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Traveling Hopefully

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Malcolm gave the switch on the telephone a healthy jiggle, marveling at the concept that anyone in this day and age would still own, let alone use, an old-style rotary telephone, but the receiver remained silent. The phone was dead.

“We’re stuck here, sweetheart,” he said to the doe-eyed woman in the plaid skirt. “No ferry, no phone. All hell breaking loose out there in the North Atlantic.”

She glared at him suspiciously and picked up the receiver herself, but she soon reached the same conclusion he had. “Seriously? This is our line out?”

“You’re in the Outer Hebrides, sweetheart. For the duration of the storm.”

She fixed him with a surprisingly sharp look. “Marooned with a madman.”

“Shipwrecked with a swee–”

“Don’t say it. You haven’t earned the right to endearments. I don’t even know your name.”

“Malcolm,” he said, and he stuck his hand out.

“Clara,” she said, and shook his hand. Firm grip, cool hand, and a little fire in the way she met his eyes. Malcolm showed his teeth in a smile, which was not returned.

“Nice to share an abandoned waiting room with you.”

“Likewise. Maybe.” That was a sidelong glare for sure.

And who the fuck was this bird? She’d showed up a few minutes after he, no luggage, no handbag, and no coat against the rising storm. Suspicious. And to a man who’d just received a summons from the PM to get his arse back south, for urgent reasons unspecified, it rose to the level of fucking suspicious.

Malcolm leaned casually against the abandoned ferry ticket desk. “On holiday, then?”

“No.”

“And what keeps you busy when you’re not marooned dockside in a storm?”

Clara was now wandering around behind the desk, looking for something. Another phone? Good luck. She said, “Teaching school in east London, most of the time.”

“Ah.” Malcolm found himself relaxing. Not a politician, not a civil servant, not a journalist. Not a professional menace to his country. He hadn’t realized how much tension he’d managed to build up in the short minutes he’d been sharing the waiting room with her. “What brings you to this hellish little island if not a holiday?”

She frowned and walked away from him to look out the window. “A friend ditched me here. No luggage, no coat, no anything. Thought I could make my way back but then–” She gestured toward the window. The ferry that ought to be there, taking them to the mainland, was conspicuously not present. Instead a storm was whipping up.

Malcolm closed his mouth on the first thing that occurred to him to say. Revised it. Revised it again. The worst of his tongue was a special service he reserved for politicians, not for schoolteachers. “That was inconsiderate of him,” he said finally.

“Understatement of the year,” she muttered. “And why are you here? Local?”

Malcolm snorted. “Glaswegian boy here. No. This was supposed to be a holiday, a holiday in sodden hell. Fucking refreshing it’s been.”

She raised an eyebrow at his language but to his relief did not seem to have recognized him.

Rain on the window, gray skies, gray water, white-capped waves, and a heavy sea incoming. The ferry house was made of stone and set up a hill from the dock proper, and it looked to have survived several hundred years of storms. They’d be safe there, if cold and hungry. However, Malcolm felt no urge to cap his shortened holiday with a bit of privation.

He said, “Look, darling, let’s continue this in the pub over a pint and something hot. Quarter mile up the road, best we get walking now before it gets worse.”

“Look, Malcolm, I can’t. I’m just going to sit it out here.”

“Clara–”

“I’ve got exactly forty pounds in my pocket, and that’s only because I always carry something for emergencies because this is not the first time he’s dumped me dead in a ditch. I need about that to get back to London, which is where my cash card is. I’m lucky I had my phone with me this time. Damn him.”

The string of obscenities that occurred to Malcolm once again did not make it past his lips, because they weren’t aimed at her but at the fucking cunt who treated her like that. Routinely.

She was saying, “And besides, no coat. I’ll get soaked through. I’ll be fine here. Bored maybe, but dry.”

Malcolm had the feeling he was about to get himself into a mess that couldn’t be talked out of, but– those eyes. That spark in her voice. That no-nonsense attitude she had. This woman didn’t need him to solve her problems, would do very well without him, and that was more interesting than anything he’d encountered in the last five years.

He unlocked his wheelie suitcase and pulled out a fleece. He tossed it to her. “Fuck the money. You’ll cover it when we’re back in London. Me mam would never forgive me if I left you to freeze in this hovel.”

She studied him, head tilted. “All right, Malcolm. Let’s get a drink.”


The walk back up the road was more of a jog, thanks to the downpour, and Clara demonstrated herself to be considerably more fit than he, even in those ridiculous heels. The rain rushed down in waves as the wind gusted, but there were as yet dry moments. He’d underestimated the distance to the village; easy to do when one was being driven in a car and paying attention to the letter in one’s pocket and not to the road. An actual paper letter they’d sent him; his smartphone was useless in this unconnected primitive island of the Outer Hebrides. Which was of course why he’d chosen it. Make the cunts work if they wanted him.

There was his blood pressure rising again. Best to set that aside until he was surrounded by southern arse-faced morons once more. Concentrate for now on the girl beside him, on the cluster of fucking picturesque white-painted thatch-roofed buildings in front of him. On walking with the rain lashing at his back. On hovering just behind her so it hit him, not her. On shouldering off his coat and holding it over their heads so she wouldn’t get quite as wet, because fuck, it was pissing down now. She took his wheelie bag and tucked herself under his outstretched arm easily; she was a wee thing.

There was the inn, pub at one end. They dodged inside just as the heavens opened above them in earnest, with a howl of wind and a roar of rain. Malcolm wiped water from his face and shook his hands dry. Clara was a dripping waif bundled in his gray fleece. She stripped it off and wrung it out.

The woman behind the desk took them for a married couple, thanks to his ring, and he did nothing to disabuse her of the notion. He didn’t want Clara given any grief. They were near booked up anyway; other visitors had been trapped by the surprising intensity of this storm. Unseasonal, it was, or so the clerk told him at annoying length. She stuck him with an expensive room, en-suite. He returned to Clara with two room keys in hand, great old-fashioned brass keys with hand-written tags. Fucking quaint. He gave her one and watched her turn it over in her little hands.

“There is only one room at the inn, sweetheart, and I have taken it for us. Come on.”

He turned and hauled his suitcase up the creaking stairs. The room was large, tucked right up at the top of the inn, with a deep bay window overlooking the sea. The window had a seat built into it, covered in embroidered throw pillows and a couple of fucking stuffed bears; no doubt tourists loved that touch. It had one double bed in it, under the eaves.

“We’re married,” he said to her. “As far as the daft cow at the desk is concerned. Saw my ring and leapt to conclusions.”

“Easy to leap to,” Clara said, under her breath.

He held up his left hand. “I wear this as a distraction,” he said. “Protective coloration, like a tiger blending into the underbrush. Been divorced an age. Truly. I’m not fucking wi’ you.”

“I don’t care about your ring. I care about that.” She pointed at the bed.

“Don’t worry about me, sweetheart. I’ll steal a pillow and sleep on the floor. Me mam didn’t raise me to pester women who aren’t interested.”

“Not a predator, then.”

He grinned mirthlessly. “No. There’s only one kind of person I even think about eviscerating, and you aren’t it. You can trust me not to be a cunt.”

Her eyes widened at his language then she laughed. She peered at herself in the little mirror set over the battered dresser. She ran her fingers through her hair then shook her head. Malcolm thought she was dead gorgeous as she was, all wind-blown and wet, but he’d learned that he best not say that sort of thing out loud to women. They always took it badly. Assumed it was some kind of veiled insult.

She shrugged at herself in the mirror and then laughed at some private joke. “Right. Shall we get that drink?”

The pub was overheated and drafty at the same time. Clara chose a booth by a window; Malcolm did not quarrel with this choice, because it faced him away from the flat screen over the bar. The storm promised to be a spectacular thing to watch, much more interesting than the rolling twenty-four hour news cycle. He didn’t want to know what mess was so bad they were willing to wait days to get him back to clean it up. Or so bad that the fucking mental rejects they’d replaced him with had been unable to cope with it.

He said, “What’ll it be?”

“Red wine.”

He got her a glass of something that was bound to be terrible and himself a dram of the local single malt, the pride of the island and source of all income that wasn’t from the sale of overpriced food in inns. It wasn’t bad. He’d near drowned himself in it his first days on the island. Then he’d gone through a week drying himself out in more ways than one. No politics. No newspapers. No telly. No screaming. Hours spent reading what he liked, for pleasure, and not drugging himself to sleep. His libido had returned around the third week, which had been annoying if a bit of a relief. Good to know he wasn’t a total husk.

It had almost been a disappointment when the imploring letter from the PM had arrived. He’d almost started to take an interest in food again when that letter had arrived to set him retching again. Metaphorically. Fucking twat Tom.

He stole a glance over at the girl he’d tangled himself with, the only good thing about his aborted departure from the island; possibly the only good thing about this village.

What was it about her? She was good-looking, yes, but that was hardly interesting in his world, littered as it was with ambitious pretty things of all genders. The freshness, possibly. The resilience. The way she smiled at that first crack of thunder as storm front arrived for real. Or maybe it was just that little plaid skirt that had turned his head.

And oh, it was turned. But he had better manners than to take advantage. And she might yet prove to be a moron. If she stayed interesting after an evening’s conversation, he’d get her number from her and follow up in London. Fuck him if he wouldn’t need the distraction from the hell his life would be once again.

Assuming she was free for his pursuit.

“Tell me about this wanker who left you up here,” he said.

Clara shook her head. “He didn’t mean to, probably. He gets distracted.”

“Haven’t got much good to say about a fucking cunt who’d abandon a friend in the middle of nowhere with no way to get home.”

Clara sighed, her exasperation clear. “He means well. He’s just not, not of this world sometimes. And no, I’m not making excuses. Well, I am. And I am tired of it.” She took a healthy swig of her wine then froze and made a face. Malcolm revised his opinion up a notch; she could recognize swill. He tasted his own whiskey. More ice than liquor. Fucking knob of a barman.

He said, “Did you at least enjoy the island?”

“No. That’s the worst of it. Looks like it’s beautiful when the weather’s better. What is there to do here anyway?”

“Drink, fish, paint, read, go tramping about and get pneumonia when the rain catches you.”

“Is that what you did?”

“I spent my time shut up at the house I let for the summer, reading. Sulking a bit if I’m honest.”

“Sounds heavenly.”

“Sulking? Fucking overrated.”

“I could do with a few weeks of sulking in a corner.”

“You look like you couldn’t stay sulking for more than a day tops.”

“I have managed an entire week sulking, I’ll have you know.”

“Don’t believe you. Any man who got a look at you would fucking tie himself into knots getting you to smile.”

“Not this one,” she said, sourly.

“Like that between you and your friend, then?”

“Like what?” Then Clara set her wine glass down and shook her head. “Not like that at all. He’s just a friend. You know, you remind me of him. A much younger brother or something.”

Malcolm cocked an eyebrow at her. “Advantage or disadvantage for me?”

“Serious disadvantage. But the good news for you is that you’re going to look wonderful when you go gray.”

“Good to know.”

Malcolm watched her drink a little more. He took a swig of his whiskey, which still had too much fucking ice in it. He fished out a couple of cubes and slid them across the table. Clara smiled at this, the first smile she’d granted him. She flicked the ice back at him. It slid all the way across the table and landed on his crotch. Malcolm yanked the ice out of his trousers and tossed it at her. He flashed her a V. At that she broke out laughing. The pleasure that washed through him at the sound was absurd.

“What do you do when you’re at home, Malcolm?”

“Public relations,” he said, showing his teeth.

Clara stared at him for a second, wide-eyed, then she grinned. “I can just see you dealing with the press, telling them, oh I don’t know, my twat-faced client’s firm regrets the fucking cock-up with the fucking arsenic. Four-letter relations.”

Malcolm returned the grin; was a treat hearing those words coming from that pretty mouth. “Pure dead brilliant name for a firm. I’ll have that printed on cards when I get back.”

“Name and number on the front, fuck off in flowery script on the back.”

She was laughing as she said it and Malcolm could not look away from her. Doe eyes, bright smile, god damn him, a month in this place had softened his brain. How else to explain this urgent need to keep her smiling at him?

“On holiday from your PR firm up here in the sunny north Atlantic.”

“Sort of.” She raised an eyebrow at him, and he shifted uneasily. “And what do you teach when you’re not stranded in the Outer Hebrides by a wanker who’ll be getting a bollocking from me?”

“English. Secondary level.”

“Jane Eyre and that shite? Heathcliff dashing his wee self against a fucking tree in a fucking great storm?”

“Yeah, exactly your kind of thing, I can tell. See that tree out there?” She pointed out the window toward an oak that looked as if it were three centuries old and didn’t give a tinker’s about faff-arsed North Sea storms.

“I’d piss against that,” Malcolm said.

“You’d look fantastic dashing yourself against that. I can just see the blood dripping down your face.”

“Believe me, sweetheart, I’ll feel the need to beat my head against a tree about ten minutes after I get back to fucking London and the fucking inbred Oxbridge twats I have to deal with every day. Slam my head against it, scream fuck, and do it again until I bleed.”

“You should try slamming somebody else’s forehead against a tree,” she said. “A lot more effective.”

He smirked. “Got a list of candidates as long as my arm and that’s without looking at my notes.”

“Are you sure you enjoy your job?”

Malcolm tipped the last of his whiskey up. “Never said I did, sweetheart. Another? And maybe food?”

“Not that wine again, please. It was vile.”

He ordered two whiskies, neat, and a couple of pasties, which was about all he’d trust this place to do. They probably came from a box in the freezer, which was a comforting thought. He brought the drinks back and sat down again. Clara was now watching the storm through the window, dark skies, and ever darkening though it would be a while yet before sunset this far north. The rain was rolling in waves up the hill from the sea, driven by the wind. Lightning flashed and cracked, nearer than he was comfortable thinking about.

“Barman says it’ll be clear by tomorrow. Ferry should run again.”

“Good to know.” She leaned her chin on her fist and scooted closer to the window. That was complete absorption on her face, and more than a little delight. The lightning flashed and she smiled. Dimple on her cheek, button nose. So pretty. Malcolm drank and watched her. Too pretty for him, too young for him, too innocent for him, but no one could fault him for admiring her.

“What are you looking at?”

Malcolm found himself smiling. “You. You’re fucking gorgeous, like a fucking English rose. Which is about the only nice thing the fucking English have ever done for me.”

“That’s very sweet of you, if I ignore the language.”

“Sorry, darling. It comes with the Malcolm package.”

“What else comes with the Malcolm package?”

Malcolm ran his fingers through his hair. Fuck him if he could find something to say that wasn’t about the job. What did he do when he was at home? “I play the clarinet. Jazz. I do a mean Sing Sing Sing.” He mimed playing briefly.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. When I had a life fucking donkey’s years ago in Glasgow I used to play out with my mates. Nothing big, just round the local and the odd wedding. But I keep my hand in even now. Makes the rare evening at home a treat.”

“I’m impressed.”

“You’re easily impressed, sweetheart. There isn’t much to Malcolm past that. My job ate me out from the inside.”

“Is that why you came up here?”

He frowned. “Something like.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.”

He stared at his glass, sitting on the table in a puddle. She was the first person who’d even asked him why he’d left. He touched the glass, did not drink, and found himself saying, “Might want.”

The food arrived, which was a welcome distraction from the question. Malcolm had been avoiding contemplating the reasons for his sudden resignation. Yes, there was the sheer humiliating fact of looking six moves ahead in Fleming’s game and seeing checkmate looming. The PM hadn’t seen it coming, at least, so he’d retained the appearance of mastery of his own destiny. But Malcolm knew it to be illusion, knew himself bested, and didn’t much enjoy the feeling. Why had it happened? He’d lost the plot somewhere along the way. Lost his fucking moorings and been blown to sea like a fucking useless ferry boat to hell. To mix his fucking metaphors.

Food on the table. Right. He should eat it. His suits were hanging on him like a rag on a knife blade these days. Too much tooth-grinding at night. Clara was eating but watching him closely. He sighed and gave in. He had a bite of the pastie. Food. Hot. Would keep him alive most likely. When covered in sauce it probably wouldn’t make him retch.

He swallowed and said, “Sweetheart, I’ll tell you why I came up here. I sent myself to Coventry before I could be sent. Risk paid off, because I’ve been summoned back to rescue the incompetent fucks once again.”

She was watching him closely, listening. Malcolm shrugged. “Suppose I’m going back. No clue why.” He didn’t want to talk about how he felt about going back to Downing Street. He might figure out what he felt, and then he’d be fucked. So he said, “What are you going back to?”

Clara’s face lit up. “The kids at the school, my job. Don’t know why I’m here. Well, not here now with you. I meant on this island. Which I wouldn’t even know the name of if it hadn’t been on a sign at the dock.”

He was relieved the let the conversation shift back to her. “How the fucking hell did you get here, then? Helicopter?”

Clara’s mouth quirked. “Yeah. Then he said be right back, hopped in, and was gone. I knew the signs, so I started walking.”

“Your serial abandoner is minted, then.”

“Not my serial anything, but yeah. He’s sort of a philanthropist now; I guess you could call it. Travels around meddling with things, fixing things, mostly.”

“You the philanthropic sort?”

“Not particularly. Feel like a bad human being for saying that, but I’m not in much of a position for it. I feel like I do my bit by teaching. Which I am good at.”

“Why do you tag along with this fucking self-absorbed fetus, then?”

“I see wonders. That’s what I say when people ask me. It’s true, but it’s become, I don’t know, automatic. Rote.” She leaned her fist on her chin. “I see wonders, and I see horrors. I see life and death, and it’s the death that stays with me afterward. I don’t know how he does it.”

Malcolm showed his teeth. “You develop a shell around you. Nothing gets through.”

“It’s either that or wake up screaming every night.”

“Fuck me if I’d want that.” So why had he done it? He just kept everybody around him awake by screaming through the days, and fuck him if there was any difference.

“I’d almost forgotten why I was doing it. What I think I was put here to do. Seeing new places is fun, but why am I there? To help? I’m rubbish at helping entire civilizations that have gone wrong or cities on the verge of collapse. There I am, talking to people from a culture I could spend my whole life just scratching the surface of, but they’re dying of plague or something like that, and I’m there to follow orders while somebody else cures them. It’s–”

“Frustrating?”

“Maddening. Anybody could fetch tea for him. Why am I there doing it? I’m pretty good at teaching. I know I’m helping when I do that.”

“Your wanker likes big problems.”

“Yeah. I’m thinking I need to refocus on the small ones. And not just because he dumped me in a random place again.” There was that little flare again, the anger, the spice in the sweetness of the roses.

“Anger management, sweetheart.”

“Going to manage this anger, all right. Going to keep it alive so the next time I see him it can remind me what I decided just now.”

“Well done,” he said, and raised his glass. “To telling the wankers no.” She clinked hers against it, and they solemnly drank to it.

They talked more, over the bad food and the acceptable whiskey, and she stayed interesting. She had a brain, a rather alarmingly quick one, good at picking up on his jokes. Even the sideways ones that relied on chains of reference, the ones the political sheep whose heels he used to nip at had never caught. Especially those. And she gave it right back to him. Not afraid of his tongue at all, not afraid of anything. He was content, talking to this woman. He wanted to talk to her more, talk all night if she’d put up with him. And she seemed to be putting up with him. Miracles did happen still.

Her glass went dry, eventually, and so did his.

“Back in a mo’,” he said.

He’d intended to order a third round for them, but the bar was three deep. He ducked into the gent’s and had a nice long satisfying piss, followed by a sharp look in the mirror to make sure he was still presentable. He ran his hands through his hair a few times. Still painfully thin, but not quite so gray in the face as he’d been, and this jumper didn’t make him look like he was closer to his fiftieth than his fortieth. Before he left he shoved some coins into the machine and bought a couple of rubbers. Couldn’t happen if he wasn’t prepared.

He considered waiting his turn at the bar, but the prospect raised his blood pressure nearly as high as the last time Ollie Reeder had deliberately fucked up. The entire population of the village was there, watching the telly and saying fucking banal and predictable shite at each other about the storm.

He went back to Clara empty-handed. “I got a bottle upstairs,” he said. “Jura fifteen year. Was going to take it home and save it for when I needed a royal piss-up, but this is just as good an occasion.”

“It’s too noisy here now,” was all she said.

She stood and flicked her hair over her shoulder. He followed her out of the bar, watching her pert arse only slightly more avidly than was appropriate for a man ogling a woman he’d met only hours before and had solemnly sworn not to molest. Which he wouldn’t ever do, not he, but he was getting her number before they were on that ferry. And he was calling her the very evening they were back in that fucking poxy city down south. Maybe the second evening. Wouldn’t do to seem too fucking eager to take her out. Or take her to bed. Eager though he was.

Or eager just to talk to her some more. He’d take that. A phone call, that would do him. He could wait for more. Though he’d bought the rubbers, so he was traveling hopefully. Maybe she’d be in the mood. He’d only do it if she seemed like she wouldn’t be treating it as a fling, though. He’d wait for fucking if she needed the time to decide she liked him. Just so long as she kept smiling at him.

“Fuck me. I am a fucking teenaged girl,” he said.

“What’s that?” She was distracted by wrangling the key into the lock.

“Nothing, sweetheart.”

The door came open and they were in their quiet, dark room. Clara made a beeline for the seat in the big bay window, the one with the sea view past the inn rooftops. She unzipped her boots and dumped them aside. Malcolm switched on the bedside lamp. Shoes off, good idea. The bedroom was cool after the heated noise of the pub; he left his jumper on.

The rain drove hard against the windows and the roof. Shutters somewhere outside rattled. Thunder cracked and rolled. The storm seemed near its peak, and there under the roof it felt closer to them. They were alone in a little haven separated from the rain only by a sheet of glass.

Clara was kneeling on the window seat with her face pressed against the glass, hands cupped to block out the light.

“See okay, love?”

“Yeah. The view from this room must be amazing in daylight.”

The Jura was deep in his luggage, in a box safely wrapped in a layer of jumpers and shirts to prevent breakage. Malcolm dug it out and unsealed it. This was the stuff, and he was happy to be opening it for her. He padded into the washroom and looked for something to drink out of.

“One fucking water glass in the entire fucking room. Remind me to burn this place down when we leave.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad.”

“What’s good about it?”

“Working roof.”

Malcolm sloshed the glass full. “Cheers, sweetheart. You get first crack.”

She took a swig and her eyebrows went up. “That’s the good stuff?”

He grinned at her. “Welcome to single malt. Like it?”

“I don’t have words for all the things this tastes like. It’s deep.”

“Dark, complicated, biting—”

“Like you,” and she smiled at him over the rim of the glass. She drank again and handed it to him.

Malcolm could think of absolutely nothing to say in response to that. Was she insulting him? Was she flirting? Was it mere politeness? He stared, mouth open, wondering what to do. Finally he raised the glass to her.

At that moment, the room went bright as day for an instant. A crackling, a shudder, and Malcolm swore he could feel his skin prickle. Before he could draw in breath to speak, the thunder shook the inn around them. Deafening. Clara laughed, and he did too, and he couldn’t hear either of them in the roar.

When it faded, Clara said, “Did it hit the inn?”

“Fucking must have.”

Something cracked and groaned outside. There was another roar, not thunder, and the lights went out. They both lunged for the window to look out. It had gone completely pitch outside. Malcolm blinked and waited for his eyes to adjust.

“The oak,” she said. “Gone. My God.”

The lightning flashed again and Malcolm could see the oak tree, splintered down the middle by the lightning. Half of it had fallen across the road and taken a power line with it. There it writhed on the ground, sparking and sputtering.

“Good thing I wasn’t out dashing myself against it. I’d have been fucking flattened.”

“If you survived the lightning.”

Malcolm swore again, under his breath. The wreckage was stunning. Hundreds of years of growth, shattered in an instant. A man came out of the inn, in rain gear with reflective stripes on it. He went up to the fallen half of the tree, saw the sparking, and backed away. There was no way that was going to be repaired in the night. Time to settle in. There was a candle on the dresser with a virgin wick. Might as well put it to use. Malcolm dug into his luggage and extracted the lighter that he always carried on trips, in a pocket next to his granddad’s battered Victorinox.

“Romantic evening in an inn, yeah?”

“Honestly, yes,” she said, and his head snapped around. She wasn’t looking at him; she was watching whatever was going on outside still.

He settled himself on the seat next to her, stockinged feet on the cushions, arms wrapped around his knees. Honestly, yes, it was fucking romantic. She made it so. Lovely profile. Expressive. So pretty, so bright, so bold, so quick-witted, so utterly uninterested in any of the shite he wasted his days on. She’d seen more than he had, somehow, while he’d been wasting his days in gray corridors full of beige morons.

Clara turned to him and reached for the whisky glass. He handed it to her and watched her drink. Just a taste, wetting her lips with it but nothing more. She handed it back. Her hand brushed his, and he smiled.

“You’re looking at me again.”

“Course I’m looking at you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in the last decade.”

“Careful, Malcolm. A girl could get the wrong idea from that kind of talk.”

“What sort of idea is she getting?” The words were coming out of his mouth all strange and rough.

“The idea that you’re interested.”

“I am more than interested. I am fucking fascinated. I am riveted.”

“Yeah?”

Her voice was unsteady too. He was not imagining it. He reached out, took her face in his hands, and kissed her. Just a closed-mouth peck, not a proper kiss. She didn’t pull away, so he kissed her again, more slowly this time. A third kiss, and this time her eyes closed and her lips parted for him. Her hand was on his chest, resting flat over his heart. If only she knew. It had been hollowed out of him years ago. He was only now recognizing his loss.

“Clara, darling.”

“Yeah?” Eyes open, gazing into his.

He brushed a kiss on the end of her nose. “Tell me if you want me to stop and I will.”

“It’s good. I’m good.”

The words kept tumbling out of him. “There’s no obligation. Give me the word and I’ll stop. Probably have a wank to console myself but I’ll stop.”

“Malcolm. I know. I trust you. Now kiss me again.”

She grabbed a fistful of his jumper and pulled him close.

“I am your obedient servant,” he said, grinning with all his teeth showing. And then he kissed her again. this time with every bit of himself dedicated to the problem at hand. That being how to turn on a woman using only his tongue in her mouth, or hers in his mouth. That was good too. He was flexible. He could adapt.

“Oh yeah, that’s good,” Clara said. “Far too long since I’ve been kissed by somebody who had any idea how to kiss.”

“Been even longer for me, darling. Fuck, I shouldn’t boast about that, should I?”

She tapped the end of his nose with a finger and grinned at him. “Generally one doesn’t. You should instead be reciting a litany of conquests.”

“Conquests. Fuck me. I haven’t fucked anything with a brain like yours in–”

When was the last time he’d fucked anything other than his own slicked-up hand? Oh fuck him, the day he’d received his decree absolute and the nightmare was truly over. Jamie had come over with an armload of bottles and a couple of girls, and poured whiskeys down his throat until he’d let one of them take him to bed. Literally the last fucking time he’d got a leg over.

Fuck. He didn’t deserve this girl. Twenty years younger than he was at the least. What was he doing corrupting her?

“Hey, hey,” she was saying. “What century are we in? I get to have fantastic sex if I want to. You’re not corrupting me.”

“I said that out loud.”

“Now it’s my turn to tell you it’s okay with me if we stop now. I want to get your number tomorrow, but it’s okay if you don’t want to have sex on the first date.”

“First date,” Malcolm said, and the absurdity of it made him hiccup. “Darling, you can have my number, my address, and the keys to my front door.”

She said nothing to this outburst, merely kissed him on the end of his nose. “Turn around.”

“What?”

“I said turn around. Lean back, against me. Yeah, like that.”

Malcolm was half-hunched forward, afraid of resting his weight against her. But she tugged him back, gently, with a hand flat over his heart and another over his belly. Her hand moved in gentle circles over his heart and he breathed out.

“You’re skin and bones,” she whispered. “Nothing under that jumper.”

She tugged it up around his shoulders. Malcolm obligingly raised his arms to let her pull it off. He tossed it aside. Cool in the room, damp, her hands on his shirt buttons, his breath coming short. She was going to let him fuck her. Let him go to bed with her. Make love with her. It was going to happen and all he had to do was relax. His shirt fluttered to the floor beside them, and her hands moved over him. Over his nipples, down his belly, back up to run through what passed for chest hair on him.

Breathe. Calm down, Malc. His cock was jumping in his trousers every time her hand wandered down his stomach. He was going to come in his boxers if she kept doing that. A sorry show that would be.

“My turn,” he said. He swiveled himself around with Clara between his legs, leaned up against him, not so close that his cock was against her. An abundance of caution, paradise deferred, but he was going to have a fucking devil of a time not coming instantly.

He distracted himself by concentrating on her shirt buttons, which were wrong way round, fucking women’s clothing all tiny and backwards. He stroked his way down her shoulders, along her arms, making a little game of touching as much of her body as he could as he got her shirt off. His reward was a shiver from her and his name, whispered.

Oh, Clara, he had only just begun.

Bra unhooked, and Malcolm kissed her spine, kissed his way up to the nape of her neck, while he slid his hands around to cup her bared breasts. Sweet, sweet feeling, nipples under his fingertips, a pinch, her gasp, her head back against his shoulder, a harder pinch, and she moaned. Shifted between his legs, pressed back against him. Malcolm liked this reaction; he could play with her nipples all night. But now it was time to lift her skirt and find out what was underneath. He found the zip on her skirt and helped her shimmy it off. Tugged at the band of her tights.

“Yeah, come on, get these fuckers off so I can touch you.”

“Bossy,” she said. “I like being the bossy one.”

“Not gonna be that easy, darling.”

“Get those trousers off,” she said, exactly as if he hadn’t spoken, and who was he to disobey? He stood and got his trousers off, and his socks because he hated looking like a prat with socks on below a stiff prick tenting out his boxers. Before he tossed them into a corner he dug the rubbers out of the trouser pocket and tucked them under the pillows where he could find them.

Clara had those tights off, as ordered, and was wearing nothing but her knickers, a pink lacy thong that left her arse gloriously bare for his hand to cup. One hand on her arse, pulling her against him, the other on the back of her head, and his tongue in her mouth. Or hers in his mouth, that was fine too, since she wanted it that way. If she was busy doing that, her mouth would be too busy to complain about his hand leaving her arse to wander between her thighs and discover how wet she was already. Waxed bare down there, like a modern girl.

He pulled the thong aside and let his middle finger slip into her. She gasped. He grinned and got his thumb over her clit. Let her find out the fun way that old burned-out husks knew more about sex than the young idiots.

He slid down to his knees taking the knickers with him, kissed her thighs, parted her labia with his fingers and licked her. He put a hand on her waist to steady her and set about finding what made her squirm. He listened to her sharp intake of breath, and the instant he heard her first moan he stopped. He stood again to kiss her with wet lips. Oh, lovely woman, kissing him back without hesitation, and then down she went, returning the favor, pressing a kiss to the underside of his cock, licking him until he swore, then taking him in.

Malcolm tugged her up and sadly away from his prick. He kissed her. “I’ve got only one go in me at my age, darling, and that’s not the way I want it our first time.”

“I haven’t got anything–”

“I do.” Malcolm dug under the pillow and pulled out the rubbers, held them up to show her.

“Oh, prepared for this, are you?”

He knelt up on the bed. Foil off, tossed aside. “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive,” he said.

“Stevenson?”

“Gonna arrive and prove he’s fucking wrong.”

He rolled the thing onto his cock. Encased like a bloody sausage, and the feeling of the rubber on him made him even harder. Pavlov’s dog. Rubber on meant he was going to come. Thank all the fucking gods in the sky that it would slow him down because he wanted this to last. He wanted her to remember this, to remember him, to want another go with him. He wanted her to scream his name.

They rolled on the bed fighting over who got to ride on top. Eventually she let him win, the wench, and he was spreading her thighs with eager hands. He pushed his cock into that sweet quim, pulled out to tease her, laughed when she swore at him. He buried himself balls-deep. Looked as good as it felt, cock tip pressing against bare cunt, cock moving into cunt, woman moaning as he moved. Beautiful woman. Clara. The candlelight did wonders for her face, her hair, her dark eyes. He lay over her and kissed her. She tucked her heels behind his knees.

He said, “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

He braced himself on his elbows and set to work finding out what made her groan. Everything, it seemed. She was as turned on as he’d ever seen a woman. He settled into a steady deep pace with little bursts that made her strain upward under him. Lightning flashes illuminating her beneath him, head thrown back, sweat between her breasts, hair a wreck on the pillow. Breathing hard, moaning for him, but not near coming yet. He leaned down over her to kiss her again.

“What do you need, darling? Tell me. Need my thumb on you? Need me to bite you? Tell me, love. I’ll do anything.”

“Touch me.”

He could do that, up on his knees, two fingers on her clit, reaching out and rolling her nipple. She liked it a little rough, and he pinched her harder and drove his hips.

“Come for me, Clara, do it, oh, darling, do it for me, yeah, come now. Fuck. Sweet fuck.”

She was coming for him, shaking for him, hips thrusting up into him. It was all he could do to hold off, fuck him if he understood why he wanted to hold off, just so he could look down at her face in the aftermath, so he could lie over her close and kiss her while she was still panting under him, whisper sweet things he hadn’t said to anybody in twenty years.

Her eyes opened again and she was smiling at him. Time for his own finish. Face buried in her neck, arms around her, rolling his hips, Christ, he was on the edge, it was building in him, she was squeezing him, and then he was there, he cried out into her neck, called her name, and fucking came hard, white-out in the brain, cock pulsing, emptying himself into her, giving her everything he had. He collapsed onto her, which was ungentlemanly of him, but she didn’t seem to mind. Her fingers were in his hair, petting him.

He was reluctant to part from her, but he was softening and the fucking condom would make a fucking bathetic mess on the bed if he didn’t cope with it. He withdrew from her, gave her another kiss, and set himself to rights. She was under the blankets when he returned. He blew out the candle. She lifted them and held her arms out to him. He slid in gratefully and claimed a welcome-back kiss, a lazy sloppy kiss with a lot of tongue in it.

“How was that?”

That earned him a lazy laugh from her. “Oh, am I supposed to rate you now?”

He could hear the satiation in her voice. He hoped the smug satisfaction wasn’t too obvious in his. “Got a card for you to fill out. From one to five, where one is fucking agree and five is sodding disagree, rank the statement I have been fucked senseless.”

A giggle. “Fucking agree.”

“Fucking agree or sodding disagree, would recommend this experience to a friend.”

“No, sorry, not letting anybody else into the secret of Malcolm.”

“Do you have any comments you’d like to make to the staff?”

“Secret romantic, charming if totally obscene, unexpected treasure of Scotland. Probably evil. Never shuts up.”

Malcolm kissed her. “I like talking. Afterwards. And during.”

“Pillow talk?”

“Pillow talk, rug in front of the fireplace talk, locked in the office closet talk. Any kind of talk. You mind?”

“No, I like it.”

“Turn round, darling. Yeah, like that.” Malcolm tucked himself up behind her, arm over her waist, legs tangled with hers, blankets up to their ears. She was a wee bitty thing in his arms. He could get himself around her completely. She fit him perfectly.

“Post love-making snuggly talk?” she said.

“Yeah, I do that, too. But I call it post-fuck sweet-talking.”

“You would.”

She stroked his hand where it lay against her belly. Nice belly. Thank fuck she wasn’t one of those skeletal models. A schoolteacher. With a brain and a temper. He kissed the back of her neck and made a little mumbling noise into her hair. Probably it was a happy noise, he was that far-gone. As sex with total strangers went, this had been tops. As relationship starters went, it would be even better.

“Still want my number in the morning?”

“Only if you promise we can do this again,” she said.

“It’s yours, darling.”

She made a sleepy noise and squeezed his hand.

Back in London. Seeing her again. Squeezing tender moments in at the ends of hellish days, after spending what little remained of his soul rescuing worthless fools from the just consequences of their folly. What had she said? Anyone could fetch the tea. Fuck the tea. Fuck fetching the tea.

He said, “Maybe we could get lost on the way back to London.”

She was silent for a long moment, long enough for him to start cursing himself fifty times over. Too much too fast, fucking idiot, Tucker you fucker. Then she said, “I have to be back at the school in September. We can be lost until then.”

“Consider it fucking done.”