A Kind of Praise


Written for the Discovered in Temptation challenge, on the discoveredinalj livejournal community, for "Envy"

You come across them happily sinning under cover of a sticky summer night.

They have found a spot amongst high hedges, carpeted by a springy lawn and surrounded by slumbering flowers.

Upstairs in the big house a family made rich by drugs and guns sleep the sleep of the blindly self-righteous. One well-heeled gangster sits in his drawing-room chair preparing to testify against another, and down here in the sprawling gardens Cowley's two and a half teams are supposed to watch and patrol.

As the remaining half of a newly-defunct team you play the role of captain and whipper-in. There's one pair of likely lads yawning at the fairytale gates in front of the house and another pair padding about on the terrace outside, looking shiftier than the man they're supposed to be body-guarding. The twinkling looks they exchange and then the innocent saunter down the steps into the dark convinces you they don't have their minds on the job, sneaky little buggers.

You give them five whole minutes, then set out to see what more you can discover.

Drawing near the ornamental garden, you know at once what they're up to because sounds and scents are rendered quite perfect by the deep dark. You pause to listen, a nameless emotion flaring in your chest. None of the lads much care about this operation, that's true, but bunking off to prat about like two benders on Hampstead Heath? The size of the cover-up needed if the pigeon got shot at this point does not bear thinking about. It irks you that they are so easy with this. No graceless hand-job in the bushes for these two. They think it's A Midsummer Night's Flaming Dream.

One of them, the more vocal, doesn't sound so much dreamy as delirious. Hidden in the topiary, you can tell when he feels the heat stream shooting into him. You hear the exact moment when he comes.

"Oh you...my...shhhh..." The words are as sweet on the air as the night-scented stock.

You peep through leaves, to make sure you get an image to take away. Laying his dark hair against his hand, he is panting into the grass, muttering as if his head has been turned by the pleasure of it all. The other holds him steady, smooths the skin beneath his fingertips, face tilted to the sky, eyes shut.

"That's the spirit, sergeant," he says lazily. Next to them their holsters lie coiled, one poetically on top of the other, in a rose bed. There is a moment of peace.

Then a long groan as they separate. "What've you done to me? I can't feel me legs."

"Is that bad?"

"Not exactly."

"Good then?"

"'s bleedin' miraculous."

"Yeah, well hang on to it, chum, we need to get back."

"You'll have to carry me."

"Not bloody likely."

They seem gleeful, staggering about in the dark, pulling clothes back on, still breathing fast. You don't want to leave them but you do, walking quickly back along the pathways, dodging under the spreading elms, trying to quiet your heart.

When they return to duty they acknowledge you standing on the terrace, fag in hand, and you acknowledge them.

They are casual, their shoulders bumping as they wander off to carry out their orders for the night watch. Pablo and SAS. You coined the nicknames yourself, like you've done for most of the squad. Bleeding obvious, wasn't it, when one of them liked painting and the other one was a soldier. Pablo and his soldado. They can't help a wistful look at each other. Bloody bastards. You hate them for it.

They first piqued Ronan's interest, the randy scouse git, when SAS got his gong for managing to kill the right people in a situation where he could have got things spectacularly wrong. He was chuffed to bits, SAS was, but Ronan told you solemnly that he noticed Pablo was even more chuffed, grinning away like a ninny in the background while SAS wore his being-honoured face and some toff from the F.O. made a rambling speech and congratulated Cowley on the calibre of his men. Ronan thought they were definitely at it, but then Ronan thought that about everyone. You didn't actually believe it until you spied them one Sunday morning not talking to each other in a greasy spoon on Ladbroke Grove. Only couples are happy not talking across a table. Only a lover would sugar his partner's tea for him without a word.

On the day Ronan was buried the old man made you take diazepam so you didn't feel a thing until everyone was gone and you were left alone peeling off your black suit and tie. The day had been like these days always are, and you were grateful for the drug because you needed an extra layer on your stiff upper lip. Losing a partner to extreme violence and burying him without shedding tears figures high on the list of eventualities to expect. Burying a lover not so much. You looked at the pills in your palm and wondered just how much Cowley knew.

Pablo, who takes losses much too badly, was gutted. He could hardly keep his head up he was so choked. SAS, who's seen more than his fair share of flag-draped coffins, locked the grief away so it wouldn't find him and got busy catching anyone who crumbled. In the church porch after the service he found Pablo bubbling with rage and sorrow and made the deftest catch of the day, feeding him sips of brandy from a canteen, and holding one hand on the side of his face until he got pushed away.

Because they didn't know the whole truth about you and Ronan they were never able to help you out. And with Ronan gone, you fell to thinking all the time about whether you wanted either of them.

It has never been easy to decide.

Pablo is a bright spark, it's true, with all his creative ways, his liking for hearth, home and a good glug of Bardolino while he cooks. He has long limbs and one battered cheekbone, a smile both arch and winsome. A social conscience lies sandwiched inconveniently between a mad temper and a seething dislike of criminality. He picks at the job like it's an irritating scab, always looking for what's serious and truthful. But then he'll come up with some fucking filthy joke, and make it filthier still with the way he laughs. Undoubtedly the best proponent of a flying drop-kick you ever laid eyes on, he can settle his thighs around a Kawasaki KL250 with a louche grace that always captivated Ronan. Pablo has a velvet-soft underbelly you would sometimes like to stroke.

Serial abandonment, on the other hand, gives SAS his harsh edge. Makes him mean from the inside out. You wouldn't think he had a heart at all sometimes, like when he slaps an assault rifle against a broad shoulder, and slits his bad blue eyes as he locks on target. Then again, you'd think the phrase "charm offensive" had been invented specially for him because he can be light as candyfloss when he wants, fall-about funny, everyone's bezzy mate. When it comes down to it, though, you worry for him. You wonder sometimes if he isn't scared of the mix of blank verse and violence in his head, whether he wouldn't actually be better off being despatched, anonymously, by a single shot to the nearest temple.

On top of all this, of course, the two of them are hopelessly in love with each other. Which nobody can see better than you.

So, you might think about them at the end of a shitty day, wondering who fucks who harder, who kisses who unexpectedly, who comes into whose mouth with more abandon.

But you don't think you actually want them.

You just want what they have.

You come across them gamely struggling in a bright and airless room.

Pablo, lying on the floor, opens his eyes.

He tries to get up but he just can't. His face is all covered in dust and speckles of plaster, and when he rolls his neck to look up at you debris crunches under his skull. The explosion was bigger than you thought it would be, so you are surprised to find they are still breathing.

Look, Pablo, look over here.

Eventually he follows your motioning eyes and sees SAS sprawled out a few feet away, stomach down, hands over head, sees you jab at him with a toe to make him groan.

"Poor soldado," you say, dropping on your haunches, pulling an arm away so you can both see his face. You watch Pablo watching you, watching your every move with that ferment in his eyes. He watches you try to pat SAS awake and you can tell that he is grinding his teeth in his jaw. "Your poor soldadito," you say to him.

The lashes flicker in agitation at the sound of the name. Then they drop.

You sit quietly out of the way looking at the two of them until finally SAS lifts his head. He is the one who manages to make a move, homing in on his final destination, inching stubbornly across the divide, elbow over elbow, hauling himself up Pablo's legs. He touches a cheek, brushes the layer of ceiling clumsily off corkscrews of hair.

Although he gave no sign of being aware of you at first, now he swivels in your direction.

"He was bloody bald," he says, his voice a mere croak of disgust, a forefinger twirling territorially around a single curl. "Picasso was bloody bald, you plonker."

And he lays his head down next to Pablo's with a hiss of defeat.

The room, the explosion, the fallen heroes in their tragic tanglethese are just your flights of fancy.

But your eyes do get tired with watching them all the time. Perhaps, when you have endured too much life without Ronan, you will decide to put yourself out of your misery. A gunshot perhaps. Pills, booze and a burning building.

They would be left to take their secret walks, lying coiled, one poetically on top of the other, happy ever after in their bed of roses.

Or you could take both of them with you.

-- THE END --

March 2007

Notes: soldado/soldadito - soldier/little soldier or toy soldier (Sp.)
and the Kawasaki KL250 is a pretty motorbike of the sort Raymond might have wrapped his butt around circa 1978 :)

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