(This story follows on from 'Runt', 'Chris', 'Living on the Verge' and 'Playing Away')
Words and Deeds
I wake up the next morning with Rick twined about me, or perhaps it is me who is twined about him. At any rate we are wound around each other amidst a knotted mass/mess of sheets and duvet. There is a leg, and I am pretty sure it's Rick's as I'm not that much of a contortionist, around my shoulder level. My face is sort of buried in some hair which smells pubic rather than any other sort. I haven't had much experience of pubic hair but I do know some is prickly. This is furry, therefore it must be Rick's. And Rick's hand is in the crack of my arse and his body is against me. I rejoice. Rick is home. Rick is home.
Bur this morning I have an interview at the offices of the local paper, the Feltenham Journal, and my eye catches the digital display on the alarm which we had never set it is five to eight, and I haven't even told Jas, boss of the building firm where I work at present (hopefully not for much longer), that I will need another day off as I'm not feeling well.
"Jesus," I shout and jump out of bed or at least try to but I am all bound up in sheets and Rick and I fall out onto the floor. Looking up I see Rick's startled face peering over the side of the bed down at me.
He grins, reaches out to grab my leg and tries to pull me back. At the same time the front doorbell shrills.
"Ignore it, Chris," says Rick.
"It must be Jas," I say. "You must tell him I'm ill."
"Don't you want to come back to bed?"
"Yes," I say, then, "No, I can't. I've got an interview."
The bell rings again, then continues. He's leaning on it.
"Fuck it," says Rick, and gets out of bed. I'm still trying to disentangle my feet from the sheets. He goes towards the door and I see his naked arse, globes moving enticingly.
"Put some clothes on," I say but he disappears out of the doorway still naked.
I hear the front door open and the bell stops suddenly. I hear Alf's voice. "Christ, he's got no clothes on." Alf always does state the obvious.
Then Rick, unconcerned. "I'm sorry, Chris is bad. He can't work today."
Jas' voice, cross. "Lazy fucker. That's the second time this week. We can't keep carrying him. Have to let him go. Tell him to get in touch."
I hear the door shut and Rick reappears. This time it's his prick and balls that I see. I'm still lying on the floor but he disentangles me from the bedding, puts me back on the bed and lies on top of me.
"I've got to get ready for the interview," I protest, but not very strongly and it's another half an hour before we start the day properly. Correction, making love with Rick IS the proper start to a day but you know what I mean.
So now I'm rushing around trying to look smart. Rick's helping he doesn't have to get into work until midday but he's tending to arrange the trousers of my suit and then laughs when the inevitable happens. He does tie my tie when did I last wear one, I can't remember. In fact I have to borrow one of his, but eventually he gives me an appraising look.
"Scrumptious," he says, which does marvels for my morale but doesn't actually give me confidence as to what a less biased person might think. And there's the awful kindergarten girl receptionist who last time I was there gave me the form which dashed my hopes of becoming an apprentice journalist (not enough qualifications to be accurate not ANY qualifications) and she seemed to know it when I said I'd fill it in later.
Now here I am creeping back with an appointment from the Job Centre for what is really an office boy's job. "Look down your nose at her," advises Rick when I express my doubts. "After all what sort of job is a receptionist?"
More than I have, I think, but I'm grateful for his support, grateful for his love and for his kisses on my mouth which I can still feel as I climb the steps up to that ornate portico, so out of place for a small provincial newspaper. I have to force myself to go through the doors, fearing that I'll start stammering and stuttering like I used to do before Ken and Dominic made me realise that I was someone of value, someone who wasn't a total wanker, someone who can achieve a future.
No kindergarten receptionist is going to push me back into that bog of self-disgust, so I step into the hallway and find out that the girl has been replaced by a man. Young guy, with fair hair cut short and a cheeky look on his face. About my age, perhaps a bit older.
"What can I do for you, mate?" he asks.
"I've got an appointment with a Mr Fuller," I say. "About the office management job." Sounds better than office boy.
"Got a name?"
"Chris," I say. "Chris Deacon."
"Got your P45?"
"My old employer hasn't given it to me yet."
"Not told him," the guy says with a smile. "I'll ring through to Fuller."
He makes a call and asks me to wait a minute.
"What happened to the girl who was here last time?" I ask just to make conversation.
The guy raises his eyebrows and smiles. "Fancied her did you?"
And he gives me a shrewd look, a look that tells me he probably suspects I'm gay, and I think he is too. So with that as good as settled he says, "Fuller's not a bad guy. His bark is worse than his bite."
"You mean he does both?"
"Sometimes," he says and grins.
His phone rings. He points down a corridor and says, "Second door on the right." Then he says, "Good luck, Chris." I wonder if he fancies me.
Mr Fuller is tall and thin, with dark, untidy hair and big eyebrows that look as if they have got out of hand. His mouth is slightly twisted so that it seems as if he has a permanent sneer, slightly intimidating. I hope I don't start stammering. He is sitting behind a desk with a computer on it. There isn't much else except a telephone, a pad of paper and a biro.
He takes the form from the Job Centre and looks at it, then drops it down on the desk as if it isn't worth much. Probably isn't.
He asks me about school and exams. I wonder whether to bluff it out but decide it isn't worth it. I tell him I haven't got any. He asks why not.
"I was a prat at school," I admit. "I skived a lot and though my English teacher said I could get a good grade, I didn't even turn up for the exam."
"Can you write?" he asks.
"Do you mean am I literate? Yes, of course I am."
"No I meant can you write. Write me a story. Short, 500 words maximum. Now. I'll give you ten minutes."
He provides me with a pad of A4 and a pen and I sit there for a minute wasting time, my mind a total blank. Then I pull myself together, get some words down. A situation, a character, something dramatic which comes out of something ordinary. I scratch out a first paragraph.
How ordinary that day was, how very ordinary the road when Malcolm ran out from the shelter of the buddleia bushes through the park gates, stepped over the kerb preoccupied with his own predicament, disturbed by the circumstances. The car hit him, breaking his thigh, tossing him into the air so that when he fell his right arm fractured.
Then I have an idea. Take it further. Transfer the character point of view to the driver.
Ted, hadn't seen Malcolm, his attention momentarily distracted by a small buzzing insect which had flown into the car. The first Ted knew of the accident was the sound of the impact, the view out of the corner of his eye of flailing limbs and finally the sight of a sprawled body in his rear-view mirror as he sped away.
His heart raced. Why hadn't he stopped, he asked himself. Now it was too late. People would have seen the hit and run, probably phoned for an ambulance, the police, given details. He couldn't return now. He pulled into a pub car park, found himself shaking and went in for a brandy. Ted swallowed it in one gulp demanding a refill.
And why stop there? Another character, another shift.
Laura, sitting along the bar observed his agitation. She had her own problem, of course, her depression after being dumped by Steve, her boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, she reminded herself. She had been sitting in the bar for an hour and drink had now made her bold.
"You looking for company?" she asked the man drinking brandy and blushed at her temerity. But the man didn't give her a glare of horror, didn't rise and stalk out. Instead he looked at her gratefully. "Let me buy you a drink," he said.
Move on even further. I'm writing at speed now. I glance at the clock on the wall. I still have another four minutes. Move to Laura's boyfriend, Steve.
Steve peered through the door into the almost empty pub. He couldn't understand what had come over him. Only since breaking off his relationship with Laura had he appreciated her worth, her tenderness, and knew his need for her. She'd be in the pub, he thought. He'd apologise. Surely they couldn't be finished so easily by so stupid a mistake on his part.
He saw her straight away, sitting an a bar stool, close to a man, their body postures showing an intimacy, hands entwined. As he watched he saw the man kiss Laura's cheek.
Steve turned and went out. He strode into the park, shaking with anger, staring straight ahead. Finding a seat under the buddleia bushes, he threw himself down, breathing deeply.
And now the clever bit or at least I think it's clever. Back to Malcolm to give some sort of explanation of that first paragraph.
Malcolm observed the young man come into the park, sensed his agitation but mistook the cause. He misconstrued the gaze Steve directed at him as one of attraction. When Steve sat down beside him on the bench, Malcolm smiled and put his hand on Steve's thigh.
Steve started. "You coming on to me?" he shouted. "I'm no faggot. Fuck off."
And finish up as I started. A circular story. Doesn't quite make logical sense but it's satisfying. Well, I think so at least. I scribble the last paragraph, a repeat of the first.
Terrified, Malcolm got up, turned and made for the exit. From behind he heard a shout and quickened his pace. He must get out of the park. He emerged through the buddleia bushes, preoccupied, stepped into the road and was hit by Ted's speeding car. The car hit him, breaking his thigh, tossing him into the air so that when he fell his right arm fractured.
It's finished. I count the words. They seem to be about five hundred. I hand the sheet of paper to Mr Fuller who squints at the writing, but I had to go fast.
He reads, nodding as he gets the point. "And the title?" he asks. "It needs a title."
A few things dash through my mind. 'Merry-go round' or the American equivalent 'carousel'. That describes the structure of the piece but it doesn't have anything to do with the story itself. "Buddleia Bushes," I say.
"Good," he says.
Wow, talk about writing under pressure.
"And what do you really want to do?" he asks.
"I want to be a journalist," I say.
"But you applied for office trainee. Make the tea, do the filing, dig out the stories that someone's hidden somewhere obscure."
"I didn't have the qualifications for an apprenticeship."
Mr Fuller appears to consider, his bushy eyebrows get closer together. He frowns. I've fucked it up, I think. Back to plaster mixing, if Jas will take me back.
Then Fuller's expression clears. "We could do with bright lads like yourself. Pity about the lack of GCSEs but you can obviously write. Bit untrained but there's potential there. Imagination and vocabulary. I'm willing to offer you a position. Any questions?"
So many but I content myself with one. "What do I have to do?"
"I'll attach you to a reporter. Follow him around. See what he does, what he writes. See how the office works, how the pieces are filed. You can use a computer I guess. Everyone can these days."
"Go and see James Drummond. Tell him I sent you and he's to take you under his wing."
I get up and make for the door. Fuller stops me. "You haven't even asked about money." He mentions a sum which, though not great is adequate, better than what I get for mixing plaster.
"When can I start?"
I think my keenness gives me some brownie points. "Monday." he says. "We'll sort out the paper work by then."
"Could I see Mr Drummond now?" I'm not creeping. I genuinely want to find out what he's like.
Fuller nods. "He's at the Reception. The girl who's usually there had to slip out for a while so he's covering. We tend to cover where necessary."
So that was James Drummond. Well, we seemed to get on well when we met. I look forward to telling him I've got the job and that I'm assigned to him. But when I go out I see that the girl is back in Reception. She fetches me a disdainful look. Obviously she thinks I've failed.
I see that her left tit is called Janice. It has a name badge pinned to it. "I start on Monday, Janice," I say in passing. "Oh by the way, can you tell me where I can find James Drummond? I have a message for him from Mr Fuller."
That's slightly stretching the truth but I feel justified.
"Could be in the coffee bar next door," she says, rather grudgingly I feel. "Jamie's often there."
'Jamie' is it? I wonder if that means they're on intimate terms, or if she just wishes they were. If I'm right about him, I don't think she'll get very far.
"Thank you," I say politely and go.
The coffee bar, Travellers' Rest', (not very original) is indeed next door and I decide I need a cappuccino latte (or indeed a white coffee). If James/Jamie is with a group of friends I'll slip out again, but I see him on his own doing a crossword, so I get my coffee and join him at his table.
"I've been assigned to you," I say, by way of introduction.
He looks up and smiles. "That's nice," he says, and I'm fairly certain he's gay. "James Drummond," he says.
"I know," I say. "Mr Fuller told me. Chris Deacon."
"I know," he says. "You showed me your Job Centre form."
"Jamie?" I ask,
"Not if you value your life. Chrissy?"
"Likewise," I say. I decide we're going to get on. I ask him about himself and the job. He's twenty-four and he's been a reporter for three years. "I'm eighteen," I tell him, "And I've been a builder's mate for one year." And an engineering apprentice's 'mate' for six months, I think but don't say. Then James says, "I'm just off to an interview. Do you want to come with me?"
James has a car, a rather ramshackle Vauxhall Corsa which has a fair spread of sweet papers, empty crisp packets, wrappers on the floor and seats. There's also a faint smell of dog and some hairs on the back seat.
"Regularly valeted," he says, "though I had to sack the last chauffeur a while back."
"Too randy," he says and winks. Well, there we are, an admission. I must watch myself. He's very attractive but I'm very married. I want to mobile Rick and tell him that I've got the job but can't of course while I'm with James.
We drive out to Lockhampton just outside town. On the way James tells me about the story. Apparently the previous night an intruder forced his way into the home of a pair of ladies living together. In spite of his being armed with a knife, the two women managed to overpower him and he was arrested.
"The editor thinks it will make a good story," says James.
"Sounds a bit minor," I say.
"You wait. Spice up the characters, poor helpless pensioners. Insert a bit of drama and it could make front page news. Especially in our little local paper." He pauses then adds, "And when written up by me."
The two women, he tells me are a Mrs Bulstrode and a Miss Pink. I wonder slightly about the relationship but don't say anything.
The house, when we arrive, is a tiny 'chocolate box' cottage, thatched roof and all, little windows peering out from under frowning eaves. They've even got a black and white cat sitting on the doorstep which miaows as we walk towards the door.
A large, broad-shouldered woman with slightly more than an incipient moustache opens the door to James' knock. She peers somewhat belligerently at us as if the presence of two young men on the doorstep has somehow sullied its appearance.
"Who wants to know?" demands this somewhat formidable creature.
James introduces himself as a reporter from the Feltenham Journal, and includes me in that category.
"We wondered if you wouldn't mind answering a few questions about what happened last night," he says.
The woman turns to look back into the house. "Emily," she calls, "the paparazzi have arrived. Shall we let them in?"
A thin woman with fluffy grey hair and a fussed manner appears. She is made up with slightly inappropriate bright red lipstick and looks a bit worried. She surveys us but presumably thinking we don't look too dangerous, whispers, "You decide, dear."
We are let in and shown into a front room which would have been the equivalent of a Victorian parlour. There are lots of delicate ornaments placed precariously on all available horizontal surfaces. Must have been hell to dust is my immediate reaction.
'Emily' sits on the edge of an upright chair and looks uncomfortable.
James obviously decides that the rather more butch woman must be the driving force so he addresses her.
"Mrs Bulstrode," he says, "just tell me what happened last night."
"I'm not Bulstrode," she says. "I'm Miss Pink. This is my friend, Emily Bulstrode."
Emily giggles. "Others have made the same mistake," she says.
"Apologies. So what happened?"
"We were in bed of course when we heard a noise from downstairs. Thought it might have been the cat but then there were other sounds so we went down. Emily said it might be a burglar"
I imagine them creeping down the staircase, Mrs Bulstrode in the lead no, that's Miss Pink again I have them confused (what an inappropriate name for such a Valkyre of a woman) with Mrs Bulstrode fluttering ineffectually behind.
Then the actual encounter with the intruder, he with a knife, the sight of which would no doubt have produced a shriek from Mrs Bulstrode.
"What happened then?" asks James.
"He made a jab at me with the weapon," says Miss Pink.
"Using dreadful swearwords," adds Mrs Bulstrode.
"But you managed to get it from him?" suggests James.
"Not in the least, Emily hit him with the cricket bat."
"Cricket bat?" we both echo.
"Yes," says Miss Pink. "She's a brave little thing. She had it with her when we came downstairs, hidden in her dressing gown."
"How did you happen to have a cricket bat to hand?"
Miss Pink answers. "You must have heard of Emily Bulstrode. Played cricket for the Women's Cricket Association England Squad in 1968. That bat hit the final boundary of the game and beat New Zealand."
"I was afraid it might have damaged the bat but it seems the only damage was to the miscreant's head."
James smiles. It is going to be a marvellous story. "Could we take a photograph?" he asks, producing a small digital camera.
"Certainly not," says Miss Pink. "We don't want our faces all over the newspapers."
"I wouldn't mind," says Mrs Bulstrode but Miss Pink is insistent.
"Can I ask your ages?"
"A lady never divulges her age," says Miss Pink loftily. "See them out, Emily. I'll put the kettle on."
As Mrs Bulstrode escorts us to the door, she whispers, "She's seventy one and I'm sixty eight." Then she shuts the door quickly.
"Do you think they're an item?" I venture to ask on the way back into Feltenham.
"That's an area the Journal isn't likely to explore," says James, a little regretfully. "Though it might have added a certain piquancy to the story."
Do I have news for Rick when he comes home? Of course I do and I make the most of it, though back-pedal a bit on James' gayness. Rick is pleased and we celebrate in an appropriate manner. Then we go out and have a drink.
Slightly pissed we come home and then I remember I should have rung Jas. I don't really want to but I'm made brave by alcohol. I tell him I'm giving up the job and he's understandably cross. I think he wanted to sack me but I got in first. "You didn't mix good plaster," he says, in a final rather feeble shaft. Then he adds, "Alf will be upset."
I don't understand. Alf is a dickhead who dislikes me, and the feeling is mutual. Does he mean that Alf won't have anyone to take the piss out of now? Probably. Am I worried? No way.
The following day is Saturday and even if I still had the job, we wouldn't have worked anyway. Rick and I stay in bed until hunger drives us out and we sit around in the kitchen and eat toast and honey and drink coffee. Later in the morning I go to the newsagent and buy a copy of the Feltenham Journal.
James' report is there though he doesn't have a by-line. He's certainly made the best of the story though and concentrated on how the plucky 'pensioners' (that will upset Miss Pink) got the better of the robber, Mrs Bulstrode laying about with her cricket bat.
"Did she really?" asks Rick.
"So she says. And she's a little wisp of a woman. You wouldn't have thought she'd say boo to a moose. Certainly the guy ended up in hospital."
"He'll probably sue her when he gets out."
"He'll be the laughing stock of his mates if he does."
The phone rings and Rick answers it. "It's for you," he says.
"Who is it?" I ask.
The voice at the other end is hesitant, sounds uncomfortable. I don't recognise it. "Is that you, Chrissy?" Suddenly I do. It's Alf. And he's still calling me the hated 'Chrissy'.
"Chris here," I say, emphasising the name. "What is it?"
He seems to be put off by my curtness. He's fluffing his words almost as if he's shy. Not like the snide, sneering and scornful person he usually is. "Er... Jas says you're er... sacked."
"I resigned," I say loftily.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm really sorry. I'll miss you."
Is he taking the micky? "Miss me because there's no one else to take the piss out of?"
There's a brief pause. "I thought ... er .. I thought we were friends. It was just joking. I thought you knew that."
That jolts me back a bit. He sounds genuine. "Course I did," I say, lying through my teeth.
"I wondered..." Here there's such a long pause that I think he's rung off or dropped dead or something. "I wondered whether we could get together for a drink some time." This last comes out in a rush as if he's gathered up his courage to say it.
I still am not sure whether it's all some sort of joke and that the other lads are on the other end stifling their laughing.
"Well," I say, temporising.
"And Rick of course."
I'd almost forgotten that Rick had worked with Alf and me and the rest of the gang before he'd got his engineering apprenticeship. "I'll have to ask him," I say.
"I'd like to see more of Rick."
There isn't much more of Rick he could see, after yesterday morning on the doorstep. I wonder whether this is another of Alf's 'jokes'.
"Tomorrow, Sunday? What about the Plough?" he asks.
"Give me your mobile number and I'll let you know."
He does and rings off. "That was Alf," I tell Rick who has been hanging round looking inquisitive. "He wants to have a drink with us."
"He's pulling your pisser," says Rick.
"I think it may be yours he's after," I say, "after you showed him everything yesterday morning."
I go to make some more coffee and while I'm in the kitchen, hear the telephone ring again. "It's for you," says Rick. "What a popular boy you are today!"
"Chris, Dominic here. Who was that?" He sounds bright and cheerful, so different from the last time when he had told me that he and his partner, Ken, had split up.
"That was Rick," I say.
"And who is Rick?"
"He's the guy I live with," I say.
Again I seem to have stunned my correspondent for there is a pause, then he says, "That's great. Is it the grand passion?"
Unlike with Alf, I can tell when Dominic is making gentle fun. "You bet it is," I say.
"I'd like to meet him," he says. "What about tomorrow for a drink. Ken and I are going away for a week after that so it'll have to be soon. Shall we get together then?"
I have a quick think. If Alf is planning on some sort of practical joke, then us turning up four strong would give us a mean advantage. "Sure," I say. "I'll have to check with Rick of course but what about meeting in the Plough Inn? It's in Cavendish Street, just off the Promenade. About eight?"
"Is it gay?"
"Not until we get there," I say.
I tell Rick that we have engagements for the following day.
"Do I have to come?" he asks.
"Yes," I say firmly, and start to persuade him with some strategic fondling. We are getting down to it when the phone rings again.
"You answer it," Rick says fatalistically. "It's bound to be for you."
"Chris. It's James here. Look, I've got to go to London next week to work on a national paper. It's a terrific opportunity though I was looking forward to shepherding you through your first week,"
"What am I going to do?"
"Oh, Fuller will see you're OK. He'll either attach you to someone else or look after you himself."
Well, there's not much I can say to that. I'm disappointed of course but getting in with the editor is probably a good move.
"Tell you what," says James. "Could we meet up for a drink, say tomorrow and I'll answer any questions you might have."
"Sounds good to me," I say, a plan forming in my head. "What about the Plough, eight o'clock?"
"It's a date." He doesn't know how much of a date it is.
"And congratulations on the robbery piece. It reads very well. Good luck with London."
"We've got a party," I tell Rick, and get back to what I was doing before we were interrupted.
Afterwards I wonder what I've done. But then decide the worst that can happen is an embarrassing confrontation with people who don't get on. And I like most of them. Perhaps we can all gang up on Alf and give him what he justly deserves.
With this mean plan in mind, I give him a ring and tell him the Sunday drink is on.
"Is Rick coming?" he asks.
"You bet," I say.
The Plough isn't much of a pub. There is a bar which runs the length of one wall and on the other side are some tables where customers can eat the indifferent food they serve. If these are full then people prop themselves against the bar or walls or, in extremis, against each other.
There's a dart board at one end and sometimes young men play hazardous games, hazardous that is to other drinkers. At one time the bar used to be full of cigarette smoke but no longer. If anyone wants to smoke they have to go outside and cause a major obstruction on the pavement. It's the Law.
It being Sunday and still comparatively early (a quarter to eight when Rick and I arrive) there are some tables free. We commandeer one, buy some drinks and sit down.
"This is a mistake," I say. "Six of us just won't get on."
"Whose fault is that?"
"Mine," I say humbly. "I should never have invited Alf."
"I thought it was Alf who started the whole thing off. He asked you and me."
"Yes," I say. "That's strange."
"Perhaps he won't turn up. Sort of thing a dickhead like Alf would do. Invite us then just not appear."
"I thought you decided he was going to arrive with the whole gang from work."
Promptly at eight o'clock Dominic and Ken arrive.
In fact this works well. They are obviously anxious to meet Rick, Ken wants to approve and Dominic obviously does. I hope he's not going to make a pass or anything and upset Ken again. I get some more drinks. This is going to be a bibulous evening.
Very soon Ken and Rick are chatting away as if they've known each other for years. Dominic leans forward he's sitting opposite me and says, "He's nice."
"He's mine," I say. "I'll only allow you to look."
"It's good to have a foursome like this."
"There's more to come," I say.
About ten minutes later James pushes his way through the door and waves cheerily when he sees me. He doesn't seem to be the slightest bit put out at the presence of three other guys.
"James, this is Ken and Dominic. They're a pair. This is Rick. So are he and me." Although he hasn't actually admitted it, I'm sure James is gay and he's obviously quite comfortable with two pairs of lovers. In fact I don't see any signs that he might be disappointed that I have Rick. Am I slightly miffed?
"Well, I don't really feel like a gooseberry."
"There should have been another one, but he's obviously decided not to turn up," I say.
And then, as so often happens at moments like these, when you've denied the existence of something, Alf comes in alone.
He frowns when he sees a table full of queens. For a moment I think he's going to turn round and walk out but he doesn't.
There is a startled gasp from Dominic and for a moment I see Alf as if for the first time. He's washed his hair and it flops over his (admittedly rather low) forehead. He's wearing a tight black T-shirt (to match his hair?) and his muscles bulge. He looks a bit like I imagine a Cro-Magnon would look like. His legs, in ultra-tight jeans, are slightly bowed. His tackle is very much on show. He looks just that bit embarrassed. Presumably he reckoned on just meeting Rick and me and the increased audience is obviously unexpected.
"This is Alf," I say, waving him over.
He creates quite an impression. I can see that both James and Dominic are smitten and I even catch Rick giving a quick shufti at Alf's nether regions. Only Ken and I maintain an air of calm detachment.
"Let me get you a drink," says James to Alf.
"Ta." He seems to hesitate and I wonder whether he's considering asking for something really expensive.
"We're drinking beer," I say quickly.
"I'll get the round," says James, and then adds to Alf. "Give us a hand with the glasses."
They go off together. Immediately Dom and Ken demand to know who he is. Rick and I attempt to explain. He's a guy we both used to work with and we always thought of him as a total dipstick, but then he asked us if we'd like to join him for a drink. We left out the bit about Rick appearing naked at the door.
"To be honest," I say, "I thought he was going to bring the rest of the lads along and take the piss out of Rick and me."
"So," continues Rick, "Chris here conceives the brilliant idea that we'll all outnumber them and turn the tables."
"Is he gay?" asks Dominic.
I shrug. "Dressed like that, I'd say yes."
"Certainly James thinks so."
We look across towards the bar where James and Alf are standing next to each other and ordering drinks. As we watch I see James' hand moves to grope Alf's left buttock. There is no reaction, or at least no negative one except that if anything Alf moves slightly nearer.
"I think that answers your question," Ken says.
"But what's he like?" asks Dominic.
"Not the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer, but he looks dead butch."
"They're the sort that rolls over onto their backs, legs in the air," says Dominic.
Alf's reputation in shreds, the two return with a tray of drinks. Alf is smiling so is James. I doubt whether I'll get any information about work from him this time.
It is a convivial evening though Ken and Dominic have to leave relatively early as they have a long drive back. Rick and I also decide that an early night is probably a good idea. After all watching James making eyes at Alf, and Alf obviously enjoying it, isn't that much fun. I guess it's my fault for being such a devious bastard.
Presumably the two of them will go back to James' place and no doubt eventually I'll hear all about it.
So I end the day back in bed with Rick which is where we started. I'm happy with that, and Rick proves that he is too.
Monday, I get to work on time, in fact I'm early to show I'm keen but I don't think anyone notices. Anyway Mr Fuller comes in at nine o'clock and immediately goes into a private meeting with his staff. Presumably to work out which stories they will follow today. I'm not included, which I can understand but I'm a bit annoyed that I'm told to sit with Janice and learn how to be a receptionist.
More tea making and answering the phone which occasionally she allows me to do, especially when she's doing her nails. Of course I have to ask her what to do with the person who rings up but I guess I'm learning.
People do phone in about their lost dogs I always thought that was an urban myth. "Tell them to get on to the nearest vet." In a fallow period, Janice asks me about 'Jamie' and how our expedition to the cricket bat pensioners went. I'm quite pleased that I'm able to tell her and also that James has gone to London for the week, a fact which she didn't know and is obviously a bit taken aback.
I think of telling her that he and I met for a drink on Saturday but I'm not that cruel. Nor do I tell her the outcome.
About midmorning, Fuller calls me into his office and I am taken on a tour. There are quite a few reporters, tapping away at their computers, none as pretty as James, not even the glamorous fashion reporter, Nina. Fuller shows me the way a page can be arranged on the screen, text, pictures, headlines etc. and things moved around while the text rearranges itself round the screen. Makes my prehistoric WP at home look so primitive. When the page is complete it can be sent to the presses at the touch of a key. Brilliant.
I'd like to have a go but he rushes me on and shows me the presses which are in another part of the building.
"You into fashion?" Nina asks, then looks at my poor old suit. "No I can see you're not, but the tie's all right." Of course the tie belongs to Rick. I feel I've failed a test. But she's quite nice and she sends me out to get her an espresso (black, no sugar). I get her a Danish pastry too but she fixes that with a look of complete horror so I eat it myself.
I seem to be with her for the rest of the day. Sometimes she asks my opinion about some aspect of female style but I can see she's not impressed with my babbling response. I do rather like a guy wearing little except a speedo, a skimpy top and sandals and forget myself enough to say, "He's handsome."
She gives me a look as if to say, I thought gays were supposed to be fashion conscious, but all in all we get on OK.
Then she lets me type in one of her columns from her notes, but her handwriting is so awful it takes me a while. After that I play with illustrations and headlines rearranging them on the page. Then she points out where I've gone wrong (mostly everywhere) and shows me how she'd do it. I have to agree hers are better.
At the end of the day I go home and tell Rick I'm fashion editor and he shows me what to do with clothes which is mostly how to remove them and what to do next as if I need any instruction in that line of work.
We're lying together in a sort of post-coital cuddle, the sort where we'd be sharing a cigarette if either of us smoke, when the phone rings.
It's the time of day when Rick's mother tends to give him a ring. Mine doesn't of course because she doesn't know where I live and I'm not broken hearted over that.
Rick picks up he receiver and immediately says, "Hello, mum." He leans across me so that he's lying on my chest with his buttocks in the air. I idly stroke them. "Oh," he says, with a sudden change of tone.
Oh dear, I think, something's wrong. I carry on stroking sympathetically.
Then he says, "Long standing relationship? How can you say that after so short a time?"
His mother has broken with his father, I decide. She's found someone else ``- or perhaps it's him who's found someone else.
"Condoms," says Rick. "Of course you'll need condoms."
What the hell! Changing tactics I express my disapproval with a sharp slap. A rosy blush appears.
"Ouch!" Rick turns to face me. "It's Alf," he says. Then he speaks again. "Yes, of course you can. Any time you feel you need to talk." He puts the phone down.
"Alf," I say. "I thought it was your mother."
"Obviously," he says, rubbing his bottom.
"What did he want?"
"Advice. He thinks he's in love with James. He sees a long term future with him."
"I always said he wasn't the brightest squib in the firework display. What was that about condoms?"
"He asked whether he needed them if it was going to be an LTR."
I can scarcely believe it. "Alf? Dipstick Alf?"
"It's rather sweet really. I wonder what James said to him."
"And I won't be able to find out until next week."
By the end of the week, as well as being a reporter's assistant, a backup receptionist, a fashion guru, a digital compositor, a filing clerk and a tea boy, I begin to feel at home in the offices of the Feltenham Journal. I'm enjoying myself. OK I've made an enemy for life of the tit named Janice (who thinks I'm about on the level of some nasty many-legged insect) and one of the older reporters who decides I am getting preferential treatment from Mr Fuller but if I can put up with bullying bosses like Jas and imbeciles like Alf, I can put up with anyone.
Except that Rick has decided that Alf is a sort of fairy tale youngest son who has just been on a quest and discovered a Prince with whom he will live happily ever after. I point out that things like that rarely happen outside the pages of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, and even then there are unpleasant endings for some of the characters, especially those with flaws in their personalities which both Rick and I know Alf has.
I am looking forward to James' return. For one thing I want to be out with him interviewing people and possibly having a hand in writing up stories for the paper.
For another, both Rick and I are getting heartily sick of Alf's constant ringing up, asking whether we've heard from James (we haven't), seeking our advice as to how to approach James when he does come back. (Flat on your back with your legs in the air and your knickers off, I suggest, but only to Rick) and forestalling his attempts to come round (and presumably talk about James). My God he really has got it bad.
Saturday comes. One of the disadvantages of the new job is that the newspaper doesn't sleep at the weekend so some staff have to be in on Saturday and Sunday. We get the choice of either, plus a day off during the week in lieu. Means of course that I can't be with Rick for the whole of the weekend but we make up for it on the days that we are together.
So that Saturday I'm on and when I get into Reception suddenly someone leaps onto my back, puts his (I assume it's a him) hands over my eyes and says, "Guess who?"
Having just about suffered a heart attack, I'm not too pleased but I turn round and it's James.
"You bastard," I say. "I might have died from shock."
"Good front page cover story," he says. "Cub reporter dies in newspaper attack."
"Tell me all about London," I say.
"Come next door for coffee."
"Is that OK?" I ask, not wanting to take liberties so early in my job.
"Thought you'd been assigned to me," he says. "You're my slave. You do anything I want." He gives me a look which I find difficult to interpret. Is he joking?
Janice (the tit) comes in. "Tell Mr Fuller I've taken Chris with me," says James. "On assignment."
"Right you are, Jamie," she says, and I see James flinch. She's not doing her cause any good by calling him that.
Over coffee (James' shout) he tells me about London, how impressed he is with the National Dailies (he was with the Daily News a redtop tabloid, and spicy), how that's where he really wants to be, he's decided.
"What about you?" he asks. "How did the week go?"
My account is not as exciting but I save the best until last. "Talking about slaves," I say. "You've got a fan who's just about nuts over you."
James' eyebrows shoot up. He looks so much like a caricature of astonishment that I almost laugh. Then he smiles. "Oh you mean Janice. I'm sorry I'm afraid she doesn't stand a chance."
"Not Janice," I say. "Alf."
For a moment his face registers incomprehension. "Alf?"
"The guy you had last Sunday. The one we left you with at the pub. The Plough, remember. Short, dark and well-endowed."
His expression clears. "Oh Alf." He laughs. "Nice enough kid," he says, "but I didn't 'have' him, as you put it. I invited him back but he refused."
"He's been ringing us every day since, saying how much he's in love with you and how he wants it to be a permanent relationship. I tell you he's absolutely serious, lovesick."
"Oh my God."
"I'll tell you, you'll have to sort it out or he'll drive us mad."
James looks doubtful. "I'll do what I can," is the best I can get out of him. "I have a bit of trouble with shy cock-teasers."
Then we get down to work. James has several assignments. The local football team (league somewhere near the bottom) is rumoured to be sacking its manager. Find out what is happening. Complaints of near riot condition at the poor end of Feltenham. Are the yobs holding the tower blocks to ransom? A more or less local author has just published a book which is creating waves. Is it the next Man-Booker prize winner for fiction?
"Your decision," says James. "Which one do we do first?"
I consider while James finishes his coffee. I wonder whether I'm being tested. "My liking of football is limited," I say, "and my knowledge of it is practically zilch. So my instinct is to put that last. On the other hand it might be best to get it over and done with first."
"Then the investigation into the seamier side of Feltenham sounds as if it could be a bit dangerous, so do that next. Finally the interview with an author sounds like the tranquil end of a day's work."
"Except of course that all three will then have to be written up." He raises an eyebrow.
"Of course," I say blandly.
The football goes quite well. We interview the manager who says the chairman has complete confidence in his ability and there's no truth whatsoever in the rumour. One of the ground staff who wishes to remain anonymous, says the manager is a 'complete wanker' and won't last out the next two weeks, especially if the team lose both times. As they're playing two of the best teams in the division, that sounds likely. We manage to get hold of a player who says that confidence in the manager is rock bottom and to his certain knowledge the chairman, whatever he says, is looking around for someone else.
"It's really quite fun, isn't it?" I say afterwards as we climb again into James' Corsa and make our way towards the dodgy end of town. Here, two tower blocks, Wentworth and Wallingford', stand like sentinels to an internal open space covered with litter, dog shit and the rusting detritus of a consumer age, supermarket trolleys, a burnt out car, a 'dead' fridge and some very stained mattresses. It is not a pretty sight.
Some kids looking slightly sinister in hoodies stand around. I'd prefer to give them a wide berth but James goes right up to them. "Hello, guys," he says and they look at him with something like amazement, as if they're not used to anyone speaking to them except perhaps to tell them to 'fuck off'.
"I'm a reporter from the Feltenham Journal," James says. "What's it like living here?"
The kids look at him, then look at each other. One with torn jeans and muddy trainers says, "Crap." He can't be much older than seven or eight. His voice is high and fluting.
"In what way crap?"
"There's fuck all to do," says one.
"They just tell you to fuck off," says another.
"Who's they?" asks James sympathetically.
In answer the kids turn and point at the flats, rows and rows of terraces with doors and windows in identical and apparently endless repetition.
"Aren't they where your parents live?"
Grudgingly they nod, though one mutters, "Ain't got no fucking parents."
"Don't you get bored, doing nothing all day?"
That does strike a spark. There is much energetic nodding of hoods.
"What about school?"
"School's crap," says our original informant.
"Will we be in the paper, mister?" asks another.
"Do you want to be?"
"As long as you don't put in our names."
"OK," agrees James.
"What about him?" asks one pointing at me. "Don't 'e talk?"
"He's a listener," says James.
"'E's got big enuff ears," says the observant little bastard.
"We're going to talk to some of the people in the flats," says James.
"Don't talk to mine," says jeans and dirty trainers.
"Nor mine," says the rest.
"OK," says James. "Which ones are yours?"
They're not so savvy as they think as immediately they give the numbers of the flats where they live, "Fifteen." "One hundred and thirty seven." "Ninety three."
Obediently James writes down the numbers in his book. "Can you look after my car?" he asks. "See that no one touches it. I'll pay you."
"'Ow much?" asks an incipient entrepreneur.
"A fiver," says James, then adds, "When we come back."
But they're not that stupid. "Nah," says one. "We've been caught that way before."
"Two quid now and three when we come back and the car's OK."
The deal is done, the money passed over.
"Whew," says James. "I wouldn't like to live here."
We enter a tower block. The lift looks as if it's out of action. Certainly the door is buckled, so we climb some steps. We try number thirty seven because we can hear a child crying inside and assume someone is there to look after it.
After a while there is a shuffling sound and the door opens a crack. A girl's face appears. She is probably no more than thirteen.
"Is your mum in?" asks James.
"Oo wants to know? Are you the p'lice?"
"No, we're reporters from the Journal. We'd like to speak to your mum."
"She's in bed," says the girl.
"Is she ill?" We can see an emergency rescue in the offing. Good story.
"Nah. She's asleep."
But she isn't because a voice comes from somewhere inside. "Oo is it, Letitia?"
Letitia shouts, "Sez they're reporters."
"What do they want? 'Ave you let them in?"
James can see this going on for ever, so he shouts, "We're doing an article on the state of the Tower blocks. We just want to ask you what your opinions are."
"They're crap," says the voice. Then, "Hang on, I'll be down."
We wait while Letitia observes us through the crack in the door. Then eventually she is replaced by an older version which looks at us suspiciously. James waves his ID card and at last the door is opened wide enough for entry. It's surprisingly neat inside.
"I'm sorry to disturb you. Your daughter says you were in bed. I hope you're not ill."
"Of course I'm not ill. I work nights, that's all. Sleep during the day, but it's time to get up now. Come in. What do you want to know? Letitia, make some tea."
We are led into a small living room. There is a sofa, a bit scuffed but comfortable enough and a huge plasma screen TV set. Some magazines of the 'Hello', 'OK' sort lie around on a glass-topped coffee table. The carpet doesn't look old.
"Sit down, then," says the woman.
We ask her name but she's reluctant to give it even after we promise it won't appear in the paper. Of course we can probably always find it from the electoral register if she's actually on it.
"So, what's it like living here?"
"Nothing for the kids to do. They run around in gangs and after dark it's dangerous to go out."
"You have to," I point out, "if you work nights."
"I can look after myself, but I don't allow the kids out. Then there're fights between rival gangs and races round the ring road with stolen cars. You must have heard of the big fight last Saturday."
"Yes, indeed," says James. "That's what prompted our interest. Can't the police do anything?"
"Police," she scoffed. "They're worse than fucking useless."
Letitia came in with some mugs of tea on a tray and a plate of jammy dodgers. The tea is very weak and very sweet.
"Who are the gang leaders?"
Letitia's mother suddenly became reluctant to talk, but after a bit of persuasion admitted that one was called Stan. "He's a right little bastard. Draw a knife on you as soon as look at you."
"Nasty," says James. "And the other one?"
"Not quite so bad, but a dangerous lad. Named Alf."
That bring us up short. Of course it's coincidence. Must be. "What's he look like?" I ask.
"Dark hair. He's nineteen. He's actually got a job, builder's labourer I think. Shame. Needs taking in hand."
"Do you know his surname?"
"No, and if I did I wouldn't tell you." I think she's lying.
"Do you think he'd talk to us?" asks James.
"Doubt it. He lives in the other block, Wallingford. You can ask there. Everyone knows him."
We finish our tea, wondering how it will affect the state of our teeth, say thanks and leave.
The boys have formed a ring round the car, guarding it apparently because it doesn't seem to be damaged in any way. James gives them the remaining three quid.
"Do you know Alf?" he asks casually.
"Alf Leyton?" says one boy and suddenly they all freeze. Obviously he has let out something he wishes he hadn't.
James wants to go to Wallingford Tower but I say, no. "That's Alf's name," I say. "We don't need any more confirmation, and anyway I don't think these guys will want to look after the car now."
On the journey back to the centre of town, we discuss this development. "Is it really the same Alf?" James asks.
"His name is Alf Leyton. I knew he lived somewhere in that part of Feltenham because Jas always complained about having to take him home and the fact that he feared for the safety of his van. It must be the same guy."
"In a way that makes him even more attractive. He's dangerous as well as sexy."
I sigh, giving up the argument. "He's yours to sort out," I say. "Just get him off our backs and do what you want with him. My advice, have nothing more to do with him once you've dropped him."
James changes the subject. "There is one more problem," he says. "This author we're supposed to interview. He's one of those shy, retiring ones. Doesn't give interviews, hates all reporters. Lives a quiet life, reclusive almost to the point of being a hermit somewhere near Wales at least as far as publicity is concerned."
"So how do we get in touch?"
James shrugs. "I guess we just have to try. The only thing I have is his telephone number. Ring him on the mobile will you. If I get caught while I'm driving, I could lose my licence."
He passes across a slip of paper. I look at the number and it seems strangely familiar. "What's his name?" I ask.
I laugh and James turns to stare at me in astonishment. "What's the matter?"
"I know him," I say. "In fact of course you've met him. Same day as you met Alf. Ken, of Ken and Dominic, is Kenneth Spilling."
"You never told me his surname. You never even mentioned he was a writer."
"Never came up," I say. "I'm sure he'll talk to me though. We've been friends for some time. It was he who started me on my decision to become a journalist, to write anyway. Only thing is, I know so much about his private life that I don't know how much I can tell for publication. If he wants to be private, then what can I tell you?"
"I know he's gay," says James. "But that's not the sort of thing the Journal publishes. Just ask him if he'll chat to me. We've met socially after all."
I laugh. "Except that you were feeling up a teenage gang leader at the time. OK, I'll give him a ring."
I can tell that Ken isn't all that enthusiastic. I have to try a bit of blackmail on him. "Because of you, I'm starting a career in journalism," I say. "And now you won't help me with writing an article on a future Booker prize winner."
"What did you think of it?" he asks.
"I haven't read it yet." James though is nodding. "But James has."
"You remember James. From the Plough. The one who was after Alf."
"Ah, that James. Is he with you now?"
"We are in his car. He is my " I don't quite know what to call him. " my mentor. I am the trainee."
"Does Rick know?" His tone is playful.
"OK. I'll talk to James. Get him to phone me when it's convenient." I raise my thumb to James as I ring off.
It's been a long day and I'm feeling exhausted after helping James write up our articles. Actually there's still some work to do on the Alf and Ken stories but James tells me to go home.
At the flat I collapse on the sofa while Rick busies himself in the kitchen. "I need some TLC," I complain and he comes in with some drinks. He sits down and I rest my head in his lap. I tell him what we've done today and of how Alf and Ken figure in the stories.
"That's an incredible coincidence," he says. "If not two incredible coincidences."
"That Ken's book has been nominated or that Alf lives in an urban slum?"
"That you should get those two stories."
"Just luck," I say, and move my head so that it rubs against his groin. "Forget all that. This is where I want to be."
I turn my face so that I can kiss a rising erection. At that moment the front doorbell rings.
Rick makes as if to get up, but I say, "Leave it. We're not expecting anyone." I pull down the zip of his jeans and bury my face in the softness of his underpants and the hardness inside. The bell rings again.
"They'll know we're in," says Rick. "The light's on and the curtains aren't pulled."
I groan and imprison his cock between my lips but he pulls gently away and zips himself up. He goes out into the tiny hall and I hear the front door open.
"Oh," says Rick, in a mixture of surprise and perhaps regret.
"Who is it?"
Alf is about the last person I want to see but my recently born reporter's feeling come to the fore. OK we can check on the story, perhaps find out some more.
"Bring him in," I say.
He slouches in. He isn't wearing his 'I'm gay and I don't care who knows it' skin-tight jeans but a looser pair. His T-shirt is covered by a hoodie, the hood thrown back perhaps his 'I'm the leader of the gang' outfit. His black hair is rumpled and untidy. He has a dark mark a bruise? over his left eye. He looks rakish and slightly sinister.
Our cans of lager are on the table. It seems uncouth not to offer him one. "Nothing stronger?" he asks. His voice is a bit slurred and I wonder whether he has been drinking already.
"There's a bottle of whisky in the cupboard," says Rick. His father had given us one when we moved into the flat. Not being whisky drinkers, we hadn't actually opened it.
"That'll do," says Alf ungraciously.
Rick gets the bottle, opens it and pours him a glass and he drinks it then holds out the glass for more. I wonder whether it's wise to.
"Nice to see you," I say, though it isn't. "Did you come round for anything special?" He doesn't answer, just sits and looks into his glass.
Rick puts a CD on to cover the silence. It is Justin Timberlake, not my favourite but marginally better than James Blunt. We sit for a while, then Alf reaches out and refills his glass. I waggle my eyebrows at Rick and he says something to the effect that he has to look at our meal cooking in the kitchen, He takes out the whisky bottle with him. Alf doesn't appear to notice.
"Well, Alf," I say putting on my reporter's hat. "I didn't realise you lived in Wallingford Tower. What's it like there?"
This rouses him a bit. "Crap," he says, reminding me of the young kids we were with this afternoon. "Unless you're the boss."
"James and I were down there today," I say.
"James?" Has he forgotten him already? Then he smiles. "Oh James. He's sexy."
"I like him," he says and takes another swallow from his glass. He suddenly staggers to his feet and starts swaying in time, more or less, to the music. "Dance with me," he says.
I go to him and he clasps me close so that I can feel his body. He breathes whisky fumes into my face. We sway together for a while and I can feel him getting hard. "What do you mean, you're the boss?" I ask.
He laughs, pushing his groin into mine, then backs away. "Fuck, it's hot," he says and pulls off his jacket and drops it behind him like a stripper. He's dancing, swaying to the music and doing it well. Before I realise it, he struggles out of his T-shirt. His body is good, well-defined. His hand goes to his groin, finds the zip of his jeans and pulls it down. His jeans slip to his knees and he fiddles with the gusset of his briefs.
"Hang on," I say.
"No, you hang on," he says and offers his cock which is nicely erect and sticks out of his flies.
Rick chooses this moment to come back into the room. I shrug helplessly as if it's nothing to do with me, which it isn't really.
"Leave you a moment with anyone," says Rick, "and you have them bollock naked before you can say Hatshepsut."
"Some old queen, Egyptian I think."
Alf, noticing that he is no longer the centre of attraction, says, "What about a threesome?"
"Tell us about being the boss," I say.
This is the wrong thing. "You do what I say. Suck my cock." He waves it suggestively.
"What are we going to do with him?" I ask Rick.
"I've phoned James. He's coming over."
"Meanwhile . . ."
Then the alcohol or possibly it's just inertia takes over, for he suddenly crumples onto the sofa, assumes a foetal position and drops off to sleep. Rick fetches a blanket and covers him.
Ten minutes later James arrives.
"What's the panic?" he asks.
We indicate the prostrate lump on the sofa still covered with the blanket. James looks under it. "Did you have to strip him first?" he asks.
"Self inflicted," says Rick. "I think he was grieving for you."
"And that involves removing his clothes?"
"Takes people in different ways. Well, he's all yours now."
"I can't take advantage of him in that state."
Alf's eyes open. They see and focus on James. Alf holds out his hand. "Jamie," he says and I see James flinch but it doesn't stop him from being pulled to join Alf on the sofa. There is fumbling of clothes and I suggest to Rick that this is not the place for us.
"I'll see he's all right, safely delivered home, either his or mine," says James. "See you tomorrow."
In our own bed Rick says, "So that's what his cock looks like."
"Not as nice as yours," I say, and kiss it to prove it.
"Nor yours," says Rick replying in kind.
Tomorrow I will carry on with my new job writing words about other people's deeds but tonight I lie with my lover and the world can go hang.
Rick Harrison (engineering apprentice)
Chris Deacon (would-be journalist)
Mr Fuller (editor)
James Drummond (reporter)
Miss Pink (the butch one)
Mrs Bulstrode (the fluffy one who actually bashed the intruder)
Ken Spiller (author and bookseller)
Dominic (book seller)
Jas (boss man of building contractors)
Alf Leyton (hottie and gang leader)
Nina (fashion editor)
Sundry kids with hoods
Date started: Sunday, December 16, 2007
Date Finished: Thursday, January 24, 2008
Word Count: 10,850 words
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