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Lessons in a Strange Language

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Walking confidently, the tallest man enters the flat first, and tosses the question "Do you want a drink?" back over his shoulder.

"What have you got?" the stranger asks.

"Everything."

"I'll have a whiskey then." Still the teenager, not a word from the third man. "Must be nice, living on Canal Street."

"Saves time," he is told.

"Seen you around. Are you two a couple, or what?"

"Ah, we go back years, we were in school." And the rest; a typically true but dishonest answer, before countering with another question, "So is this what you do then? Threesomes?"

"First time."

"At your age, though?"

The teenager raises an eyebrow, head on one side,

“How old do you think I am then?”

There’s a pause, and the other two look at each other, communicating without words. Finally the taller speaks once more,

“Twenty-one.”

“Yeah, right,” Stuart smiles, “we’re all twenty-one, aren’t we?”

“Yeah, right - what year were you born?”

A moment, before Stuart says,

“Sixty-seven.”

“Bollocks you were. You had to think about it. No-one has to think what year they were born. How old are you?”

He shrugs,

“How old do you want me to be?”

Again the other two exchange looks,

“No, Cas, I said this was a bad idea. He’s too young. Fuck, I teach kids older than that. He could be one of my students.”

“Point is, he’s not,” the taller, Cas, turns, “you’re not, are you? Not at UMIST? No, look, it’s fine,” and then, “come on, he’s here now, left the club with us, damage done. Might as well have the fun we’re not going to pay for,” he sounds dismissive, but he isn't, there’s a clear implication that he needs to persuade – and then, as though actions speak louder than words, he walks to Stuart, runs hands over him, leans down and in for a kiss.

The kiss lasts, deepens, until Cas pulls away, turns Stuart’s head towards his lover, “go on, you know you want to. I want you to. Want to watch. Want you to watch me,” and as Malcolm leans in, “watch me, watch my hands, watch me while you taste him,” his hands moving down, caressing Stuart. Stuart leaning into the touch even as he puts his soon-to-become-legendary concentration into the kiss.

 

 

“And then it’s like – fuck – they’re both kneeling, and one of them – the big guy, Cas or something, he’s got my shirt off, and somewhere along the way I’ve ended up with jeans round my fucking ankles, and I must look a right twat, only I don’t care, ‘cos bloody hell – he’s rimming me and the other one’s fucking blowing me and it’s – it’s amazing, it’s just so fucking amazing – “

 

 

Stuart gasps, blinks his eyes open again.

“Fuck,” he says, and they laugh, but not unkindly,

“No-one told you about that, did they?” Malcolm looks up at him, and grins, carefully removing the condom Stuart hardly even noticed going on, “no offence lad, it’s just our rule. Easier to be obsessive. ‘F you were our age, you’d know why.”

Stuart nods, not about to complain about anything. Vaguely wondering if he ought to apologise, if he came too fast, if this means he’ll be thrown out now, but not sure he can bring himself to say the words.

He doesn’t need to.

Even as Malcolm tosses the condom aside, Cas stands behind him, arms round him, holding him close, hard and urgent erection pressing against his arse,

“It’s fine,” he says, “plenty of time for more. Besides, twenty-one was it – give it a moment, that’s all, I’d say.”

“And he’s a good judge,” Malcolm adds quietly, “years of practice. That’s it, one foot out, then the other.”

It’s bizarrely tender, being held and undressed, and then they’re both standing, Stuart between them, feeling them press against him even as they kiss long and deep.

 

 

 

“Then the one of them, he says, seriously, he says, ‘tastes good, love, all open and ready, yes?’ and then they’re sort of walking me over to the bed – hadn’t even bloody noticed it – it’s one of those open-plan places, trying to make a bed-sit look upmarket – catch me ever living in one of those, fucking pretentious, but still – and then I’m sort of lying there, and they’re snogging again, and for a minute I think I’m just a spare cock, might as well fuck off then, but they grab condoms – they’ve got them under the pillow, and that’s neat, lube and all, all in packets – and they’re doing each other. Only I think – sod this – so I’m helping, and then fuckin’ hell, I’m sucking Cas off, and Jesus he’s fantastic, and the other, he’s being all careful and going one finger, two finger, and I think fuck that, get on with it mate, so I pull off and Cas gives this sort of groan, and I’m like, fucks sake I’m not a sodding virgin, get it up there, and then – Jesus fucking Christ. You have to try it, Vinnie, seriously, being in the middle like that, it’s amazing, and I didn’t think I was even hard, but I’m coming again, and it’s just – brilliant.”

 

 

 

Condom disposal seems to be Malcolm’s responsibility again, Stuart notices vaguely. This time he pads over to the bin, collects the earlier one on the way, wanders off.

“Don’t mind him,” Cas says, ruffling Stuart’s hair in a way that ought to be annoying, only he’s too shagged out to care, “he always needs to piss after. And then he comes back with bloody drinks, makes no sense to me, but that’s Malcolm for you. Read it was healthy once, so we have to do it for-bloody-ever,” changes his tone, “don’t we love? Oh. Didn’t know you had any in, how lovely, some for each of us – assuming you do, Stu-ey?”

Stuart ought to scowl, hates being called that, always has, but he’s too knackered right now, eighteen or not. Blinks up, sees the pills, frowns, trying to focus.

“Nothing very naughty,” Cas adds, “Malcolm’s a biochemist, he knows what’s ok. At least, so I assume. You just like to bring your work home, don’t you sweetheart? Say no if you like, there’s no offence, no pressure. Only personally, I don’t have to go to work tomorrow, Malcolm seems to function just as well on no sleep, and I could go another couple of rounds with these. Work like magic, and trust me on this. But obviously, twenty-one, you might not need them.”

“Or you might want to sleep,” Malcolm says, and he isn't really even offering them, just brought six over, along with bottles of water, and watching someone you’ve just had sex with drink and then pour water over himself to cool down shouldn’t be so fucking hot, but it is, and oh what the hell, free drugs, what’s not to like, Stuart takes one, swallows it down, grins.

 

 

 

“And fuck, Vinnie, I don’t know what they were, but they were amazing. Going to be looking for them again. Never had a high like it, and bloody hell, we went at it another five times. Amazing. That guy wants to get them marketed. Give them a catchy name, little blue pills like that, fantastic. Old blokes’d kill for them.”

 

 

 

 

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Eyes only half-open, Stuart watches as Malcolm hits the alarm clock, rolls out of bed, leans back to kiss the still-sleeping Cas, and pads off to the bathroom. Listens to the shower, but can’t be bothered to move himself, even though the sound is reminding him he drank a lot of water last night – important with those pills, apparently – and he really should go and piss. Watches Malcolm come back, still towelling himself off, fling the towel down, wander about dressing and gathering up wallet, watch, keys.

Malcolm sits on the bed, ignoring Stuart completely, but for once he isn't bothered, just watching as the lovers kiss again, slowly. Barely awake, Cas responds, arms coming up and round, eyes still closed. Eventually Malcolm pulls back,

“Sorry love. Can’t stay and play. Work. Any chance of you doing some ironing today, this is my last shirt? Otherwise I’m stealing yours tomorrow, just so you know. And we’re out of bread. And most things I think. Look, I need the car, go shopping, I’ll pick you up, about, say, six? If I’m not there by half-past, get a taxi, but I will be. I’ll park usual side of the car-park. Did you hear any of that?”

Cas grunts.

Malcolm sighs.

“I’ll phone you lunchtime, if I get chance, busy day though,” he turns, sees Stuart awake and watching, “tell him. He’ll be human in a couple of hours. Shag him first, then tell him, he’ll listen better that way,” he grins, “wish I could stay, do you again. See you around, I daresay.”

Leans back down, kisses Cas again, goes.

Stuart lies there, thinking.

When Cas is finally awake, and blimey, those pills – two more goes, in fact – he looks more carefully at him.

“So, all that – do the ironing, do the shopping – you some kind of wife?”

Cas smiles, slow and easy,

“You reckon? Some days, yeah, that’s the way of it. You could say. I work odd days, odd hours – can be away for a month, can work all night, clock up sixteen, twenty chargeable hours – or I can be like now, nothing much doing,” he grins at Stuart’s confusion, “translator. But no, honestly, I’m no wife. Lacking a few rather important features,” his face twists briefly, “not to mention the legal side. Just – we do what works. Other days, I’m out of bed, expecting him to pack my bag, make me lunch, and he does. Today, I’m the lucky one, so I’ll do the ironing and shopping,” he shrugs, “it’s called love, Stu-ey. You’ll maybe understand one day.”

Stuart frowns,

“But last night – this morning – isn't ‘love’ all that bullshit about not shagging other people?“

Cas grins again,

“Who told you that?”

“My friend’s always on about it –“

“Oh well, girls. They’re different. No harm in it, they just – don’t get it. Blokes are wired different, though don’t tell my sister I said that, she’d kill me.”

“My friend’s not a girl.”

“Yes, but if he’s straight – makes sense to convince yourself if you’ve got to live that way. Or real romantic type? Our eldest brother’s like that, youngest – nope. Just jealous. Got married too young, for the wrong reasons, always regretted it. No helping some people.”

Stuart blinks, he’d thought he was unshockable,

“You’re brothers?”

Cas shrugs,

“Kind of. Not really, only by marriage of parents, his father, my mother, we were far too old for it to be inhibiting. Anyway. Off you go, can’t give you a lift.”

Stuart stands, finishes his coffee,

“You always wear those earrings, the both of you?”

“Yup, since we were eighteen. Now sod off, have a nice life – you’re gorgeous, Stu-ey, but one rule we have – no repeats. I’ll buy you a drink sometime.”

“If you’re lucky,” but there’s no anger in it. Stuart doesn’t do repeats himself, unless he’s really desperate.

Besides, he has a lot to think about, and shopping to do.

 

 

 

 

“So, go on then, how were the other times? As good?” Vince doesn’t look at Stuart, he’s busy, concentrating, folding and packing clothes, making trips to and from the wardrobe, the chest of drawers, back to the suitcase open on the bed.

Stuart leans back, sprawled alongside it, comfortable, beautiful, assured.

“Yeah. Yeah, really good. You should try it. Two gorgeous blokes, all that skill, attention – fucking excellent. Told you last night was going to be something special, my last night on the Street for months. ”

He stops, trying to decide if Vince actually wants the blow-by-blow (smiles to himself at the pun) account, or not, but before he can, Vince speaks again,

“I don’t know how you could. Honestly Stuart. They’ve been together years those two. Even you must know that. Proper couple. And you – just for one night – you go in and – screw things up for them.”

He’s angry.

Really angry.

Rare that. And not afraid to show it, even today.

Stuart takes a moment to pause and think.

“I’ve seen them around so often. They’ve always been so – easy – together,” Vince goes on, never one to let a sentence take the place of a paragraph, never one to say what’s really hurt him, to let even himself notice the ache that ‘something special’ wasn’t what he’s been waiting so long for, “they’ve got like – proper trust. And – and you just – it’s like you don’t care about anyone.”

Stuart raises an eyebrow. Then,

“Proper trust? They were there, weren’t they? Looking. Don’t know why else they’d be shopping if they weren’t going to buy.”

Vince’s mouth a thin line, eyes firmly on the clothes he is folding,

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe they just wanted a drink, meet up with friends, like normal people do. It doesn’t always have to be about sex. It is possible to go out without copping off –“

“Yeah, well, you’d know all about that,” Stuart regrets it the second the words are out, the point scored, “fucks sake Vince. They’re adults. They knew what they were doing,” and then, the conversation still fresh in his mind, “anyway, all that – trust – bollocks. Isn't that just something straights invented to make sure they only pay for their own kids?”

Vince shrugs, swallows,

“Yeah, right,” he says, quiet, defeated, and Stuart winces at his own words, Jesus, tactless, much? before Vince adds, “all the same. I’d like that. One day. If – if I was – with someone – in love – I’d not want anyone else – I’d like to think he wouldn’t want anyone else. Ever. Wouldn’t you?”

Words that reach out, stealthy, trying to say things that can’t be said.

“Once I’ve been with someone, they don’t want anyone else. Ever,” Stuart grins, “that’s the secret of my success, Vinnie, don’t you know that yet?”

Silence.

“Oh for fucks sake, don’t start one of your sulks. It was one night, a bit of fun, they do it all the fucking time, it’s no big deal to them, threesomes, nights apart, doesn’t bother them. Been together long enough not to care. It’s just sex,” he laughs, trying to show what can’t be said, to show what’s important and what isn't, “you should have heard them this morning. Disgustingly fucking domesticated.”

Vince nods, staring into the almost empty wardrobe, eyes seeing an imagined world,

“God, catch me being like that. You want these packing? Christ, I can’t remember the last time I saw you wear this. Only if you don’t take it, your mum will be upset, she bought you that last summer. In that sale. Half off, she said, better right off, you said when she’d gone.” He stops, still looking into the space behind the hangers, searching for fucking Narnia Stuart thinks, then, “be funny. You being away. Never know, I might be taken by the time you get home at Christmas, might have found myself a proper boyfriend.”

Stuart laughs, and after a moment, Vince joins in.

Pulls himself together, turns back,

“Anyway,” gestures, “I reckon you’re all done there. The entire approved wardrobe of Stuart Alan Jones, all ready to go,” nods, and then, “brought you this lot an’ all.”

He opens the top of the cardboard box standing on the desk,

“Stuff to go on toast, marmite, peanut butter, chocolate spread – or not on toast, knowing you – teabags, coffee, that white powder ‘cos you don’t know if you’ll have a fridge, and even if you do some bastard’ll nick the milk – what am I saying, you’re the bastard who’ll nick other people’s milk, but still – sugar, extra teaspoons ‘cos I know what you’re like, chocolate. Biscuits. I know you don’t eat biscuits and you don’t like tea, but you might make friends.”

Pauses, again, longing to be asked down to visit. Knowing he won’t be. Not cool enough. Not the kind of friend Stuart is going to want to show off. Knowing today is the end of it, that things won’t be the same. That dreams don’t come true.

“Some of those crackerbread things. ‘Case you can’t manage to buy bread, I know you. Pot-noodles. Vodka. Whiskey. Lube. Condoms. Staff discount, it’s great,” knowing Stuart has no idea how small the discount is, or how many hours work the box of goods represents. Reaches into the box, shows a piece of paper covered in scrawled blue ink, “and this. I wrote out washing instructions. Which clothes on which wash, what the symbols look like, which tumble. I mean, I don’t know if there’ll be dryers, or what, or if there’s somewhere – no, I think it said there was a laundry room in your Hall – but – I know your mum’s expecting you just to bring it all home, but – you can’t, surely. Not you, go ten weeks without clean pants. And I don’t reckon you’ll have the money to pay for a service wash –“ remembers Stuart probably has no idea what that means, growing up in this house, “that’s where someone does it all for you, hands it back clean, dry and folded – so, I thought I’d write it down. And – washing powder. And there’s a couple of lightbulbs, the ones your desklamp takes, stamps ‘cos your mum will want you to write, spare biros, knew you’d’ve remembered all the bathroom-stuff, that’s something you’d never skimp on – teatowel, washingup cloth, liquid, ‘cos whatever your mum thinks, I’m not so sure you’ll have a queue of girls and I know what you’re like about using mugs someone else has – “

Stuart pushes himself upright, a lump somewhere in his throat that he won’t acknowledge, the thought of months without this not welcome. But Vince can’t afford to come down, doesn’t have much holiday allowance, has been going on about saving up days for some unspecified treat, saving money ever since he started this shit job of his – probably going to be wanting a place of his own, surely, even Hazel isn't going to put up with a stream of men in and out once he finally realises his own attractions. Not fair to ask him, and Stuart’s only got what his parents give him – he can’t pay.

Stands behind Vince, looking down at the box of food and all the rest of it. Puts his arms round Vince, breathes in the scent of him, revels in it for a long moment.

“Don’t you dare go moving in with some tosser. We’re going to live together, once I’m earning. We always said. Yeah?”

Vince nods, wanting so badly to believe it, wanting so badly to believe in the arms holding him,

“Yeah. ‘K.”

One arm still holding Vince across the chest, Stuart slips his other hand into his pocket. Brings something out.

“Give me your hand,” he says, and then slips the bracelet on, puts his arm alongside so Vince can see the match, “there. Don’t you go taking it off now. Fuck. S’only ten weeks. Three years. Nothing. And then – then we’ll get our place.”

Both of them silent for a moment, both of them wondering what to say now, what to do, how to go on with this day, this day which seems to be stretching endlessly and yet – and yet isn't going to last forever.

There’s a tap at the door, and they move apart, not guiltily, not springing, just slowly, years of practice.

Stuart’s mum smiles at Vince,

“Oh aren’t you good, sat there watching himself doing all this. Not regretting not going now, are you?” as Vince shrugs, wordless, “no, well, you’re better off where you are, seems to me, three years’ time you’ll have all that experience behind you, money put away, be ready to settle down I’d say, when himself is still job-hunting. There, I know, your dad says it’s the thing these days, got to be a graduate he says, but – oh well. Anyway, I came up to say dinner won’t be long – you’ll not mind if I say family dinner, Vince? You’ve had him all day, his dad’ll have him tomorrow in the car, Marie and I want a chance now.”

She smiles, brittle, a woman clinging on to her composure; for all she’s proud, desperately proud of her clever boy, tomorrow night’s quiet house doesn’t bear thinking of.

“No, it’s fine, I’ll be off then. Up early tomorrow, you know how it is,” Vince pauses, but Stuart just nods, and Margaret doesn’t move, “right-o. See you then.”

“Not if I see you first,” the accepted response. Vince half-frowns, nods again,

“Bye Mrs Jones.”

“Good-bye Vince, now don’t be a stranger. I daresay there’ll be cake wanting eating without this one around to finish everything,” because now it comes to it, suddenly the thought of not seeing him for months, not hearing his stories about work and his mother, and his little sister – after four years, it’s a wrench. Another loss, dwarfed by the greater but real.

Vince nods again, mouth tight, concentrating now on getting out of here, getting home before he shows any of it.

Down the stairs, out of the door and walking home. Walking the route he knows so well, not even having to think where to cross roads, where to turn.

Getting home, unlocking the door, sighing.

Kicking off shoes, about to go up to his room and hide.

“Vinnie?! Vinnie, love, that you?”

“Yes mum,” as though it would be anyone else.

“That Margaret not fed you then? Said she’d kick you out, didn’t I? Don’t you start, I know, she’s a right to want her family night tonight. Best make the most of it, hadn’t she, I’m not convinced he’ll be back once he sees the bright lights,” thanks mum, thanks for that thought, “go on now, don’t stand there with a face like a wet week. Go and find one of your videos, cheer you up, I thought you’d not be long, fishfinger sandwiches, baked Alaska and custard for pudding. Out of a packet, but none the worse for that. Go on, go through, I bet he’s had you running round after him all day – “ and you’ll not say no to him, not never, though it might be the making of both of you. Went wrong somewhere, didn’t I Vinnie, somewhere I failed to give you the gumption of a goose.

Vince trudges through to the sitting room, already in his mind searching through the collection, which Doctor will help this, drown it out?

Stops, seeing what’s on the sofa.

Bites his lip.

I’m not crying. Boys don’t cry.

Swallows hard before he can speak.

“You’ve not got that one, have you?” Hazel calls, “Only it was on offer in town,” like hell it was. Bought it two months back. Been terrified you’d decide you were too old for all this now, god knows why you would, “put it on, do. Be nice to see a different one for a change. Just find the gin to go with it.”

It takes him two tries to get the words out audibly,

“Thanks mum.”

The music is playing as Hazel brings plates through,

“Mind, you’re not stopping in moping every night. That Simon Harris was looking at you last night, not that you noticed. He’s nice –“

“Mu-um.”

“- tall, dark, handsome in the right light –“

“Mu-um.”

“ – own flat, well it’s rented but still, he’s got a good job, car – “

“Mu-um.”

“- shags like a demon, apparently.”

“Mu-um!”

“You could do worse.”

“Mu-um, give over.”

“I’m just saying. Do you good,” but the story has started now, she’s lost her audience, mesmerised, as ever, “not that I want you gone,” she adds, quietly, thinking of Margaret and how quiet that house will feel tomorrow.

From somewhere Vince summons a half-smile,

“Not much chance of that.”

Hazel reaches out to pat his hand, wonders at the bracelet. She’d love to ask, to find out what it means, but he’s looked away, lost once more, and isn't that why she bought the video? Besides, if it meant what it ought to bloody mean, he’d be lit up like a Christmas tree. You could have gone to London if you wanted, she thinks, you could do anything you wanted, have anyone you wanted, if you only tried. But if I haven’t taught you that by now, I don’t know how I can.

 

 

 

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