July, 2012; London, England
Wales has long believed that England's barbecue must be cursed.
That morning, the clarity of the sky was marred only by faint contrails and the odd pigeon, but as soon as England wheeled the barbecue out of his shed, clouds began to gather ominously as they always did. Now they stretch unbroken all the way to the horizon, as though a huge steel grey lid has been lowered over London, blocking out the sun.
“Looks like it’s going to rain,” Wales observes as he peers out of the back door.
“Nonsense,” England says without even looking up from the frozen beef burgers he’s trying to pry apart with a bread knife. “The weather reports all said it’d be fine until at least Saturday.”
“You know they might as well draw those little weather symbols out of a fucking hat to make the forecasts,” Scotland says, lumbering over from the kitchen table to join Wales at the open door. He winces as he looks upwards, sucking in air sharply through his gritted teeth. “Jesus Christ, the sky’s almost black, England. It’s definitely going to rain.”
The certainty in Scotland’s voice makes England frown, and prompts a move to the window, doubtless so he can search for evidence that might serve to disprove Scotland’s prediction. “There’s a clear patch,” he says almost exultantly after a moment’s concentrated scouring, “over there.”
Wales looks in the direction his brother is pointing. A single shaft of diffuse sunlight has managed to struggle its way through a small chink in the otherwise ubiquitous cloud cover; just large enough to bathe the roof of one house a couple of streets away in a warm glow.
Scotland snorts. “Not much of one.”
“It’ll spread,” England says with what sounds to be genuine confidence, returning his attention to the recalcitrant burgers. “This will all blow over soon enough.”
Seeing as though the air is completely still, that seems very unlikely.
As the intractable law of sod dictates, the wind picks up as soon as England tries to light the barbecue.
It’s strong enough to shake petals from England’s roses and set the washing hanging up on his line to struggling energetically against its clothes peg restraints, so the tiny flame from England’s lighter stands little chance. Every time he tries to set it to the fire lighters, it is either blown back so that it arcs uselessly away from them, or else is smothered entirely.
Scotland grabs himself a bottle of Carlsberg and settles in to a patio chair to bear amused witness to his brother’s struggles, but after ten minutes pass with nothing but increasingly virulent swearing and barbecue kicking to show for them, his schadenfreude-tinged smile finally fades.
“Fucking hell, this is pathetic,” he growls, wrenching the lighter out of England’s hand as he shoves him unceremoniously aside; rough treatment that England uncharacteristically does not retaliate against, perhaps being too fatigued by the frustrations of his travails to care.
“Look, it’s easy enough,” Scotland continues, and then proceeds to raise nothing but sparks from the lighter, no matter how vigorously he spins its wheel or how tightly he curls the substantial windbreak of his body around his hand.
His patience with the enterprise runs out far quicker than England’s, however, and the lighter is soon hurled over the fence into Mr Featherstonehaugh’s garden – a rash action that England will likely face a stiff penalty for once it’s discovered – with a loud and terse, “Fuck this.”
He then turns to regard the barbecue with the same look of mingled animosity and respect that he once did worthy opponents on the battlefield; a look that makes Wales’ stomach tighten in tense anticipation.
“Yr Alban,” he says warningly, trying to break his brother’s concentration.
Scotland ignores him, and a swift muttered incantation and flicker of his fingers later, the barbecue is engulfed by a fireball, green-tinged around its edges as it comes into contact with iron in the barbecue’s frame and the magic withers. It’s still strong enough to set the charcoal alight, though; something that makes Scotland grin triumphantly even as he has to rub at his face to douse his smouldering eyebrows.
“Slight overkill, don’t you think?” Wales says, patting Scotland’s shoulder to dislodge the sparks that have settled there before they can start burrowing in to the thick wool of his jumper.
“Got the job done, didn’t it?” Scotland shoots back, undeterred.
Wales cannot argue with that, nor, apparently, can England, despite usually having plenty to say on the subject of ‘reckless and unnecessary magic use near humans’ (read: all magic except his own, which, of course, is always well-judged and imperative by its very nature). Instead, he simply heads back into the house with a cheerful, “I’ll go and get the sausages.”
A fresh gust of wind swells up behind his back, tugging at England’s shirt tails – untucked in honour of a lazy Sunday spent at home – and blowing the thick column of black smoke rising from the barbecue in the direction of the clothesline.
“And I suppose I’d better get the washing in,” Wales says to no-one in particular when it becomes clear that Scotland is very determinedly pretending not to notice.
The rain sets in just on cue.
It’s just a few light spots at first, noticeable only because they fizzle when they hit the hot coals in the barbecue.
“Maybe you should just take everything back inside and grill it,” says Northern Ireland, who has been wrenched away from the XBox 360 in his room in order to stand beside England and poke things with tongs where directed.
“That would rather defeat the object, wouldn’t it,” England says, chuckling a little at what he clearly believes to be the absurdity of the suggestion. “Besides, it’s only a bit of drizzle.”
Five minutes later, the drizzle has become a downpour, the rain falling so hard that it sounds as solid as hailstones as it hits the patio, and it bounces up just as high afterwards.
England simply sends Northern Ireland to fetch his golf umbrella.
When the rain eases off again, England announces their food is ready to eat.
As Wales eyes the spread England sets up on the patio table, he can’t help but compare it to the many barbecues they’ve attended at America’s house, and, as ever, the comparison is not a favourable one.
In place of beautifully marinated and artfully charred chicken and pork, there are completely blackened burgers and sausages, and a bowl each of supermarket coleslaw and limp iceberg lettuce instead of the bewildering array of side dishes America always lays on, all of which are almost as tasty as the main event itself. (Wales has always had a particular fondness for the potato salad, despite the addition therein of far more greenery than the simple potato and mayonnaise concoction he’s used to.)
It looks vile, and smells even worse, but is somehow no less appetising for either. The inherent small victory over the determined incivility of British summertime adds a certain strange piquancy to any food prepared outdoors, he’s always found.
Northern Ireland seems to find the situation far less to his liking, however. Although his mouth puckers a little in distaste as his gaze skips across the table, the fullness of his horror is reserved for the chair he’s expected to sit on.
“We’ve burnt all the food like you wanted,” he says, staring down at the puddles collected along the wide slats that make up the chair’s seat, “can’t we at least force it down in the kitchen?”
“Bloody hell, I can’t believe you’re the one complaining about a bit of rain.” Scotland leans forward in his own chair to sweep his sleeve briskly across Northern Ireland’s. “It’s not going to make you fucking dissolve, you know.”
When Northern Ireland continues to hesitate, Scotland catches hold of his arm and tugs on it until Northern Ireland is forced to sit down, if only to stop himself pitching head first into the coleslaw. He winces as he settles himself; his trousers no doubt wicking up water like a sponge, just as Wales’ had done.
“Tuck in, then,” England says, beaming at them all convivially as he spears a carbonised burger with his fork.
Northern Ireland’s selection of a sausage is much more tentative, and he carefully tears it in two instead of immediately shoving it in his mouth as Scotland does with his.
“It’s raw in the middle,” he says after a cursory inspection of the sausage’s innards, dropping it disgustedly onto his plate untasted.
“Get it eaten,” England says sharply, “It’s not as if you can get food poisoning, and, in case, I’ve seen you enjoy far worse things.” He pauses, as though searching his memory for a pertinent illustration. The one he chooses, though, is such an obvious attempt at antagonising Scotland it makes an immediate lie of his pensive expression. “Haggis, for example.”
Scotland’s protest is muffled into unintelligibility by his mouthful of food. He doesn’t repeat it once he swallows, however, obviously deciding instead that launching into another of his pet topics would be far more satisfying. “Jesus, I don’t know how you would have coped if you were around when we were kids, North. Some of the stuff we had to eat back then you wouldn’t even think to feed to a fucking dog nowadays.”
This provokes hearty agreement from England, and the two of them quickly settle in to yet another spirited round of ‘Northern Ireland doesn’t know how good he’s got it’, conveniently forgetting once again that they had spent far more of their lives with kitchen staff and personal cooks at their beck and call than without, and that Northern Ireland had choked down just as many unpalatable bits of leftover cow during rationing as they had themselves.
Northern Ireland’s eyes soon start to glaze, and, in sympathy, Wales slips him the packet of cheese and onion crisps he’d smuggled out of the pantry, intended for his own fortification if their dinner had proved entirely inedible.
“Well, that was nice, wasn’t it?” England says as he drapes his clothes over a radiator in the kitchen.
Wales thinks the obvious refutation of that observation lies in the near pint of rainwater England had just had to squeeze out of his shirt and trousers – courtesy of the heavens opening for a second time whilst they ate their trifle – but is thankful that the clamouring of the kettle coming to a boil next to him gives him the excuse of not having heard to avoid having to answer either way. The bonhomie Scotland and England had found in their shared wallow in the muddy waters of times past has put them both in far better moods than they can normally sustain in such close proximity to one another, and it makes Wales even more determined than ever to avoid upsetting the apple cart of their emotions in any way.
Eventually, England shuffles over to his side, slippers whispering softly against the floor tiles, and leans against the counter with a soft sigh. “I rather like the rain, you know,” he says, the words little more than a murmur.
Despite the confessional tone, it is hardly a revelation. It’s a sentiment England has voiced in exactly the same manner on many previous occasions, perhaps hoping that he might someday catch Wales off-guard and prompt the agreement that England seems to think that he has hitherto been wilfully denied.
There is no deception to uncover, however; no withholding of secret rapport. Wales doesn’t hate rain – it is, he thinks, far too intrinsic a part of his country for that – but although it’s always welcome when the air is thick and heavy with humidity, and essential besides, he’d never go so far as to say he liked it.
Though there is something extremely satisfying about being on the dry side of a window whilst the rain rattles against the other, as it is doing now.
When he admits that to his brother, England nods enthusiastically and says, “Precisely. It’s the sort of thing that makes you thankful for small mercies, which is just what Scotland and I were trying to impress on North.”
Wales thinks that that’s a lesson Northern Ireland likely worked out for himself decades back, and even if he hadn’t, he hardly thinks forcing the poor lad to eat poorly cooked food, get soaked all the way down to his underwear, and listen to his older brothers reminiscing with surprising fondness about eating rats during sieges would be the best way to go about teaching it.
“It makes you appreciate your usual comforts all the more,” England continues on, not giving Wales chance to contradict him, even if he’d wanted to. “Like a nice mug of tea” – England waves one hand towards the kettle – “clothes still warm from the tumble drier” – the hand then settles against his pyjama-clad thigh – “and good company.” His hand freezes suddenly, the gesture towards Wales half-made.
The entire spiel sounds like something that England has reeled out before – perhaps several times – probably in an attempt to assuage the whinging about the weather that America so often indulges in when he visits, so that last point was most likely a slip of the tongue, and one Wales decides to gracefully ignore.
When his silence doesn’t help to ease England’s mortified expression, Wales takes pity on his brother, squeezes his shoulder and offers, “Well, two out of three isn’t bad, right, Lloegr.”
England grasps hold of this sympathetic lifeline just as eagerly as Wales expected he would. “Precisely,” he says again, voice emphatic, as though Wales’ comment was actually something he had been hoping to hear. “Small mercies, like I said.”