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Changing Channels

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25 January 1937
             It was only partly the oddity of the lone figure sitting in at the back of the room that drew Bill Haydon in. It was also the thoughtfully distracted look in the green-brown eyes during the speaker’s time on the floor, the candid, bemused surprise in the way he raised his eyebrows when Bill approached, the entirely unfazed “Oh, hullo” and the look that accompanied it.

             More so, it was the way that Bill found the tables suddenly turned; how the long silence following his simple “What is your dilemma?” left Bill hanging on in fascination and eager anticipation of what response he might receive. He found himself sitting in an empty chair next to him, watching the other man intently to the point that he was as much studying him as anything else – studying the length and easy posture of his long legs, the athletic build, the thoughtful expression. It wasn’t until he spoke up with a simple “I haven’t got one,” that Bill realised how engrossed he was.

             “Then what are you doing here?” Bill was aware of the words leaving his mouth, but every fibre of his being was concentrated on the other man’s reactions. “If you haven’t a dilemma, how did you get in?”

             There was a long pause, and then shaking his head, he stood up, and reflexively, Bill followed. He laughed, a slow grin spreading over his face and something inside Bill eased the tension coiled in his spine. His assurance returning, Bill cocked his head a bit towards the coffee table, “Suppose we ought to say hello before ducking out?” and nodding, the other man followed him across the room.

             It wasn’t until they had made their way back to Bill’s rooms and had been drinking for several hours, that Bill, his head laying in his guest’s lap as they talked, finally learned his companion’s name.

             “It’s Prideaux. Jim Prideaux.”

             “Prideaux.” Bill wrapped his lips around the French syllables even through the slight slur left by the alcohol. “I like that.” He propped himself up on his elbow. “I’m Bill H–”

             “Haydon. Bill Haydon. I know.” Jim’s lips twitched into a knowing smile, and Bill, to his chagrin, found himself returning it easily.

             “And?” Bill’s smile turned sly.

             Jim laughed softly. “And I like it just fine.”

9 June 1938
             “A little to the left, I think.” Fidgeting with his tie and straightening his lapels nervously, Bill stopped pacing long enough to watch Jim carefully make the called-for adjustment to the painting’s position, his long, whipcord arms stretched across the canvas to where his hands held the frame until it was firmly in place. Taking a step back from it, he glanced first at it, and then at Bill, an eyebrow raised in askance. Bill stared at it for a moment, tilted his head, and then sighed. “No. Back to the right.”

             Sighing, Jim took the canvas up again and shifted it several more times until Bill seemed satisfied with its position. Setting it into place, he stepped back and looked at it for a few moments before continuing on to the next painting. He was still lifting and moving the last of the canvases long after the gallery staff had, one by one, gone home for the evening, casting glances at Jim which ranged from disdain to what Bill could only interpret as pity mixed with lust as he calmly shifted each painting according to Bill’s precise directions. One of the largest canvases, which probably would have already been broken in a fit of irritation had Bill been left to move it on his own, was delicately inched into place by Jim’s careful hands, which shifted from one side to the other, always with one splayed out over the front of the painting, a soft cloth protecting the paint from his skin as he steadied it. Once it was hooked into the wall, Jim took a step back, but didn’t turn to look at Bill, and his muscles remained tensed, as if awaiting Bill’s sigh and request for another shift in whichever direction.

             Instead, Bill stared at the painting awhile, then soundlessly slipped in behind Jim, his soft, dry palms and careful fingers curling over his shoulders, thumbs pressing into the tense muscle until Jim’s shoulders relaxed and dropped a little, and turning his head, he glanced back. “How does it look?”

             “Exquisite.” Resting his chin on Jim’s shoulder, Bill allowed his hands to slip down over Jim’s rolled-up shirt sleeves, bringing them to rest against his forearms. “Shall we get some dinner?”

             “Bit late at night, isn’t it?” Bill didn’t have to look to see the slight lift of Jim’s eyebrows as he replied.

             Purring against his ear, Bill’s lips twitched into a pleased smile. “The hotel has room service.” Jim opened his mouth to protest, but Bill cut him off. “My treat.”

30 April 1941
             There was something mildly erotic, Bill decided during one night of bombing in Belgrade, about watching Jim read maps. It was the way that he carefully unfolded the paper, smoothing it out with his callused palms until it was entirely flat, and then weighing it down on the corner with whatever was available to him – making sure, however, that no damage came to the paper in the process; Jim was always gentle with his maps, treating them as though they were ancient documents that might disintegrate at any moment.

             From there, Bill found himself entranced by the way that Jim poured over the map, his fingertips tracing borders and rivers, roads and sides-streets with the same careful slowness that they had when running over Bill’s skin, tracing veins and arteries, bones and tendons with delicate care. Till then, Bill had compared it to reading Braille – a metaphor that suddenly seemed dull when compared to the view of himself as a map under Jim’s fingers. Any other time, he might have snorted at the cliché, but here it seemed oddly fitting as Jim’s muscular shoulders hunched over the table, his voice barely audible as he spoke – more to the map itself than to either himself or Bill – recalling locations by names that Bill had never heard, and contacts by facial features that were distinct only in Jim’s mind.

             “Here,” a point on the map just outside of the city, “is where Snaggletooth meets us with the tickets after we’ve uncached our passports.”

             “Here,” he traced a thin scar along the inside of Bill’s left thumb, “is where you sliced your hand open while slashing that canvas in a fit of anger after the exhibition.”

             “After that,” a long zigzagged path leading, eventually over the Italian border, “we follow the supply trains until we cross the border.”

             “Cricket for three years,” he curled his fingers over the muscles of Bill’s right calf, “quit in part due to injury.”

             “Boredom. I’m better for a scratch game rather than a season.”

             A slight smile.

             Bill hardly hears Jim detailing the route to their next stop. He’s already got it memorised, and Jim knows it, but the methodical reviewing of maps was soothing for both of them, and Jim had made an art form of it.

11 December 1966
             “Bill. Let me see.”

             Sighing, Bill reluctantly unfolded his hands and held them out. They were scrubbed almost raw, yet traces of vivid blue still coated the crescents of his cuticles and sank into the divots alongside his nails. Taking Bill’s hands in his own, Jim carefully examined them before gesturing for him to sit at the small kitchen table while he retrieved a clean saucepan and filled it with warm water, testing its temperature with his fingertips before adding a bar of soap and a tea towel.

             “Hold still.”

             Bill pursed his lips but obeyed, allowing Jim to take first one hand and then the other and submerge them in the saucepan before taking up the first again. Closing his eyes, he felt, rather than saw Jim’s hands close over his left hand, the callused palms curling around his hands under the soapy water, fingertips at his own with a firmness that belied the gentleness of Jim’s grasp on his hand. Every now and then, Jim made a quiet, perplexed noise, or hummed to himself, and then Bill would feel the damp roughness of the tea towel against his hand for a moment before the texture of Jim’s fingertips against his cuticles returned.

             Eventually, as Jim carefully dried and released his left hand, Bill opened his eyes, and leaning on his elbow, watched as Jim took up his other hand. He found himself caught somewhere between amusement and subdued wonder at the focused expression on Jim’s face – at the thin-set line of his lips as they pressed together, and the distant look that his eyes took on whenever he was single-mindedly pursuing something. Jim was humming again, and closing his eyes again, Bill leaned his chin in his free hand until finally; Jim had wrapped his hand in a dry towel.

             Once his hands were both free, Bill held them up, examining them under the light for any stray smears of paint, and finding none, he smiled crookedly. “I suppose that’ll do.”

             Snorting, Jim smiled and busied himself with emptying the saucepan and rinsing the towels. “Maybe you should take up wearing gloves when you paint – stop you getting it everywhere.”

28 November 1973

             “Show me.” Bill’s voice rose slightly, and a note of pleading entered into it. “Please.”

             His breath escaping his lips in a soft huff, Jim slipped his coat from his shoulders and laid it on the bench before unbuttoning the top three buttons of his shirt. Dropping his hand, he looked at Bill silently, a pained expression crossing his face. Even when Bill caught his wrist and pulled him closer – almost bringing his legs to either side of Bill’s own, Jim hesitated, his eyes flickering briefly before meeting Bill’s levelly.

             Almost reverently, Bill unbuttoned Jim’s shirt the rest of the way and peeled the fabric back from his shoulders before falling into a hushed silence. As his fingertips traced their way up Jim’s torso, Bill could feel the shallowness of Jim’s breathing, as if he were all but holding his breath until he could properly read Bill’s reaction. He took his time, tracing each ragged scar individually until his fingers and his eyes came to rest on the web of scar tissue that made up his right shoulder, the messy remnants of the exit wounds still raw-looking even a year later, and he knew almost instinctively that the entry wounds were much the same, if not worse.

             It was several agonising minutes before Bill was capable of tearing his eyes away, and even then, his fingertips remained, tracing the scar tissue as if he intended to memorise it. Meeting his gaze, Jim looked at him searchingly, trying to gauge his reaction, but at least for the moment, Bill was inscrutable. Curling his palm along Jim’s jaw, Bill looked at him for a moment longer, then kissed him – hesitantly at first, but then with the same old familiarity, a light dusting of stubble scraping against Jim’s skin even as the fingers of one of Jim’s hands immediately found their place in Bill’s hair.

             It was then, his hand still pressed against Jim’s shoulder, that a small shudder ran through Bill’s body, and his voice escaped his throat in a whisper against the other’s lips. “It wasn’t supposed to happen. Not like that.”

             Jim only hesitated for half a moment before answering with the only answer he knew to be true. “I know.”