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Life in Neutral

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He only started doing it, really, because he'd run out of ideas. Which was unfortunate, seeing as the project he was working on was currently at the ideas stage. Traditionally a stage at which ideas were kind of crucial. This seemed like it could be an idea. It was only when David answered the phone that Charlie realised it wasn't an idea at all. It was just the desperate action of an empty shell of an excuse for a human being.

"Why are you ringing me?"

The tetchy familiarity of David's voice seeped out of the receiver into the dead air of Charlie's flat. It was reassuring, somehow.

"I dunno!" said Charlie. "Stop interrogating me! Do I really need a specific reason?"

"Yes," said David. "Yes, you do when it's two o' clock in the morning."

"Oh." Charlie looked at the clock in the corner of his laptop screen. "Oh yeah. Sorry, I lost track."

"Right," said David. Charlie could hear his expression down the phone.

"Look, I'm all depressed!" he bellowed. "I need someone to argue with."

"I see. Why are you depressed?"

"Because of the world!" said Charlie. He flailed pointlessly at the air with one hand.

"What's wrong with the world?" David yawned.

"What do you mean what's wrong with the world? Look at it. It's awful and stupid and chaotic!"

"I don't know. It's not that bad."

"How? Tell me one thing that's not completely shit. Just one."

"Well, there's... phones?" David said. "The really great thing about them is that you can just put them down. Goodnight, Charlie." The line went dead.

"S'pose you've got a point," Charlie said to the dead phone. He looked at his laptop screen. It glowed back at him smugly. "But you," he said. "You, I hate."

***

It was a strange time, all things considered. The country was careening madly downhill toward election day, gaining momentum as it went and whooping with hysteria all over the TV channels. It was like waking up and finding yourself tied to a souped-up shopping trolley being driven by two schoolboys and an alcoholic tramp. Not to mention, every time Charlie opened his front door he fully expected that he would slip over on a shiny new avalanche of campaign literature, bang his head on something, and die.

The hysterically surreal nature of the outside world also seemed to have spilled over into his life. He had... rather a lot on. More than was reasonable, really. Which was entirely normal, but his unspoken rule to only take on one absolutely gut-wrenchingly terrifying project at once seemed to have got lost somewhere along the route. Probably about the same time those evil fuckers started being unnaturally convincing about what fun live TV was. And then there was the other thing, the one with the ideas. It was all a bit much, really. Sleep had dwindled from being a lover he had an on-off affair with, to a faded memory of someone he'd met at a village fete in the early 1980s. And he strongly suspected that all the words in the English language had recently banded together, formed a guerilla army and declared war on him.

Really, that sort of pressure that would drive anyone to desperate acts.

***

The next time Charlie saw David, they were in a meeting for the stupid election thing, which seemed to be having some trouble getting going. He was so tired he could have vomited, had that been an option.

"Oh God," he said. "Yeah, sorry about that thing I did where I phoned you up at two in the morning. That was, um, an accident." He laughed.

David's face hovered somewhere between incredulous and impressed. "Really? How do you phone someone by accident? I mean, I can see how you might have got the wrong number or something--"

"Yes! Exactly, that's probably what happened."

"--but then what was all the stuff about demanding I argue with you to cheer you up, and the world being shit, and so on?"

"Mm." Charlie took a swig of water. "Well. Thing is... I was writing. Trying to. And --"

"Oh, I see." David looked relieved. "No, that explains everything. God, I was a bit worried there. Thought you'd gone mad."

He was wearing glasses. Out of disguise, thought Charlie, considering him. Putting on glasses somehow made David look as though he'd removed a layer, instead of added one. He hid behind contacts.

"You're kind of the opposite of Superman," Charlie said. "And I can assure you, there's a train of thought behind that statement that makes it not insulting."

"Are you sure you're all right?" asked David. "You're actually being quite confusing now."

"Yeah," he said. He realised he'd gone all starey, and shifted his gaze to the sheet of paper in front of him. "Just... haven't really been getting enough sleep lately. I've had a lot on."

Someone coughed, and Charlie looked up. There were other people there, he remembered now, and they'd all got bits of paper too, and they seemed to want to talk about stuff.

"Oh, sorry," he said. "Have we started?"

***

Election day came and went and turned into election night, and then that came and went too, in a red haze of terror, and then Charlie was through it and out the other side. Sure, his mind had collapsed, but he was alive! Utterly, gloriously not dead or anything! That had to count for something. He should celebrate.

In the deep blue of the very early morning, he leant against the back seat of a cab and listened to an unanswered phone purr into his ear. It was soothing. Maybe, after all, it would soothe him right off to... But no. A click and a short, telling pause startled him fully awake again. He hoped he hadn't started drooling. Cabbies hated it when you dribbled on their upholstery.

"Hello, you've reached a phone belonging to David Mitchell, so... I don't know, leave a message or something.

"David! Ok, look, I'm only ringing you now because if I don't do it now I'll end up doing it later, you know, probably a lot later... and you didn't like it last time. I mean, this isn't late, this is early. Early's ok, isn't it? So yeah, the thing is--"

He stopped talking. What was the thing? Infuriatingly, he couldn't remember. Was there even a thing?

"The thing is, I think we should talk further. About the thing. That we were -- earlier. So yeah, give me a call back, mate, we'll sort something out. Bye."

Mate? Thing? What in the name of hell-fuck?

He needed sleep. Real, pressing need. He needed to sleep soon, and preferably before he plucked his own stinging, reddened eyeballs from his head and swallowed them out of sheer irritation. He scrubbed a hand over his face. Outside, dawn broke onto a nation that had just managed to fuck itself entirely by mistake, and was about to wake up, scratch its head and wonder what the hell happened there.

***

He might have been dozing on the sofa when the doorbell rang. He might have been watching the news. He might have been working very hard at typing words onto that evil, evil bloody stupid screen, or he might have taken a quick break to inhale some caffeine and kill some innocent two-dimensional bystanders. He couldn't be entirely sure. Things had gone a bit blurry lately. But the tangle of cables, remotes and crockery he tripped over on his way to answer the door suggested an unholy mix of all of the above.

"Jesus fuck, all right! I'm coming," he assured the doorbell.

There was a person standing on Charlie's doorstep.

"What are you doing here?" Charlie demanded. He already knew the answer to this question, but that just gave him confidence.

"Well, you invited me here," explained David. "So we could discuss the thing, you said."

"What thing?"

"That's what I was wondering. Because I've really no idea. I was hoping you'd know."

Charlie took a moment to think. He blinked at the strange, bright light that seemed to be shining on them out of the sky. He breathed in some oxygen.

"What time is it?" he asked.

David glanced at his watch. "It's almost two. Because you said, 'come round at two.'"

"Morning or afternoon?"

David looked at him. His eyes were deep wells of reproach, with just a hint of disdain. It made Charlie feel bad. A bit.

"Joke, sorry. Come in."

David followed him inside. Charlie thought he was probably wrinkling his nose and looking superior behind his back, but perhaps he was just paranoid.

"Bit of a mess, isn't it?"

"Oh sorry, Ruth Watson, hotel inspector! I've been busy. D'you want tea or coffee?"

"Tea please. How do you know which bits are floor?"

"It's not that bad."

"It's quite bad."

Charlie surveyed his kingdom from the kitchen doorway. "Actually yeah, it is fairly bad. I've had a lot on. What with all the... stuff... I've been doing."

"Look," said David. "Is this all just some ruse to make me come all the way to Clapham to, I don't know, distract you in some way from whatever it is you're supposed to be working on? Because I still have no idea what this thing is we're meant to be discussing, and I'm pretty sure you don't either."

"No, how dare you!" said Charlie. "There was definitely a thing. At some point. I'm sure there was. Yes, yes!" Inspiration flashed. "The thing from election night!"

"What, you mean the election? I sort of thought that was all wrapped up. You know, into a neat package of complete chaos. Unless you mean... what we were talking about afterwards?"

"Yes! Exactly. That."

"So you made me come out here to discuss a project that would be a cross between Question Time and Jurassic Park?"

Charlie snorted and rolled his eyes. "I didn't make you." He blinked. "Was that what we were talking about? God, that's really stupid." He went back to rummaging through the detritus that littered the kitchen work surfaces.

"Yes, you also argued for the inclusion of BBC business editor Robert Peston in a starring role. But you were quite obviously insane by that point, so I let it go. Have you had any actual sleep, by the way?"

"Yeah, no, I have. Yeah! Sort of -- it's just, I've got a lot--"

"--on, I know." David looked pointedly at the mess on the floor.

"It's honestly not usually this bad," offered Charlie, his head in a cupboard. "I sort of gave the cleaner a couple of weeks off -- sometimes you just want to languish in your own filth. Did you say tea, by the way? Because I'm having a glass of wine." He emerged triumphantly with a bottle of red he'd deliberately forgotten about so he could find it again and be surprised.

David looked at his watch, and back up at Charlie.

"All times are now merging," said Charlie, "into one rather disgusting globular mass, a bit like frog spawn. But much worse. Don't worry, I'll be more or less back to normal once I've finished this... thing. Probably. Want one?" He held up the bottle.

"Bottle, or glass?"

"Well, I thought we could share this to start with. See how it goes."

"This is how the slippery slope starts, isn't it?"

"Come on, you can't make me procrastinate alone. That would be cruel. We can watch the news channels -- that's sort of like work."

"Hm..." David eyed the bottle. "Don't know, is it any good?"

"It's good enough, David, for the likes of us."

"Oh, yes, all right." David sighed. "I only came here to avoid work, anyway. Might as well do it properly."

"Brilliant." Charlie rooted a corkscrew out of a drawer and grinned defiantly in the direction of his laptop. Take that, you fucker.

***

"I just don't think I can bear the sexual tension any more," David said after the second glass.

"What did you just say?"

David gestured vaguely at Sky News. "Well, all this wooing that's going on. Who, who will Clegg get into bed with? Who, Charlie?"

Charlie considered him. "Are you turning into an owl? You've gone glassy-eyed."

"I'm wearing glasses."

"Yeah, that could be it."

Not in disguise, thought Charlie. There was something in that. What, he wasn't sure. He'd have to give it some thought, when he had the time.

"Well, it's either that," said David, "or all this endless..." He sighed. On-screen, a reporter discussed what wasn't happening, against a backdrop of other reporters, and nothing happening. "... sex."

Charlie laughed.

"I blame you," David said. "Constantly urging them to kiss, and so on. Obscene."

"No, I'm not!"

"You're obsessed with kissing!"

Charlie half-snorted a mouthful of wine. "Now look what you've made me do!" He leant forward and put his glass down on the coffee table.

"Filth!" said David. He was smiling.

"You've made yourself laugh now, that'll teach you." Charlie brushed half-heartedly at the damp bits on his T-shirt. "Anyway, what's wrong with kissing?

"Nothing! Normally..."

"It's nice!"

"It's inappropriate," said David, leaning back against the arm of the sofa and reinforcing his point by waving his empty glass at Charlie. "That's what it is. Have we got any more wine?"

***

"Anyway," said Charlie, some time later. "There's nothing wrong with kissing. I don't know why you're so against it."

It was dark outside. In the intervening hours, Charlie had been forced to go to the off-licence, some irresponsible person had ordered Thai food, David had half-heartedly attempted to call a cab, then been talked out of it, and the Prime Minister had announced his resignation. Charlie's laptop sat on the table in the corner, abandoned and probably resentful. Charlie ignored it.

"I'm not against it, Charlie. I'm..." David's eyes made a valiant attempt to focus on something. "Well, mainly I'm drunk. But that's not the point!"

"What is your point, David?" Charlie was drunk too, although not nearly as drunk as he felt he ought to be. Events were still disturbingly linear, his thoughts upsettingly rational. And he was still. Fucking. Awake.

"I just think," said David, only slurring a little bit. "I just think... a time and a place. Kissing -- in its place -- fine. Nothing wrong with that."

"Yeah, but it's only kissing! It's just... putting a bit of your face on someone. Isn't it, if you think about it? I'd kiss... well, pretty much anyone, I s'pose."

"Would you? Why?"

Charlie shrugged. "I dunno, I just don't think it necessarily means anything."

"What, anyone? With tongues? I assume we're not talking about a peck on the cheek here?"

"It's just a bit of your face! Ok, the inside of your face..."

David looked unsure. "What about John Prescott?"

Charlie winced. "Might have to work up to that one."

"Anne Widdecombe? Adam Boulton?"

"Just -- look, that's not the point, David."

"Yes, it is! There are rules! You can't just go round kissing people, willy nilly. Not without a good reason. I mean, if you were to suddenly decide to kiss me, for example, well... again, that would be inappropriate and -- and stupid." David blinked. "And wrong. Just as an example."

Charlie shrugged again. "I'd kiss you."

A look of incredulous alarm appeared to be attempting to smash its way through the wine fog and spread itself on David's face.

"I'm just saying," Charlie explained hastily, "it can be a neutral thing. Would be. There's like, a huge middle ground between orgasmic and vomit-inducing."

He scanned David's face to see if, as so often, he'd made things worse.

"Neutral," said David. He sounded wary, but not actively frightened or anything.

"Yeah. Don't worry, this is just in theory. I'm not gonna leap on you or anything." I am a huge fucking cock-end, thought Charlie clearly, as he refilled his glass. I should be tied to some railings and set upon by rabid dachshunds.

"Why not?" said David.

"Sorry?" Charlie looked up. David's face was devoid of expression.

"Why not? If the result is likely to be neutral, where's the problem? I think you should test your theory."

Charlie squinted at him. "You really are drunk, aren't you?"

"Yes. And I think you're all talk, Brooker. You're all mouth and no... mouth."

"Oh, I'd do it! Don't think I won't do it!"

"Yeah?"

"Yeah!"

"I think you're shit-scared," said David.

"I am not fucking -- ok, all right. Come here then."

"What, really?"

Jesus, thought Charlie. This could go on forever. "I promise it'll be like... shaking hands. With your dentist."

"Well, all right then," said David. "In the interests of science."

"Exactly." Charlie shuffled awkwardly up the sofa and put his hand on David's shoulder. "Now... just relax."

"Um. Would you like me to remove my glasses? Because I can, it's not a problem."

"No," said Charlie. "No, you're all right." He moved tentatively forward. David's face loomed large and pale, like the moon. Charlie realised he'd been wrong earlier. He was obviously very drunk indeed, or he wouldn't be doing this, would he?

"Stop laughing," he said. "You'll make me laugh. This is a very serious experiment."

"I'm not laughing! Very serious--" The end of David's sentence was muffled out of existence as they attempted to fit their faces together in some way that made sense. Perhaps, thought Charlie, it might have worked better without the glasses, after all.

He pulled back. "Well, that was stupid."

"I told you it would be!" said David.

"It's your fault, you weren't even trying! You didn't do anything!"

"I was trying not to laugh!"

"You were crap, David, and you know it."

David looked as though he might explode with sheer indignation. "Fucking neutral, you said! I think you'd be hard pressed to get any more neutral than that. It was like kissing a... colander!"

"Oh, thanks!"

"Well, I don't know what your problem is. Neutral. You were right. You win."

"David! How can we fucking know for sure, if you don't do it fucking properly? That wasn't even a kiss, it was an embarrassing collision!"

To be honest, Charlie didn't know what his problem was either. He was smiling, but he was at the point where he wasn't sure how much of his own bluster was put on and how much real.

"I demand," he said, "a retrial."

David shrugged. "Fine." He took off his glasses, folded them, and put them carefully down on Charlie's coffee table. Only the fact that he put them down in a small puddle of red wine gave away his extreme state of inebriation. He looked at Charlie, and his eyes were dark and shuttered and... kind of unnerving.

"If that's what you want," he said.

"Ok," said Charlie. "Yeah." And the word caught in his throat and came out softer and less confident than he'd intended. He leaned in again, and he could feel David's breath on his face. The glasses were gone this time. But, thought Charlie, still out of disguise.

David kissed, it turned out, with an odd sense of purpose, with the same deliberate precision he'd applied to the folding of the glasses. His lips were soft. It was just because they were made of lip, Charlie told himself, desperately. All lips were soft or they'd be beaks. And this whole thing was a stupid joke that he should never have made, because it wasn't funny. And it wasn't neutral. What the fuck in life was, anyway? And he wasn't even that drunk.

There was something Charlie hadn't taken into account, he realised. He was being pressed back against the sofa cushions, eyes closed, his right hand resting tentatively on the nape of David's neck, at the hairline. Self-conscious as always, he described the scene for his sceptical self. There was warmth, and weight, and the soft rush of fabric against fabric. David's hand was on his shoulder, his body leaning against Charlie's, and it was all body-like and made of body, and it was awkward, and the sofa was too small... and it seemed the realest thing that had happened to him for months.

That was what he'd forgotten. When you do things properly, he reminded himself, the taste of David's wine in his mouth -- they're real. You idiot.

***

In actual time, as opposed to replaying-the-memory-later-for-neurotic-agonising-purposes time, it probably didn't go on very long. It ended mainly because David stood up very suddenly and professed an urgent need for a glass of water, which he stayed in the kitchen to drink.

"Sorry," called Charlie from the sofa. "Turned out my theory was shit."

David came and stood in the doorway. He looked pale and wobbly, and like a man who'd been drinking since two in the afternoon.

"No, it's ok," he said. He took a deep draught of tap water and nodded, as if to himself. "It's the lack of a stable government. It's confusing."

After that, he called a cab and went home.

Charlie flopped back onto the sofa and closed his eyes. Then he opened them again. The stupid laptop was blinking at him from the corner, in a way that struck him as both unbearably smug and deeply disappointed. He sighed.

"This is all your fault," he told it.

***

It was interesting, Charlie thought, how quickly things could change. One minute you were just ticking along, the next you were living under a government someone had cobbled together out of used teabags and string, you'd possibly fucked something up without even knowing what or how, and in doing so cut off your only viable source of procrastination. Plus... other stuff. Maybe. Stuff he'd decided not to think about yet, because he wasn't sure where to begin.

All of which meant there was nothing for it. He was going to have to sit down and do his bloody work.

Jesus, it was a bleak and pitiless universe.

***

He gave in in the end, and rang David. Who actually answered the phone, so probably everything was normal, and the last fortnight had just been a weird dream. But he thought he should probably cover all bases, just in case.

"I apologise," he said, "for everything that has ever happened since the beginning of time. Will that do?"

There was a short pause.

"It's a certainly a step in the right direction," said David.

"Good."

"I also apologise for that, if it's any help."

"Thank you, David. I appreciate it."

"No problem."

Dead air. Charlie cleared his throat. "Anyway. I've made a decision."

"Oh?" There was a note of wariness in David's voice, but perhaps, after all, it had always been there.

"I'm going to leave my flat, and I'm going to walk around outside. In the air."

"That's a pretty big decision."

"I know. If I tell you where I'm going and what time, you could come and jeer at me. If you want. I mean, you know, if you're not busy. If you fancy it."

***

The day was greyish and windy, which at least meant the Common wasn't completely littered with people and dogs and other annoying things.

"It's like a vast green desert," David commented. "I think that's depressing."

Charlie laughed. "What's wrong with you, it's lovely! Fresh air! Springtime!"

David gave him a sideways look. "I could have got those anywhere. You're always making me come to Clapham."

"All of twice. And I don't make you."

Occasionally the clouds shifted and allowed the sun out for a few seconds, to filter weakly through the new leaves on the old trees. The tail-end of the spring blossom blew in scraggy pinkish drifts into the grass, and a scattering of petals had landed like confetti on the back of David's jacket. Charlie shoved his hands in his pockets and didn't brush them away.

"So... how's the secret project thingy going?" asked David.

"Ha. I think 'secret' might be overstating it a bit."

"Clandestine?"

"I only don't talk about it because it gives me nightmarish flashbacks."

"Going well then. Had any sleep?"

"Yeah. Some."

They lapsed into silence. David sat down on a bench, and Charlie stood with his hands still in his jacket pockets, hunched slightly against the breeze. He shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other, wanting to be moving again. There seemed a strange and dizzying charge in the air.

"So," he said. "Any idea what the fuck is going on here?"

"No." David eyed him. "Are you actually incontinent now, or are you just doing that to be irritating?"

"Are you actually my dad, or are you just doing that to be irritating?" Charlie said, but he sat down anyway.

"Well. That's the last time I use alcohol to help me procrastinate," said David after a while. "What happened to a cup of tea and the crossword, eh? That used to be enough."

It was sort of feeble, but the strain behind the words was tangible.

"I suppose it's just, y'know..." he went on. "One of those things."

Charlie nodded. "You're all right, then?"

"Of course!" David's voice was bright and slightly scornful.

Charlie leaned forward and looked at the ground between his knees, drumming his fingers together. "I thought maybe we -- I'd broken you, or something."

David tutted in irritation. "For God's sake, Charlie, I'm not a dishwasher."

If David were an object, Charlie thought wildly, he'd be a clock. Sitting there in its 'appropriate' clothes, trying desperately to figure out why the cogs weren't turning properly.

"I just..." David jabbed at the air with his hands, and then let them fall. "There are rules."

"Jesus, David, don't you get tired of being so fucking wound up? You make me look relaxed! Don't you ever just want to... I dunno, do stuff? Live life. Go with the flow..." He winced at the deliberate inanity even as he uttered it. Yeah, 'cos he was always going with the flow, wasn't he? Known for it.

"God, no! Horrifying thought."

Charlie looked over at David. He was gripping the seat of the bench with both hands, as though worried it might suddenly upend on a whim and tip him onto the ground.

"Come on, you're as bad as me!" said David defensively.

"I don't think I am, actually."

"Well, I'm sorry." He sighed. "This is just... how I work."

***

They walked round a pond in virtual silence. Then they walked round it again, the other way. Somebody's stupid miniature terrier ran over and started yapping at Charlie as though its life depended on it, its entire tiny hairy body shaking with the effort. Then it attempted to snarl at the same time, got confused and broke off in order to try and hack up a lung.

"Christ," said David, transfixed. "I'm not even sure what that is."

"Me neither," said Charlie. "But I think it's choking on its own bile."

"Well. A lesson for us all there." David smiled faintly, and his eyes slid over to meet Charlie's. Deliberately, Charlie held his gaze.

"Benji! Naughty! I'm so sorry..." A middle-aged blonde woman in a purple fleece was puffing their way, dangling a lead. When she reached them she picked up the tiny ball of vitriol and cradled it in her arms. "Bad boy!" she told it gently, and kissed it on the nose. David visibly flinched.

"It's fine, no problem," said Charlie.

"Bloody hell," said David, as they watched her walk away. "Did you see how close she got to those teeth? Plus, I think it was foaming at the mouth. She'll be lucky if she survives the week."

"I really hate outside," said Charlie, gloomily. "I always forget that when I'm inside."

David stuck his hand in his pockets. "We're going round in circles, aren't we?" he said, and looked up at the sky, which had turned iron-grey and ominous.

"To be fair," said Charlie. "If we hadn't, we'd have walked into the pond."

"Mm. I think it's going to rain."

They switched direction again.

"Do you know what I think?" asked Charlie. His voice was going all stupid and high, but he couldn't stop it.

"What?"

"I think you should just admit that it wasn't really that bad."

David stopped walking, and then carried on again.

"To be fair, I never said it was bad. If I remember correctly, that was the whole point of the exercise."

"No..." Charlie scrabbled for the words, and sucked air into his lungs. "I mean... I don't just mean 'not bad'."

David didn't reply. He seemed to be having trouble meeting Charlie's eye.

"I was there, David. Come on, you--"

"Yes, all right!"

"So, why..." Charlie wasn't even sure what question he was asking, or if he was asking one at all.

"Because! Look, it's ridiculous, isn't it?

Charlie shrugged. "Is it?"

"Yes! I mean, it's -- you, and... and me. It's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

"You obviously don't watch Britain's Got Talent."

"No, I'm sorry, I can't believe-- " David's rant mode -- rapid, precise, kept on a tight rein -- was as familiar to Charlie as an old friend. David and his little disguises. "I can't believe you'd have the, the sheer nerve to accuse me of not admitting to things, when here you are, refusing to face the fact that the idea of you and me as some kind of, of -- is completely fucking stupid!"

"Ok," said Charlie, carefully. "Yeah, you've got a point."

"Thank you!"

"But then, so have I. The two points cancel each other out, which means we're back to square one."

David all but growled in frustration, but he didn't argue further. Charlie smiled. "I always knew you could be defeated by the power of logic. Logic is your Kryptonite."

"Ha ha. Although I don't think that was actually logic."

"Yeah, whatever." Charlie focused on on the path in front of them. "So... what do we do?"

"God, I don't fucking know!" David turned toward him, and his face was open in an honest appeal. No, he really doesn't, Charlie thought.

It started to rain.

***

They stood under the shelter of the bandstand, David staring out across the flat landscape, hands in pockets, shoulders hunched. He was like a small, cornered animal that hadn't made up its mind to run, but hadn't made up its mind not to bite your fingers, either. Charlie watched him with a mixture of annoyance and something else that he didn't feel like naming.

The trouble with letting your guard down, he thought, is that there might be nothing behind it. Nobody wants to find out they're just one big... guard. He leant back against one of the cheerfully-painted iron pillars that held up the roof, and let out his breath in a sigh.

David turned his head, then quickly looked away again. "God, look at that," he said, and indicated a scrawl of graffiti smeared almost obscenely down the pillar to Charlie's left, white against the red. "Fucking yobbos."

"Young people today," mocked Charlie. "Want stringing up." He slouched further back against the column, tipping his head back in challenge or invitation. He stared at David -- deliberate, unsmiling.

"You want stringing up," retorted David. But he moved closer, diffident, hands still in pockets. He met Charlie's eye and didn't look away.

"Yeah?" Charlie swallowed. The iron was comfortingly solid against his back.

David took another step, and his gaze was dark and steady. Like Bambi in chinos, thought Charlie. Part of him wanted to laugh. More parts of him were deadly serious.

"There's nobody about," he said, without bothering to check. "It's raining. They've all buggered off."

"Look, I'm not --" David hesitated and bit his lip. "I'm not making any... To be honest, I'm just a bit sick of all this faffing about."

I wholeheartedly agree, thought Charlie, and said nothing.

David reached over and gently touched the side of Charlie's face with the flat of his hand.

"It's ok, I'm real," said Charlie, and his jaw moved against David's fingers as he spoke. David half smiled, and ran his thumb over Charlie's mouth. His hair, Charlie noticed, had blown in ridiculous wispy tufts over his forehead. The sight of it sent a jolt through him, like going over a humpbacked bridge in the back of a car. It seemed a stupid reaction. Maybe he was coming down with something.

What if there are hoards of people, thought Charlie, crowds of them, all peering in at us in this bandstand, with their stupid dogs and things, taking pictures on their crappy phones? How would I know? I'm not going to look. I'm not going to move an inch from where I am right now, even if I could. And what the fuck do I care? My disguise has always been rubbish, anyway.

David kissed him once -- light, deliberate. Then again, harder, and Charlie went with it, leaving the firm certainty of his pillar. He gripped at the the back of David's jacket for balance, the ghost of a laugh still in his mouth, then spread his hands wide, sliding them across David's back. The more he was allowed, the more he wanted, and wasn't that always the way? David's frame was neat, compact, coiled tight like a spring. But a spring has to let go at some point.

It was a slapdash affair, this time. There were hands everywhere, and they dived in and out of it like the ducks on the pond, like people who couldn't make up their mind what they were after. This experiment had gone wildly out of control. Thank god, thought Charlie, breathing David in -- mouth and nose and lungs full him like he was inhaling smoke -- thank god for his own idiocy.

Because there was something about the way David's shirt stood open at the neck, the expanse of pale skin. He wanted that, quite badly, he realised, and wondered why he'd never noticed before. He dragged his lips away from David's mouth, torn, wanting everything at once like a spoilt child. This was a fucking revelation, was what it was. Or so he'd have said, if he wasn't so very over describing things to himself. He pushed at David blindly, finding the line of his jaw, neck, collar bone. He felt drunk with it, electric-shocked by the sudden proximity. David made a small noise at the back of his throat as he drew breath, his hand in Charlie's hair.

Charlie's momentum swung them both round until they half-staggered against the graffitid pillar, hitting it at an awkward angle. He heard David's breath hitch and felt it gust warm and light across his scalp. Hands fluttered at his waist. Then, firmer and more confident, pushed him away.

David stepped back, and his eyes were dark and slightly glazed, his breath coming hard. Charlie felt cold London air rush in between them, filling the vacuum.

"Ok, that's..." David folded his arms, unfolded them, folded them again. "That's going to have to do for the moment."

"David..." Charlie said it softly, reaching across to try and pull David back in, unable to stop himself. But David resisted.

"No, look, seriously!" A high note of panic was creeping into his voice. "I don't know if you've noticed but lot of surprisingly weird shit seems to be happening lately. And I'm not particularly good with weird shit."

"Really?"

"No. Sorry. I just--" David rubbed a hand over his face, combing his windblown hair back with a frustrated gesture. "I should probably just go and sit in a darkened room and have a think. It's not -- I'm not running away." He looked sheepish.

"Yes, you are. Again."

"All right, I am. Well... in a moment I am, anyway." He took a breath, and Charlie noted with satisfaction that he was audibly not in control. I did that, he thought. That was me.

"David, I hate you," said Charlie.

David looked away. "Yes, well, I can't help that, can I? I'll... I don't know. Give you a ring or something. Sorry, I -- sorry."

Charlie watched as he walked away across the damp common, head down. Anonymous. Camouflaged. Man in jacket, Clapham, May 2010. Stupid annoying fucker.

"Fuck that," he muttered, and wondered what he meant by it. But even as he dithered, he found he was walking, fast, after David's retreating back. Half-running, really. A sort of pathetic giraffey lope. He probably looked ridiculous. Snogging in bandstands was one thing, but now he really hoped the crowds with their camera-phones were figments of his imagination.

"David!"

The hunched figure in the jacket stopped and turned, waited for him to catch up.

"Look, the thing is-- no, hang on a minute." Charlie stopped and tried to get his breath. God, he really was unfit if he couldn't even grope another man in public and then clumsily lollop after him a short way down a path. "I dunno, exactly..."

"I said I'd ring you. I meant it."

"Yeah, but that's the point." Charlie screwed up his face and looked at the sky. The rain was petering out, the air still vaguely and impossibly electric. If anyone had asked, he'd have said he felt like an ungainly half-witted rhinoceros teetering on the edge of a precipice made out of razor-sharp knives, but that was life for you.

"I just keep wanting to phone you up," he said. "All the time, really."

Even as he spoke, it dawned on him. He'd actually engineered this. All of it. He'd made all of this happen, because he'd wanted it to. It had been his idea.

"Do you?"

"Yes."

"Well," said David. "It's not as though I particularly object to being phoned."

He smiled, just a bit, and Charlie thought that should be real enough for anyone.

***

 


Epilogue

 

"Stupid fucking piece of shit."

The laptop didn't react. It just sat in its stupid casing, being all electronic and stupid. It gave off a gentle electronic hiss that was barely noticeable, until you noticed it. Evil to the core.

"I hate you," he told it for 378th time.

It had nothing to offer. Charlie slammed down its stupid lid and picked up the phone instead.

"Help."

There was a pause before David replied, and the sound of a glass being put down on something. Probably something inappropriate. David's rules were strict, but arbitrary.

"You're basically an idiot, aren't you?" said David.

Charlie grinned. "I keep telling people that, but they never believe me!"

"That's not what they tell me. What's the matter?"

"Nothing really. Just had to verbally abuse my computer. Are you drinking, like a disgusting drunkard? Drinking the evening away?"

"Yes, of course I am. Why, are you jealous?"

"Yes."

"Well, go out and buy some of your own, then."

"Didn't say I was jealous of you."

"Oh." David seemed to be temporarily lost for words. "Actually, I'm not entirely sure what that meant, but it sounded a bit--"

"It was."

"Oh. All right then."

Charlie listened to the far-off sound of David's television in Kilburn, squeezed down the phone line, travelling halfway across the city and emerging tinnily through the receiver. He couldn't tell what David was watching, but he thought it had a laughter track. That was no way to spend an evening.

"David?" he said.

"Yes?"

"I'm tired of ringing you up."

"Oh. Really?"

"Mm. I think you should just be here instead."

There was a pause.

"So, what, you want me to drop everything and just waltz over, on a -- on a whim? Just like that?"

"Basically, yes."

There was another pause.

"All right," said David, and hung up.

Charlie clicked the phone back into its cradle and leaned back on the sofa. A strange peace descended upon him. He decided that he would not think about anything. He would not imagine the pale curve of neck and shoulder where it disappeared into the dark shadows of a shirt-collar. And he would not be waylaid by dreams or memories, however startlingly vivid, of how things might look, or taste, or feel. He would not fantasise about following a line of buttons like a breadcrumb trail, or where that might lead. He would just wait for a while, and definitely, definitely stay awake.

Sleep was vastly overrated, anyway. He'd always thought so.

 

END