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Like the Deserts Miss the Rain (Irwin's Story)

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It wasn’t that he’d been looking for him, no more than he always did—in people and places and resonances. But there he was, larger than life and twice as... soaked and miserable looking. He took the first turning past the bus stop, parked up and began a conversation with the God he no longer believed in as to how he thought this was helpful. Now, when he was turning a corner of his own—feeling stronger, feeling whole.

But, he reasoned, if that were true, he could do this. He’s an ex pupil, a friend... he could be a friend. I would not drive past a friend and leave him waiting for a bus in this weather. I would not. If I did, what would that make me? He waited for an answer. None came. Eventually, he folded his arms over the wheel, lay down his head, and admitted that Stuart Dakin had never been, was not now, and could not ever be, merely, a friend.

If I drive back around, he thought, and he’s caught the bus, fine, not meant to be—a coincidence. But, so help me, if I pick him up there had better be a bloody good reason. He had no idea where he intended to go with threatening God; the Almighty was, he assumed, disinterested at best. But perhaps he was addressing the wrong supernatural being; this was a Devil’s bargain—if he was about to sell his soul, the earthly reward better damn well be worth it.

He started the engine and the radio came on blasting Heaven 17—Temptation. He glanced at it and told it not to take the piss. He turned left, and again, and again, and—he was still there. The die cast. Nothing else to do. A deal’s a deal. He switched off the engine and the interfering radio with it saying, “Alright, you’ve made your point”. He wound down the window and called to him.

“Dakin! Get in the car!”, and sounded the horn, for good measure.

Dakin opened the door and jumped in, closing it with the sound of a deadfall trap. “Oh, fuck”, he said, turning to look at him.

“Hello to you too. A thank you would have sufficed.”

“Sorry, it’s just my mum told me I shouldn’t get in cars with strange men.”

“I’m hardly that, Dakin. Who were you expecting?”

“I don’t know, the Angel Gabriel, perhaps?”

“The Annunciation? What on earth does that make you?”

“A virgin, Sir”, he smirked.

“Yes... very good.” He knew he’d walked into it; he walked into it willingly—setting them up for Dakin to knock down was a familiar thrill. “Jesus, you’re actually steaming...and dripping. Wind up the window, would you.”

Dakin closed the window sending rivulets of water into the car, while Irwin watched—the mechanical reality of that winding arm assuring him this was no apparition. When it was shut and their Ark watertight, Dakin peeled off his jacket, like skin, and threw it on top of the walking stick on the back seat. He made a performance of it, filling all the space and never breaking eye contact; if it was meant as striptease, it was singularly aggressive. The reach brought his sodden chest as close as temptation could bear and he closed his eyes and prayed for deliverance from the equal parts irritation and desire pounding through him.

Dakin sat back down, pulled down the sun visor and peered at himself in the vanity mirror. “Shit”, he said.

He laughed, “Through a glass darkly, Dakin?” In his mind, the rest came unbidden from the deeply Anglican well of his childhood... but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. But he told the voice to shut up—not helping, really. He went on, “I’m sorry you didn’t have time to prepare but I already know what you look like, you know".

Dakin gave him a sideways glance and asked, “And how do I look... Sir?”

“Like the Devil incarnate, as ever.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He pushed up the visor and looked around, “This car’s too small for you, you can hardly get your legs in it”.

“I apologise. I thought it might be an improvement on the non-existent bus for you.”

“No, I like it, it’s cosy”—this accompanied by a rather obvious raised eyebrow. “I somehow didn’t imagine you driving though.”

“I don’t suppose you did. I don’t suppose you imagine all kinds of things about me. Try growing up in Nowheresville—you’d learn to drive as soon as you could.”

“Gay and in Nowheresville?”

“Obviously. And, yes, she’s too small for me—well spotted”.

“She? Never took you for sentimental either".

The car had been his sister’s. Perfect for her. A clapped-out old mini that she’d saved for and had been her pride and joy and her first taste of freedom. She’d given it to him when she was pregnant, no longer able to get behind the wheel and knowing her past as an independent, mini-driving, free spirit was over. She told him to look after her and to get out as far and as fast as he could and not look back—he had thus far made it to Sheffield.

Dakin was right, she was too small for him; she made his damaged leg ache. But this car had made the world a bigger place and, if naming her were sentiment, so be it. It was true he could afford to replace her, but she was a comfort and bulwark—one of his many shields against the world. He wished he could tell him what the car meant to him; he wished he knew what it was about Dakin that made him want to tell the truth, but made it so hard to start. Outside, the rain carried on building up its part and the windows began to mist up and obscure reality.

Dakin said, “Your glasses”.

“What about them?”

He made a scrubbing motion near his eyes, “Getting all steamed up”.

“Oh...oh, yes”. Dakin’s tone was mocking and pitying and hard to bear. He turned away to remove his glasses and wipe them on a cloth he kept in the door well.

...I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And He said, who told thee that thou wast naked?

Who? A boy. A long time ago. A boy who took off his glasses when they were alone and kissed him and told him he was beautiful. A Judas kiss from a boy who mocked him and called him shameful names in public. A boy who enticed and entranced him as easily as if he were a tickled trout and, just as quickly, threw him on to dry land to gasp in the air. He had yet to be convinced Dakin was not the second coming of that boy. When he said to Dakin—the last thing I do—he had meant: when I trust you; if you earn it. He wanted Dakin to earn it. He wanted Dakin to want to earn it. But he had not earned it yet. He put his glasses back on and covered his nakedness out of Dakin’s sight.

He used the cloth to rub a small viewing hole on the windscreen and decided to give him a chance. A chance to ask again and make it real—not a silly, pushing-the-boat-out, not-that-way-inclined, thing. He said, “Maybe a little less heavy breathing would help. Would you like me to take you home?”

Grinning and slowly shaking his head, Dakin licked rain water from his lips and said, “Yes please, Sir... take me home”.

He cleared his throat and rolled his eyes—so, they were going to play that game. “Buckle up then”, he said.

“Why?”

“Because I said so, it’s the law now and, if you damage your silly, pretty face on my windscreen, I don’t want you blaming me forever”.

“But that would make us quits, Sir, wouldn’t it?”

He had never thought his face was silly, nor pretty, for that matter. He hadn’t the chocolate box quality necessary for pretty, nor yet the maturity for handsome. Stuart Dakin was a beautiful boy, rapidly becoming a beautiful man who would one day, no doubt, achieve handsome. He would achieve handsome and, in time, as sure as water softens the edges of the sharpest stone, he would become humane—he held this as an article of faith. But, for now, if he thought he would risk damaging a hair on his lovely head for some ridiculous idea of quid pro quo, well, he didn’t know him at all and maybe he didn’t deserve to. He returned him a look so withering that Dakin said, “Sorry”, and put on his seat belt without another word.

Turning on the ignition brought the wipers and the meddlesome radio back in to play. The wipers provided a little clarity but, when the radio sang out, It’s Raining Men, they both struggled to keep a straight face. They failed—and the laughter was both blessing and relief. After a couple of ‘Hallelujahs’, and while they were still laughing, Dakin said, “I’ll turn that off, shall I, Sir?”

“I think it might be for the best, thank you. I feel the radio is conspiring against me and I’m only prepared to indulge pathetic fallacy so far”.

“Sorry, Sir, but that’s personification”.

He called him a smartarse and was unable to mask a grin. He remembered how easy it was sometimes with Dakin—how easy and how much fun. He said, “Which is why I’m an historian”.

With the tension a little relieved, they drove on in silence. He had to concentrate in the driving rain but knew Dakin was staring. It was unnerving, and the siren call to return his gaze, overwhelming. He asked himself how long it had been—more than six months, he calculated. It had been painful, yes, but worse, it had been lonely. His sister had come while he still needed the wheelchair, but she had her own life and family and he knew he was bottom of that pile—he missed her. His parents asked him to come home—his mother wanted to look after him. They meant well, but this claustrophobic idea propelled him from wheelchair to crutches to walking stick faster than any medical intervention could. Sometimes it was easier to be alone.

When he thought of Dakin, and he thought of him more often than he admitted—more often than he wanted—it was rarely in that awful uniform. Sometimes, yes—thinking of him in class, watching him in concentration, in playfulness, in moments of sudden intellectual clarity. But it was the last time that haunted—when he was no longer ‘Sir’ and Dakin wanted him anyway, or said he did. It was the last time, in that jacket and white t-shirt—the one he was wearing now—when the boy who had gone past him and achieved what he couldn’t, the boy who didn’t need him anymore, said he wanted him. He had wanted him and challenged him to be brave, to be true, to live up to his expectations. That was the last thing he remembered. That Dakin filled his dreams, waking and not—some of them sweet, some of them hot, all of them devastating.

Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

Yes, he had eaten of the tree and he was still hungry and Dakin made him very hungry indeed. He knew he was gripping the wheel tightly, as he had so often done when unexpected waves of longing threatened to wreck him. He could feel Dakin watching: impossible not to think of him; impossible not to want him.

He stopped at a pedestrian crossing and Dakin said, “It’s green”. He said, “I know” and flashed his lights to let a young woman with a baby in a pushchair and a screaming toddler in her fist cross the road quickly in the pelting rain. Having no free hand, she nodded and smiled extravagantly in his direction and he smiled and raised his hand. He had seen her before and felt for her; she reminded him of his sister.

“Oh”, said Dakin. Then, after a moment, “I’m sorry, sir”.

“What for?”

“I didn’t... after the accident...I should have”.

“Should have what?”

“I dunno, visited?”

“Brought me grapes?”

“Maybe. I should have done something. But...”

“...I didn’t expect you to”. He didn’t say he didn’t want it but, in truth, he hadn’t. The idea of Dakin seeing him that way was too humiliating. No, he hadn’t wanted it; he’d feared it. But still, there was want.

Dakin said, “You should.”

“What?”

“Expect things—or, at least, want them, even if you don’t expect them”.

He thought perhaps Dakin wanted him to ask for something, to demand something even. Dakin wanted something—he was sure of that. After a long pause, in which he sinuously negotiated the traffic, he said, “Want without expectation? Desire without hope? Even Pandora slammed the lid on hope... the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”

“Nietzsche?”

“Nietzsche”, he replied, and smiled at him then—a real smile, warm and connected, relishing the shorthand they both understood. He was a long way from abandoning hope.

He thought about the upcoming traffic lights—when they reached them, he would have to make a decision. If Dakin said nothing, he’d have to turn left and take him home—to his own home. Or, he could acknowledge they had understood each other from the beginning and turn right. He couldn’t be held responsible for that.

At the lights, he braced one arm on the top of the wheel and ran his free hand back through his hair from forehead to nape, where he rubbed at a muscular knot—he worried at it, still unable to decide what to do. He considered the truth—that this might be the moment for it. He could say, “Do you really want to go home?” He could say, “Dakin” ... no, he could say, “Stuart”. He could say “Stuart... please”. He could turn and look at him, touch him maybe, and ask what he needed to know. He could ask, “Do you still want me?” He could ask, “Did you ever really want me?”

When the lights turned green, he returned both hands to the wheel at the prescribed ten-to-two position, and turned left.

They pulled into Dakin’s street and he parked, some way away from his house. He switched off the engine—the windscreen wipers sounded a dying fall and only the clamour on the roof remained. They waited. He drummed his fingers on the wheel. They waited for the rain to form an impenetrable veil, the windows to develop a patina of discretion and to see who would collapse first under the submarine pressure.

He took off his seat belt—he had to say something, if Dakin wouldn’t. He wanted to tell him he wasn’t his teacher anymore and to please stop calling him Sir—if there was learning to do, it should be a two-way street. Gratifying though it was to have a protégée, he didn’t want that anymore—he didn’t need it. He needed an equal, a confidant, a lover, a friend. He needed to know if there were any circumstance in which that could be Dakin.

He twisted sideways to face him. But, without warning, Dakin launched forward and kissed him. Hard and dry. No finesse. More attack than kiss. He hit his head against the window and his teeth struck the inside of his lower lip—he tasted blood. He supposed it were an answer, of sorts, but not one he wanted to hear. Without thinking, he pushed him off with a forceful “No!”, shoving him hard enough to throw him up against the passenger door.

Stunned and breathless, Dakin said, “No?” He glared at him and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. Incredulously, he said, “No... no... well, yes, but not like that”. Dakin recovered himself enough to murmur, “Then you’ll have to teach me, won’t you, Sir”. And he threw back his head in exasperation and said, “Jesus, Dakin, you’re so predictable”.

Dakin asked, “Did you plan this?”

He snorted, furious at his childishness. He said, “I’m flattered you think my power extends to control of the weather, but no, I did not plan this. Where you’re concerned, planning seems rather pointless”. Then he looked at him, damp, dishevelled, humiliated, and found there was nowhere to put his anger—he had no room for it.

He sighed and turned and spread his hands over Dakin’s knees. He said, “Do you think you could drop the ‘Sir’ now?”—further explanation would have to wait. He began to move his hands slowly forward, his thumbs pressing in to the damp denim of Dakin’s inner thigh. He stared at the slow, steady slide; a wave of darkening water advancing ahead of his thumbs. His hands felt possessed. Dakin exhaled a long, ragged breath and whispered, “I thought you didn’t want anything”. He lifted his head and focused on his beautiful mouth and wondered if it were possible Dakin honestly thought he didn’t want anything. “I lied”, he said.

And then, as though comic timing must be written in to a situation so clearly staged by the heavens, he stopped and started to laugh. He said, “Dakin you’ll have to stop backing up like a frightened rabbit—I can't get past the gear stick and I’m in danger of releasing the hand brake”.

Dakin laughed too and said, “Is that a euphemism?”

“No, it fucking isn’t. Could you meet me half way at least?”

From his position backed up against the window, Dakin threaded his hands in his hair and hauled himself forward. It hurt. But he replied with sweet, soft, almost-out-of-reach kisses, making Dakin work for them—making him prove he wanted them. He willed him to let go—of his hair, yes—but all of it, the fight, the games, the need to win at all costs. If Dakin believed he wouldn’t drown, that he needn’t drag them both down—they could swim, together. Words bubbled up that couldn’t be said—sweet words, endearments, words that couldn’t break the surface. But it happened wordlessly—Dakin's hands began to relax and his grip became loose and tender. He took a breath then and dived into a kiss, taking Dakin with him.

“I’ll take you home then, shall I?”, he kissed against his mouth.

Stuart smiled and said, “Yeah, I really need to get out of these wet clothes”. And Tom started the engine.

***

Back on the road, the lights were red. He reached and placed a hand on Stuart’s leg, glancing at him and trying to read his expression. “You, okay?” He said.

Stuart smiled, picked up his hand and quickly kissed it. He said, “Better than I’ve been in a long time”.

“You look worried though”.

“No, not that”

“Nervous?”

“Maybe. A bit. More... bewildered. I didn’t expect this... I didn’t expect to feel like this.”

“Like what?” Stuart shrugged and, besides, Tom didn’t really need an answer. “But you want this?”, he said.

“Yes”

“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“I know”

“If you just want to sit and drink tea and chat, it’s fine.”

“You know I don’t want that.”

“Trust me?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do”.

“Okay, good”. The lights changed. He smiled, “I need my hand back though”.

Stuart kissed it again and let go.