The straps dig into his shoulders, and yet again he wishes he had been able to find a way to take less. The backpack contains what is left of his world, everything that is necessary, everything that he couldn’t sell on eBay, or give away on Gumtree, or pack into cardboard boxes to store at the Big Yellow storage warehouse on the Botley Road. All the things that will be necessary for the next three months of travelling in Australia.
His act of purgation.
Ahead of him is the scrum of travellers already queueing for the check-in desk. Behind him is the door out onto the airport concourse, with taxis continually arriving and skimming away. And beside him is Robert Lewis, best friend, retired Detective Inspector and the (unknowing) love of his life. Whom he is now going to leave.
He is going to Australia to escape. To leave behind this pain. This beautiful man. This agonising Mobius strip of a life that swings from pain to elation a hundred times a day, the delirious joy of being in the company of a man he admires and longs for so much, coupled with the torture of knowing he can never have from Lewis the love that he so craves. He is exhausted. He has decided. Enough is enough. Sometimes you need to perform your own intervention. He has struggled too long. It is time to know when to quit.
So now he is running to the opposite side of the world for a three month sabbatical of grimy backpacker hostels, dusty roads, and white sand beaches, in order to work out what the hell he is going to do with the rest of his life now that he has accepted he will never be able to spend it with Lewis.
In fact, he is running away. And he knows it.
Lewis was adamant that he would take James to the airport.
‘Least I can do, considering,’ he said, referring to James’ collection of him when he arrived back in Oxford from the British Virgin Islands all those years ago, still struggling with his grief. He still regards James’ midwifing of him back into a world so redolent of his loss as an act worthy of canonisation. Or at least as a debt he can never repay.
James wishes he hadn’t. Apart from anything, Robbie has been funny lately. Not so much about James leaving. Just about everything really. James has asked, in their usual roundabout way, what is wrong, but Lewis has been cagey. It is clear that he is deeply sad about something, but James has not been able to fathom about what. Which makes the leaving all the harder.
Now he faces the scrum of fellow travellers ahead of him, feeling like a man walking to the gallows. This trip seemed like such a good idea when he came up with it, which was three o’clock in the morning, and he realises now that you should never take seriously any idea that comes to you in those small dark hours when your soul is farthest from either God or comfort. He knows he has to tear himself away, nevertheless, or waste his life on the rack of his unrequited love. And he has seen so much senseless waste in his career as a policeman. He never wanted to add to it, even though he knows that, however unwittingly, he has.
‘Right,’ he says, turning to Lewis with a big, deep breath, hoping it will give him courage to finally say goodbye. ‘No sense in you waiting. It’ll be ages before I get to the front of that queue.’
Lewis shrugs. He looks somehow smaller, older, a little wizened by his unspoken sadness and the impersonal scale of the check-in hall.
‘Don’t mind,’ he says, and manages a gentle smile. ‘I’ll keep you company.’
No, don’t do that, James thinks. Don’t make it harder. Please? But he can’t say it, of course, because he is still desperate for the tiniest morsel, the minutest sliver of time he can get with this man, this beautiful, brave, honourable man who has saved his skin and his soul, and probably his sanity, more times than is fair to remember.
‘It’s okay,’ he tells Lewis. ‘I’m fine. You really don’t need to. I’ll just get on.’
‘James, I-‘ Lewis says, and hesitates, tipping his head forward a little, as if on the verge of something, of some momentous communication. But then he only looks sadder, and draws his chin in, and offers a weak grimace of a smile, as if to say, no, sorry, I just can’t.
So this is it, James realises. The end.
And in a blinding, flashbulb moment, he realises he has nothing left to lose. It is over, so he might as well. Nothing matters anymore. Nothing else, at any rate. In a couple of hours he will be high over the earth, endless waves below, so far away that all this will be irrelevant. And in the end, nothing matters but the truth. If Robbie Lewis has taught him nothing else, it is that.
So he leans forward and lightly presses his lips to Lewis’s and then, with his heart breaking, turns away.
A strong hand grips his bicep, arresting him.
Another reaches up as he turns back in surprise, grips again, this time the back of his neck, curving around the nape and fitting there as if that is where it was always meant to be. He has no choice but to look into Lewis’ face, and sees there an urgency, a pain, that he never expected.
‘Don’t,’ the older man breathes, and then James is being kissed with more passion, more fervour, than he has ever experienced in his life.
The straps on his shoulders are still digging in, he notices as his mind drifts, lost in the shock of it.
Robbie is kissing me. Robbie is kissing me.
And its good.
It is so good. Good is a totally and completely inadequate word for it. How can two pairs of lips make such music?
Then he is trembling, his face pressed into the wattle of skin under Lewis’ chin, aware that the tears he has been holding back for so long have finally come. He hangs onto the checked cotton of Lewis’ shirt, and sobs:
‘Don’t. Don’t, if you don’t mean it!’
Warm, strong arms twine around him.
‘Oh, love. Oh, my bonny lad. My hinny.’
James manages to drag his leaden head up, and look into those phenomenally blue eyes (periwinkle, he has always thought). Lewis blinks back at him, getting a little moist himself.
‘But you aren’t-‘ he manages to croak. ‘You don’t- And there’s Laura-‘
‘Me and Laura aren’t-‘ Lewis tells him, and there is another flash of that sadness the has become so familiar over recent weeks. ‘It wasn’t working. I couldn’t tell you, I’m sorry.’
‘But why? Didn’t you-‘
‘Felt like I’d let everyone down,’ Lewis says, dropping his gaze with shame. ‘And I didn’t want to worry you, what with you going away. Knew you’d fret, me being on me own again. Thought it was better not to say.’
‘But you were so happy?’ James isn’t sure if that is a statement or a question. The only thing he is sure of right now is the warmth of the arms that are wrapped around his body.
‘Were we?’ Lewis looks up into his eyes, his soul bared. ‘Can’t live with a woman and be in love with someone else, can I? Not and be able to sleep at night, anyway. It’s not right. Can’t love one person, and be with another. Not if you’ve got any conscience.’
‘Val,’ James nods, dazed.
‘Nah, you daft ‘a’peth,’ Lewis laughs, incredulous. ‘You!’
Suddenly James can’t breathe. He rests his forehead against Lewis’s and tries to calm himself. He doesn’t know how this is possible. Just when he had thrown in the towel. Just as he is about to get on the plane to his future. Just when he was leaving it all behind.
‘I have to catch the plane,’ he whimpers, defeated by reality.
Lewis pulls him close, holds him tighter, his eyes fiery with need.
‘Bugger the plane! Don’t go! You can’t go like this! Not now. Stay. At least stay with me long enough to sort this out? Please? Please, love?’
And then he kisses James again.
And the pain of the straps cutting into James’ shoulders disappears. So does the gaggle of voices of the other travellers in the queue, and the indecipherable announcements of the tannoy echoing off the marble floors and in the towering corners of the roof high above. The rumble of luggage trolley wheels disappears, and the roar of the planes taking off and landing over the terminal building, and the drone of traffic on the motorway access road. The airport itself disappears, and so does the world and everything in it. Because then there is only Robbie’s lips and Robbie’s hands and Robbie’s body and Robbie’s love.
Well, you wanted a purgative, James thinks to himself.
Then he pulls away.
‘I have to-‘
Lewis looks startled. He looks about to panic. James eases the backpack from his shoulders and dumps it on the ground at Lewis’ feet.
‘Give me a second,’ he says.
Three members of the airline staff have appeared at the baggage check in desks and are fussing over switching on screens and sorting paperwork. James elbows his way through the crowd, past the rope barriers and the explosions of outrage from the other travellers.
‘I’m sorry, sir, you’ll have to wait behind the-‘ one says.
James pulls out his passport.
‘My name is James Hathaway and I’m supposed to be on this flight, but I’m not going. I can’t. Sorry. I thought I’d better tell you. Maybe someone else can fill the seat.’
The older woman with the hatchet face who seems to be in charge looks at his passport as if it is something that has been vomited up by a rodent.
‘I can’t give you a refund, Mister Hath-‘
A refund never even occurred to him.
‘I don’t want one,’ he says. ‘I’m just letting you know I can’t go. For your records. Don’t wait about for me to check in because I’m not going. Sorry.’
As he strides back across the marble towards Robbie, he knows his smile is strong enough to power half of Oxford.