"Just talk to him. Let him hear your voice."
Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? Well let me tell you, mate, it's not so bloody simple when you're the one doing the talking. When this is over I'd like to stick one of them in this chair for a week or so and see how they enjoy keeping it up for hours on end, day after bleedin' day without so much as a grunt of encouragement. Give 'em a taste of their own medicine.
Yeah and you can wipe that smirk off your face, you crude bugger; you know what I meant.
One small mercy; at least they've seen sense and left us alone for a bit. I keep telling them this is quite hard enough without an audience. That little nurse yesterday, the chatty one with the big--eyes, Bodie, big brown eyes. She's decorative enough, but she was in and out of here all afternoon with a clipboard taking notes for God's sake. "Don't mind me," she says. "You carry on." Oh certainly, no bother; did my inhibitions no end of good. Knew there was a reason I never went in for public speaking.
Better when it's just the two of us like this, eh?
So, come on then, how about you start us off for a change.
No? Quite sure? Well all right, since you insist.
Let's see. I did my bit and put in an appearance at HQ this morning to go through the reports. Said all along it was a waste of time, but I didn't think I'd get away with putting it off much longer. As the Old Man was kind enough to point out, there's nothing wrong with my eyesight. So I looked at some photos with Murphy--no familiar faces; think we're back to our freelance nutter theory on this one--and watched some of the news footage. That was a joke. Not much left for them to get their teeth into after Cowley'd finished with the old blue pencil.
'Course Murph pops out for a slash halfway through, and guess who wanders in two seconds later, ever so casual, "Just happened to be passing"? Oh what a surprise, it's our friend Dr Ross. Heard the latest when she came in (been thoroughly briefed by Cowley, more like), and did I want to talk about it? No I bloody didn't. "Give us a break," I told her. "Hardly had a chance to take it in myself yet."
She let it pass for now, but I knew I hadn't heard the last of it.
Right enough, I got the summons to the inner sanctum halfway through the morning. Here we go, I thought. But no. Wasted twenty minutes twiddling my thumbs waiting for the Cow to get off the phone and then when he finally deigns to notice me as he bolts out the door on the way to some ministerial doo-dah all he has to say is "Och, Doyle, you're not still sitting there are you?" as if the whole thing was my idea. Tells me he hasn't got time for me now and he'll see me when he looks in on you tonight. Well thank you, Mr Cowley. Halfway across London on the bus--bloody nuisance being off the road at a time like this, but I don't have much choice with these sodding ribs - and I could've saved myself the bother. I wonder if he isn't losing his grip, sometimes.
The rest room was seething. Night shift just in off the Marchioness Road obbo. Seems Slattery showed his face at last so they were in a high old mood. Wanted to drag me down the Red Lion at lunchtime but I told them I'd got a bus to catch. Not sure I'm up to a lot of snappy backchat, and I really didn't fancy the prospect of drowning my sorrows in orange juice while the rest of them got rat-arsed. Which reminds me, Ruth and Sally both send their love. And I don't know what you've got on Betty, but it turns out those mystery chrysanths were from her. I wouldn't've believed she could blush; made her look quite human. Oh, and Lucas says you're to stop skiving and get back on your feet 'cause they're two down for the darts on the twenty-fifth and that no-hoper Packenham's sprained his wrist.
Yeah, well that's what you'd naturally assume with Packenham, isn't it? But he swears he did it sailing.
Anyway, I've told you about the strange goings on outside the flats on Sunday night. And trust me you don't want to know how we're doing in the test match. So... Your turn.
You know, I'm not asking for a standing ovation, but I might appreciate a hint there's something going on under all those bandages. We're a team, remember. Meant to back each other up. So how come you've got me doing all the work, eh?
No, no, that's okay. That's fine. You carry on playing hard to get for now. But I'm going to keep talking regardless, so if you can hear me, pay attention, all right, because there's something I've been wanting to get off my chest.
You're going to love this, sunshine. It's Cowley. Bloody Cowley.
Only went and told them about us, didn't he?
Yeah, my thoughts precisely. But you're gonna have to join the queue, mate. Remember it's me has to sit here all day pretending I don't notice the sideways looks and giggles while the news circulates to your admirers out there.
Trouble is, I have this nasty suspicion he actually thinks I should be grateful. And he has a point, I suppose. Shouldn't imagine I'd be sitting here now if he wasn't such an old hand at smoothing ruffled feathers. And to be fair, I don't think he meant it to end up public knowledge. Just didn't count on this place being as much of a rumour mill as good old CI5.
Oh yes, you're quite the celebrity in here, didn't you know?
Point is, you had us worried for a couple of days, you see. Don't know why; should've remembered only the good die young. But things weren't looking too clever for a while and they had you back in Intensive Care, strictly no visitors. Never crossed my mind they'd include me. Tried to explain, didn't I, but they wouldn't budge. Spouse and immediate family only. Another one of their bloody stupid rules.
Yeah, I know. But what could I say?
I was already in enough of a state when they brought us in, staggering around trying to get someone to stop fussing long enough to tell me what was going on. God, they're a tight-lipped crew, these medical types. You'd think it was them had to sign the Official Secrets Act, not us. They wouldn't even let me see you. All I managed to prise out of them was that you were "Very poorly" and they were "Doing everything possible". Poorly. I ask you. Think I could have worked that out for myself.
Give him his due, the Cow was magnificent. You should have seen the way he laid into that hoity-toity casualty sister. But even he couldn't wangle more than a minute with you before they whisked you off to surgery. I was waiting for him when he came out. I don't think he was expecting me to escape from X-ray so soon; he didn't notice me at first. Of course he made an effort when he saw me. Read me the riot act about getting back downstairs and having myself seen to properly, but that first few seconds before he knew I was watching...Well, let's just say it was one of those times you suddenly realise he's not a young man any more. Had me imagining all kinds of horrors.
So what with that and the concussion and feeling like some joker'd run a steamroller over my ribs while I wasn't looking (pack quite a punch, those flying tackles of yours, don't they? Do me a favour next time and just shout would you?), I'd had more than enough by the time they tried to chivvy me back upstairs. I don't remember what I said exactly, but I've a feeling I wasn't at my most diplomatic. Anyway, the conversation started getting a little heated and the Cow turned up just as they were threatening to set Security onto me. I was thinking I'd have to fight him as well, but he just gives me one of his withering looks, takes the man in charge to one side, and leaves me standing like a lemon in the middle of the corridor while he and the white coat go off into a huddle in the corner.
Next thing I know, Security's been called off and I'm sat by your bed with someone shoving a cuppa into my hand, watching your chest going up and down in time to that bellows thing they've got you hooked up to and doing my best to concentrate on your lady doctor trying to explain what all those numbers and flashing lights and blips on the screen are supposed to mean.
It was good of her to want to set my mind at rest, but frankly I was far too busy getting my head round the sight of you lying there white as a sheet plugged in to all that machinery to take in more than one word in ten--let alone wonder why I qualified for the tea and sympathy treatment all of a sudden. It wasn't till after I'd surfaced enough to remember there was still a world outside Intensive Care and happened to catch the tail-end of a couple of comments I wasn't supposed to hear that I started putting two and two together.
I was out for blood; all ready to storm round and tell the Old Man exactly what I thought of him spreading our private life half way round the NHS. But I'd forgotten the canny old so-and-so was off on that joint terrorism conference up in Birmingham this weekend, so I had some time to simmer down and...Still can't say I like it but...Well listen, now it's done, maybe it's really not such a bad thing. Means at least I don't have to be shy about touching you.
Ah now, relax, you berk, there's no need to get all uptight and shifty. I don't intend to start slobbering over you in front of the assembled company. It's only... You remember how it was when I was laid up in here after the Lin Fo fiasco? I was miserable and frightened and raging at everything. I really thought I'd blown it that time. It hurt like hell when I was awake, and those pills they gave me just brought on the dreams. If it hadn't been for you...
Put it this way; if I'd been thirty years younger and had a different mother I'd have been crying for her. Wouldn't care to admit how close I came sometimes to crying for you. Would've loved that, wouldn't you?
Thing is, I know you came in as often you could; whenever Cowley was gracious enough to spare you. But I needed more than the odd half hour once or twice a day. Nights were the worst. I used to lie there sometimes in the small hours willing you to walk through the door. I'd send myself to sleep imagining you sitting there beside the bed with the crossword, just keeping me company the way you used to when I was feeling too low to talk.
Probably would've been a lot easier all round if we'd just come clean to the Cow right away. But that was back in the early days when we were still getting used to the idea ourselves, and so dead set on not giving anything away that even the times you did actually manage to visit you'd hardly come near me. The way people keep barging in on you round here, we always had half an eye on the door even when we were alone. You'd have thought there was something dirty about it, the way we leapt apart whenever we so much as heard a footstep in the corridor. And it was so bloody stupid all that cloak and dagger stuff. As if I could ever persuade you to do anything more scandalous than hold my hand.
Well I just wanted you to know it can be different this time. I won't embarrass you, but if you need the odd bit of TLC now and again I'll be here. And with me officially on the sick list too, Cowley can go whistle. Do him good to let someone else handle it for a change. Blimey, you'd think sometimes we're the only team he's got.
Anyway, now that's settled, what can I--oh, yeh, I know. This'll cheer you up; do that fragile ego of yours a world of good. Remember what I was saying about your admirers in the nursing fraternity? Yeah, well you'll be reassured to hear that in amongst the giggles I intercepted some very wistful looks when the news first filtered through. I think you disappointed them there, mate; still too bloody beautiful for your own good even with half your face covered in gauze. 'Fraid that lady doctor of yours didn't bat an eyelid, of course, but I wouldn't worry too much about losing your touch; she must be fifty if she's a day. Bit of a battle-axe, too, but--to coin a phrase--not bad for an old 'un. She fought hard enough for you anyway, so she gets my vote.
Funnily enough, I reckon she was pleased more than anything--about us I mean--moved me out of the nuisance category and into the realms of alternative therapy, you see. This was all her idea, you know. Soon as they brought you back up here she drafted me.
"You might find it difficult at first," she says. "But just talk. Don't worry about whether or not he can understand you, it's the sound of your voice that's important."
"Yeah, but what do I talk about?" I say, and she says, "Anything at all. Just whatever's on your mind." Oh, ta very much. A lot of help, that was. The only ground rule as far as I can see is that I'm meant to keep it positive. 'Happy talk, keep talking happy talk', and all that. Don't want you waking up and slitting your wrists, do we? Or the one that isn't already in plaster at any rate.
But that was four days ago, you lazy sod. You're still off in dreamland, and I'm all out of humorous anecdotes and witty repartee. Tried reading you the sports pages yesterday, but the way England's been performing lately that's getting dangerously close to wrist-slitting territory.
I need some new material.
You know what I've been thinking about? Don't know why. France, La Belle France. And you and me that first night.
One of the best nights of my life that was--strange as it may seem.
Reminds me of that old one-liner: "But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" Haven't been able to look a prawn cocktail in the face since, have you?
Whatever's on my mind, she said. Well what the hell. We're on our own here, aren't we?
You sitting comfortably, Bodie? I want to tell you a story...
We'd made that escort run to the Continent, remember? Nothing complicated; should've been a quick in and out job. Only a fog came up during the afternoon and all the planes were grounded. We went through the motions--more so's we could report back to Cowley with a clean conscience than anything else--but when we got to the coast the ferries weren't running and no-one in his right mind was going to risk taking us out in anything smaller. So there we were. Stranded. No instructions from base, out of RT range, dusk coming on and barely enough currency between the two of us for a meal and a room for the night.
After the way things had been building between us that last couple of months it was like the answer to a prayer. Kismet.
We came out of the harbour master's office onto the quayside and stood there on the cobbles, getting our bearings and listening to the slap of the waves on the harbour wall and the creaking and settling of the boats moored against the quay.
I shrugged. "Well," I said, on the basis it was only good form to make an effort to come over suitably pissed off, "that's it then. Looks like we're here for the duration."
You nodded. "Looks like it."
Our eyes met. I was damned if I was going to be the one to crack first, but if you were going to keep looking at me like that...
You gave me a break and gestured back over your shoulder, swallowing a smile. "Decent old boy, wasn't he?"
"Mmm." He had been. A well-weathered Captain Birdseye type, more impressed with your seafaring credentials than our CI5 IDs. "Could tell you were enjoying yourself."
"Reminded me of my Uncle Gerry."
My ears pricked up at that. Cagey, I called you once, but that was an understatement. You're a proper master of misdirection when it comes to that mysterious B-movie past of yours, and woe betide the curious. But I've learned a thing or two since the early days. Rule number one: keep it casual.
"Yeah." You nodded out towards the open harbour where we'd seen the big cargo ships at anchor that morning. "He was on supply ships during the war. Lost a leg when they were torpedoed. He was a regular hero to us kids. Used to hold court round our place Sunday afternoons. Told some very colourful tales, if you know what I mean. And he had these postcards..." You grinned, remembering, and I was tickled to hear the Scouse twang in your voice very much in evidence as you went on, "Our mam would've had a fit. Yeh, he's got a lot to answer for, has my Uncle Gerry. All those Boy's Own yarns he fed us; action and adventure on the high seas, you know. Fell for them hook line and sinker, didn't I? Skipped school, lied about my age and off down the docks with me little spotted hanky."
You pulled a rueful face, inviting me to share the joke. "Took me all of two days swabbing decks and puking my guts out on the North Atlantic run to realise I'd been had. Too late of course. Had to serve out my time after that till I saw my chance and jumped ship in Dakar."
Now that was one story I did recognise; the official version at any rate. "When you and the Captain had that..."
You smirked. "Difference of opinion about the girl. Yeah. Real looker she was, and the morals of an alley cat. Four days after the ship left port she cleaned out my pockets and ran off with the bloke who played piano in the bar downstairs." Your voice faded as you turned away towards the sea. "I was eighteen."
And already a survivor. I watched you walk away, imagining you at fifteen or sixteen, smart and serious in your seaman's uniform; at eighteen, broke and alone in some African back street...
Swabbing decks. Sounded like something out of Treasure Island.
Full of surprises, you are.
I didn't say anything at the time, of course--wouldn't do to let on I was impressed--but I was proud of you in there. Playing the old sea dog and chatting away so knowledgeably about tides and navigation and all that; drawing the old man out with your enthusiasm. We all know you can give Prince Charming lessons when you put your mind to it, but I like to think I can tell when it's the real thing.
Didn't get us a boat, though, did it? Thank God.
You'd wandered over to lean on the promenade railing, in a wash of misty ochre light from the old-fashioned wrought-iron street lamps. Shame that cosy glow was only an illusion. It was perishing so close to the water, and I shivered in sympathy as you turned up your collar and stuffed your hands in your pockets, squinting out into the sighing white emptiness on the other side of the balustrade.
I sauntered across to join you. It was hard to believe that less than twelve hours ago we'd stood at that same railing to watch the herring boats come chugging home out of the sun across a sea so bright it hurt our eyes to look at it.
For a long time we just stood shoulder to shoulder for warmth, listening to the drag of the waves across the shingle and the muffled booming of fog-horns out in the channel. Sounds had this disconcerting way of bouncing off the blanket of fog over the water and coming back at you from unexpected angles so you could never quite sort out where they belonged; an unsettling, topsy-turvy feeling like looking too long at a Dali landscape. I was more than usually glad of you at my side, comfortably solid and familiar.
Until you moved outside our narrow circle of light, and that dark leather jacket and polo-neck of yours blended into the dusk like camouflage gear, making even you seem suddenly like a stranger; all pale face and dark shadows, sinister and mysterious like something from an old spy movie.
Just as I placed the memory and went to open my mouth, you turned to me with a half smile and a raised eyebrow: "Remember The Third Man?"
"Yeah." Was she stacked? "Alida..." I started.
"...Valli" you finished triumphantly.
We grinned at each other.
Everything was so quiet. All the little everyday noises of people and traffic were deadened by the fog or drowned by the sounds of the sea, and there hadn't been a soul on the streets on our way over. If it wasn't for the odd gull materialising out of the mist, we might have been the only living things in the whole town. It was eerie. The place felt almost unreal; all its life banked down and sleeping like the enchanted city in a fairytale.
"Actually it's more like Brigadoon," I said, and your smile got wider.
"Fancy a bit of roamin' in the gloamin', then?"
All roads look the same in the fog, so we picked a direction at random and strolled off along a little winding lane, keeping close to the buildings at the side just in case some local boy racer took it into his head to give his brakes a test run.
It was cold and damp. When I licked my lips they tasted salt, and the foggy air was full of that special seaside tang. Not sun-tan oil and candyfloss: the stuff that clears your sinuses--ozone or iodine or whatever it is, mixed in with the dirty-stone smell of old buildings and wet pavement. Under the street lamps, tiny droplets of water had settled on your hair like a spiderweb hairnet. Oberon the fairy prince in a leather jacket and shoulder holster.
I tucked in my chin to hide a smile, and buried my chilly nose in my scarf, while you huddled deeper into the collar of your jacket. But you'd taken your hands out of your pockets to walk, and when our arms swung in synch I could feel the back of your hand brushing mine. I stole a quick sideways glance to see if you were doing it on purpose, but all I saw was your profile; eyes front, expression bland, very nonchalant. Well, deliberate or not, I liked it. So I did a sort of hop and shuffle and missed a stride to bring us into step, our arms swinging in unison, hands touching every time. Your mouth quivered and the skin around your eyes crinkled up the way it does when you're trying not to laugh, but you didn't look round or anything, just edged a bit closer till our shoulders were almost bumping.
After a while we came to a place where the pavement narrowed and some kid had left a bicycle chained to a bollard with barely enough room for us to get past even in single file. I was going to move ahead and sidle through the gap so you could hang back and follow, but you weren't having it. You shook your head, hooked your arm through mine, and detoured us into the road together without even breaking step. You steered us back onto the pavement where it widened a few feet up ahead, and turned to me with a quick, cocky grin. I remember the white flash of your teeth in the light from an unshuttered window. Silly sod. So you wanted to play games did you? Like the three-legged races they used to inflict on us at all those junior school sports days. Not the most dignified way for two grown men to behave, but a lot more fun than pitching over the finishing line roped to some other scabby-kneed brat at Manor Road Primary. And besides, if I'd made any objections it might've reminded you to let go my arm, mightn't it?
We must have kept walking for almost an hour I suppose, headed nowhere in particular. Frankly, for all the attention I paid, we could have been going in circles the whole time. I was just pleased that you seemed as keen as I was to avoid meeting anyone. That grew into a kind of game as well. Always looking for the narrowest lanes and alleyways; turning off or doubling back whenever we saw lights or heard voices. Once we even ducked into a doorway and waited, shaking with each other's smothered laughter until the coast was clear.
Every now and then I'd think I felt your eyes on me, but when I turned to see you'd be staring straight ahead all innocence and I'd wonder if I'd imagined it. I know I kept sneaking looks at you. The damp in the air was bringing out the wave in your hair--little kisscurls at your temples and the nape of your neck. Really winds you up, that, doesn't it? I don't see why. It looks good on you; very... Byronic. I could just see you in all that swashbuckling Regency get-up. Mad, bad and dangerous to know. And sexy as hell.
I chuckled, and you glanced round, ready to enjoy the joke.
I wasn't going to explain. "Nothing. Just...It's nice, this, isn't it?"
A damp, chilly night on a dingy street in a boring fog-bound little town...
You shook your head. "Sometimes, Raymond I wonder about you."
It was nice, though, wasn't it? After all that time, finally, just being close like that; my hand still trapped against your side, the push of your shoulder as we walked and sometimes your leg pressing the whole length of mine as if we were tied at the ankle. Nice? God, no. It was magic.
Bloody awkward too, of course, but I wasn't complaining. Well, not until I bumped into that shopping trolley anyway. And for your information, Mr Cool, I did not yell. I was just startled--quite understandably I'd say. I mean, what kind of an idiot leaves an empty supermarket trolley in the middle of an unlit pavement in thick fog? Someone could have done themselves a nasty injury. I nearly did you one, I can tell you. A bit of sympathy would have been nice, but oh no, you were too busy clutching your stomach and wheezing like an ageing hippopotamus. I'm glad you found it so amusing; couldn't see the funny side myself. My ankle took such a crack I'm surprised you can't still see the dent. Had a bruise that lasted a week.
Anyway, by the time I'd finished hopping around and swearing and you'd had a good bracing laugh at my expense we'd more or less killed the magic stone dead, and once the spell was broken the mist didn't seem so romantic any more; it was just a cold, wet, uncomfortable nuisance. My ankle was sore, my feet hadn't ached that way since I stopped pounding the beat for a living and I was starting to notice prosaic little inconveniences like a runny nose and a distressing lack of tissues.
"You're shivering," you pointed out helpfully as you passed over a clean hanky. "Feeling the cold?"
Others have remarked on this impressive gift you have for stating the obvious, and I'm usually the first to encourage natural talent, but that business with the trolley still rankled. I gave you the best scowl I could muster through three layers of Kleenex. "Me? No, mate. Whatever gave you that idea?"
You pointed across the street, fending me off when I tried to stuff the tissue back in your pocket. "Well--no please, you keep it--I am. Let's go in there."
I followed your pointing finger and made out the faint arch of illuminated windows.
"Bodie. It's a church. The lights are on. What if they're having a service?"
"Then we'll sit quietly at the back."
I looked at you. "Thought you didn't believe in all that."
You shrugged. "I don't. But I believe in being inside in the warm. C'mon Ray, I can hardly feel my feet and if your nose was any redder we'd be calling you Rudolph. Where else are we going to go?"
You were giving it the full 'orphan at the toyshop window' treatment you try on Brenda in the canteen when you reckon there's a chance of an extra fried slice. Works every time as well, you chancy bugger. And our Brenda's made of sterner stuff than me.
I'd already resigned myself to giving in ungracefully, but I was damned if I was going to surrender without at least a token show of resistance.
"What's wrong with a bar or a hotel? We need to get something sorted out for tonight anyway. Unless this newfound religious enthusiasm of yours comes with a taste for dossing in church porches?"
You gave me a reproachful look. "Ah, now don't be like that. We're not in any hurry are we? Look, let's go in just for a bit eh? Get warm, have a nose about then we'll go and find your bar. Should be right up your alley this--thought you loved all that arty stuff."
"What arty stuff? It's a church, not a museum."
"Ah yes, but churches, they're full of it too. Saw it in this guidebook at the ferry office. Statues and, erm," you scratched your nose, "stained glass. All sorts."
This place was in a guide book? Must've been a bloody slim volume.
"And when were you last inside a church to--" I made the mistake of meeting your eyes. "Yeah, yeah. All right. But not for long, okay."
You beamed, and we crossed the road.
"Oh look," you nudged me and tapped the board by the door where they print the times of masses and all that, "St Michael The Archangel--patron saint of socks and undies. Told you you'd feel right at home."
Be that as it may, I'd already made up my mind we weren't staying if there was a service on. Now I'd been given a taste of your undivided attention, all the 'arty stuff' in the world wasn't worth an hour of keeping my distance and sharing you with a lot of hymn-singing Frenchmen. No harm in humouring you for now, though, I supposed. And it would be nice to be out of the cold.
I'd been holding onto a sneaking hope the door would be locked. But it wasn't. It opened into a closed inner porch with benches on either side and another pair of double doors at the end. I couldn't hear anything from the other side, but even so...
I put my hand on your arm as you reached for the handle and said, "Warmer now we're under cover, isn't it? Why don't we just stay out here?"
You looked blank. "What for?"
God, you can be thick sometimes.
I shook my head. "Doesn't matter. Go on."
Habit's a powerful thing. Without even thinking about what prats we'd look if there did turn out to be anyone inside, we went at it the way we would on a job. You first, easing the inner door open a crack and sliding through silent as a shadow; me pressed against the wall outside, waiting for your signal to follow. Only difference was, the armoury stayed safely tucked away. You were only gone a few seconds and then your head poked back round the door.
That crisp, businesslike tone was so familiar, and so completely out of place, it brought on a very unbusinesslike urge to giggle. I nearly choked myself trying to hold it in, but in the end I couldn't keep back a kind of strangled whoop that had you swinging round to see what was the matter. After that, one look at your face finished me off completely, and I just doubled over.
You stared at me for a few more seconds as if I'd gone completely bonkers, and I could see you running a mental action replay trying to work out what on earth had set me off like that. Then the corners of your mouth started to twitch.
"God, Doyle," you said a couple of minutes later as we leant weakly against the wall, catching our breath and wiping hysterical tears from our eyes, "We really need a holiday."
"Tell that to the Cow." I pushed myself reluctantly away from the supporting stonework, "Mind you, he'd probably just congratulate himself on how well our training's taken." I gestured towards the open door. "C'mon, Kemo Sabe. After all that, we'd better go inside, hadn't we?"
"Hold it right there pardner." You were straddling the doorway, legs akimbo as if you'd just been kicked in the balls. Ah yes, your John Wayne. Or at least that was the charitable interpretation. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"Aye, laddie." That could have been anyone from Long John Silver to Lawrence Olivier--or even your infamous George Cowley, though it didn't sound German. I didn't have a clue what you were on about, of course, but bitter experience has taught me that once you get going on your impressions the best thing is just to let the attack run its course. So I gave a sort of non-committal grunt, smiled kindly and started to edge past you.
"Uh-uh, Raymond my son. Wait for it, wait for it..." Your palm landed flat in the middle of my chest, and I sighed and stood obediently while you made the final adjustments to your trademark 'mad mercenary' face, leered horribly and launched yourself in an explosive sideways roll back through the door.
"Oh my Gawd..."
I stayed by the door, doing my best to pretend I didn't know you, while the saner part of my mind reminded me to keep an eye on the street in case someone came by. The rest of my attention was right where you wanted it; years of scandalised childhood conditioning failing miserably to resist the glee on your face as you sprinted from cover to cover, making a big show of reconnoitring in all directions before you straightened from your guerrilla crouch, brushed off your lapels and emerged nonchalantly from behind the nearest pillar to usher me inside.
"You," I warned, poking you in the chest, "are going to get yourself struck by lightning going on like that."
"Ah, but you never know what could be lurking behind the altar rails, do you?"
"Ninja choir boys?"
You nodded seriously. "A crack squad of nun commandos."
"Armed to the teeth with deadly missals."
Sometimes I feel the higher forms of wit are wasted on you.
"Missals. You know... Missals: missiles?" Not a flicker. "Oh, never mind."
I gave your arm a comforting pat and turned my back on you to stroll out into the middle of the aisle and take a proper look around. It was big, a lot bigger than it looked from out on the street. Elegant too, in an airy, eighteenth century kind of way. Lord knows how they ever hoped to fill the place on Sundays in a run-down little town like that. And that smell--floor polish, incense, and candlewax. God, that took me back. When I was a kid I used to think that's what they meant by the odour of sanctity. One whiff and it was straight back to my altar boy days.
What d'you mean I never told you I'd been an altar boy? No, well, hardly surprising is it, the way your mind works. I can just imagine the kind of fun you'd have with that little snippet given half a chance. Oh, and before you go getting any clever ideas now the cat's out the bag, just you remember who knows the truth about you, the Cow's new Granada, and that red-headed aide to the Irish ambassador and think again.
My altar boy days--though mercifully brief--are probably half the reason I grew up wild like I did. Told you it was rough round our neck of the woods, and I wasn't exactly mister popularity at the best of times. Had a bit of a mouth on me in those days; used to get me into trouble. And it didn't help looking the way I did either. Bad enough trying to live down big eyes and curls during the week without being paraded every Sunday in a long frock and frilly pinny. Oh yeah, you laugh now, but it wasn't so bloody funny at the time. I'd be shitting myself all through the final blessing, praying I could make it back into civvies and out the side door to mingle with the congregation before that headcase Kevin Kennedy and his mates caught up with me.
Kevin bloody Kennedy. Wouldn't be surprised if that name's not on our files somewhere by now. What I said about someone like Macklin on every corner? Well, for a few months that summer he was the worst of them. Made my life hell, him and his little gang. Got to the point I'd be jumping at shadows every time I set foot outside the front door. They scared me and they knew it and, I tell you, it got me so fucking pissed off.
I couldn't go on like that. After mass one morning I picked myself out of the rhododendrons--again--set to mopping the nosebleed off my Sunday-best shirt--again--and decided enough was enough. If I didn't want to spend the rest of my life as a punchbag for nutters like Kevin, I was going to have to learn to take care of myself. So I copied the downtrodden heroes from all those corny American movies and took to haunting the local gym after school, sneaking in the back to watch the fighters.
It wasn't at all what I'd been led to expect. No gruff but kindly coach handing out homespun philosophy, just a lot of sweaty blokes beating the shit out of each other and a drinking pal of my dad's who recognised me straight off, patted me on the head and told me this was no place for a kid and to be a good lad and piss off back home before my mum came looking for me.
Talk about disillusioned. It was never like that in the pictures. But I didn't have a better plan, so I made myself inconspicuous--not difficult considering what a skinny, undersized little runt I was back then--and stuck around. And, as it turned out, it's as well I did. Once they realised they weren't going to get shot of me so easy they got used to me instead. Ended up adopting me as a sort of mascot; let me make the tea, sweep the mats, that kind of thing. And after a while there was this one chap used to work out there--Stan Reynolds his name was; ex-featherweight champ, minor villain and local hero--took me under his wing and taught me a few moves.
That was when everything changed. No, I didn't turn into Ali overnight, but once word got around that Stan was taking an interest even Kev eased off. Wasn't so eager to mess with Stan's little protégé, you see. No-one wanted to get on the wrong side of Stan.
There was a price, of course. I mean even at the tender age of nine or ten I wasn't so green I couldn't understand you have to earn a break like that. My end of the deal was doing 'little favours' for Stan and his business associates.
No, nothing like that, you twit! Running errands, passing messages, that kind of thing. And I loved it. I was on the inside for a change, you see; or at least it felt that way. Part of the action. Oh, sure, I cottoned on that a lot of his 'business' wasn't strictly legit--well, let's face it, it wasn't exactly a state secret that half the kosher businesses in the area were paying a lot more dearly than I was for Stan's 'protection'--but that just added to the thrill. Secret assignations, mysterious parcels, men in dark suits and flash cars like the gangsters I'd grown up on at the Saturday morning flicks...It was all a big game to me then. Glamour, risk, excitement--what more could a red-blooded ten-year-old ask?
Even a couple of close shaves with the law didn't put me off. Well, why would they? Like I told you that night down in Berkshire, I always got away with it.
And I know what you're thinking. So, before you ask; no, the big scrap when I cut up the McGregor kid was years later. Not long after Dad walked out. I was fifteen, going on sixteen, deep in my Rebel Without a Cause phase, and well past the age where dabbling on the wrong side of the law was any kind of a game to me any more.
I'm not proud of it, but I got away with that one as well--at least as far as the Old Bill were concerned. McGregor's friends weren't quite so understanding of course. Though I suppose you could say they did me a favour too in a way. No-one ever called me pretty again after they caught up with me, that's for certain. Should probably thank them for that.
What d'you mean, bitter? Nah. Brought it on myself, didn't I.
What can I say? That whole business was...Well, it put the wind up me. Made me think. Not so much the beating. That was bad but...It was more what it made me realise about myself, you know what I mean? Seeing what I'd come to; what I was capable of. I've always been a bit quick with my fists, but this was different. I had a good enough reason, mind. Never could stand a bully. And he pulled the knife first but... Look, I'll tell you all about it some other time, okay. You have a right to know. Only...'happy talk', remember, so not right now, I think.
Anyway, it wouldn't have taken anything that extreme to convince the world I wasn't altar boy material. That old prig Father Sutton didn't like my attitude from the start--'belligerent, irreverent and unco-operative' was just the warm-up as I remember--and getting caught snogging one of the choir girls in the vestry after the Palm Sunday procession didn't hurt either. Wasn't long before I was out on my ear. And not a minute too soon as far as I was concerned. My only regret was getting myself banned from the annual bank holiday coach trip to Blackpool. Closest we ever came to a seaside holiday that was; highspot of the parish year. You can imagine the disgrace.
I hardly set foot in a church after that except for weddings and funerals. Never mind what else I was mixed up in, the way the family carried on, you'd've thought it was the end of the world when I announced I wasn't getting confirmed. Knowing my mum, you see, I suspect once upon a time she'd had her pious little convert's heart set on a priest in the family, so I really screwed things up there. Not that she's ever needed my help to find reasons to be disappointed in me. She--here, hang on a mo', what does all this have to do with us in France? How'd you get me off on that tangent, eh? Ancient history, mate. You don't want to hear it, believe me.
So, where'd I got to before I let myself get sidetracked? Oh but of course, where else? Down memory lane...
"Huh?" It really felt like you were calling me back from years away. "What?"
"Off with the fairies, mate. I was remarking that this is more like it. Cracking central heating, eh?"
And this from a man who'll quote Keats at the drop of a hat.
"Oh yeah. Well worth a detour. 'Spect they mention it in that book of yours, don't they? Right next to the page about the magnificent damp proof coursing at Versailles."
I had to laugh. "I said yes, you bloody Philistine, this is more like it."
"Oh." You gave me a narrow-eyed look, but decided to let it pass. "So. Thinking deep thoughts, were we?"
Not so much deep as distant. And not worth the time it'd take to tell them.
"As a matter of fact," I said instead, "I was just wondering where exactly all these works of art are I've been promised."
"Ah! Well," you rubbed your hands together gleefully, "you know what they say, don't you? Seek, and ye shall find."
And off you went on your merry way, leaving me itching to wrap that smug little 'I know something you don't know' smirk round the back of your neck. Why me, oh Lord, why me? Last time you'd got that look in your eye I'd been the one ended up trying to explain to Cowley how the natty pinstriped number in his office wardrobe transformed itself overnight into a French maid's outfit complete with fishnets and stilettos, and it wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat.
I caught up with you peering earnestly at the banks of family monuments along one of the side aisles. Now I knew you were up to no good. All right, so we were doing the tourist bit, and you've never been one to do things by halves I know, but tombstones, for God's sake? And foreign ones at that. All those early morning runs when you wouldn't let me stop and read the gravestones in the Brompton because it was 'morbid'--and there you were poring over this lot as if your life depended on it; nose pressed to the stone, screwing up your eyes to make out all that faded, old-fashioned lettering. It made my eyeballs ache just watching you. And it didn't do a thing for the suspicious itch at the back of my neck.
But we'd been up and dashing about since before five, and being relaxed and in the warm again for the first time in a good few hours was making me drowsy. Sod it, I thought, as I smothered another yawn. I'd no doubt find out what you were up to soon enough, so why waste energy worrying about it? In fact, left to my own devices I'd've made the most of the chance to settle down in one of the pews, take the weight off my feet and grab some kip while you got on with it. Only you didn't give me a chance, did you? Keeping up the non-stop running commentary, and calling me over every couple of minutes to share the latest gem.
It's handy we've both got a good smattering of French: you from your Africa days, me from that few months studying life drawing and history of art outside Paris the year before I chucked it in and joined the Met (and next time you need a good laugh you can remind me to tell you where I got the money to pay for that little idyll). Of course your vocabulary's rather specialised and maybe a touch on the colourful side for everyday use, and my accent's more Peter Sellers than Maurice Chevalier, but we get by.
"Four husbands and outlived the lot of 'em. Hmm..." You looked over in my direction, all innocence, "Remind you of anyone we know? Hey, and look at this chap. Survived by fourteen children. Fourteen. Christ can you imagine? Randy old devil. And he still had time left over to run for mayor."
This really wasn't the way I'd seen the evening going, but I nodded and smiled and made what were meant to be suitably enthralled listening noises from time to time--still hoping, ever the optimist, that any minute you'd get bored and run out of steam.
Of course I should've known better. Two town councillors and a chief of police later you spotted the military section, didn't you. Oh, there wasn't anything you wouldn't find in a lot of English parish churches--memorials to locals who'd died in the two World Wars, plaques singing the praises of assorted generals, and a couple of tattered old battle standards that could have gone back to Napoleon's day--but you've always had a bit of a thing for military memorabilia, and to tell the truth, when I saw the way your little eyes lit up it didn't seem too much of a hardship to trail along behind you a while longer. After all, I can't pretend I wasn't enjoying the view. Even if the feelings that went with it were taking a bit of getting used to.
Not that my eyes had suddenly been opened or anything. I mean, I knew I wanted you, all right. Nothing new there. Known that for months, hadn't I? And for months, thank God, I'd had a pretty good inkling you felt the same about me. But it was only just beginning to sink in after all that time of eyeing you up in an abstract 'one day all this could be mine' sort of way, keeping my hopes and my hands to myself, that, from the moment our eyes had met back there on the quay, 'one day' had become now, tonight.
It was a decidedly unnerving prospect. Oh, thrilling too, of course. But just at that moment I couldn't have told you for sure if it was excitement or nerves making my heart beat faster.
It's so much a part of the way we work I'd long ago started taking it for granted how easily we mesh sometimes on the job, when we're so sure of each other it's almost as if we share the same set of reflexes, but those last few weeks you'd been so much in my mind I'd been almost too aware of you all the time, like an itch I couldn't reach to scratch. Without even looking I think I could've told you to the last inch exactly how close you were standing. Not that that would have been much of a feat. As long as I had a nose on my face I didn't need any sixth sense to keep tabs on you that night. Could've tracked you with my eyes shut just from the smell of damp wool and leather steaming off your clothes in the heat from the old iron radiators.
They might have been old but you were right, they were bloody efficient. It wasn't till all that glorious heat finally sank through to my bones and thawed me out enough to start me shivering again that I realised how near frozen I'd been. Might as well make the most of it then. I propped my bum on the radiator, tucked my hands into my armpits and clamped my teeth together to keep them from chattering while I settled down to ogle you and toast away the last of the chill. Too late. Forgot the Old Man's not the only one with ears like a hawk, didn't I?
"Doyle?" you called over your shoulder. "Has this place got deathwatch beetle or..." You turned round and shook your head in that nannyish way of yours. "It is, isn't it? It's you making that racket! You can't still be cold. Here," you reached out and pulled me into your side, rubbing briskly up and down my arm, "how's that?"
"Like being mauled by King Kong. Get off, will you." I shrugged my jacket straight, and wondered irritably why you always had to go and spoil the mood. Felt like my arm was coming off. Bloody bull in a china shop.
You snatched your hand away. "I was only trying to get you warmed up."
I tell you I didn't give much for our chances if wrenching my arm out of its socket was the best you could come up with. No idea of subtlety, you army types.
"That something they teach you in the SAS then is it? How to start a fire by rubbing two CI5 agents together?"
My mouth, as usual, was sounding off a step or two ahead of my brain, and there was a crowded little silence while my imagination caught up and showed me some inspirational pictures to go with the thought. Maybe the mood hadn't disappeared completely after all. I made a heroic effort to keep a straight face.
"Teach you to wear a decent coat, won't it?" you said, pretending not to notice.
I looked down, indignant. "Nothing indecent about this coat."
"No, only what's underneath it." You took a slow step forward, eyes locked with mine, and my heart gave a lurch and started up again in overdrive. "These buttons do go all the way to the top you know." You flicked at the open neck of my shirt and I shivered again, coming up all over goosepimples as your knuckles brushed my throat.
"Hmm," your eyebrows went up, teasing, "cold hands?"
I shook my head. You knew bloody well that had nothing to do with it.
"Sure?" You put your head on one side, watching my face, and touched me there again just under my chin, stroking ever so lightly with the back of one curled finger, making me catch my breath and stifle a moan. You grinned, far too pleased with yourself, and slid your hand down to my chest, playing with the buttons on my shirt.
You leaned in close to whisper, "It's February, Ray. It's cold. It's foggy. We're by the sea. Some people might've adjusted their wardrobe accordingly."
A button slipped undone, and I couldn't stop myself swaying forward, trying to keep that contact with your fingers as another one followed. It was taking all my self-control not to just grab your hand and push it inside my shirt, hard against my skin where I wanted it.
I had to swallow and clear my throat before I managed to get out, "Says the man who'll still be wearing a vest under his jumper in August."
Ridiculous. Sounded like I was back on forty a day. Lucky for my self-respect I wasn't the only one breathing a bit ragged. And I noticed your fingers weren't completely steady either as you started to ease my jacket back off my shoulders.
The squeal of the door hinges cracked through the silence like a rifle shot.
We rebounded off each other so fast I don't even remember crossing the aisle, but by the time the little grey-haired, black-coated old biddy who'd appeared like one of those pantomime devils in the doorway was halfway through it, we were yards apart. I turned my back, frantically rebuttoning my shirt and stuffing it back into my trousers and stared blankly at the nearest wall doing deep breathing exercises while I waited for the rush of adrenaline to die down and the blood to stop pounding in my ears. How much had she seen? And more to the point, what she was going to do about it? We must have been out of our minds. In a public place. In a church for Christ's sake.
One thing about our job, you get a lot of practice acting calm in a crisis. Even so, by the time I dared look for you again, our new chaperone had had plenty of time to get herself nicely ensconced in the lady chapel, lacy black scarf draped over her hair, carefully planting her little candle in front of the statue. She didn't act as if she'd even noticed we were there, and I started to breathe more easily as I let myself hope we'd got away with it. I looked around, ever so casual, and spotted you doing a fine impression of the perfect church visitor, deep in contemplation of a book of remembrance open in a glass case against the far wall. You looked cool as a cucumber, and I was probably the only person who'd spot the give-away in that uneasy parade rest pose. I looked at your hands, clasped behind your back. Good hands you've got; neat and strong. If I let myself I could still feel the print of those fingers on my skin. Even with the width of the church between us I'd swear I could sense every tiny flicker of your eyelids, every sweep of your lashes as you scanned the page. Must've felt me watching. You looked up and straight across at me, and we shared a quick sheepish smile before you shook your head ever so slightly, made a quick jerk of your chin towards our devout friend and bent back to your reading. I'd have bet anything you weren't taking in a word of it. It may have been an act of temporary insanity, but I knew you'd been just as helplessly turned on as I was, and I didn't understand why the hell we didn't just leave now so we could find somewhere more suitable to carry on where we'd left off.
But it didn't seem like a very bright idea to draw attention to ourselves by starting a discussion right at that moment--specially when, now the immediate shock was over, I didn't trust either of us not to see the funny side.
So I left you to it and wandered off to put my thoughts in order while I checked out some of this stained glass your guide book made so much of. Might as well take a look, since we were there. And, actually, some of it really was well worth looking at. There was this one window in particular I can still see in my mind as clear as anything; the story of Jonah and the whale. A lovely thing it was. The centrepiece was a beautiful gilded sailing ship with a high prow, scarlet square-rigged sails and a golden dolphin figurehead. You could tell the artist must've been a local man. Poor old Jonah hardly figured at all, but every rope and plank on the ship was there in loving detail.
It reminded me of that poem. You must know the one--Masefield, is it? I think every schoolkid in the country must've had it drummed into them one time or another: 'Quinquireme of Nineveh, from distant Ophir. Dum de dum de dum dum in sunny Palestine'. Can't remember all of it. You'd be able to tell me. But there's a verse in there about Spanish galleons. How does it go...? Yeah. 'Dipping through the tropics by the palm-green shores'. And looking at the colours in that window... 'Emeralds, amethysts...' Well, it made sense at the time.
You see, that's another thing. You and your poetry, I mean. Everyone can quote a line or two they learned at school, but you know whole reams off by heart, don't you? And not just the old standards either; stuff I've never even heard of. Kept that under your hat, didn't you? There was I swanking around, so proud of my NFT season ticket and my Penguin modern classics, blithely convinced your literary ambitions didn't reach much higher than the top shelf at the newsagent's. And there you were, a walking Golden Treasury, laughing up your sleeve at me the whole time, you swine.
Still, to be fair, I can see why it's not something you'd want to publicise. Wilbur Smith and Harold Robbins do a lot more for the old macho image than Donne and Keats, don't they? And when you consider your average CI5 operative's like a shark scenting blood when it comes to spotting an opportunity for a wind-up, that's not something you can afford to ignore. You know, I've often thought if we devoted half as much time and energy to our work as we do to making each other's lives a misery, we'd all be out of a job within the week.
And I'm going off the subject again, aren't I? It's your own fault. Out cold, and you can still distract me without moving a muscle. Yes, even black and blue all over. Quite a striking colour actually: matches your eyes.
You could do with a shave, mind. You look a real reprobate with all that stubble. I'll bring your razor in tomorrow, shall I, if they'll let me? Get you tidied up a bit. Feels nice, though, now it's starting to grow out past the sandpaper stage. I wonder what you'd look like with a proper beard? Very dashing, knowing you. Me now, I'd end up more of a bird's nest on legs--like that skinny bloke on TV; the one who streaks across the sand dunes starkers on Monty Python.
You know, I don't think I've ever had it off with anyone with a beard. And before you say it, no I'm not counting that big gymnast bird of yours from way back.
Dunno about the kissing part. Must be a bit like snogging a walrus I should think. But you know me; always happy to experiment. In fact now I think about it, the idea has definite possibilities. Like...imagine if you were going to suck me off...You'd take me in your mouth and there'd be all that silky, bristly softness rubbing across my -
Afternoon, Sister! Er, yeah, fine thanks, love. No, really, nothing. Okay then. Cheerio...
Blimey! That was a close shave. Thought she was--hah! Close shave. Bodie, d'you hear that? Close shave...?
Oh forget it. Pearls before swine, mate.
Still, maybe I won't bother with that razor after all. Wouldn't do to stifle the spirit of scientific enquiry, would it. When we get you out of here--but, no. One step at a time, eh. First you have to wake up.
And you know that's something else that's just struck me: all this business with the scans and the dark mutterings about how you should really be starting to show signs of life now you're off the sedation - and they've still got me sitting here telling you bedtime stories. Must be something wrong there somewhere, musn't there? Always said doctors were a funny lot. Still, ours not to reason why. And if it keeps me here with you instead of languishing down in filing back at HQ I'm not going to rattle any cages.
Cowley didn't like it, you know. Wanted me back at work the minute you were off the critical list, ribs or no ribs. Said I wasn't doing you any good hanging round here mooning over you (his exact words; patronising old goat), and I might not be fit to go back on the streets just yet but there was plenty of desk-work needed doing in the meantime. I was all set to put up a fight (he knows as well as I do how quiet things are at the moment, and they're still scraping the poor mad bastard who did this off the walls, so no incentive there), but that doctor of yours can be quite persuasive when she puts her mind to it. He was good as gold after they'd had a little chat; all smiles and co-operation and "Mind you do as the doctor says, four-five". They were closeted in that office together for a long time when he popped in last night too, now I come to think of it. Very chummy. Could start some juicy gossip there if I had the inclination. She's the right age for him, I'd say. Not bad looking either in a governessy sort of way. And he does seem to go for the bossy, driven type. Hey, now there's a thing. You don't reckon he might actually...? Nah. 'Course not. Daft idea. Not Cowley. That Irvine woman had to be just one of those temporary mental whatd'y'macallits - mental aberrations--didn't she? The exception that proves the rule.
Wouldn't you say?
Oh for God's sake, Bodie! Why do I get the feeling I might as well be talking to myself? I'd get a livelier reaction in Madame Tussauds.
I think part of me still doesn't quite believe this is really happening, you know? I keep catching myself expecting you to sit up and laugh at me. Crack one of your bloody stupid jokes. Something. But then I'll look down and there you are, still lying there like a -
I'm talking myself hoarse out here and what's the point, eh? What the hell's the point?
I'm not even sure I believe you can hear me any more. They keep telling me you can, but what do they know? Their bloody machines can't show us what's going on in your head. For all I can tell...
Look, will you, for fuck's sake just open your eyes and talk to me. I'm tired and I'm lonely and I'm...I'm scared, all right? I could do with some back-up out here.
It's not just the waiting any more. I've got Cowley and Ross circling like a couple of bloody vultures and it's getting harder and harder to keep 'em off my back.
I mean, I'm clinging on by my fingernails trying to stay positive here and they treat me like I'm some kind of head-in-the-clouds Pollyanna. Ross's parting shot this morning was to tell me if I wasn't ready to talk to her she'd be happy to give me the number of an "appropriate counsellor". Appropriate for what exactly? And you know Cowley actually cornered me on Monday to ask if I'd considered what I was going to do "if the worst happened"? Whether or not I'd be wanting CI5 to "make the arrangements". Bit bloody quick off the mark isn't he? I tell you, I'll never understand that man if I live to be a hundred. He's been in here nearly every day, interrogating your doctors, barking at me, glaring at you. He cares. I'd swear he does. And then he goes and says something like that. I just don't --
But then I expect there's the cost to worry about, isn't there? And disapproving noises from The Powers That Be. Pricey business providing for brain-damaged ex-agents, don't you know. Could tie up a hefty chunk of the budget for years.
Ah no, all right, I know that's not fair. I know he thinks he's got our best interests at heart, and it's not his fault he goes at these things with all the tact and subtlety of a double-glazing salesman, but I wanted to hit him. Christ, the results from the scans aren't even in until tomorrow. And they're only a precaution. Your surgeon told me himself you can't set a timetable on anything like this.
So you're taking your time waking up? Well that's not unusual, is it? Not to anyone who's ever tried digging you out of bed the morning after the night before at any rate.
No; I told them. I don't make any plans till I know what I'm planning for. And I don't talk to anyone until I've finished talking to you. Told them I know the scans are going to back me up as well. Told them you'll be back to your old self any day now; lounging around in that bed like one of them Arab sheikhs, pigging yourself on grapes and making the nurses' lives a misery...
Oh yeah, I talk a good fight right enough. Fly the flag around HQ; do the calmly confident bit and smile till my face aches. But...Well, what if I'm wrong?
I'm not sure how much longer I can...
Oh Bodie...Look...I need you, damn it.
All right. All right, I'm sorry. Promised myself I wouldn't bother you with any of this. No good taking it out on you. But I wish...Couldn't you maybe even raise an eyebrow or something, eh? Just to let me know you're listening. You're the only one can set them right, you know.
Ah c'mon, Bodie. Please? It's been a long few days, love. I need you to come back to me now...
No, all right, I know. In your own time. Never did like me trying to tell you what to do, did you? Obstinate sod. Well, I can be just as pig-headed as you, you know. I can wait. Just don't make it too much longer, eh? I've hardly got any voice left as it is. Much more of this and by the time you finally do find your way back it'll be just in time to watch me expire from raging laryngitis in the next door bed.
Spoke to the surgeon again at lunchtime, by the way--about what to expect when you come round. We have to "anticipate a degree of disorientation" according to his high and mightiness. I didn't bother asking what made him think we'd notice a difference.
Anyway, far as I can make out, the theory is that my voice is meant to give you something familiar to latch onto if it's all a bit too much at first. Sort of like a homing beacon kind of thing. Or at least that's what they tell me. I think they're secretly hoping you'll get so sick of the sound of me wittering on you'll be forced to pull yourself together just to shut me up.
Well, you couldn't be any sicker of this than I am, that's for sure.
Look at this place, will you. It's like bloomin' NASA Control in here with all this paraphernalia. Makes a hell of a racket, doesn't it? How you can still be asleep after four days with all this lot clicking and beeping in your ear beats me. I've had enough trouble the last couple of nights with just the fridge at home. Gonna have to give in and take a couple of their little pink pills tonight, I think, or I'll be too knackered to see straight tomorrow. Have you ever listened to the noise that thing makes when it switches on in the small hours? Like dossing down in the engine room of the Queen Mary. Makes the most incredible din. I don't know how we've been managing to sleep through it all this time. Must drown it out with your snoring.
Good God, will you listen to me. I never thought there'd come a day when I'd admit to missing your snoring.
Ah, Bodie. I've really had enough of this. Come on mate. Joke's over. Make an effort. Please?
No, sorry, getting distracted again aren't I. Ignore the snuffles. Bloody air conditioning.
Hang on a sec while I wipe me nose and... Right. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, the church.
There were a pair of enormous double doors at the west end of the central aisle that probably hadn't been opened since the last time the bishop visited. And up above was a triple-arched window, with this ferocious-looking stained glass angel in the middle, blocking the gateway to Paradise with great fiery eagle's wings and threatening Adam and Eve with a lethal looking sword. He had one of those typical Pre-Raphaelite faces, all eyes and hair, and a "Don't mess with me" expression full of righteous indignation. No wonder poor old Adam and Eve were slinking away at a fast trot.
I was stood staring up at this monstrosity when: "Wow!" Your dulcet tones inches from my ear had me jumping three feet in the air.
I'd been thinking you were still over the other side somewhere. I spun round, heart thumping, to ask what the hell you thought you were doing creeping up on me like that, found you standing even closer than I'd thought, lost my balance and ended up practically falling over your feet. You shot out an arm to steady me, I clutched at your shoulder and we ended up clinging together chest to chest, staring cross-eyed and startled down our noses at each other. If we hadn't had an audience... We looked at each other. You groaned and let your head fall forward till your forehead touched mine. I gave your shoulder a squeeze. Then we sighed and disentangled ourselves. As we pulled apart, you met my exasperated scowl with a half sympathetic, half laughing 'don't blame me' shrug in the direction of old Madame Defarge still clacking away at her rosary over by the altar rail. I turned to glare daggers at her shoulderblades and was more than a little taken aback when straight off she crossed herself, creaked back onto her feet and shuffled off down the aisle. Left me feeling a proper bastard when she stopped on her way to the door and turned to bob and smile a sweet little-old-lady smile at us as she went out.
You tugged at my sleeve, ignoring the distraction. "So," you nodded eagerly at the window, "go on then. What do you think? Bloody amazing, isn't it? Could hardly believe it when I saw it in the book, but it's even better in real life."
This was the big mystery? I glanced from you to the window and back again.
"It's all right I suppose," I said, not sure what you were getting at, "if you like that sort of thing. Never been too keen on the Pre-Raphaelites myself."
"The whats? Sounds nasty that. 'Got a touch of the Pre-Raphaelites'. No, forget all that and look at the angel."
I looked. But I obviously didn't see.
You were quivering away beside me, and I didn't like the suspicion I was the butt of the joke. "All right. What's so funny?"
"You really can't see it, can you?"
"No, Bodie," I said through gritted teeth, "I really can't. So why don't you do us both a favour and tell me. See what?"
"The angel, Raymond. It's you!"
I gave the window another hard stare.
"What do you mean, me?"
"You, Doyle. He's just like you. Or you're just like him. Spitting image. It's uncanny."
"Don't give me that. A blind man could see it. He's got you to a tee." You took another quick shufti back and forth, and snorted with laughter. "Even down to that look on his face. You were wearing the exact same expression on Friday when you caught the boy Jenkins nicking your teabags. He must've thought his last moment had come, poor little sod. I've never seen anyone move so fast."
That was a sore point. Everyone acts like it's a big joke, but I get thoroughly hacked off with the way my stuff keeps disappearing from the kitchen. They're all at it. Lot of bloody scroungers. It's one thing for you to go through life cheerfully assuming what's mine is yours, but when it gets to the point where every wet-behind-the-ears probationer starts thinking he can do the same... After all, I bloody pay for those teabags.
"I'd put my name on the box, hadn't I? Stupid bastard should learn to read."
"Ah the sweet naiuml;veté of youth." You gave my shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. "I didn't want to be the one to break this to you, sunshine, but I'm afraid there are people in this world, even within the hallowed portals of CI5, for whom a name written on a box of teabags - "
I shook off your hand. "Yeah, all right, thank you. Pack it in Bodie, you sarcastic git. How'd you feel if it was your stuff going missing, eh?"
"Wouldn't bother me," you said brightly. "I don't have any stuff. Always use yours."
Bloomin' cheek! I shook a mock-threatening fist under your nose and you cringed back, giggling, with your arms thrown up in front of your face like a silent movie heroine, begging, "Don't smite me! Don't smite me!"
I laughed and struck an attitude; pulling myself up fierce and tall, and flourishing an imaginary sword over my head... And then, just like one of those overblown special effects from The Ten Commandments, something burst into life outside and, wham, the place was suddenly flooded with light. I hung there, frozen in my avenging angel pose, pinned to the spot with surprise as streams of jewel-coloured light poured over me from somewhere behind my head, and pooled all crimson, green, and gold at my feet.
Floodlights. Out in the churchyard, of course. They must've been on one of those pre-programmed timer contraptions set to come on automatically. Nearly gave me a heart attack for a moment there. Thought it was something I'd done.
I turned to you to make some flip remark, and the look in your eyes stopped me cold. You looked... dazzled; staring at me as if...I dunno...as if I was the second coming, a bottle of twelve-year-old malt and the centrefold from Mayfair all rolled into one. No-one has ever looked at me like that before in my whole life. It made me feel ten feet tall and hot and cold all over--and scared me half to death. It was one thing to know you cared about me, fancied me even, but this? All I could think was, How am I ever going to live up to that?
And then you blinked and said, "Did you know you've got a blue stripe down your nose?"
And, God, at that moment I wanted you so badly my hands were shaking.
"Right. That's it. Come on. We're going." I grabbed your arm, hauled you round and practically frog-marched you down the aisle.
"Hang on. Doyle, wait a minute." You were laughing. "Look, slow down, will you. Where're we going?"
You didn't have the faintest idea, did you?
I didn't bother to answer. Where wasn't important; what mattered was how quickly I could get you there. And you could make as much noise about it as you liked just so long as you kept up the co-operation.
In fact you very obligingly let me hustle you nearly all the way to the door before you dug your heels in and insisted on stopping for a last look back at your precious window. You stood very close behind me--so close your breath raised all the small hairs on the back of my neck and set me teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion - took hold of my elbow and turned me so I could follow your line of sight straight down the main aisle to where the thing was blazing away in all its spotlit Technicolor glory.
"See?" You reached over my shoulder to point, and your sleeve grazing the side of my face was almost enough to finish me. I clenched my fists against the howling urge to slam you up against the nearest pillar and kiss you breathless, and wondered why you hadn't made any comments about the steam coming out of my ears. But then your mind was clearly on other things.
"Will you look at that," you sighed close to my ear, piling on the torture as your lips tickled my hair. "Priceless. If the lads could see this..."
My God, what a thought. Brought me crashing back to earth with a thud. Enough to dampen anyone's ardour. I held back a shudder and thanked my lucky stars we hadn't seen any sign of the traditional rack of overpriced postcards for the tower restoration fund. Or at least--a horrible suspicion dawned--I hadn't seen...
I swung round, grabbed a fistful of your sweater and tugged till we were nose to nose.
"Listen, sunshine," I hissed, "one word about this when we get home and you can forget your stained glass angels, 'cause I'm warning you, you're gonna be right up there hobnobbing with the real thing." I gave you a bit of a shake to ram the message home. "Got it?"
"Got it," you croaked, and I eased my grip a fraction as it dawned on me those tears in your eyes might be for real.
"You wound me, Raymond," you told me, rubbing your throat pointedly. "We're partners, mates, compadres; supporting each other through the cruel vicissitudes of life. Come on now, hand on heart. Would I drop you in it?"
You had to be kidding. Drop me in it? Like a shot if you thought it'd be good for a laugh, yes, and we both knew it.
"Yeah, yeah, all right," you conceded that one, made as if to cuff me round the ear and pulled the punch to ruffle my hair instead, "Keep your halo on. But this time's different isn't it? My lips are sealed."
I made it quite clear what I thought of that.
"Trusting little soul, aren't you?" you sighed. "You really think I'd talk to that lot about any of..." You waved your hand to take in the church, the two of us; rolled your eyes. "I mean it, you idiot. Not a word. I promise."
All right, so I'm a sucker for your spaniel-eyed sincerity routine.
"Yeah, well." I sniffed grudgingly, "You just better remember that."
You nodded solemnly. "Oh I will."
"Huh." But I released my chokehold on your collar.
"Vicissitudes?" I checked, as you pulled your jumper straight, "Where'd you find that one, then? You been at the Alphabetti Spaghetti again?"
That earned me a pitying smile.
"Too many syllables for you? Ah. Never mind." You patted my shoulder consolingly and turned towards the door.
Safely out of range, you looked back over your shoulder, mouth twitching. "C'mon angelface, let's go and find this bar of yours. I could do with a drink." And took off at a run.
"You...Oi, come back here!" I caught up with you in the porch, flung myself into the fray, and we jostled and feinted our way, giggling like idiots, down the steps onto the street.
Back on the pavement, I somehow managed to get you on the retreat, backed up against the side of the building with the porch steps cutting off your escape. Aha! I pushed the advantage, hooked my leg behind yours and rocked you back off balance. Got you at my mercy now, arched precariously over my thigh with only the support of my leg and my hands locked in your lapels holding you on your feet.
"Had enough?" I gloated down into your face, doing my best to ignore the hopeful way my cock was leaping to all the wrong conclusions as you struggled against me.
"Sod off!" You were breathlessly trying to prise my fingers loose from your jacket while your leg strained against mine.
I didn't stand a chance. And the way we were practically welded together from knee to chest, it couldn't be long before you caught on to what you were doing to me.
Sure enough, seconds later you froze. Your eyes widened and flew up to meet mine, pupils very dark; all the laughter suddenly crowded out of them.
I shrugged helplessly, and you swallowed, licked your lips like a nervous cat.
It was the sexiest thing...
If you wanted to object you'd missed your chance. I took a deep breath and lowered my head that last half inch
You lost your footing as our lips met, stumbled backwards taking me with you, and I swallowed the whoosh of air knocked out of you as we landed with a thud against the wall at your back. My last coherent thought was that there must be some heavy symbolism in that--and then you made this weird little creaking sound in the back of your throat, your arms came round me so hard I felt my ribs pop, and I wasn't thinking at all any more, because your mouth was open and moving against mine, kissing me back with a vengeance.
No hesitation, no shyness, none of that 'you go left, I'll go right' first kiss awkwardness for us. Oh no. Perfect teamwork all the way. Macklin'd be proud.
I won't even try to tell you what it felt like. Dare say one of your poets could do it justice. But I couldn't get enough of you, that I do know. Wanted to eat you alive, you tasted so bloody fantastic. Got a mouth in a million, you have.
By the time we finally broke apart we were gasping as if we'd just swum the Channel. I rested my forehead on your shoulder, waiting for you to ease off the deathgrip on my hair, and you turned your hot face into my neck and panted down my collar. Somebody's heart was going a mile a minute against my ribs and I wasn't even sure if it was mine or yours.
I'd come up rock hard at the first taste of your tongue, and I could feel the heat of you against my hip, pushing my self-control to the limit. Didn't do to dwell on that, though. Kissing in the shadows was one thing, but we were neither of us quite so far gone we'd risk anything more. Last thing we needed was to get ourselves taken in for public indecency by some over-enthusiastic local bobby and end up spending the night in separate cells.
Your hand slid out of my hair, touched my cheek, my throat, brushed down my arm and away. I lifted my head off your shoulder.
It was so hard to let you go. Took every scrap of will-power to push away and slide sideways to flop beside you against the damp brickwork, feeling your shoulder heaving against mine as we fought to catch our breath. I wriggled a bit, trying to do something about the way my jeans were trying to strangle me, but I was so close to the edge moving only made things worse. I resigned myself to waiting for nature to take its course and turned to look at you instead. Your head was tipped back against the wall, and you looked... Well, 'poleaxed' would be putting it kindly. Not that I wasn't in much the same state myself. What was it they used to shout when we were kids? Yeah. "Shut yer mouth, there's a train coming!"
My thoughts were all over the place. Your eyes were closed. I wished you'd open them, let me see what you were feeling.
You didn't answer, but your hand fumbled for mine, and that was enough. I caught it, laced our fingers together, and we held on tight.
Eventually your eyes opened and you turned your head towards me; squeezed my hand.
"And there isn't even a moon," you said with a wobbly little grin.
I laughed, still breathless, and squeezed back. "Who needs it." My voice was all shaky. I took another deep breath, "Christ, Bodie, that was..."
"Yeah..." You sounded just the way I felt. "Yeah..." A slow, heartfelt nod, "It was."
Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot; not keen on any of that soppy stuff, are you? Yeah, well, hard luck, sunshine, you don't like it, you wake up and tell it your way. Me, I think I'm entitled to get a little starry-eyed about our first kiss. There's only you and me here to hear it, after all.
Besides, you've been known to get a little soppy yourself from time to time, may I remind you. Some of the stuff you come out with in the throes of passion, I'd blush to repeat even to you.
Yeah, and you're right, I bloody love it. You all flushed and sweaty, whispering sweet nothings in my ear.
'Course right now I'd settle for a simple hallo.
I really need to talk to you, mate. Need you to talk to me, rather. Wish you'd... Nah, we've been through all that once. Leave it, Doyle. Not what he needs to hear.
Ah, Bodie, my poor battered old love, just look at the state of you. More bandages than the curse of the mummy's tomb, and circles round your eyes like a bloody panda. Never seen you so pale...Here on your wrist, look, skin's practically transparent, can see all your veins. And the back of your hand. More bruises. Looks like they've been using you for a pin cushion, all the junk they've been pumping into you.
I can feel your pulse here. Felt it stutter then. You dreaming are you, Bodie, eh? Steady again now. Good and strong. You just keep it that way. And here under your chin. Feel my fingers? Stronger here. And warm. Hot blooded, you are. Your hand's too cold, though; can't get it warm. It's not right, that. You never have cold hands. Always warm to the touch and always feeling the cold, that's you; contrary to the last. Too long in the tropics, that's your trouble, mate.
I'd like to kiss you, you know. Just here, over your pulse where the skin's so warm. Prickly but warm.
Oh, don't worry, I won't, not with Sister whatsit due in any minute for your next oil change or whatever it is they get up to with all those bottles and tubes. It's the blonde one on today. Another looker, goes without saying. Do you have a special clause in your contract or something? I shall be having words with Cowley about that. When I think of some of the right dragons I had to put up with when it was me in here...
I've changed my mind about this beard, by the way. Like the feel of it under my fingers, but it's got to go. I want to be able to taste your skin.
Talking of beards, you know they sent a male nurse to settle you down last night? Took me by surprise for some reason. Well, 's a funny kind of job for a bloke, I always think. But he seemed to know his stuff. Geoff something or other. Haven't seen him around before. Of course that's par for the course round here. Been a lot of new faces dropping by since the news got out--feel like we're in a bloody zoo half the time; all those dewy-eyed females queuing up to sigh over you. Shouldn't think young Geoff'd shed any tears to hear you're batting for the other side these days, mind. No sighing from that quarter. Most attentive he was, and a very nice boy, if you know what I mean. You want to watch yourself there, sailor. Try flirting with him and I'll scratch your eyes out.
Hey, you wanna hear a joke? Heard this in the canteen downstairs from one of the paramedics.
There's this bloke walks into Casualty, see, looking really shifty--oh, and I forgot to say, he's limping a bit. So anyway, he hobbles in and demands to see a doctor right away. Nurse takes him into a cubicle and asks him what the problem is, but he just shuffles his feet and insists on seeing a doctor--a male doctor. But the nurse is in a hurry, right, so she tells him there's nothing to be embarrassed about, seen it all before, blah blah blah, and will he please get on with it. So finally he turns bright scarlet, bends over the couch and drops his trousers. She takes a look and there's a lettuce leaf sticking out of his arse. She doesn't say anything, just ums and aahs, until he finally asks her--dying of embarrassment by now--"Well, can you help me?" More umming and aahing, and he's startin' to get worried now, so he says, "What? It's a simple enough problem, isn't it?' And she says, No, I'm sorry, sir, I think you're right, you do need to see a doctor. This could be more serious than I thought." "Serious," he says, really starting to panic now, "Serious? What do you mean, serious?" And she says, "Well yes. You see, it looks simple enough, but I'm afraid this could be just the tip of the iceberg"!
Tip of the iceberg! It's a lettuce you see...Tip of the iceberg...
Ah, have it your own way.
If it wasn't for this throbbing away--God, you've got a mind like a sewer sometimes; your pulse, idiot--I'd be forgiven for wondering...
You know, when we were lying there waiting for them to dig us out, this was what kept me going, my fingers on your pulse. I couldn't tell you were breathing at first, you see. And there was so much blood. I could feel it soaking into my shirt.
Cost a bomb, that shirt. Only had it a couple of days. Completely ruined, of course. Never get those stains out now.
I could hardly move with you on top of me like that, but I somehow managed to get my hand free and my fingers on your pulse. I was so sure you were dead, but there it was, a fucking miracle, thudding away under my fingers. Jesus...
Crazy, isn't it? So much blood and nothing more than a couple of stitches to show for it. All that drama and it's the one you can't see almost did for you.
I talked to you then, as well, you know. While we were waiting. Talked and talked. Did you hear me? No, I didn't think so. Probably for the best, too, all things considered. I was drifting in and out myself most of the time so I doubt I made a lot of sense. I tried shouting at first--to let them know we were still alive in there - but I couldn't catch my breath. Didn't even notice the ribs but you're bloody heavy. And all that muck and plaster dust in the air didn't help.
Stupid the things that go through your mind times like that. We're lying there in the dark with half a bloody lab about to come down on us any minute, no idea if they've even started digging for us outside, you're quite possibly bleeding to death all over my new cord shirt and I'm worrying about the dust and your delicate sinuses.
Every time I blacked out for a bit I'd come round with a jolt and start scrabbling for that pulse of yours. I've never been so...Kept nagging at you to open your eyes, talk to me. But you just -
Oh come on, talk to me, Bodie? Please open your eyes.
All right, all right. I know. Been here before, haven't we? Time to change the record.
God. Me throat's seizing up with all this chatter. You're going to owe me a whole raft of drinks when this is over, I hope you realise.
Let me just have another swig of this--ugh, that's disgustin'--cold cat's piss they call coffee, and on with the story...
I wouldn't have minded, but of course we couldn't stay there holding hands like that all night. Passion's a marvellous anaesthetic, but the effect was already starting to wear off and it was bloody parky. I could feel the damp seeping through my coat where my back was propping up the wall. I knew I'd have to move soon or freeze to death.
I wasn't the only one. You shivered and shifted beside me, tugged on my hand, and pulled me round to face you. Oh you looked a proper sight. As if... Well, as if you'd been kissed to within an inch of your life. The skin around your mouth was all red with stubble burn, like a kid with a Ribena moustache. I wanted to lick it.
You brought our hands up against your chest and pulled me closer. Nipped the end of my nose.
"What's that look all about?"
I brought my free hand up to touch your face, laid my fingers against your mouth and stroked the reddened skin.
"Is this sore?"
You turned your head, rubbed your cheek against my palm. "Tingles a bit. And I don't know what you're looking so smug about. You're as bad, you know. All bee-stung lips and five o'clock shadow."
"Mmm." Oh, I knew. Knew I was probably looking at you like the lovestruck cat that got the canary, too. And I didn't give a damn .
Your free hand was running absently-mindedly up and down my side.
"You need feeding up," you said. "Could play you like a bloomin' xylophone."
"Whatever turns you on."
Some openings are too good to resist. "Rather turn you on."
My fingers were still resting against your face, and you turned your head, took one in your mouth and sucked it like a sweet. My cock twitched and something that sounded embarrassingly like a whimper was out of my mouth before I could stop it.
Your turn to laugh.
"Getting to you, am I?"
I leant in close, trying to find your mouth again. "What do you expect when you do that? Bound to get my," I rubbed myself against your thigh, "...hopes up."
You chuckled, but held me away as I tried to pull your head down.
"Like the sound of that. But not here, though eh? Another one of those and I don't think it'll be so easy to stop next time. Let's find that bar of yours, get ourselves a room." You stroked my cheek. "Hmm? Take our time and do this properly. I don't want to come humping your leg in a doorway like that bloody animal at the weekend."
I'd forgotten all about that. That boozy evening round at poor old Brian Cook's place while June was off visiting her sister with young Danny, remember? And that daft great dog of his took a fancy to you, wouldn't leave you alone. "He's never done it before," Brian kept saying. I was in hysterics. The look on your face; like a dowager in a strip club. Was a good evening that. Those slacks came out almost good as new after a couple of washes, too, didn't they? And less than a year later...You just never know, do you. Can't afford to waste a single moment.
Humping in a doorway? Couldn't see much wrong with that myself, but the tiny part of my brain that hadn't already migrated south told me you were talking sense for a change so I made an effort to pull myself together.
"Yeah. You're right," I looked around vaguely, "Which way...?"
"Dunno," you said, ever helpful. "You decide."
You were asking me? Tell you, by that stage I hardly knew which way was up.
"But I don't..." I looked around helplessly. Well, one of these roads had to lead back to civilisation..."Oh, okay then. Left?"
"Left it is." You waved me ahead with a flourish. "Lead on, McDoyle. And I suppose we'd better..." and went to let go of my hand. I wasn't having that. Paranoia may be a ticket to long life and career advancement in our line of work, and I know what you're like about public shows of affection, but it wasn't as if I was suggesting we march arm in arm down Piccadilly, was it? And frankly, if shagging in the porch was out, then I felt we deserved something by way of a consolation prize. Besides it was pitch black and the streets were practically deserted; we were hardly taking a big risk.
"Oh no, you don't." I held on tighter, wanting you to understand. "Together."
You shrugged and pulled me closer. Not going to be too hard to persuade, obviously.
"All right. How about..." and you crammed our joined hands into one pocket of your coat. A most acceptable compromise. And warm as well.
Oh, I was. Very.
We set off down the hill, where there was a faint brownish tinge to the sky that I'd decided signalled street lights, human habitation and, with any luck, hot food, cold drinks and a big warm bed. The chill in the air was really biting now it was properly dark; a good excuse to stick close. My trousers were still trying to do me a mischief, and it was awkward walking at first until the cold overruled the messages I was picking up from the moving press of you all down my right side and brought things back under control.
Fate, it seemed, was smiling on us. For once my homing instincts turned out reliable, and ten minutes' easy walking later we rounded a bend and came out onto the edge of what had to be the main square. It was as empty as the rest of the ghost town, but somehow all the modern street lighting and the bright shop windows were still enough to make us self-conscious, and we disentangled ourselves before stepping out into the light and heading for the steps of the hideous concrete fountain in the middle to take a look around. In the distance, at the top of the hill back the way we'd come, I could see the church looming through the fog over the rooftops with yellowish criss-cross beams from the floodlights slicing up into the sky around it like something out of Colditz. On a clear day, it must've stood out for miles, the biggest thing on the skyline--very picturesque, too, I should imagine, if you were in the mood for that sort of thing. But I was cold, hungry, missing the touch of your hand and definitely not in a sightseeing frame of mind. Not that the place could ever be much of a tourist trap, even with the best will in the world. I remembered the harbour master telling us how the whole area took a hammering from the Luftwaffe during the war and, from the look of the architecture, whoever rebuilt the place in the fifties hadn't done it any favours either. Even at night and with the fog to soften the rough edges and gloss over just how run down everything was, it made a pretty depressing picture. All the sophisticated continental allure of Skegness on a wet bank holiday weekend. The only exotic touches were the strange glistening swirls on the pavement that I took for some kind of bizarre abstract mosaic until it dawned on me they were actually scatterings of fish scales. They must still hold a market here sometimes. Hard to imagine this graveyard of a place full of noise and bustle and battling traders.
You circled on the spot and--trust you--homed in straight away on the one sign of life in view; a bright, plastic burger bar on the opposite corner.
You nudged my shoulder. "Think we've found the local hot nightspot?"
I looked. Oh absolutely. "And they're what passes for the beautiful people, I suppose?"
'They' were a bunch of surly-looking teenagers slouched around the counter with ciggies and bottles of beer; trying to look cool about making a bag of chips last all night. Not very different from me and my mates at that age, as it happens, but that was long ago in another life and here and now the love-light kindling in your eyes as you sniffed the greasy, cholesterol-laden air was not something I wanted to encourage. I had better things in mind for us tonight.
But sure enough: "Been a while since lunch, hasn't it...?"
What is this strange power fast food has over you? And if that's your idea of a subtle hint...
"Don't you get enough of that muck at home?"
You looked vaguely hurt. "Well we've got to eat sometime. I just thought we--"
"Oh no," I shook my head firmly, "You want to harden your arteries, mate, you go right ahead, but you're not dragging me in there with you."
That touched a nerve. "Don't give me that. I heard that lad in Burger King the other week asking if you wanted your usual."
Touché. Okay, so I've been known to put away the occasional burger. But that's the job. Always in a hurry, and sometimes you just have to make do with what you can wolf down on the run--even when that means junk 'food' with all the nutritional content of the paper they wrap it in. But not in France and not tonight.
"Yeah, all right, give you that one. But I just thought seeing as how we're still technically on expenses, we might treat ourselves to something a bit more special tonight, that's all. Somewhere that runs to sit-down tables and cutlery at least." I'd got this rose-tinted romantic picture in my mind; table for two in a quaint little bistro, good food, good wine, candlelight...
"Oh yeah?" You looked around the square again and raised your eyebrows challengingly. "And where exactly did you have in mind?"
Well, yes, there was that.
"I know what you mean. But there's got to be somewhere. Where do the locals go on Saturday nights? This is France, for heaven's sake, gourmet capital of the world, there's got to be more to this place than Le Beeg Mac. Maybe off the square somewhere...?"
"Maybe." You took one last, sad farewell sniff, and turned your back on temptation. "C'mon then, Escoffier, let's give it a whirl."
It took a while and a lot more footwork before we finally stumbled across a small side-road that, from the salty taste in the air, probably led back towards the harbour. The novelty was beginning to wear off all this walking by then. We were tired and hungry and-- in my case at least--frustrated as hell, and it was shortening our tempers enough for us both to be relieved when, just as I was about to give the whole thing up as a bad job and suggest we hang the expense and get a taxi to the next town, you stopped me with a hand on my arm and said,
"Ray? How about that one?"
You were looking down a narrow cobbled alley at a hanging sign with a back-lit Stella Artois logo and the magic words 'Bar aux chambres' underneath in tasteful green neon. Perfect. Somewhere to eat and sleep in one package, and unlikely to be full up off season in a little backwater like that.
"Yeah," I agreed thankfully, "Why not. Let's have a look."
It was a solid, stone-built, three-storey corner building with what I surprised myself by recognising as a walnut tree overgrowing the wall of a little yard to one side. Lights were shining in the ground floor windows and the sound of cheerful voices and laughter drifted from the doorway; that universal welcoming pub din.
You pushed open the door and we reeled back from a wave of warm, food-scented air and loud French conversation. The room was packed. So this was where everyone had got to. If the place was this popular surely that had to bode well for the hospitality. The cooking smells were certainly making my mouth water. You were right, I realised, it had been a while since lunch. Especially since all I'd felt like then was a salad. At least you'd stoked up on a huge bowl of shrimp bouillabaisse and great hunks of crusty bread.
You jostled my arm, impatient.
"Thank God for that; I'm parched. After you, Claude," and you flattened yourself in the doorway to let me squeeze through before you followed close on my heels, herding me along with your hands at my waist as we elbowed our way to the bar.
The old bird in charge was a bit off with us at first. Couldn't blame her really if I looked anything like as disreputable as you. No luggage, damp, rumpled hair and clothes, and both in bad need of a shave. Couldn't blame her for thinking she was dealing with a couple of undesirables. Didn't get the impression she was too keen on foreigners either. Very snotty about our attempts at making conversation. Not that the uncomplimentary things you were muttering under your breath were designed to do much for the entente cordiale. Lucky for us she didn't speak any English.
She sniffed a bit and looked down her nose while we gave her the spiel about how we'd come to be stranded by the fog--and she obviously didn't believe the salesman story for one moment. But business is business, and once we'd shown her there was cash in our wallets, and parted with a hefty deposit, she thawed enough to push over the register and shuffle off to the back room where she kept the keys.
"Must be your shifty eyes," I whispered as we signed in and waited for her to shuffle back.
She handed us the key--a top floor twin: it was cheap, and anyway, with that beady, disapproving stare boring into us, we couldn't quite muster the nerve to ask for a double--and pointed out the door to the stairs.
Out to prove a point, you flashed her a high kilowatt Bodie special designed to melt the hardest of hearts. One of your better efforts, too. The poor kid behind the bar caught some of the fall-out and nearly dropped the glass she was polishing. Madame, luckily for you, wasn't such an easy target. Still, even she wasn't completely immune it turned out. As she wished us good evening she was positively civil. One more dose and I bet you could have had her smiling back.
You bumped my shoulder smugly. "Shifty eyes, eh?"
Happy now, you scooped up a couple of beers and a bag of crisps and we made our way to a quiet corner table away from the crush at the bar and the noisy crowd around the billiard table. We sorted out the drinks and you settled back to take a long swig of yours and rip open the crisp packet. Give or take a few minor details it was exactly like any normal evening in the pub after work, winding down over a couple of drinks before going our separate ways. Back in that bright, noisy room, it was the foggy night outside that felt unreal. I could almost believe it was all a dream that less than an hour ago, I'd been kissing that mouth you were blissfully stuffing full of ready-salted.
It was only just after seven, and without even the excuse of dumping our luggage as cover, neither of us had had the brass neck to suggest we go upstairs straight away. But just at that moment, I would've given a lot for even five minutes alone with you, if only to reassure myself it wasn't all just some hopeful illusion I'd conjured up out of the fog.
You must have caught my hunted look towards the stairs, because you leaned across the table under cover of consulting over the menu, and touched the back of my hand with one finger.
"I know how you feel," you said softly. "But don't worry. It'll still be there when we've eaten."
We chatted a bit while we waited for our meal. I couldn't tell you what about, but the way I remember it we were both being frightfully witty. Or at least I remember we laughed a lot. Didn't matter what we said, after all; in every way that really counted we were managing very nicely without words.
After a while the girl arrived with the food. She laid out plates, shook out serviettes, lit the candle in the middle of the table and hovered, obviously smitten, poor kid, until you sent her away with a toned down version of that smile and an order for a bottle of the house red.
The food tasted as good as it looked. An omelette for me; steak for you--cooked just the way you like it for once, still practically on the hoof. I pinched some of your mushrooms and you polished off most of my chips--pardon me: pommes frites. And when we'd finished eating and the plates had been cleared away we sat for a while watching the other drinkers and basking in a well-fed haze of happy anticipation. The bottle of wine was almost empty and I was feeling nicely warm and sleepy. The room was waiting for us upstairs, but a full stomach and just the right amount of alcohol had dampened down the urgency a few degrees, and it was still early. We had the whole night ahead of us, no need to rush. Sitting there with you on the other side of the table, exchanging long lazy looks and planning how they'd soon give way to touch, was a pleasure all of its own; a sharper tingle of excitement in the pit of my stomach as satisfying as the soft glow of the wine.
You'd been idly watching the billiard players at the other end of the room, and when the game broke up and the table came free you nodded across the floor, quirking an eyebrow in invitation.
"Fancy a game?"
I snapped myself out of some sleepy fantasies about your mouth and the wonderful things I'd promised myself you were going to do with it, and started paying attention. I'm good at billiards, better than you at any rate, and since I'd have been fast asleep at the table if I'd stayed there much longer, an easy challenge to wake me up a little seemed like a good idea. I levered myself upright in my chair and stretched out the kinks in my spine--arching my back and making a bit of a show of it when I looked in your eyes and read the effect I was having. You shook your head at me across the table and mouthed, "You wait."
I widened my eyes--whatever do you mean?--and got a laugh and another headshake for my trouble.
"All right," I pushed myself out of the chair and onto my feet, "Loser buys the next round."
You smiled tolerantly. "Done."
I certainly was. Can't believe I didn't see it coming. I can only think it must've been the wine slowing me down, because it wasn't until I found myself with one knee up on the table, stretching, bum in the air for the first of those diabolical corner shots you'd set up for me and felt your eyes boring into me from behind like industrial lasers that I realised what I'd let myself in for.
And that was only the start of it.
By the time I'd been subjected to the second run-through of that offence to public decency you called chalking your cue, I was turned on so strong it's a miracle you made it back to our table with your trousers on and your virtue intact, you rotten sod. "Admiring the tightness of the grain", my arse! I've still got this indelible mental picture of your fingers curled lovingly round the barrel of the stick and that oh-so-innocent little smile on your face as you gazed meltingly into my eyes and stroked your fist slowly up and down...My own palms were so sweaty I could barely keep a grip on the cue.
I just hope you enjoyed yourself, that's all. You try leaning over a billiard table in tight jeans, with a hard-on sometime and you'll understand why I wasn't quite so ready to see the funny side. I'm lucky I didn't leave there singing soprano.
Damn. You know it's turning me on even now just thinking about it. And that's a bloody miracle in itself. Wouldn't've thought I could get it up with a crane after the last few days. Best change the subject, I think. This is not the time or the place. Be a long wait before there's much of that for us anyway if the look of you's anything to go by--even if we couldn't bank on them packing you off to the country for God knows how many weeks to convalesce. I'll miss you, you know. And no, not just for that, Casanova. Although now you mention it...
Ah well, needs must. Just have to think of you and practise a spot of DIY like that sad git Packenham, won't I? Well and I'll visit of course. And there's always letters, dirty phone calls...
Yes, well. Enough of that, I think. Time to move swiftly on. There's not much to get either of us going in what happened next, is there? Hardly our finest hour.
What with all the distractions I'd had to put up with, when the final ball dropped into the pocket and I straightened up to meet your gleeful grin, I was quite surprised to find I'd won. Must have been playing on reflex because my mind had been so far from the game it was a miracle I'd managed to pot a single ball. As I laid down my cue you fell on me and turned your congratulatory slap on the back into a quick exuberant hug; slinging your arm round my shoulders and pulling me close with a soft creak of leather and a waft of Paco Rabanne.
"What'll it be?"
Out of breath? Good. So, it'd got to you as well had it? You looked bright-eyed, a little wired, and those dark trousers don't hide as much as you think they do, you know. Funnily enough, noticing that didn't exactly help. Had to clear my throat twice before my voice would come out as anything more than a croak.
"Nightcap. You choose." Not particularly gracious or even a very subtle hint, but anticipation had suddenly lost its charms and your little game had left me distinctly hot and bothered.
You headed off towards the bar, and I watched as you threaded your way between the tables. Talk about adding insult to injury: the way your muscles bunched and slid under those tight black cords as you stalked across the room...Dread to think what you were doing to my blood pressure.
I tore my eyes away and sidled stiff-legged back to our table with my jacket held primly closed in front of me. The place was emptying out now. It was nearly closing time with only a few die-hards lingering over final drinks, so at least there weren't too many people to wonder why I was walking funny. I hunched forward in my chair to ease the pressure and concentrated fiercely on thoughts of cold showers and back paperwork and next month's annual refresher with Macklin until things began to subside.
"When in France..." You arrived back with a beaming smile and two glasses of Calvados, and settled down in your chair, sniffing appreciatively as you circled your glass, warming it over the candle flame.
Just for a second the air between us smelled of apples and sunlight and that was when it finally hit; like a bloody great wave rolling over me. Flamin' hell, we're really going to do it! I felt so...so happy. Sounds lame when you put it like that, doesn't it, but my blood was singing. Honest to God, for a moment I was quite dizzy with it.
"I like it when you do that," you said, so quietly I had to lean forward to hear you over the noise of the bar.
"Smile like that; as if you meant it. Makes your eyes go all soft. 'S ever so sweet."
"Sweet?" I spluttered. "Gerroff."
But with you looking at me that way I was perilously close to forgetting where we were and doing something wild and impulsive that'd have us out on the street before we'd even made it upstairs.
I made myself break eye contact, hooked an empty chair towards me and propped one foot on the seat, slouching down and making myself comfortable. Your eyes flickered over me and paused to linger dreamily on my crotch. You noticed me noticing and waggled your eyebrows unrepentantly before you looked away.
I hid my smile in my glass and took a sip. The smooth golden taste lived up to that wonderful scent and I could feel the heat spreading through my insides like summer, warming me all the way out to my skin.
You sipped your drink and picked absently at the wax round the top of the candle, gazing into the flame while I watched you over the rim of my glass and made the most of the chance to stare.
Candlelight suits you. If old papa Rembrandt was still around he'd have paid good money to paint you like that.
Couldn't help it; I could feel that smile spreading over my face again. You saw it, chuckled and raised your glass in acknowledgement, and as you dipped your head again to drink, a draft caught the candle flame and for a moment your eyes shone an incredible deep, transparent blue like the most expensive Venetian glass.
That did it.
"Bodie," I kept my voice level with an effort, "it's late. Think I'll head upstairs now, okay?"
Your eyes flicked up to mine then down to your watch. "Well I never." You yawned ostentatiously. "It is getting on a bit isn't, it? Think I'll do the same."
We didn't even look at one another as we walked side by side across the room, but I could feel you beside me all the way, tingling through my nerves like electricity.
We nodded goodnight to the girl behind the bar and left her gazing after you like an abandoned puppy as the door swung to behind us. Going ahead of you up the narrow stairs, I barely felt the treads under my feet, all that mattered was the warm pressure of your hand in the small of my back.
Up on the top landing I propped myself against the door jamb, keeping it down to a low simmer while you found the key, unlocked the door and felt around for the light switch.
"Oh." You stepped inside and your face fell.
"What's up?" I leaned round you in the doorway to see what was wrong. "Ah."
I wanted to laugh, but that was genuine disappointment on your face, you great soft thing, you. Seems I hadn't been the only one harbouring romantic fantasies.
Sadly, that room was about as unromantic as they come. Oh, it was clean enough, but tiny, threadbare and very, very basic. Talk about love in a garret. On one side the eaves made a clean sweep down to the floor, on the other a huge and hideous wardrobe took up practically the whole wall. The two beds were singles, stingy little two-foot-six jobs, not even decent three-footers. The floor was lino with one threadbare rag rug, and there was a loud knocking coming from the hot water pipes running down one corner of the room. The porthole-sized window had a crack in one pane.
"It's not that bad..." I tried, not sure which of us I was trying to convince.
"No?" You wrinkled your nose fastidiously, wandered over to twitch the coverlet on the nearest bed and turned to size up the rest of the room, "Not exactly the honeymoon suite at the Ritz, though, is it?"
No. I looked at the narrow little beds. Could push them together, I supposed, but that wasn't exactly going to encourage freedom of expression. Still, looking on the bright side, you couldn't deny sharing one of those would be an exercise in togetherness all right. And, out of character or not, somehow tonight I just couldn't seem to stop looking on the bright side.
"Oh, I dunno." I tipped you a wink. "Cheer up. I expect we'll salvage something."
You sat down gingerly on the edge of the nearest bed, cocked your head at me and tried a cautious bounce. The springs squealed and the frame shuddered ominously.
Better and better. I snorted, and you groaned and buried your face in your hands. "What time did you say room service would be here with the champagne?"
I stood in front of you, waiting. You lifted your head and I drifted my fingertips down your face, tracing the curve of your cheek to your mouth.
"Who needs it?"
In the light from the little pink-shaded ceiling lamp, your hair was the exact colour of old mahogany. It smelled faintly of cigarette smoke from the bar downstairs and slid through my fingers like butter.
"Come here." You patted the mattress by your side. Your voice was very warm, very soft.
You held out your hand. You were going to work magic for me with those hands...
I smiled and something flared in your eyes.
"Oh for God's sake..." you snapped, and pulled me down into your arms.
I fell back with you onto the bed and opened my mouth for your kiss, feeling like John Mills in Ice Cold in Alex taking that first glorious sip of ice-cold lager after the long, dry slog through the desert.
And that, of course, was where it all started to go horribly wrong.
We'd made short work of our jackets and holsters--one rolled up in the other and dumped on the room's only chair--but with the way we somehow kept finding ourselves getting sidetracked, we hadn't made much progress with the rest of our clothes. Didn't matter; getting there was half the fun, but it wasn't helping that I'd been struck temporarily incapable by a fit of the giggles brought on when you stopped trying to work your hand down the front of my waistband and pulled your mouth away from my throat to mutter something exasperated about my jeans being too bloody tight. Cheek! How long do you think it'd been since I'd worn them like that for any other reason than to keep you happy, eh? I may not know much about art, but I know what you like all right. You don't think it's comfortable sitting in a car for eight or nine hours at a stretch with the family jewels in a vice, do you? No. Supreme self sacrifice that was, and all for you. Just as well I never had any ambitions as a family man.
You slapped my leg to bring my attention back to the matter in hand. "Well, come on. Don't just lie there cackling; get 'em off."
What did you think I was trying to do? It's not easy dealing with a stiff button fly--save it; that one's too obvious even for me--when your hands won't stay steady for laughing, the bed's bouncing up and down like a trampoline and you're so hard and desperate you're in danger of doing yourself an injury with one false move.
I smacked away your 'helping' hands
"You do yours," I ordered, rolling onto my back so I could suck in my stomach and arch my hips to get some room for manoeuvre, "I'll do mine. Quicker."
"Yeah," your eyes were firmly riveted on me wriggling around in my escapology routine, but you obediently started fumbling at your own belt and zip, "Right."
"Bodie?" I looked up, jeans and pants pushed halfway down my legs. Clumsy twit's gone and caught himself in his zip, I thought.
"Ow! Bloody hell!"
"Cramps," you snarled, clutching your stomach.
"You what...?" I stared at you, "Is this your idea of a--"
"No. Just... shut up a minute," you panted, bent over your folded arms, "Think it's easing a bit... Yeah, yeah, that's it, it's going off." You took a couple of deep breaths and unfolded carefully. "Phew." You smiled at me a bit dazed. "That's better. Now," you rubbed your hands and reached for me again, "Where were we?"
"Hang about," I avoided your hands, "You've gone a very funny colour. You can't just... You sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine, Ray. Come back here."
You were staring at me greedily, eyes fixed unblushingly below waist level, "Oh yes..." you licked your lips again and my cock sat up like a dog hearing 'walkies!'.
"My, my, Grandma," you growled with a wolfish grin, "what a big..."
Oh, bloody hell. Your stomach, you had to know best, right? I shrugged and surrendered.
We were just getting nicely back into our stride, when you suddenly stiffened in my arms, let out a startled grunt, shoved yourself off me and started struggling upright again.
I couldn't believe it. Up and down like a flippin' yo-yo. If this was the famous Bodie technique I'd heard so much about, the trades descriptions people were in for a field day.
"Bodie, for God's sake!" Flat on my back, I punched the mattress in frustration.
You ignored me, hunched on the edge of the bed, face turned away, breathing hard.
I stroked your back. Your skin felt all clammy. "Talk to me, Bodie. What the hell's the matter with you?"
You grunted again; shrugged me away when I tried to pull you round to face me.
"Same as... aah shit... Before." You doubled over, "Oh, Christ!"
I'd never seen anyone actually turn green before.
I scrambled round off the bed and dropped to crouch in front of you.
"Bo --" And was knocked flat on my back as you surged onto your feet and shoved me aside to lunge for the door.
"Wait a minute!" I made a grab at your ankle as it flew past my head.
"Let me go, you stupid..." You swallowed hard, moaned, and clutched at your stomach while you struggled one-handed to pull your trousers up from round your ankles. "Bloody things... Will you let go of me, Doyle, for fuck's sake."
"But if you'll just..." Then, almost too late, I recognised the warning signs.
I have never been able to stand the sight or smell of vomit. Doesn't make sense when you think of some of the things I've seen, but that's the one that gets me every time. When I was in Drugs--no, listen, funny man, I'm baring my soul here--when I was in Drugs seemed like I spent most of the first six months haring off round corners to throw up myself. Glue-sniffers, junkies on withdrawal; can't half puke, some of them. You ever tried cleaning day-old vomit out of the lace-holes of a pair of Kickers? No, thought not. All I can say is, don't. 'Course I did develop a stronger stomach after a while; had to if I wanted to keep my job, but I never really got used to it. And right then I knew if I stayed where I was and you lost your dinner, even CI5-trained reflexes weren't going to be enough to save me. This had to be one of those times when discretion was the better part of valour. I let go.
"Shit..." Your pasty face turned a horrible shade paler. You gulped, hiccuped, tore open the door and took off down that corridor like Seb Coe. After a couple of seconds I heard a distant door slam.
And then there was one.
Well, ter-bloody-riffic. 'Oh sweet mystery of life' one minute, and the next... I mean, I've had some varied reactions to my efforts in the sack over the years, but yours took the biscuit.
And now what? There was a big gap in my education when it came to the etiquette for this kind of situation.
A draft was making itself felt round my nether regions. Yeah, well, that might be a good place to start. Whatever was wrong with you, me sitting bare-arsed in the middle of the floor with my cock at half mast and my shirt up round my armpits wasn't going to do either of us any good. I fished around the foot of the bed for my jeans and got myself tucked away. Better. Any crisis is easier to face fully dressed.
As for my other little problem...Well, my body was already, um, shall we say bowing to the realities of the situation. And that yearning ache in my balls had become so much of a fixture over the course of the evening I'd almost forgotten what life felt like without it.
I drifted around aimlessly for a bit, hunting up scattered bits of clothing and straightening the bed. Something told me we wouldn't be needing it for anything more exciting than sleeping in after this, but if you were going to be ill, you might as well do it on unrumpled sheets.
And then it occurred to me that time had been passing, and maybe I should go after you, check you were okay.
On which thought the door swung open and you staggered back in with a face on you like week-old milk, pushed past me without a word, collapsed on the bed and stretched out on your back with one arm over your eyes and the other pressed to your stomach.
Well that was just lovely. No apology, no explanations...
But then I took a good long look at you, draped across the bed like the consumptive poet in a Victorian melodrama, and discovered that much as you deserved it, I couldn't quite work myself up into a really satisfying, air-clearing rage with you lying there looking so utterly wretched. All right. Save it for later, when we'd got you sorted out.
I bent over the bed and, touched your wrist.
"Bodie? You okay?"
You lowered your arm, prised apart tear-gummed lashes and looked at me with bleary accusing eyes. "Oh yes, Doyle," your throat sounded raw, and after one whiff of your breath I quickly started breathing through my mouth, "I'm having a lovely time."
All right. I probably deserved that. Deep breath. Count to ten. "Yeah, right, I'm sorry. But, look, is it serious? I mean, do you need a doctor?"
"No," you told me in a 'read my lips' tone that would've had you needing a dentist if you'd been on your feet, "I don't need a doctor. What I need is for you to stop asking bloody stupid questions and leave me alone to suffer in peace." You opened your eyes again and glared up at me. "Or is that too much to ask?"
"No," I said, keeping my hands from your stiff-necked, miserable, ungrateful throat with a superhuman effort, "I don't think that'll be a problem at all."
I could do with another drink, I decided. Several more drinks. Half eleven--I glanced at my watch. Maybe the bar would still be open.
"I'll leave you to it then. I expect you'll find me downstairs if you need me."
There was a hurried jangling of springs behind me.
I stopped with my hand on the doorknob. "What?"
"Don't go. I'm sorry."
I turned round slowly. You'd pushed yourself up on one elbow, all drooping misery and big pleading eyes.
God, you looked pathetic. Like my nan's old dog after it disgraced itself one night on mum's brand new sitting room carpet. You're lucky I'm a softer touch than she was.
I sighed and took the couple of steps back to the bed to perch on the mattress beside you. I pushed sweaty hair back off your forehead, more of a cuff than a caress.
"So you bloody well should be."
"You do know this wasn't --" you started, and then your face twisted and I yelped as you gripped my hand hard enough to bruise.
"Oh God," you panted, "Here we go again."
You poor bastard. As the night went on I didn't need a medical degree to see you were really sick. After the first couple of trips to the bog you couldn't even make it down the corridor under your own steam. And while you made it quite clear my presence was not required inside, however hard I tried to block my ears, I couldn't help hearing enough through the bathroom door to know you weren't having a comfortable time in there. Every visit left you weaker and paler than the one before, and all I could do was sit and watch you tossing and turning on that creaky little bed, sweating and shaking and swearing at the pain in your gut while you waited for the next bout.
I hadn't seen you so ill since that infection hit after you were knifed back in '78, and I was scaring myself silly with visions of burst appendixes and horrible tropical diseases you'd picked up in Africa. I mean, in most people I'd just have put it down to something they'd eaten, but I'd spent years listening to you boasting about your iron constitution, and I knew from personal experience that you have a stomach like a billy goat. This could be something really serious.
But, oh no, you wouldn't hear of calling a doctor; bit my head off at the very mention of the idea. Just kept insisting--when you had the breath for it--that it was "Only a gyppy tummy for God's sake", and you'd be fine once you'd got it out of your system. Can't give it a rest, can you? Still trying to prove you're Superman even while you're crapping your guts out and your stomach's tying itself in reef knots.
Hoped maybe I'd cured you of that--until you pulled this last brilliant stunt. Just what's it going to take to get it through that thick skull of yours that you don't have anything to prove to anyone, eh? We're the best of the best, you and me. To hell with modesty; it's the truth. So who are you trying to impress? Cowley? He already thinks the sun shines out your backside; you're the only one too blind to see it. Me? I don't want Superman. A great comfort your posthumous medal for gallantry's going to be in my old age. I want you, you stupid, glory-chasing bastard; alive and in one piece and what passes for your right mind. I rather thought I'd made that clear the last time you did your best to get yourself blown to kingdom come on my behalf. You think I'd be grateful knowing you'd done that for me? Sorry, mate, I'm not that generous.
There are enough unavoidable risks in this game without you courting the avoidable ones with your damn fool heroics.
You frighten me, you know that? Because you don't bloody learn, do you? You fight your way back from this little escapade and we both know there'll be another just the same, and another after that. And eventually there'll be the one you don't walk away from. And then what am I going to do, Bodie, eh? Where d'you think that's going to leave me?
Do you know how long they had you in surgery up there, picking shrapnel out of your back, eh? Do you? Five hours, Bodie. That splinter near your spine? The surgeon showed me the X-rays. Quarter of an inch to the left and you'd be dead. Or paralysed--as good as. And now this bleed in your skull. If they didn't catch it in time...
No. We've beaten worse odds; we'll beat these. You'll make it, I know that. Born to be hanged, you were. But I keep remembering Jimmy Pemberton after he took that bullet in the head, and--
Christ, Bodie, it doesn't bear thinking about.
And I'm not going to think about it. Not now. Bad medicine.
We'll make it.
But very soon we're going to have a good long talk, you and me, and I'm going to make you see sense if I have to beat it into you. Because I want to be propping up the pension counter with you when I'm seventy, you hear me? Not taking the bus pass special up the Fulham Road to lay flowers on your grave.
Oh, enough. I know when I'm wasting my breath. Back to the story. Wouldn't do to leave you hanging here in suspense when they chuck me out for the night, would it?
Done enough talking about the unthinkable. No, in view of what happened next, the word that springs most readily to mind's 'unspeakable'...
It was after that last time when a moan and a loud crash had me bursting into the bathroom to find you'd fainted clean away on the loo and fallen off into the towel rail that I decided you could rant all you wanted in the morning but right now you were bloody well having a doctor whether you wanted one or not. You couldn't go on like this and I sure as hell knew I couldn't. This was not the kind of crisis I'm qualified to deal with. I was way out of my depth.
Christ, I had to wipe your bum, before I could take you out of there, you know that? You ever doubt what you mean to me, matey, you think on that. I tell you, I wouldn't take on a nurse's job for twice the money.
I managed to get you mopped up and back to the room eventually, and left you in a limp, shivering, feverish heap on the bed, all the fight knocked out of you by exhaustion, while I set off to find someone better qualified to cope.
Which was when I realised I had absolutely no idea who to call. It would've been easy at home; just pick up the phone to Control. Never occurred to me before how we're spoiled like that. I'd noticed a payphone downstairs in the hall, but even if I could remember the number to ring for an ambulance, I know how you are about hospitals and you'd never forgive me if they carted you away and you ended up stranded here, maybe for days, on your own while Cowley had me off on the first flight back to London. Local knowledge was what I needed. I'd rather have faced down a roomful of armed villains, but I knew there was only one thing for it.
The walk down those stairs felt like the walk to the scaffold. I tell you, standing outside the door to Madame's private quarters, I came this close to bottling out, but I reminded myself of you lying up there, quite possibly at death's door, and me faced with hours of sweating and shitting and vomiting and screwed my courage to the sticking point. For God's sake, I told myself, a man who goes out every day and puts himself in the way of bullets for a living has no right to turn into a gibbering wreck at the prospect of knocking up one little old lady. I pulled my shirt together to disguise a couple of missing buttons as best I could, told myself if I smelled a bit ripe she'd probably just put it down to the exertion of lugging you up and down that corridor and knocked.
Just goes to show how completely you can misjudge a person. I'd got her out of bed--all long grey plaits and wincyette--and at first she was every bit the iron-drawed tartar I'd expected, but after I'd finally managed to get through to her what the problem was, the transformation was amazing. Turned out she'd been a nurse with the Free French forces during the war, and she pushed me out the way and took over as if she'd been born to it. You have no idea what a blessed relief it was to hand you over to someone who actually knew what she was doing. She got the doctor on the phone then followed me upstairs. Tutted and ooh la laaed, over the state of you--"Ah! Le pauvre petit!"--and tore me off a strip for not fetching her earlier. She wouldn't hear of you staying in that poky little room with the long trek to the bathroom, and had me running around unlocking the best en-suite double on the first floor, filling hot water bottles and making up the big bed with fresh sheets. I manhandled you down the stairs, while she followed behind clucking over you and nagging at me, and held you upright--very grateful you were long past the stage of feeling any embarrassment--while she matter-of-factly stripped you, sponged you down and got you tidied up ready for the doctor's visit.
I was heartily relieved myself to be out of that stinking room, and even half out of your mind with fever, you already looked about a hundred percent more comfortable now you were freshened up and settled on clean sheets.
The doctor, when he arrived, was brisk but charming--especially considering we'd dragged him out of bed and halfway across town in the fog at one in the morning. "Food poisoning," he told us after one look at you. What had you been eating? No, not for dinner, that was too recent; earlier in the day. Bouillabaisse? Shellfish? "Huh," with one of those all-encompassing gallic shrugs, "But of course."
He examined you, said you'd probably purged the worst of it out of your system by now and that your main problem at this stage was going to be dehydration. What you needed was rest and fluids. We could get you admitted to the local hospital to be on the safe side if we liked, but it was a bad night out and you'd probably be more comfortable here. Madame, much to my relief, said she wouldn't hear of anything else, and he gave you something for the cramps and diarrhoea (that's a bloody big pill to swallow, I thought till he rolled you over and pulled down the sheets) and an injection to make you sleep and then he handed me a couple of sachets to mix up and pour down your throat in an hour or so when the dose had had a chance to work and you might have a chance of keeping something down. Salt and sugar mixture. Sounded revolting but it works wonders for dehydration apparently, and then he was off back to his nice warm bed, leaving us with instructions to call him again in the morning if there was no improvement.
I was just grateful the medicine for the cramps was a one-off dose. Ridiculous to be coy about a thing like that when you think of some of the plans I had for you, but my fantasies about your bum had already taken enough of a dent for one day, without adding suppositories to the picture. Got some funny ideas about medicine, the French. Show up with anything from piles to a cold in the nose and they'll prescribe you something to stick up your backside. Rather you than me, mate, but as long as it did the trick.
No point the two of us staying awake, so I sent Madame back off to bed with my heartfelt gratitude. You'd made another conquest there. She cooed over you like her long-lost child, patted your hand and straightened your covers and told me to call her straight away if you needed anything, and then she left us alone.
I sat on the bed and held your hand for a bit while you muttered and twitched. Dunno what you were dreaming about. Thought maybe I heard my name a couple of times, but that's probably wishful thinking. You went under pretty fast as the drug took effect, and before long you were snoring away, dead to the world. I'd've loved to follow your example. Must've been after two by then and those cool, clean sheets looked too inviting by half. Not to mention the temptation of you sprawled naked in the middle of them. But I didn't dare lie down yet in case I dropped off and couldn't wake up in time to give you your drink. So I settled in an armchair instead and watched you sleeping.
Used to think I could never get enough of watching you sleep. Just goes to show.
I must've nodded off in spite of all my good intentions. Woke with a jolt when my elbow slipped off the arm of the chair and my head took a dive after it. Would've taken World War Three to wake you I should think. I could barely rouse you enough to swallow when I tried to prop you up and get that stuff down your throat. You didn't like it; pulled your head away and frowned at the taste. But I think you must've been horribly thirsty; after the first couple of mouthfuls it went down easily enough. You were fast asleep again in seconds and after nearly twenty-four eventful hours on the go I was more than ready to join you. I pulled off my clothes, climbed in beside you and fell asleep to the sound of your snores.
It was the rattle of a drinks delivery in the yard that woke me early next morning. The fog had melted away during the night and there was a bright bar of sunlight falling onto the foot of the bed through a gap in the curtains. It was going to be a beautiful day.
No phone, no RT, no hurry to get up. I was drowsy, warm and comfortable, and you were breathing softly on the pillow beside me, still deeply, peacefully asleep. How many times had I fantasised an awakening exactly like that?
Oh yeah, as mornings go, that one was about as close to perfection as it gets. So did I snuggle up to you and bask in blissful contentment? Did I carry the fantasy through and wake you with a kiss for a spot of early morning how's your father?
No of course I bloody didn't. I'd've thought you knew me better than that by now.
You see I'd got to thinking...
'Denial', I believe they call it in the psychology textbooks. I think of it as the ostrich syndrome. However you want to label it, I've seen enough demonstrations from you over the years to write my own learned thesis on the subject. Thing is, there's no shades of grey with you, are there? Anything from that terrible business with Marikka Schuman to a vague feeling you might have made a bit of a prat of yourself in the bedroom and it makes no difference; one reaction fits all. Stick your head in the sand; pretend the whole thing never happened. Fool yourself, and if you make it convincing enough just maybe you'll fool the rest of us as well. I'm not saying I don't understand why you do it, but that's never made it any the less infuriating, and in the light of what had happened last night it frankly frightened the life out of me.
I wanted to believe we were beyond those kinds of games; that you trusted me enough after everything we've been through to dare to let me see you're only human like the rest of us and still know I'd respect you in the morning. But...Well, you know me; show me a gift horse and I'll check on the state of its tonsils. I knew I hadn't mistaken that look I saw on your face in the church, but at the same time I couldn't ignore that nagging little voice at the back of my mind telling me I should've known from the start all this was too good to be true.
I mean, look at my so-called romantic history. Wasn't exactly designed to fill me with confidence, was it? After the cock-up I'd made of every other important relationship in my life, what made me think I deserved any better when it came to the most important one of all? No, the little voice told me; you getting ill like that was just the fates' idea of a joke; a not-too-subtle reminder that fairytale endings aren't meant for the likes of you and me.
So I lay there like the condemned man waiting for the dawn, watching the sun creep over the coverlet towards your face while my thoughts chased each other in ever-decreasing circles and you slept on quietly oblivious.
A couple of times I very nearly reached over to shake you awake. Half of me said do it now; face the worst and get it over with. The other half--the one with the eye-catching yellow streak--said no, let him sleep; anything to put off the moment of truth just that little bit longer. And, you know, that might go a long way towards explaining this sudden sense of déjà vu, now I come to think of it.
In the end of course, nature took the decision out of my hands. The sun wouldn't stand still for me to make up my mind, and soon it was shining straight onto your pillow, prying at your eyelids. You smacked your lips crossly, screwed up your eyes, and tried to burrow deeper into the pillow, but the light found you out, and after a minute you rolled onto your back and blinked yourself awake, staring unfocusedly up at the ceiling. Your guard was still down so close to sleep, and I could watch the expressions follow each other across your face as you recognised where you were and started to piece together the memory of last night. I was waiting, braced for the moment when the barriers would slam down and you'd turn to me with that blank, hard soldier's face and make the carefully casual comment that'd end it all. But it never came.
You let out an explosive sigh, turned over and propped yourself on one elbow above me. I didn't recognise anything in your expression. It wasn't the horrible blankness I'd been dreading, but it gave me even fewer clues to what you were thinking. We stayed like that for what felt like an age; you looking down at me with those unreadable eyes, me staring back hypnotised, like a rabbit in headlights. And then just as I knew I couldn't stand the suspense any longer, your face dissolved into a wide, jubilant grin and you bent down and smacked a kiss on the end of my nose.
"So, come on then," you said, and suddenly we were both laughing, "Tell me --"
That's right! "How was it for you?" You bastard. Of all the...Oh. Oh my God.
Bodie? How long have you...?
Oh sweet Christ. Bodie. You're awake. I don't believe it! I don't bloody believe it! You're finally fuckin' awake!
Whoa! Take it easy. I'm here, look. I've got you. Didn't mean to shout. Just...lie still or you'll set all this lot off and we'll have half the hospital charging in here. Oh, Bodie. Christ, but it's good to hear your voice, you mad, heartless son of a bitch, do you have any idea...
Oh. Right. Sorry. I just can't quite...Are you--
You've been hurt, mate. You're in hospital. Had a bit of a bang on the head, remember?
That's right. We--
Lie still, you halfwit; you want to burst your stitches? I'm fine. You can see, look. Bit creaky, that's all. Couple of cracked ribs, few cuts and bruises. Nothing I haven't had before.
Yeah, well I've not been sleeping too well lately, have I, but -
"Not...? Why... Wha'sma'er?"
Doesn't matter, sunshine. Don't worry about it. 'S all over now. Bloody hell, the way I feel right this minute I could wipe the floor with Macklin one hand tied behind my back. Talk about a sight for sore eyes; if it wasn't for the state of you I could --
Oh shit, what am I--Look, I have to let them know you're back in the land of the living, all right? Stick my head round the door and call someone? Gonna let go of you just for a second. Only a second, okay? Don't go back to sleep.
"Better...blow your nose."
"Ah, Mr Bodie. Excellent; you're back with us, I see. If you'd give us a few minutes, please, Mr Doyle? Carol, would you put a call out for Mr Daz, and ask Michael to step in here for a moment. Mr Doyle...?"
"If you wouldn't mind...?"
What? Oh, yeah, right. Sorry.
"He'll be right back, Mr Bodie. Just relax and look this way, please. Now, if you'll keep your eyes on this light..."
Bodie? Ssshh, it's only me. Just came to say goodnight.
Worn you out already have they? I dunno. Barely been awake five minutes and now look at you; hardly keep your eyes open, can you, poor old soul.
No, don't fight it, just lie back and listen. I've only got a minute; doctor's orders. And you need your rest so I won't keep you long. Just had to see you one more time before I go and catch up on some beauty sleep of my own.
Well, sunshine, looks like we beat the odds again.
Luck of the Irish your surgeon said. Don't you believe it, I told him, luck of the devil more like.
They still want to run a few more tests, they say, but they're sure that's no more than a formality now. The rate you heal they reckon a week or so more in here, couple of months intensive physio and you'll be good as new.
So. We live to fight another day.
But don't go thinking that means you're off the hook, hotshot. We're going to--
Ah, damn, they're making pointed signs at me from the other side of the glass. 'Come in number forty five, your time is up'. I really have to go.
I'll be in again tomorrow, though, all right? First thing, and--God, Bodie, it's so bloody good to have you back. Oh, to hell with best behaviour; quick, while they're looking the other way...Mmn, nice. That orange juice you've been drinking?
All right. I'm coming, I'm coming...
See you tomorrow, mate, okay? Love you. Behave yourself with those nurses, and--I can't believe I'm saying this--sleep well.
-- THE END --
Originally published in Roses and Lavender 3, Allamagoosa Press, 1999