Ross Gets It Wrong

Short Story

Michael Gouda

"It's an interesting mixture of colours," Peter said, referring to the display of graffiti which had appeared on the wall across the street overnight. "Quite artistic."

I grunted. Sometimes I am not at my best first thing in the morning.

Convoluted letters writhed and roamed around the doorway and windows. They looked a little like the illuminated capitals that medieval artists painted in their holy books though, whereas they had used gold, blue and red, this 'artist' had used a sort of dull khaki edged with green and purple. I could more or less make out the theme. 'Shit on the world', it announced in marvellously elaborate lettering. Clearly our artist was a bit of a misanthrope.

Chalk Farm, which is where Peter and I live, is a grey area of North London on the route between the busy and spreading markets of Camden Town and the leafy gentility of Belsize Park and Hampstead. The graffiti, I had to admit, somewhat cheered up this greyness and I was almost won round to Peter's verdict when I turned round to face the wall of our own flat.

"Fucking hell," I said. "The bastard's done it on our wall."

"He has been busy," commented Peter, "but, Kevin, look at the intricate graphology, look at the cunning melding of shade and colour, the way he – I assume it's a 'he' – has composed his arrangement round the windows . . ."

Peter waffled on, as only an 'artist' can, without making any, as far as I could see, practical sense, but then Peter owned a small artists' gallery in Camden High Street and was proficient at such piffle. OK I was in a bad mood but who wants the words 'Fleurs du Mal' all over the facade of one's house, however embellished the painting, or however intellectual the reference? It was Monday morning and I had to get to my job at Belsize Park Library and, because my car had developed what I feared was a terminal fault, I would have to walk up the steepness of Haverstock Hill to get there.

Yes, yes, I could walk away from work to Chalk Farm underground station, go one stop to Belsize Park and then have to walk back to the library but all that seemed to defeat the object. The bus service was at best spasmodic. I might get one. Conversely, according to Sod's Law, one would overtake me before I reached the bus stop and then there wouldn't be another one for half an hour. Late to work, and Miss Blagstock, the dragon head librarian, to face.

"I'd like to meet him," said Peter. "If he paints on something slightly less structurally immovable than bricks and mortar, I could sell some in the gallery."

"I wouldn't mind meeting him either," I said, though my motive would be to thump his head against his own wall painting as hard as I could before kneeing him in the balls. This would of course depend on his physical build but I assumed he would very likely be a thin, undernourished, possibly spotty-faced, teenager.

"I wonder how we could find him," said Peter.

"Catch the bugger on the job."

"Do you think Ross might know something?"

Now I've mentioned Ross before in these chronicles. He's a friend who seems to have an almost supernatural omniscience in all local matters (as well as things from further afield). About how he gets his information he remains more or less stumm but he would be a godsend to any spying organisation, MI5, MI6, CIA, Mossad or whatever has replaced the KGB in Russia. Perhaps he already is.

Anyway, he's been very useful to us on numerous occasions. Peter's suggestion was therefore appropriate. "I'll give him a bell later this morning," I said. Ross is a notoriously late riser, usually because he's spent half the night pursuing some representative of rough trade and being soundly fucked for his efforts.

I arrived at work, pink and shining. It was a warm morning and going to be a scorcher of a day. Perhaps this was the reason that there were few customers. Even Miss Blagstock seemed to be suffering from the heat and had ensconced herself in the back room where we processed the new books, with a bottle of Evian (which she didn't offer around) and a small hand-held battery-operated fan.

It was therefore quite easy without her knowledge – private phone calls are rather discouraged – for me to make my telephone call to Ross in the middle of the morning when I assumed he would be awake and up.

Obviously I wanted to talk to him about graffiti artists but his first words to me were an alarmingly explicit account of his latest conquest – apparently a builder – wearing, for a while, the filthiest of jeans, and with a cock of such proportions that even Ross, who had had enormous experience, had some difficulty at first in accommodating. Eventually of course he had managed but was now in some pain from the enthusiastic encounter.

My request seemed a little anticlimactic after such lurid details but Ross, ever helpful, seemed to know whom I was talking about.

After I'd described the painting and told him the content, he said, "Sounds like Split."


"Street name. Red-haired guy, lives in a squat in Camden Town, a road just behind where the old Bedford Theatre was."

"Is he – " I wasn't quite sure how to phrase this but I thought it would be better to know, especially as I might have to thump him " – a particular friend of yours?"

"Not in the pillow sense. I suspect, if he's one or the other, that he'd be more likely to bottom up, if you know what I mean."

I did and changed the subject, or at least the focus of the subject.

"What about the graffiti on the wall," I said. "How can I clean it off?"

"Not too much of a problem, dear," he said. "Just get in touch with the Council and they'll remove the painting free. All part of the service."

I hurriedly thanked Ross and cut the connection.

As I couldn't hear any noises from the back room, I phoned the local Council offices. A nice lady confirmed they would do the necessary within three days. There is some good in Local Government, I decided.

Then I rang Peter at his gallery and conveyed the information.

"We'll pay a visit to the squat this evening," he said, apparently more interested in contacting this 'Split' than getting his artistic endeavours removed from our wall but I knew my priorities.

"Maybe after a meal and a little dalliance," I said.

Never averse to suggestions like this, Peter made an obscene sucking noise at the other end.

"I can't wait to get it in," I said and looked up to find Miss Blagstock peering at me over a pile of books and obviously having heard my last comment.

"The latest published crime novel from Elizabeth George," I temporised. She looked at me doubtfully and started finding work for me and the other library assistants who, she decided, were sitting around doing very little.

After work, and over a tinned salmon and salad meal, Peter rather out of character deferred the dalliance and, in spite of my protests, we set off for Camden Town and the squat. When we got there it was obvious which house was the one. The row consisted of three-storey Victorian redbrick houses. One, however, had its windows boarded up and the garden in front was unkempt and full of weeds.

"Well," said Peter, "it's not the sort of place you can just go up the garden path and ring the front doorbell."

"We can go round the back and see if there's any entrance round there."

There was a narrow alleyway running between the building and the next one, and soon we were in the back garden which was even more derelict, containing as it did a heavily stained mattress, a rusty bicycle, numerous bottles and tins and some plastic bags containing things which I certainly didn't want to investigate.

The ground floor windows though were similarly boarded up and it looked as if there would not be a chance of entering through them until we went closer. One of the boards covering a small, possibly kitchen, window was loose and could be pulled aside allowing ingress.

"I'm not sure I like this," said Peter. "Isn't it breaking and entering?"

"Where's your sense of adventure?" I asked. "Last one in's a sissy."

Swiftly we clambered in. It was indeed a kitchen though the only evidence for this was a sink with taps, one of which dripped water onto a rusty stain, and an old and dangerous-looking gas cooker, hopefully cut off from the gas supply. The smells of dampness and stale urine hung heavy in the air.

"Anyone here," I called but there was no answer.

It was dark on this floor, the boards at the window cutting off light and little to suggest occupation but once we had found the stairs and reached the first floor we found plenty. Some rooms had mattresses, only a little less begrimed than the discarded one outside. Some boxes looked as if they had been used for seats and a table which was still littered with takeaway plastic dishes. Empty cans of beer and bottles which had once contained cheap wine were piled up in corners. Some discarded clothing lay around A blocked-up lavatory added its own distinctive aroma to the place.

"Do we really want to go any further?" Peter asked.

"We might as well go up another floor."

If anything the temperature on the top floor, directly under the roof, was hotter than anywhere else in the house. The rank smell though was less obvious. Of the four rooms on this floor, the door to only one of them was closed. As we opened it, we realised that we'd found the one Split must surely have used. The whole room, walls and ceiling was covered by a swirling mass of colours. Even the bare boards of the floor were painted. Spray cans were jumbled up in one corner. It was a large room extending from front to back of the house with a window at each end. A mattress with a sleeping bag on top lay against one of the walls and some boxes were piled next to it.

"It's like being in the middle of an explosion in a Dulux factory," I said.

"Though, look at the design. There's a pattern here and some figures . . ." Peter was off again, his 'art' gear engaged.

I interrupted him. "I wonder what's in those boxes." I picked one up. It was heavy and obviously not empty.

From where I was standing I could see out of the window. A young man was walking along the pavement outside. From above his main characteristic seemed to be his hair which was a mass of flaming auburn. T-shirt and jeans though were also in evidence. In spite of my 'married' state to Peter, I'm always interested in young men and I watched him as he passed the house then disappeared along the alleyway which led to the back.

I crossed the room and saw him from the back window as he vaulted the wall and came towards the house. He was obviously coming in. As he came up the garden I could see he was slim but well-built, certainly filled the T-shirt well and also his jeans (not of course, that I particularly noticed this last) though I did notice they were paint splashed.

"We've got company," I said.

Instantly Peter started to panic. "Let's get out."

"He's probably got no more right than us to be in here," I said. "Still we could at least go downstairs and meet him. If this is Split, I want a word with him."

"No violence. Remember he's an artist."

"Artist! You mean he's a vandal."

We heard the board against the downstairs window slap back into place and then footsteps running upstairs. There was no getting away from it; there would be a confrontation. We stood at the top of the last flight and looked down. There was a window at our back and we were obviously just two dark silhouettes against the light. He on the other hand was lit up. We saw a face, much younger looking than his developed figure had suggested. Fresh-complexioned with freckles around his nose. His mouth, opened with the surprise of seeing us showed white teeth. He almost skidded as he came to an abrupt halt, turned and sped back the way he had come.

"Split," I called, "we just want to talk to you. Wait a minute.:

But Split, if that indeed was he, obviously didn't want to do either of those things and continued his exit, we clattering down the stairs behind him.

He was half out of the window one leg over the sill by the time we reached the kitchen. Before we could grab him, he'd be out and away.

Then Peter started spouting something.
"If rape or arson, poison, or the knife
Has woven no pleasing patterns in the stuff
Of this drab canvas we accept as life—" he chattered, and Split paused.

"It is because we are not bold enough!" Peter finished more slowly.

What he was blathering about I'd no idea, but it certainly seemed to have done the trick. Split was sitting astride the windowsill, tight, jeans-clad legs on either side, one in, the other out. He turned to look at us – and smiled. And immediately his rather ordinary looking face was beautiful. His eyes were green, I noticed. The turned-up ends of his mouth made comma-shaped dimples just under his cheek bones.

"What was all that?" I asked Peter.

The answer, though, came from Split. "Les Fleurs du Mal," he said. "Charles Baudelaire. Introduction to the reader." His accent was educated though with a touch of the cockney, perhaps picked up locally. As far as I could tell his French was impeccable.

Suddenly I remembered the graffiti on our house. That was what had been painted. I wondered how Peter had known that verse, but perhaps now wasn't the time to ask. I let him do the talking.

"I'm Peter Curtis. This is Kevin Clarke. And you are?"

"Split," said Split obviously determined to give nothing personal away. "What do you want with me?"

"Can we talk?"

"Go ahead."

"I mean in a pub or something."

"You buying?" asked Split, understandably careful with his money.

I nodded, feeling I had to contribute something to the conversation.

"The Black Cap?" asked Peter.

"If that's to your taste." Split was still obviously giving nothing away. The Black Cap was Camden's only real gay pub. It had plenty of seating, lots of space at the bar and big windows overlooking the High Street. One really great thing about this pub was that it had a large beer garden: lovely for a warm summer’s evening.

I bought three pints and we took them out to the garden, finding a table free. There would be less room later on but at the moment the pub was comparatively empty.

Split showed no apparent signs of curiosity. He took a big swallow of beer and waited for us to start. In spite of living in what we had seen was a grotty squat, he didn't look down and out. Though his T-shirt was un-ironed it wasn't dirty and, sitting directly opposite him, he didn't smell of anything unpleasant. I suppose there are ways of keeping clean even when you haven't got a functioning bathroom.

"We saw your work this morning," said Peter.

"On the wall of our flat," I said somewhat bitterly. "It'll take some removing." I didn't add that the council were going to do it.

Peter hurriedly tried to cover my comment. "I liked it. Showed great talent."

Split seemed unconcerned about either of our attitudes. He drank more of his beer and sat back waiting for the point.

Peter eventually came to it. "Though you obviously like to work on walls – "

" – or ceilings and floors," I added.

"I wondered whether you could work on a smaller scale. I have this art gallery in town, which exhibits paintings for sale, and I think your work might be quite popular."

Not with me, was my unspoken comment.

Split didn't say anything either.

"It could earn you a bit of money."

Or a knee in the bollocks, I thought.

"Materialistic society," grunted Split, clearly unconvinced and obviously not over-enamoured by the idea. He hooked his foot onto his seat and I found myself looking at his crotch. Split seemed unaware that he was displaying just that area of himself that I'd been thinking about. It was a magnificent view.

"We all need money to live on, even if it's only the minimum for our needs," said Peter.

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." The hackneyed old Marxist axiom didn't seem sarcastic. Supposedly Split believed it himself.

Not apparently aware of the irony Peter asked, "Another beer?"

He took the three empty glasses and went into the bar leaving me alone with Split. I wondered whether this was a knee in the bollocks moment but decided against. Instead I asked, "What's all this Baudelaire stuff?"

"Someone I studied at University," he said. (Bingo, I'd got him to admit something personal about himself. He'd been to University.) "His poems attack the hypocrisy of most of us who rail against those things they disapprove of, while privately doing them ourselves."

"And you express this by spray painting on walls." I said.

"It gets me noticed."

That was true enough.

"Did you drop out from Uni?" I asked. "If so, why?"

He shrugged. Clearly he had decided he'd let slip enough about himself, and we waited in silence. I occupied the time by studying Split. He was certainly a very attractive guy, especially when he smiled. He didn't seem to mind my attention until I transferred my gaze to his crotch which was still very much in evidence. Only then did he show signs of self-consciousness and put his leg down. Though I hadn't any intention of making any sort of pass (I was of course monogamously attached to my lover) I regretted Split's change of position. It was a very attractive crotch and showed considerable bulge propensity.

Peter came back with the drink. "Has Kevin managed to talk you into the art proposal?" he asked.

Split smiled but shook his head. "Nor yet," he said. He seemed much less reserved when there were the three of us rather than on a one to one basis.

I changed the subject. "Must be awful living in that squat."

"I've lived in worse."

"And probably in better," I said and he gave me a sharp look as if I was trespassing again.

But the second pint went down even better than the first and he seemed to relax by the end of it, to the extent that he even asked a question. "How did you find me?"

I saw no reason not to tell the truth. "A friend of mine, Ross seemed to know you, or at least know of you."

"Ah, Ross. A good guy, though I don't think I'm his type."

Well, I knew what Ross liked, big butch blue collar workers with cocks the diameter of Coke cans. Did Split mean that he wasn't one of those, or just that he wasn't gay at all?

I doubted though whether, even in this relaxed state, Split had any intention of admitting his sexual orientation, and I wasn't all that sure that I cared – though it's always nice, and sometimes convenient, to know.

Split raised his glass and finished off the rest of his pint. By God, this guy could drink. Should I volunteer to get another round? Obviously Split as someone on, presumably, out-of-work benefit (or perhaps living by begging) wouldn't have much spare money and three pints these days cost the major part of ten quid. Peter could see my quandary and whispered, "I'll go halves." So, up I got and trailed inside to get more beer. If this didn't lubricate Split enough to fall in with Peter's ideas, that would be his lot.

As I crossed the garden on the way back, I could see that Split had hoisted his leg up on the seat again and Peter was ogling that seductive bulge. I cleared my throat loudly and plonked the beer down on the table, spilling some and directing the spillage towards Split. He hastily bought his other leg up thus exposing the full frontal of his crotch between his raised knees. It also exposed that most private of his parts or at least would have done if he hadn't been wearing jeans.

Peter seemed mesmerised but it hadn't stopped him chattering away, or at least hadn't until I arrived and started throwing beer around.

Split had his seductive smile on. He sat himself down again, avoiding the spilled beer, grabbed hold of his pint and raised it. "Cheers," he said and winked. I'd have said he was getting pissed but surely not on two pints. Perhaps though he hadn't had anything to eat recently. On an empty stomach a couple of pints can work wonders.

"Split says he'll think about doing some paintings for the gallery," said Peter.

"Great," I said, and tried to keep the sarcasm out of my tone. I wondered what had made Split change his mind. Peter was looking at him as if Diaghilev had just found his protégé, Nijinsky. I hoped it was only pound signs and not lust that shone in Peter's eyes and smile.

The evening was drawing in, the sodium street lights popping on, first dark orange before lightening to bright yellow and casting a sickly glow over faces. The garden had filled up and now chattering groups were all around us, discussing friends, savaging enemies, occasionally lapsing into camp falsetto in false outrage at someone's remark.

Split shifted uncomfortably and I wanted to go back with Peter for the long promised dalliance. I touched his arm and raised my eyebrows in a silent question. He nodded, taking a business card out of his pocket and handing it to Split.

"Here's the gallery's address." He scribbled something on the back. "And here's my phone number. Get in touch when you make up your mind."

Split looked at me before taking the card and putting it away in the back pocket of his jeans.

We left him there and went home, walking through the warm streets side by side, occasionally our arms touching.

"Well, what did you think of him?" asked Peter

I tried for the casual. "Pretty enough."

"No, I mean. Do you think he'll come round to the idea of displaying his work?"

This was firmly in Peter's domain, so I remained noncommittal. "Possibly. To be honest I've no idea what's going on there."

We were nearly home. "Race you," said Peter. "First one home's gets to be the top."

I won.

Next morning everything was as usual. Our wall was still decorated with what Peter called a work of art but which I considered an excrescence. By the way, he'd got his own back in our morning session so we were one all.

'La Blagstock' was at her most fiery. Could have been PMT or just general misogyny but nothing we could do seemed to be right and when Peter phoned in the middle of the morning and she answered, her tone to me was icy. "Private phone call for you, Mr Clarke," she said, emphasising the first word.

"Thank you, Miss Blagstock," I replied, brazening it out. But my tone to Peter was curt.

"Just heard from Split," he said. "We've arranged a meeting at the Black Cap this afternoon."

"You don't need me there as well?"

"I think you put him off. I'll tell you what happens this evening. Is the Medusa listening?" His word for La Blagstock.

"In all probability." And the line went dead.

When I got home, Peter wasn't in. I dug a couple of frozen TV dinners out of the freezer and put them into the microwave on defrost. I'd shove them into the oven as soon as Peter got in. Perhaps later we'd go out to the pub.

I whistled as I put the food into the microwave. I switched on the TV and, although there wasn't much to watch, left it on with the sound turned down until the News. I sat on the window seat and looked out at the street.

There were still a few people walking past in the gathering gloom of evening. Some cars passed and a lone cyclist in Lycra body gear. Looked young and quite attractive.

The microwave pinged.

I felt a sudden sadness. The room in darkness apart from the flickering light of the telly. This was what it would be like without Peter. Where had that thought come from? And where could he have got to? I felt a sudden twinge of anxiety. Ever since he had been kidnapped, I couldn't help worrying when I didn't know exactly where he was.

But before I could change the worry into some sort of practical action, I saw him, coming up the street in a wide tacking arc, weaving across the pavement, almost tripping at the curb.

Peter was drunk. And my sudden relief turned to a spurt of anger.

I heard the unsteady stumbling steps up the flight of stairs and the scratching of the key in its attempt to find the hole but did nothing, just sitting there in the semidarkness until the door burst open and Peter, hair dishevelled, a vacuous grin on his face, almost fell into the flat.

"Where have you been?" I demanded.

"So - sorry - I'm late," he stuttered but his words were drowned by the cold demand from out of the darkness, "Where the fuck have you been?"

Unspoken words of apology disappeared to be replaced with those of outraged vindication. "Just out for a drink - with Split. What you sitting here in the dark for?"

I got up, switched on the light, busied himself with the meal. Peter collapsed on the sofa. "Got some good news, Kevin," he said. "Split's decided to show some of his pics." He smiled unsteadily. "Just had a drink to celebrate. Or two. Y'not cross are you?"

"Is he going to bring in a couple of walls, the side of our flat?"

He was almost pissed enough not to notice the sarcasm. "No, of course not. He does them on cardboard, on canvas. They're good – they're really good. And I'm sorry I didn't come and fetch you. Split wanted you there as well."

That I had my doubts about. "Did he?" But I pulled myself together. If Peter was pleased, then I should be also. After all what did I know about art? Practically zilch. "Come and eat," I said.

"In that order," said Peter. "This drink has made me horny."

We made love on the sofa where we had done so many times before and then ate lasagne.

So started Split's career as a legit artist.

In the week that followed Peter fussed around him like an anxious hen with her first brood. Whenever I wanted him, and managed to get away from La Blagstock and use the phone, Peter's assistant, a pleasant girl named Maureen, always seemed to have to fetch him from the back of the gallery, or sometimes couldn't even do that as he was out somewhere doing something for the exhibition – for an exhibition it was going to be.

When Peter got in at nights, sometimes late, he used to declare himself tired, no, exhausted. Usually he'd already eaten, so he said, and he'd fall into bed and be out cold when I joined him. So I was not best pleased at the way things were developing.

At the weekend he'd ask why didn't I join them. They were going to the framers or the catalogue printers or some such. Split had asked after me and wondered why we never met. Oh yes, I'm sure he wanted to see me, I'd answer frostily and then go alone to the supermarket and sulk over the fruit and veg counters while I was buying the week's groceries.

So there I was on the following Saturday morning struggling home with the week's supplies in those infernal plastic bags which tend to split and cascade oranges all over the pavement and into the gutter when I saw them.

Traffic was rumbling by along the High Street; the pavements were full of busy shoppers but I could clearly make out Peter's well known, even from the back (specially from the back) figure and Split's unmistakable red hair. Good, I thought, they can help me carry this load back to the flat. I put on a spurt, battling with pedestrians who seemed intent on blocking my way, and got closer. But then I slowed down to their pace. There was something about the pair, their body language, if you will, that seemed to suggest an intimacy that I didn't expect, didn't want to know.

They walked closely together, occasionally brushing arms. I thought of similar occasions when Peter and I had walked in just that fashion. From time to time Peter would turn his head so that he looked closely into Split's face, his expression animated and once he put his hand on Split's arm as he obviously made some point or other. I couldn't see Split's expression, he faced directly ahead, but I could imagine him smiling, that charming, almost seductive smile which transformed his features from the ordinary to the desirable.

Suddenly I felt sick and stopped, ignoring the people who bumped into me, expressed annoyance as they had to make their way round me. One even pushed me out of the way so that I cannoned into the wall of a building, dropping a bag and allowing some buns I'd bought for morning coffee to roll across the pavement and be trampled on by unobservant heels.

I wasn't quite sure how I got back to the flat but I did. Peter and Split were sitting in the kitchen. There was the pleasant aroma of ground coffee in the air as I dumped down the bags.

"Sorry, honey," said Peter. "You should have waited and we could have shopped together."

Split smiled at me. To smile and smile and be a villain, I thought in Hamlet's words.

"Aren't you going to ask us how we're getting on?" said Peter.

"Getting on?" Getting on together?

"Yes. Getting on with the exhibition. It opens on Monday. We've been incredibly busy, working together." He sounded like a big kid and looked like one too, eyes shining, big smile. "Haven't we, Split?'

"Yeah." The answer was laconic. Split looked at me and then glanced away as if he couldn't look me in the eyes. I wondered whether he felt guilty, whether he wanted Peter to tell me something about the two of them. What there was to tell?

"Come with us this afternoon," said Peter. "We're just putting the finishing touches to the whole thing." He looked so happy, just like he used to look when we first started going out together, when every outing was an adventure, an opportunity to touch each other, catch a private kiss – and eventually, when/if the chance presented itself, clasp each other in a naked embrace. Lips, tongues, skin, hands and fingers, stroking, grasping, clutching. Caressing all parts of each other's bodies until the final electric orgasmic moment when we came and afterwards lay together gently and softly holding and being held in each other's arms.

"I've work to do," I said. "I'll try to get down another time." I watched him closely to see if I could determine any signs of relief or indeed disappointment, but he just showed the expression of enthusiasm he had worn all the time. Indeed it was Split who looked a bit upset, disappointed no doubt that he couldn't show off his relationship with his new boyfriend to his ex.

I made more coffee and I was sitting numbly in the flat, nursing my jealousy when the phone rang.

For a moment I thought about ignoring it but then it switched to answer phone mode and I heard my inane introduction: 'I'm sorry but Peter and I are occupied at the moment. At the rather mundane tone, leave a message and when we've finished one of us will get back to you.'

Ross' voice sounded. "Pick up, Kevin. I've just seen Peter and he says you're at home by yourself. . ."

I picked up. "Hi," I said. "Sorry, I was busy."

"Um." he said putting a wealth of innuendo into the single syllable, suggesting I suppose that I was occupied with a session of self-abuse. There was a pause which I felt obliged to break.

"What – er – what did you want?"

"I hear Peter's handling Split's prospects."

"I don't know what Peter's handling," I said shortly, taking a mouthful of cold coffee. It tasted bitter as gall. "But whatever it is, I don't like it."

"Do I detect a touch of the green eye?"

"I'm serious. I think Peter's having it off with Split."

Ross answer was smooth and, because he was always right, comforting. "Never," he said. "Peter wouldn't cheat on you. I'd have noticed if there was anything between them when I saw them just now."

I considered that; it was quite reassuring. Ross was after all never wrong. "So what did you want?"

"Tell me what you thought of Split."

What's this? Ross asking ME questions. But then I thought he has to get his information from someone. I always considered his knowledge almost supernatural but he was human, same as me, and he must get his information from someone. He just knew the right person to ask. Now it was me. What did I know about Split?

"He's got some odd ideas," I said. "In a way old-fashioned. All this 'property is theft' sort of stuff. And then there's the Baudelaire crap. People condemning what they secretly admire or at least indulge in themselves."

"Do you think he's being ironic?"

My immediate reaction was 'No', but then I wondered. That smile, which even I found attractive, was mocking, sardonic. As if he was taking the piss out of all of us, of life itself. I temporised. "Could be."

"Was there anything in the squat that you found inconsistent?"

I thought back. There hadn't been much in the squat, just rubbish and a foul smell. And of course in Split's room, that riot of swirling colours everywhere we looked, the empty spray cans, the boxes. The boxes! The one I'd picked up had contained something heavy but there hadn't been time to examine it as Split had come home – and then had tried to run off. I thought it had been just because there were two strangers there. Could it have been because he had something to hide?

I told Ross.

"Let's pay this squat a visit," he said.

"Why? Why do you want to find out?"

"People ask me things. They expect me to know the answers. I have a reputation to uphold."

That was true enough. I'd never seen Ross in this light before. The calm distributor of information, yes. The man who knew things, Yes. But not the one who needed to search, to probe, to discover. Ross was human after all, not Mr Omniscience.

We went.

The back garden was exactly the same, a dump, though perhaps the weeds were a bit higher and there were more rust encrusted objects. The boarded up kitchen window still opened when prised apart and we clambered in. Inside the foetid air was, if anything, more rank but then we'd had days of hot weather. No one appeared to be in but then who would want to stay in this atmosphere except to shelter during the night.

"Split's room is on the second floor," I said.

It was just as I remembered it, the swirling colours merging and dividing. Only the empty spray paint cans had been removed – together with the boxes.

"Interesting," said Ross.

"What is?" I asked expecting some enigmatic Holmesian-like comment along the lines of the 'dog that didn't bark'. But I didn't get an answer of any sort.

There didn't seem to be anything more to be done so we started down the stairs. It was only when we reached the kitchen that Ross, always the more sharp-eyed, noticed something discarded in the corner. To me it was just a bit more of the rubbish that littered most of the house but obviously Ross saw it as something significant. He picked it up and showed me it. It was a plain white cardboard box.

"Is this like the boxes that you saw in Split's room?" he asked.

It was quite unremarkable, no printing, no identity markings but it certainly looked like them. I nodded. "They were heavy with something obviously inside," I said.

Ross flipped open the lid. There was nothing inside except a white pre-formed plastic insert with spaced for whatever it had originally held. "You got your mobile phone?"

I took it out from my pocket and he gestured to me to put it in the largest of the spaces. It didn't exactly fit but it certainly looked as if something similar had been intended to go in there. "And you say there were lots of boxes upstairs?"

"Must have been a couple of dozen."

"Useful as a source of ready cash. Mobile phones can easily be sold on if you know the right places to offer them."

"And you do?" I asked.

Ross looked noncommittal. "Perhaps," he said.

I got enthusiastic doing my own speculative detection. "That's it. Split's a thief. He stole them from somewhere, a warehouse or something and sold them to a dealer."

Ross smiled at my naive enthusiasm, but all he said was another 'Perhaps'.

I wasn't put off. Planning a face-to-face showdown with Split I was anxious to get to the Gallery, not only for this reason but also because I wanted to see Peter and Split together. Though Ross had assured me that there wasn't anything between them – and Ross was never wrong – I wanted to put my mind at rest. If the revelation of Split's theft frightened him off, that would be all to the good.

Sunday, and High Street trading was at its busiest in the market. Tourists and visitors gazed in awe at the multitude of outdoor stalls, the shops that lined the streets, a walkthrough shoe shop which catered for every whim for the shoe addict, a covered in specialising in clothes for the techno scene, another for punk, then another for goth, another with all latex, another with 50's, next to a 60's specialist, then a 70's, then pre-war styles, then antique furniture, modern furniture, latin american furniture, american furniture, and and and...

Of course we being indigenous took it all rather for granted though the excitement of American and Far Eastern tourists was infectious.

Peter's Gallery was just off the High Street in a slightly quieter area though we could still hear the buzz of commerce at its most intense as we drew near. Peter had certainly made a great effort. The window showed a representative sample of Split's work, one large piece (though not the size of our wall) and a few smaller pieces. The colours swirled and, noticing something that I hadn't before, amongst that kaleidoscope there were amorphous figures, dancing, leaping acrobatically, possibly even copulating – certainly in close contact. They gave the impression of joyful activity and, despite my antagonism for Split himself, I liked what I saw.

Lights were on in the gallery itself and I could see two figures at the back. Thankfully they weren't locked in an embrace but seemed to be occupied in separate tasks finishing a display on the back wall.

I knocked on the door and saw Peter coming towards us. He opened the door and pulled me inside. His smile was pure and genuine. "Kevin," he said, "I'm so glad you've come – and Ross too – but specially you. Tell us what you think. Isn't it going to be a success. Look at the catalogue. Look at this latest work." He wittered on, holding my hand, drawing me in and towards his body so that we touched. Then he folded his arms round me and gave me a kiss, drawing back just a little, to whisper, so that the others couldn't hear, "I want you, darling. I want you so much." His groin pressed against mine and I could feel his urgency. Mine responded and I knew that, had we been alone, we'd have been fucking on the floor of the gallery.

But common sense prevailed. After all Ross was around and Split came forward wearing his smile. "Hasn't he done it well? He's really persuaded me that I've got some talent and not just doing it to upset people." he said. "I really think it might come to something." This was the longest speech I had ever heard him make. He seemed almost genuine, and the smile, candid.

Nevertheless I could not stop myself from holding out the box we'd found in the squat. "What about this, Split?" I asked.

For a moment his expression was one of complete bewilderment and I thought, he's either a superb actor or he really has no idea what it is. Then his face cleared as he understood what it was.

"The boxes," he said.

"Yes, the boxes."

Peter hung around anxiously. He knew something was going on but didn't understand what it was.

"Piled up in your room," I said. "Nothing in this one but when we saw them before, they were full. Full of mobile phones. Stolen phones." I made the accusation even though Ross and I had no real proof.

And Split smiled. "Quite possible," he said. "Though I never asked. Not my business. One of the guys in the house asked me to look after them until they could be disposed of. The following day they were gone. I'm not a thief."

"What's going on?" asked Peter.

Ross stepped in. "A little misunderstanding," he said. "All sorted now, I think. eh, Kevin?"

I nodded, feeling embarrassed. OK, maybe Split wasn't a thief but he was probably a receiver of stolen goods, even if only temporarily. And he had defaced our wall. Suddenly I realised how trivial I was being, bearing this grudge. I looked at Split. "Good luck with the exhibition," I said.

"He won't need luck," said Peter. "He's got talent."

And so it proved. The exhibition, after a slowish start, proved a great success, especially after the critics came and had a look. Split's pictures sold. Peter got commission. I got Peter – well, I'd never lost him, just my stupid jealousy and trivial mind. La Blagstock got over her temporary bad temper and life was good again. Oh, the wall was cleaned by the council. In a way I regretted the painting going. It is something of a cachet to have a famous artist's work on the walls of one's house.

A few days later Ross phoned.

"I got it wrong with Split," he said. He sounded bemused. "My gaydar let me down."

"It happens," I said. "What exactly did you get wrong?"

"He was an out and out top – and my God, the size."

"You had him!"

"Well, put it the other way. He had me." He made a sound like a cat purring over a litre of cream. "He's on my regular list from now on."


Date started: Saturday, March 24, 2007
Date Finished: Monday, April 23, 2007

This is the third of the 'Ross' story series, the first two being 'Death in Paint' (later renamed 'For Pete's Sake') and 'Two's Company'.

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