘Up there in the cabin bunk of that Dutch truck,’ the friendly feller said. ‘And the driver’s in there too. I’m sorry.’
This was the moment. Alec got Risley’s bag out of the truck and put it on the bench. ‘I’m off,’ he said to the Romanian. ‘Thank you for the snacks and have a safe trip back.’
Ten seconds later, he was at the wheel of the Scania and slowly moved out into the road. He had to pee but he didn’t stop at the petrol station. He thanked his stars for never having exchanged phone numbers with Risley and that no one gave him any funny questions when he had to show his papers at the entrance of the Chunnel.
‘As soon as I left Folkestone, I got out, peed and then I phoned Maurice,’ he said. ‘I was on the other side now. I finally realized that I got rid of Risley. He’s really nice, not a bad man, but I did this for Maurice.’
Maurice snuggled up to him and kissed him. They whispered to one another, with eyes full of love.
Then Alec dozed off. We went to the dining room to let him sleep.
We woke him at half past eleven and fed him more snacks. At midnight, I kissed Anne, Maurice and Alec with all the intimacy I felt. My kingdom was restored.
Chapter 10: Lovers in the Master Bed
Yes, it's finally happening again.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
On New Year’s Day, Maurice drove to his office in London to see if it had survived the festivities. Alec stayed in bed and slept and slept, not even coming down at tea-time.
Anne drove to Ipswich to visit her brother and his family. Maurice was pottering around in his home office while I tidied the kitchen.
I had not expected this to happen so soon, but it did. Would you come upstairs please? I read on my phone. There’s no bed I texted back. Would you mind using the master bedroom? I got bombed with smilies that cried laughing and some turd emojis.
I went upstairs and there he was, wearing a jersey and jeans. ‘I know you want to watch me undress,’ he whispered.
We went in and closed the door. I hurriedly tore off my clothes and then lay down on the bed to observe his every sensual, fragrant movement. But he watched me too. ‘Your jewelry makes you deliciously desirable,’ he whispered. ‘You’re a jewel yourself.’ I wore three silver rings on my fingers and the necklace with the charm he’d given me at Cambridge.
I decided to conquer him slowly and kissed him from his lips all the way down to his clean-shaven groin. ‘Don’t,’ he panted as I took him in my mouth. A shock went through me. ‘I don’t want to come too soon, love, that’s all. I want to be inside you.’
But we took our time, he kissed the mole on my foreskin and murmured how he had missed it, and then he slowly lowered his lovely body on mine and slid into me.
We had not made love for over two months and this only added to the bliss we both felt.
His eyes shone into mine, grey and clear and full of joy, I could feel his heart beating restlessly against mine and then we both perished and stayed under water for delicious ages until we slowly floated back to the surface.
It had gone completely dark outside so I turned on a bedside light. Then I slid into his arms again and kissed his gorgeous nipples while he buried his nose in my hair. ‘I love you so much, Clive,’ he whispered. ‘No force on earth could ever separate us.’
‘And you love Alec, too.’
‘I do. A little more each day. He’s a hero.’
‘After what he did yesterday?’
‘I got a notion as soon as I phoned him and learned that Risley was next to him. Go, Alec, go, I thought, you have more sense than I.’
‘So that’s why you sounded so calm when I phoned you at Kitty’s.’
There was some movement on the landing. Then the door opened. Alec came in, dressed in his house clothes. ‘Fuck, I’m hungry,’ he said.
‘No probs,’ I smiled. ‘I’ll make us some fish fingers and chips later.’
He nodded in appreciation and asked us if we cared for a cuppa. Ten minutes later we were sipping happily, Maurice and I still in bed, Alec sitting on the edge of it.
‘I just thought of something,’ he then said with difficulty. ‘We haven’t seen the last of Risley yet, I’m afraid.’
‘Why?’ Maurice asked. ‘He got the message, thanks to you, dear.’
‘Are you daft? His car is still outside this house.’
We had completely forgotten about the BMW. All went dark.
‘Fuck,’ was all Maurice could say.
Anne and I never bought any tabloid newspapers. Only when Maurice got home a few weeks into January did we get an update. ‘I saw this when I stopped for diesel on my way back from the station,’ he grinned, waving the Daily ***. ‘So I bought it. You can’t read it on their website unless you’ve got a subscription, I suppose.’
Former MP flees possible prosecution the bold headlines read. There were some pictures, courtesy of ANP (the national Dutch Press Agency) of Risley standing at the window of a coffee shop*, presumably in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. ‘All of Holland is still in complete lockdown,’ Maurice explained. ‘But you can still order and collect.’ We saw Risley walking down a street where all the pubs were closed, but he was still holding a can of beer he must have bought at a supermarket, and a spliff.
Another picture showed him strolling through a park holding hands with a man in his thirties who had an impressive ginger goatee and a hipster hair bun. ‘Yup, that’s the driver that picked him up in France,’ Alec said. ‘What a sweet couple they are.’
Now that happiness had returned to my house, I found it in my heart to be happy for Risley too. He deserved it, as I would soon find out.
Anne had an Instagram account under a fake name to check out what the customers of the company she worked for were up to. She used this to look up Sandro.
Please respect Professor Risley’s privacy as well as mine his last post read. Nothing happened and it's over anyway.
‘He must be sore now that Risley has another lover,’ Maurice remarked. ‘Perhaps it’s for the best that he’s no longer with Sandro, but love and logic are incompatible.’
* A 'coffee shop' in Holland is not a shop where coffee is sold. It's a specially licenced pub where everyone over the age of eighteen who can show a valid ID can purchase and consume cannabis.
Chapter 11: Wheels in Motion (duh)
All is well that ends well, ain't it so, Clive?
All had gone back to normal. Or so I thought.
A few days ago, I was coming downstairs to make Anne some breakfast before she went to work.
It was seven o’clock and I froze in my tracks as the bell rang. I was wearing my dressing gown and decided that whoever had the audacity to disturb me this early had to take me as I was, decency be damned. I opened the door and looked into Ralphie’s drooping eyes.
‘Hiya,’ he said. ‘Sorry to wake ye…’ He pointed at his tow truck that was now blocking our drive.
My goodness, I thought, someone has bought another car.
‘Alec! Maurice!’ I roared towards the staircase. ‘Would you come down, please?’
‘Get yerself another set of glasses, Clive,’ Ralphie grinned. ‘Can’t you see that me trailer’s empty? I came here to pick up a car. That BMW outside your drive.’
‘Who ordered this?’
‘Can’t tell ye.’
So the BMW was being impounded. Probably Sandro’s last move to wring money out of Risley.
‘The car belongs to a friend of mine,’ I said. ‘What if he comes back from his holiday and finds it gone?’
‘Some holiday that is,’ Ralphie chuckled. ‘Owner’s having a grand time in Holland. If he wanted his car that bad, he would have taken it with him.’
Now Alec came downstairs, all dressed and ready. ‘Hiya Ralphie,’ he said. ‘Bit early to go to the White Hart, eh?’
Ralphie pointed at the BMW. Alec grew pale. I had suspected him of cooking something up with his pub mate, but it was clear he had not known this.
‘Leave it be, Ralph,’ Alec said. ‘That car ain’t in the way anyroad.’
‘Official orders,’ Ralphie said ceremoniously, patting an envelope that stuck out of his pocket.
Now Maurice joined us, looking slightly sleepy and beautiful and smelling of Eau Sauvage. ‘Hi, Ralphie,’ he smiled. Then he saw the empty trailer parked neatly behind the BMW and grew pale. ‘Fuck me with a chainsaw,’ he whispered.
‘Come to think of it, you could get a few hundred quid for them hubcaps,’ Alec mused. ‘Not to mention the rest.’
‘Forget it,’ Maurice said. ‘That car is going to the council yard unharmed.’
Ralphie nodded. ‘Just wanted to let ye know, even though it ain’t yours…Fuck me, the man must be completely daft to leave a prize car alone like that. Makes me wonder how he became a professor. Couldn’t even wipe his own arse if you ask me.’
And so the BMW, which had served as a restroom facility for Jane’s dog for days on end, found its new shelter. It was odd, but we missed it after it had gone.
Dear Risley, if you ever read this, please know that
I) The faculty board might resort to proceedings to dismiss you on account of not showing up. And in this day and age, it’s not sufficient to just apologize in writing and hope to be readmitted. I ought to know, I’m a solicitor.
II) Your car is fine! It’s in the council yard in Milton Keynes. We drove past it a few times and we can tell it’s well taken care of, even though it’s covered in bird shit now. I’m sure it’s aching to be reunited with you. You are its rightful owner and it relies on you.
III) Anne, Alec, Maurice and I have decided that you can have two of Furball’s babies if you want. They’re spayed and ready to leave. Of course we’ll miss them, but let’s face it, we’ve got nine cats now and all we seem to do after work is scoop turds from the many shitty litter boxes. You’ll have company in your house in Cambridge. Pets are always there when you feel lonely. It might help you a great deal.
IV) And oh yeah, Maurice says he’s definitely not going to kick the shit out of you, but then again, he’s been in an exceptionally good mood lately. He plays the Steinway every night and makes it sing. You’re not invited 😊. It might still be wise to stay clear of him. However, the fact that he very much wishes for you to take in two of our cats proves that he’s got a heart and understands more than he will admit.
V) Ever since you left our house, Anne has been missing a framed photograph from her study. It shows me as a young man. She’s rather attached to it and
will do unspeakable things to you with a parsnip would be most obliged if you returned it. The same goes for my gilded cigarette lighter and Alec’s collection of miniature F1 driver figures he got at the Burger Vomit.
Thank you very much! And love to you, dear Risley, and to all you dear readers, and may 2022 make all your wishes come true!
You still suck, Risley Pax vincit omnia,