A Fate Worse Than Death
We had Macklin for four days, and Kate Ross for two, in the week before the sad event, which might have made matters worse or better -- I can't say. Only Ray would know for sure, and he's not telling. He was still brown as a gypsy after our Jamaican excursion, every inch of him, since there are beaches there you'd be sure have never seen a white man, and we could sunbathe in the raw. Macklin noticed and teased the pair of us unmercifully, and we just pinned on scornful smiles, treating him to a show of pity: 'Poor old Mack, nobody loves him, unlike 3.7 and 4.5.' It worked; he got down to business after the first morning and merely pasted us all over the gym instead.
Ray might have needed the refresher; certainly, I did. A few pounds of marshmallow around the waist, legs that could have been stronger, your average atrophy factor after too much good living. Sharing a flat means you save a bundle, and when you can indulge, as a general rule of thumb -- you do. We like good wine, good food and a lot of horizontal R&R; which is all very well, so long as you're not expected to keep up the kind of fitness usually demanded only of professional athletes. Cowley is a stickler for fitness, but I guess it's what has kept us alive through the years so, what the hell.
Mack was satisfied. We were a mass of bruises, but then again, so was Towser. Mack himself doesn't get into the scrums much these days; we tease him about being an old man, but in fact he's only got a decade on Ray. You'd never think it to look at Brian, but he's fifty. He goes back to the Cow's generation, BOSS, MI6, intrigue and subterfuge. Colin Meredith was another one. They're mostly dead now, and those who have survived have done so because one and all, they're the wiliest bastards you'd ever come across, bar none.
Like Ray and me. We're survivors. We're going to make it. Odds are, when you join an outfit like CI5, you won't even see thirty, let alone forty, and yet here was Ray with a face as long as a rainy Sunday, contemplating his birthday over a glass of gin. I was snickering unkindly into my Campari, because of the sheer absurdity of it. He's as fit as a man half his age and has the look and manner of a bloke ten years younger. A lot of it's attitude, and a lot of it has got to be his genes. Or his organic nosh. Or his addiction to things Oriental. Or something -- I'm still trying to work it out, but he makes me feel decrepit sometimes. Also guilty, because I'll sneak a small cigar while no one's looking, and I know (these days, who doesn't?) the nasty details about all that.
The CI5 instructors are watching us closely now, because at our age you can come to grief on the street all too easily. If we were the slightest bit under par, they'd have us off active duty and working in administration. Doing some of Cowley's job or, more likely, working with Mack and Towser, sharpening up the raw recruits before they're let loose. There are never many newcomers; some seem horrifyingly young, some are surprisingly mature, but all need to be polished off, shown the ropes, taught the tricks of the trade by the old dogs.
Not that the term 'old dogs' is a reflection on the fact Ray's fortieth had come around. On the contrary; the old dog is the agent who's been on the job a year longer than you, and is still alive! If you've got the sense you were born with, you milk his brain for everything you can get out of it, and use what you get. We've milked Cowley shamelessly over the years, not that he's minded. And I tell the truth, I've pumped Ray's brain for all his little tricks -- same as he's pumped mine, I expect. It's hard to remember the early days, now. It's a long time ago. Twelve years since we first met, seven since we became lovers. Christ, if the next seven years go as fast as the last --
Shudders. Horrible thought. I sat back in the squeaking leather upholstered bench and watched him glaring at this G&T as if the poor object had threatened his life. The pub was a lovely little country place and we were on two days off, following the tests. Ross had had us for the last two days and we were stir crazy with her kind of work. It's less physically painful, but mentally wearing. This is the only job I know where you have to be able to run the hundred under ten, sort out the Rubik's Cube faster than a nine year old and be computer literate into the bargain. Take Ross' tests. You sit at a computer punching keys to answer her questions. A typographical error -- and God, they're easy to make! -- and the answer is wrong. So what is she testing, your knowledge, your mental agility, or your bloody fingers? If I'd wanted to test out for the typing corps I would have gone to gorgeous Betty McCallum, and applied there. Betty is a love, a real treasure, and like good wine, improving with age.
And even Ross had been satisfied with Ray's performance, so why the hell was he wearing that gloomy face, the day before his birthday? He didn't know it, but I'd got him a mountain of presents and was going to inflict an overdose of gooey sentimentality on him, starting the instant I woke him up -- I'd been waiting all year to do that and was not about to miss my chance. I've never had a family to be sentimental over and Ray was 'it'. The little bugger laps it up anyway, so I haven't the chance to be guilty about it.
He heaved an enormous sigh and I leaned forward again. "Go on then, let's have it. What's to you into this mood?"
"Mood? I'm not in a mood." He even sounded irritable.
"Don't con me, mate," I said sternly. "You're years too late to try that one on! Gullible I may be at times, thick I am not. What's got the gloom and doom going? Let's have it."
He scowled at me, that Ray Doyle scowl that has always suggested at the very real menace hidden beneath that cherubic face and cap of curls. He can be dangerous, can Ray. But not today. He kept up the scowl for a few moments and then surrendered, another sigh echoing the first as he sipped at the gin. "Guess."
"Tomorrow," I said promptly, and he shot a hard look my way. "I'm wrong?"
"No, you're not wrong," he admitted. "Take no notice. It's just me being stupid!" Another sip of gin. "I was filling in a questionnaire the other day. Got to the end of it, and saw the age bracket boxes. Did you know I'm in my 'middle years' as of tomorrow!?"
I spluttered with laughter. "You? Don't kid me. You haven't even grown up yet!" I wished I could have touched him. He had that waif and stray look, orphan in a storm, looked like he needed loving to death. It's not so bad in '87; two men can live together without getting bricks chucked through the window, but people are picky when it comes to public displays, and then there's the law. The Americans have got it easy by comparison. British and Scottish law is a little archaic still. Loving between two men is legal, it says, so long as it happens in private. And their concept of 'private' means, no more than two people in the room -- or the house. You can't do it in a hotel or motel, or out of doors. And you can't make love if there's a guest in the house. And what they'd say to a threesome I don't know, because the law is specific. It says 'two', and two it means. We've broken the rules royally over the years -- I imagine every couple does, given half the chance. I've loved him in all sorts of places. We're discreet about it, which may be our saving grace, given British justice! But even so, to touch him, even hold his hand, across the table in a country pub -- no way.
So I stood up and yanked him out from the other side of the table. "We leaving?" He gulped the last of his gin and let me manhandle him toward the door. The car was parked right alongside, and we got into it, driving a mile or so down the lane and pulling off into a deserted picnic ground. It was no more than ten in the morning and even if Joe Public and the missus did turn up to use the site, which was doubtful in the middle of the working week, they wouldn't arrive for hours yet. We were safe. Safe for me to grab him bodily, haul him across the car and kiss him thoroughly.
He resisted a bit at first, still too mopy to respond to such exhibitions of passion, but the sexy little creature caught the mood a moment later and repaid my favours in kind. I love the silky feel of his tongue in my mouth; the gobstopper was never invented that could match it, if such crudities may be pardoned. He tasted of the gin and, turning on, bit my lips gently, as if I was a plum or a peach. At last, I surrendered and invited him to do as he liked, and our kissing became lavish and sloppy. I reckon he could swim a lap and a half underwater, if he put his mind to it. Breath control or something. He had be gasping before he was done.
I gave him a rueful look as we surfaced and he flopped back into the other bucket seat. "So, what about tomorrow?" I panted. "Ignore the calendar, will you? It's for the guidance of idiots and the regulation of British Rail. What's your body tell you, Ray? Eh? Does it look different, feel different, than it did five years ago? Ten? No? Then, forget it. It's fit, it's healthy and it's gorgeous -- what else could you ask of a body?"
"Middle years," he grumbled, pulling that scowl again, though it didn't really work because his mouth was swollen with kissing, soft and sensual and the colour of ripe strawberries. Enough to make you groan just to look at it.
"Middle years for the average booby who neglects himself," I argued. "What's he do? Sleeps ten hours a day, eats twice what he needs, drinks too much beer, clogs his arteries up with cholesterol, smokes twenty a day and the most exercise he gets is a rave up with the missus, maybe twice a week! You reckon he's going to last longer than sixty, with that lot against him? So forty is the middle. In fact thirty'd be the middle, if they were honest! And by the time they get to forty these bozos look like your father."
"That's all true," he admitted. "But, still --"
"Shut up and grope me," I said sternly. "I like a bit of grope when we've got the chance."
He was laughing at last, and set about me with the kind of determination Cowley would have found commendable. I certainly commended it. Couldn't live without it, if I must tell true. We ate each other whole, slept off brunch, drinks and sex, and headed north. It's good to get out of the city when you can. Blows the smog out of your lungs and puts the world back in perspective. You can get the impression London's the whole world, after a while, and it's an illusion. Like you're the center of the universe. There's nothing like standing on a crag overlooking an expanse of countryside with sudden death about a foot away, for putting it back in perspective. You're not the center of anything, except maybe your own life. And your lover's.
Ray's the center of my life, the hub of it, the focus. His is the last face I see at night and the first I see in the morning, it's his feelings and comfort I think of before my own, and his future that preoccupies me. Is that a good definition of being in love? I've never felt this way about anyone else, although I would have said, at the time, I was in love with Marikka and poor, lovely Carrie, long dead in Africa. I'm not a person who loves easily; I resisted, fought it, battled to protect my freedom and individuality. And at last gave in utterly and let it happen, let him steal my heart. Nice old world saying, and bloody accurate, even now.
He was less moody after we stood surveying the world, feeling insignificant and unimportant in the greater scheme of things; and his spirits were on the rise after I bought him a late lunch to go with his early brunch, and took him hiking along the old Roman road. He hadn't wanted to go out at all today, but I knew how he would get himself into one of his moods if I let him stay at home with the blinds down. Ray's an extrovert hiding an introvert, if that makes sense. All bubbly, outgoing enthusiasm on the outside, masking an inside that's about as hard as Turkish Delight and as secure as Aunt Mary's arteries. I've got his measure; sometimes you can trick or tease him into better spirits; sometimes you can bully him into an argument over politics or art or food and then let him know he's been had -- though that leads to retribution you may rue.
A giant rubber spider in your side of the bed. I didn't fall for that... Well, not that I let him know. Pepper in your cornflakes. This hooter is better tuned than that, I smelt it from miles out. The one that got me was less juvenile or prehistoric and far better thought out. He must have taken a razor blade and sliced open a banana, then took the banana out of the skin and put a hotdog frank in, stuck it together again, and left it on top of the dish of fruit. I love bananas, I'll binge any time we've got them, and he'd bought a whole bowl of them just the way I like them. He nearly fell over laughing when I opened the thing and found a frankfurter in it. Practical joking is a way to stay sane. I remember when we montaged a portrait of Cowley onto a nudie picture out of a magazine, and stuck it inside Tony Miller's locker. Juvenilia at its most crass, I know; maybe you had to be there. The mention of Tony Miller takes me back, and sobers me, any time his name crops up. So young. So dead.
Which brings me back to the fact that Ray and I are survivors; we know the tricks of the trade and we're going to make it. And Ray was forty the following morning to prove it. I didn't sleep much because I was too aware of the fact that I had to be out of bed at least half an hour ahead of my usual time, or the plans I'd made so lovingly wouldn't come off. I loved him to the point of destruction that night to make damned sure he'd oversleep; did everything to him, kept him going for an hour or more until he was half dead and passed out on me.
I'd hidden the champagne in the cupboard with his gifts; popping the cork out of it without a sound was not easy. Cut crystal glasses; strawberries and cream in little silver bowls; everything on a tray and left on the table by the bed while I dug out the gifts I'd squirreled away. He was awake as I slammed the cupboard door, sitting up with a start as he saw the green champagne bottle, and I dumped the parcels into his lap.
"What's all this?" he demanded, pulling his hand through his hair, which made it stand on end.
I put the glass into his hand. "It's your birthday. Twenty-one today, are we? You don't look a day over eighty."
"Not funny, Bodie," he said tartly, fiddling with the first package. It was a book of art prints, I knew he'd love it. There was also a silk shirt with lace about the collar, and a tube of KY with a bow of ribbon on it, and an old Egyptian trinket that cost more than the rest put together. It was a cockring, of course, although I knew he would claim innocence of any such thing.
"You're what you make of yourself, my love," I said honestly, watching his mood begin to decline as he remembered the date. "And I love you."
"Oh, Bodie." He shoved the packages out of his lap and grabbed me instead. "You didn't have to do all this, you daft sod. Last night was good enough. I thought you were trying to kill me."
"Trying to make sure you slept in," I said glibly, "'cause I wanted to get the bubbly and stuff organised." We kissed for a long, long time, tangled in the bedding and each other, and I am mortified to report that after the previous night's performance, neither of us even twitched. Not even Ray, and he's the randiest little creature I've ever known.
He gave his reluctant body a frown. "You reckon it's old age setting in?"
"Make me laugh," I retorted. "I was counting last night, even if you weren't. You know you came four times?"
"Three and a half," he corrected, grazing on my earlobe. "The last one didn't count, there wasn't enough to put a blot on a hanky." He giggled at that -- and I mean, giggled. "Never knew I was capable of it. Never managed that when I was twenty, never mind second time 'round."
"Didn't have me when you were twenty, did you?" I snorted, and opened his presents myself. I held the silk shirt against him. "Oh, nice, very nice. Lovely. Going to look a treat in that." He collapsed against the pillows as he opened the little package and found the KY with the bow of ribbon. "Tied the ribbon myself," I told him pridefully. "Nice job, isn't it?"
"Oh, arty, very arty," he agreed dolefully, and opened the tiny box with the Egyptian trinket. He tried it on his thumb. "Um, I've got small hands, Bodie, it's too big. Could wear it on my toe, I suppose."
You wouldn't believe the innocence on his face. He could con the angel Gabriel out of the keys to heaven. I took it from him and delicately, very, very delicately, slipped it on where it's supposed to go. He batted his eyelashes at me. Demure.
Mocking gently. So beautiful my heart was in my throat, choking me. I brought my own glass of champagne to his lips and tipped it, so he had to drink or let it spill. "Happy birthday, love."
He swallowed, leaned forward and kissed me again, tasting of the wine. "You daft thing," he chided. "You didn't have to do all this."
"Didn't have to," I agreed. "Wanted to."
His smile was worth fifty quid, and he had to try the shirt on. I don't think I shall ever forget the image of him, whiskery and tousled, lying propped on his elbow in the middle of a demolished double bed, wearing a silk and lace shirt half on, half off, and an Egyptian cockring, and dipping strawberries in a glass of champagne. If he had been a whore he could have earned a thousand sovs a night, and had to beat off his suitors with a stick. Wanton isn't the word. If Leonardo could only have seen what these eyes have seen. (Leonardo was bisexual. Not too many people knew that, to quote Michael Cain.)
The day was happy, silly, wonderful. We shared everything and by evening he was wearing a cat-at-the-cream look, spoiled rotten and loving it. "And to think," I observed as we put the most practical of the gifts to good use, its bow of ribbon discarded unnoticed, "most people regard it as a fate worse than death."
"What --?" He gasped, as I was doing very intimate things with my fingers and he had his legs wrapped about my neck.
"Fate worse that death," I reiterated.
"You mean -- ah! -- you mean being screwed?"
"Don't be crude." I twisted my fingers, making him writhe helplessly. "I mean, being forty."
"Oh, that." He caught his breath as I removed my fingers. "I forgot. Honestly. I forgot."
"You forgot?" I demanded, pantomiming disbelief, though in fact it was hugely flattering, that I had been able to divert him until what had yesterday seemed a tragedy had today become unimportant.
He smiled as I gaped at him; gentle and very affectionate. "And I plan to go on forgetting," he added. "Make love to me."
"That an order?" I teased, spreading him again and doing as I was told.
"I love you," he whispered, eyes squeezed shut as I took possession of him.
It was the sentiment I echoed much, much later, teasing a little, talking about getting him a wheelchair for Christmas and a hearing aid for his next birthday. "I'll still love you," I pledged cheerfully, knowing he was taking it all in good part, that he had overcome the big four-oh and hoping to God he would help me get through it when it came to my turn. '89 is closer than we think. "Your chest'll be sexy when the hair's gone grey, and I even promise to love your hardening arteries. Age," I elaborated sagely, "is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
He bit me for that remark.
-- THE END --