NB Contains erotic content
The evening Paul finally rang him, it had been the last thing Craig expected. He’d spent a rough day out on a modeling shoot, trying to look sultry and continental in a boat on the Thames in the middle of December. The rain had been pissing down and the makeup girl had to redo him every five minutes.
He didn’t complain though. It was hard enough getting a job at all, without screwing it so he didn’t get hired again. Word soon got around in this town. Not like where he was brought up, where secrets could be hidden for a lifetime sometimes.
Anyway, the shoot dragged on because of the rain, and it was past eight by the time he got back. The phone was ringing when he walked into the shared hallway, tripping over the post and brushing the dampness from his hair, so he picked up the receiver before the answering machine clicked on. Craig never knew when it might be business.
“Hello?” the voice on the other end said. “May I speak to Craig Robertson please?”
He knew who it was at once. His heart beat faster and his skin felt as if it was being stroked with feathers. His caller had had that effect on him the first time he’d seen him. The first time he’d kissed him. It had felt back then as if for a few moments everything and everyone else had slipped away.
“Y-yes. Speaking,” Craig managed, and then, “Is that Paul?”
“Paul Maloney. Yes.”
“Hi,” he said, turning to the wall, though there was no one else around to hear. He couldn’t stop smiling either.
And then there wasn’t much else to be said. A couple of minutes later and Craig had arranged to meet him for a drink in an hour’s time. Paul named a bar in Soho, not far from where they’d… met. He calculated that, even with a quick shower and change of clothes, he should be able to make it. A shave would have to wait though. He hoped Paul liked the stubbled look. It was what the Thames guys had wanted today.
Twenty minutes or so after he’d ended the call, he was out of the house again. He wasted another few seconds picking up the letters from the mat and dropping them on the hall table. He didn’t have time to look through and sort them. Besides, the post was rarely for him.
Later, of course, he realized he should have checked, found the one from home. But actually he was glad he didn’t.
Craig arrived ten minutes late, which was typical. Paul was sitting at the bar, nursing a designer beer. He looked even sexier than when he’d last seen him, if that were possible. In contrast to his own spiky dyed-blond willowy look, Paul was medium build, with natural dark hair slicked back close to his skull. He carried that same animal intensity that had snared Craig before. Like a wolf, he thought for the first time. An injured one.
As he pushed his way through the Friday-night scrum, Craig wondered how to greet him. What was the form for a first date with a bloke he’d already snogged, felt up, and given a hand job to, only a few streets away from here? They’d shaken pricks with each other, so what should he do for an encore? Shake hands?
In the end, he kissed him, not giving the other man time to speak. It turned into more than he’d bargained for. Paul’s tongue snaked into Craig’s mouth and he sucked greedily, feeling the echoing throb of his cock. Paul drew away first, and Craig had to steady himself against the bar, grabbing the nearest barstool and perching his arse on it. Trying to look casual.
Paul leaned toward him. “I’d forgotten what a good kisser you are, Craig.”
He had to shout to be heard over the music, but it still felt like the most romantic line Craig had heard for a while. A long while.
“Thanks!” he yelled back. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
Paul made a drinking sign with his hands, and Craig nodded, picking up the designer bottle to show he’d have the same. Really, he would have preferred a cider, but doubted they sold it here. And anyway it wouldn’t look cool. It didn’t take Paul long to attract the barman’s attention. Not that Craig was surprised; the bloke serving them could hardly take his eyes off his date. Funny thing was that he didn’t think Paul noticed.
He reached for his wallet when the beer arrived, but Paul shook his head and paid before Craig could catch what he was up to.
“My treat,” he said.
“You didn’t have to, but thanks.”
Paul frowned for a moment before catching the gist of what he’d said, and Craig took a long swig of the ice-cool liquid. It tasted like horse piss, but that was what he paid for in London. Real beer was one of the things he missed about the farm. Correction. The only thing. He stopped himself before he could think anything further. No point resurrecting the past; that wasn’t what he was here for, was it?
He could see Paul was saying something else now, but the music had upped a notch and he couldn’t hear him at all. This was ridiculous. On impulse, he put his hand on Paul’s knee and leaned forward so his mouth was almost touching his ear.
“Can we go somewhere quieter?” he yelled.
“Sure,” Paul mouthed back. “Where?”
“My place,” he said.
They were back by ten. On the tube journey home, it took all Craig’s self-control not to keep on touching his companion. He could tell Paul wasn’t the sort to like it. Not in a public place. Or at least in a public place that wasn’t a gay bar. He’d let Craig go far enough when they’d met before.
They talked a little on the way. Nothing serious. Just stuff about politics, books they’d read recently, that kind of thing. It gave Craig a buzz to find out they both liked the Bosch novels. The Andrew Taylor books too. The Class A hot smile Paul gave him when they found that out was worth the time it took to get home. Oh yes.
Outside the front door, Craig’s hands shook so much that he had to have two or three goes before he managed to unlock it.
“Shared house?” Paul asked, and nodded when Craig told him the answer.
“Yeah. But the girls won’t be back yet. Maddy and Julie. Way too early for a Friday. Do you want a drink?”
He switched the kettle on, but they never got to taste the coffee Paul asked for. Halfway through the frantic search for the NESCAFÉ, his date sauntered into the kitchen. Craig could smell the aftershave he wore. Something woody, masculine.
When he turned round, Paul ran one finger across Craig’s jaw and he held his breath.
“It’s… I was on a photo shoot today,” he said. “They didn’t want me to shave, and then by the time I got home….”
“It’s okay,” Paul said. “I like it.”
Thank God for that, Craig thought. Could have been a disaster otherwise. But he’d better not forget Gay Rule Number One: At least find out a name and a job before you do the business. In this case, one he knew and the other he didn’t.
“Hey,” he said. “You know what I do for a living—it was on the card I gave you when we last met—but I don’t know much about you. And here we are about to—”
He swallowed. “Yeah. Have sex. Again.”
Paul laughed. “Okay. If you really want to know, I’m a private investigator. Mainly insurance cases. Some divorce work. And sometimes… other things. It gets me by.”
“Really? I thought guys like you only existed in films. Or books.”
“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m real enough.”
“Good. And I’m not disappointed.”
In the bedroom, between seriously hot kisses, Craig undid Paul’s shirt and began licking his left nipple into hardness. He gasped and it made Craig smile. But when he got to the right nipple, he noticed that the skin there was scarred—not too long ago by the look of it—so he left it alone. Poor bugger. It must have been painful. He wanted to know how, but knew this wasn’t the right time to ask.
“Listen,” he said, as he worked his way down to Paul’s waist and began undoing his belt. “I… don’t… mind either way, honestly. But I prefer… being… the bloke. How about you?”
As Craig looked up at him, Paul gasped again when his fingers brushed against his prick.
“That’s… that’s good,” he whispered. “Because I love being buggered.”
He did too.
The first time, it was quick and urgent, as if they’d been storing up the need to do this together during the long weeks since they’d met. The second time… well, the second time, Craig had planned something easier and slower. More how he liked it. But he didn’t last as long as he’d hoped he would—Paul must have thought he was barely out of his pram, but Craig just couldn’t help it—and even then he had to close his eyes and think of something else before it was too late. Twice.
He was trying to slow himself down again when Paul gave a throaty chuckle and twisted around on the bed. The movement almost had Craig finishing there and then.
Paul grabbed his hand. “It’s okay, Craig. Come if you want to. It’s okay.”
And he pushed himself back against him so Craig cried out. As he came, Paul kept hold of his hand and whispered his name again.
“Sorry,” Craig said, when he could talk. “I don’t always… I mean….”
“Hey there.” Paul laughed, but without any hint of cruelty. “It was nice. I’m not complaining. But if you could just….”
He indicated his still-swollen cock and Craig shook himself. What the hell was he thinking anyway?
“Sure,” he said. “No problem.”
Still blushing—though he hoped Paul couldn’t see this—he finished him off, using hands and mouth.
Later, their bodies curled around each other, they slept. And in the morning, Craig lay watching him until he woke up, astonished he hadn’t left already.
While his date was blinking himself to consciousness, it struck Craig that Gay Rule—or rather Question—Number Two was about to take place: Would Paul still like him the day after the night before? Not that it was a specifically gay situation; he assumed it was the same for straights too, though he had no way of telling. He didn’t want to be prejudiced.
Anyway, he certainly wanted to see Paul again. Sure, the sex hadn’t been earth-shattering—more Craig’s fault than his—but there was something about him that made him… what was the word? Fizz. Yes, Paul made him fizz.
“Hi,” Paul said, and Craig smiled down at him.
Mmm. The morning sex was top-notch. Yes, Paul still liked him. Seeing as they were both naked on top of the bedcovers now, he took the opportunity to gaze at him; he hadn’t had the time last night. Not properly anyhow. Paul’s body was long and compact, dark chest hair leading down to his prick—nice-looking even when limp, as now—and muscular legs. Craig noticed too that a patch of the skin on his belly, just above his cock, was scarred and lighter than the rest. When he glanced up at Paul, he could see those intense green eyes were smiling at him.
“Like what you see?”
“What’s not to like?” He ran his fingers over a faint line on Paul’s right arm that he’d also only just noticed. “God, did you have a major accident or something?”
“Something like that. Somebody knifed me, but it was a long time ago. I was fine. Same with my stomach, and chest—though that one’s taking a while to heal. I got into trouble and was burned.”
“Jesus. You’re a bit accident-prone, aren’t you?”
Paul laughed and kissed him, but didn’t say anything more. The subject, Craig realized, was closed. For the moment.
They showered and, at breakfast, he finally found the NESCAFÉ. It was in the cupboard under the sink. Next to a supply of Dr Stuart’s teas and a half-eaten packet of muffins. No point in asking himself about the muffins. Those could only be Maddy’s. The teas belonged to Julie. He refused Paul’s offer of help and his date sat down at the rickety wooden table. While Craig located mugs, Paul cleared a space in front of him between yesterday’s unwashed plates and a pile of what looked suspiciously like….
Bloody hell, it was.
Craig tried to snatch away Julie’s laundry pile, but it was too late. Paul had already hooked out a suspender belt and was grinning at him.
“I take it these aren’t yours?” he said.
“No.” He felt himself blush. Again. “They’re Julie’s. I think. She must have forgotten to put them away.”
“That’s okay.” Paul dropped the belt back onto the table. “It doesn’t bother me, though I can’t say I’ve tried it. Cross-dressing, I mean. But you didn’t seem the type.”
He made Paul coffee—which he took with a dash of milk, no sugar—and put toast on. All the while, something niggled at his brain. Something he’d forgotten to do. But he couldn’t place it. Never mind, he thought. It couldn’t have been that important then. Could it?
Finding a bowl, he dropped the toast into it and took it to the table. Then he added margarine and the newest-looking jam and sat down opposite Paul. They ate in silence for a while. It felt okay and Craig wondered if he was going to see him again. Or not.
When Paul had finished eating and was licking his fingers clean, Craig leaned back in his chair and asked what he’d been desperate to know since last night.
“So then,” he began, in a vain attempt to sound cool, “why leave it so long? A few minutes earlier and you wouldn’t have caught me at all.”
“I know.” Paul moved his mug in front of him, but didn’t drink any. Instead, he gazed at Craig, his expression serious. “I know. It’s been… nearly two months since we met in October. Things have been difficult. I’ve rung here four times this week, but I didn’t leave a message. I thought I’d try one last time.”
Craig shook his head. “So why not ring the mobile? I know you had the number.”
“Yes, I did. But it seemed too… personal. I’m not… bloody hell, Craig, but I’m not too good at relationships, you know?”
His last few words were all but hissed out, as if he was trying to say something beyond the sentences themselves, and a shadow passed over his face. Craig took his hand and squeezed it.
“Bloody hell,” he said, “but who is? I’m not exactly hot at them myself. But I know I’d like to see you again. If you want to, that is?”
Paul smiled, the darkness disappearing from his expression.
“Yeah, I’d like that,” he said.
Craig smiled back at him. Like last night, he couldn’t seem to stop. In fact they were still smiling at each other when the door burst open and Maddy appeared, her blonde hair frizzing outward from her head as if someone had just given her an electric shock. She was holding something in her hand.
“Hi, Craig,” she yawned. “Post for you.”
She dropped it on the table between the two of them. And it was then that everything changed.
Sometimes, life could turn on the tiny moments alone. And decisions could be made on an intake of breath. If Craig hadn’t come back yesterday evening in time for Paul to ring…. If Paul hadn’t rung at all…. If Craig had opened the post before going out to meet him… then everything might have been different.
As it was, that crisp December morning, with the frost framing the kitchen window, Maddy grinned at Paul, winked, and held out her hand.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Maddy Flannigan. And you are…?”
“Paul,” he replied. “Paul Maloney. Nice to meet you, Maddy.”
“Paul?” She gulped. “The Paul? Paul Maloney? We’ve heard nothing else from Craig for weeks. Oh God, sorry, me and my mouth. Forget I said that. Anyway, so good to meet you at last.”
Before Paul could make any kind of response, Maddy was out of the kitchen and yelling up the stairs. “Julie! Julie? Wake up! Come down and meet Paul, won’t you?”
All chances of looking remotely sophisticated now vanished forever, Craig groaned and put his head in his hands.
“As you can see,” he mumbled, “Maddy gets a bit enthusiastic sometimes.”
“That’s okay,” Paul said, but when he looked at him Craig could see he was still blushing. “It’s nice to be popular. And, hey, I’ve been thinking about you too.”
Craig raised his eyebrows at that.
“Chancer,” he said. “Anyway, you haven’t been the only topic of conversation. We have to eat sometimes.”
By the time Julie appeared, her short dark hair already neatly brushed, and wearing something floaty from the Monsoon sale, Maddy had already asked all the usual questions. So Craig found out that Paul lived in Hackney, and he’d run his own one-man band investigations firm for six years. And yes, he’d had one serious relationship but that had ended. Really ended for a long time, but absolutely finally about a month ago. Maybe that explained the long lead-in to his phone call. Craig couldn’t help but hope though that, before last night, he’d been the one to have sex with Paul most recently. Couldn’t count on it though. And no way could he actually ask it. Some things in life were always private. Didn’t Craig have enough of his own secrets?
Never mind that. What mattered, of course, was now.
While Maddy paused for breath, Craig glanced at the envelope on the table. The one for him. It looked handwritten. He supposed he should open it. Reaching out, he picked it up, just as Julie came in.
“Hello,” she said. “You must be Paul?”
Paul smiled, stood up, and stretched out his hand. “You must be Julie.”
Julie took it. The two of them shook hands and looked at each other as if sizing the other person up before deciding how to continue with their day. A second later, she smiled back.
“That’s right,” she said. “Nice to meet you, Paul.”
Phew, Craig thought. Julie likes him. Of the three flatmates, Julie was the most responsible by far. As well as being the only detox and nettle tea drinker. Maddy tended to smile on whoever he brought back to the flat—though recently there had been no one—but Julie was more cautious. If she didn’t like the guy, it would make things so much more difficult in the future. Assuming there was a future, of course.
He opened the letter.
It was only one page. And on it, apart from the address which he knew so well, only a few words:
Sorry to trouble you and I’m sorry if this letter comes as a shock, but I do hope you get this. Please forgive me for not writing before—it was difficult. And please call me. Your father’s gone missing.
With warmest wishes always,
His skin grew hot, and he felt as if he were a hundred miles away. The chair, the table, the cupboards, Maddy, Julie, and even Paul all faded, and he was back in his childhood. As if he’d never left at all.
You have to be taught what is good and upright, and I am the one who will teach you.
“Craig? Craig? Are you okay?”
Maddy’s voice brought Craig back to himself, and he was aware of the warmth of fingers on his arm. When he looked down, he could see the one touching him was Paul.
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” He shook off Paul’s comfort and stood up, crumpling the letter in his hand. “I just need a glass of water, that’s all.”
He rested himself against the sink, feeling the cold enamel press against his belly through the thin T-shirt. Running the tap and filling the glass he found on the draining board took an age, but at last he had it. All the time, he was aware of the crackle of paper between his fingers and the strained silence behind him. He was also aware of Paul’s presence at his side. He didn’t come too close but he didn’t back off either.
When Craig replaced the glass, he realized he was shaking.
“Sit down,” Paul said. “Is it bad news?”
“Wh-what?” Doing as he was told, Craig sat down and glanced up at him. At the same time, Julie switched the kettle on, and Maddy settled herself in the chair next to him. She was frowning.
“The letter,” Paul explained. “Was it something you read?”
Suddenly it was crucial that no one Craig knew saw what Andrea had written. He stood up, scraping the chair backward, and it fell sideways onto the floor with a clatter. Away from Paul. He caught Julie’s startled look, but by then he was at the kitchen door, still clutching the letter. He knew it was stupid, dramatic even, but he had to get out. He needed air.
Still, some last vestige of politeness toward his date made him turn back.
“I-I’m sorry,” Craig said, staring at Paul. “I have to go. I just need to… go. Can you see yourself out? Is that okay?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
And, with a last impression of Maddy standing up, her hands hovering as if about to conduct something, he was gone.
Crouch End Hill was its usual mix of Saturday-morning shoppers and groups coming home who’d never gone to sleep at all. Craig avoided eye contact with any of them. He didn’t want to be an easy target. His feet carried him in their own direction, as they always did when he wanted to walk and think. Northward, toward Alexandra Park. Even though he hadn’t ever returned to the countryside once he’d left it, something in his blood always directed him back to that misplaced sense of space. Or what passed for space in London.
As he walked, dodging people and situations, his brain clicked shut and he was far away from the noise and pressure of the city. It was funny how he could think that everything was sorted, that he had it all worked out—was even managing to develop some kind of shaky career here where nobody could find him—and then one day something happened and everything turned around again. Changed to what it had been before. Or at least his feelings changed. Did people ever escape the past?
Stopping at the end of a street and leaning against the stone corner of a row of shops, he took out the letter and scanned it again.
Andrea. Craig hadn’t seen her in seven years. Hadn’t even heard from her. Even though he’d written to her two years ago when he’d first moved into the flat. He’d wanted to let her know where he was, but she’d not replied. In the end he’d realized that was for the best. The past was the past. Better left alone.
Why had his father gone missing though? Was it to do with the Fellowship—the church he went to? They’d always owned the largest part of his life. Or was he coming to find Craig? If so, why? On the other hand, it might be to do with Michael. No. Too many questions. He didn’t want to visit those times again. He didn’t want to….
A sudden tug on his arm snapped Craig out of his thought processes—such as they were—and into reality again.
“Hey, mate, got any spare change?”
Relaxing at once—only a tramp, nothing more sinister—he reached into his pocket and offered a handful of change. “Here. It’s nearly all I’ve got.”
The old man took it with a gnarled, filthy hand and breathed whisky fumes into his face. Then, nodding and smiling, he backed away, stroking the coins as if they were jewels. As he disappeared, the sound of the streets came back to Craig. People talking, shouting. The noise of laughter and the screech of traffic. It felt as if he’d been set free from his own history. For a while.
Honestly, his head was so jazzed he was sounding as if he were up his own arse. And it wasn’t even 10 a.m. More than anything, he needed a coffee. A strong one. He had just enough money left for it too.
It didn’t take long to find a café. One of the advantages of London. He sat down at a table as far from the other customers as possible and facing away from the window. Taking the first sip, the fiery heat of the liquid exploded through the foam and into his mouth. Stretching backward in his seat, he sighed. At the same time, he was half-aware of the door to the café opening and shutting.
A moment or so’s pause and then the chair opposite slid outward. When he looked up, Paul was standing behind it, a frown across his forehead. If Craig had known him better, he would have said he looked concerned.
“Craig,” he said quickly. Perhaps before he could object, or walk off. “I’ll leave now if you don’t want me to be here—and I have to say your friend Maddy advised me against it. She said you liked to be on your own sometimes, to sort things out. But if you want company, I’m happy to stay.”
Craig put down his drink, the heat of it still warming him. “How did you know where to find me? Did Maddy tell you?”
“No.” Paul shook his head, half-smiling before maybe thinking better of it. “I followed you.”
“I didn’t hear you…,” he began before the truth hit home. “Oh. Of course. It’s your job, I suppose. This sort of thing.”
“Yes. It’s my job. So…?”
Craig shrugged, knowing he should try to be friendly but right now not knowing if he could manage it. “So, stay. If you can bear a miserable date who hasn’t the first clue how to treat a bloke who stays over. Obviously.”
Paul smiled briefly and sat down.
“Sounds ideal,” he said. “So, what’s wrong?”
Craig didn’t look at him. Instead, he folded the paper away and stuffed it in his jeans pocket. “Are you asking me for professional or personal reasons?”
“Which would you rather?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“I see,” he said. “In that case, it’s just a question, and I’m only a friendly stranger to talk to. If you like.”
Hesitating for a moment or two, Craig finally looked at him. His expression was calm. Not for the first time, he thought there was something in Paul’s face that reminded him of someone else. He just couldn’t think who. He looked away.
“It’s family,” he said, stuttering at first over the words and wondering how much of the truth he was really going to say. “My father. That’s all. He’s gone missing. He’ll turn up, I’m sure. It’s one of those things, that’s all. Probably something to do with his church. He’s very into that stuff. Everything’s probably fine. I shouldn’t have overreacted, but I wasn’t expecting it. Not now.”
When he stopped, Paul didn’t say anything at first, as if he were waiting for Craig to say more. When this didn’t happen, he sighed. And Craig wondered if Paul realized how little of the truth he’d told him. The real truth.
“Why not now?” he asked.
“God, I don’t know.” Craig took his mug and twisted it around in his fingers before putting it to one side. “I suppose because everything seemed to be going okay. Yes, I know it’s selfish but I… was doing all right. No problems. And my career—I’m just starting to get a little sniff at some work, maybe even repeat business. Hey, but I wouldn’t want things to get boring, would I? I’ve never wanted an easy life.”
He snorted with laughter, but Paul didn’t join in. Instead he asked another question, when Craig was hoping to divert him.
“Your father,” he said. “He’s gone missing before, then?”
Only from his own head and only because he himself left first, Craig thought, but had the sense to realize that wasn’t something he could say. Not to anyone, and certainly not to someone he’d just met. And liked. A lot. Nobody wanted to date a freak, did they?
“No, forget it,” he said, standing up. “I’m overstating the case. Heck, you’ll get used to that if you can bear to stick around. Come on. As you’re here, why don’t we lighten the mood and go for a walk instead? If you fancy it?”
Craig held out his hand and, after giving him a quizzical glance, Paul took it. They walked out into crisp December sunshine. Once in the street, Paul uncurled his fingers from Craig’s—a gesture he’d half-expected—and smiled.
“Where to then?”
“Ally Pally,” he said. “Where else?”
Funny really, Craig thought, seeing as he’d spent so much of his recent life trying to forget where he’d come from, that he should see grass and hills as a kind of a refuge. But it was. Perhaps once a country boy, always a country boy. Not that he ever wanted to live there again. Not after what had happened. But still….
As Paul and he walked along, Craig caught himself hissing between his teeth—a habit he’d had as a child—and stopped it at once, wondering why it had revisited him now, after so long. He’d all but forgotten he used to do it anyway. Strange how it sometimes seemed that so much happened in the course of life—his life—that certain parts of it disappeared from view. Or were hidden where he couldn’t access them. Was it like that for everyone? Or just him? There were things… almost-memories—not the one he refused to remember because it would be stupid to try; no not that one—but others… if he could just….
Paul’s question made him jump, but he covered it by laughing. “Hey. Miles away. You know how it is.”
“Hissing. Yeah, I know. Bad habit. I won’t do it again.”
Paul shrugged and touched Craig’s hand briefly. “It doesn’t bother me.”
As they passed through the entrance to the Paddock, Craig stole a quick glance at him and for a moment once again Paul reminded him of somebody else. But he still couldn’t quite place who that somebody might be.
They wandered up past the great palace itself, through the car parks and toward the rose garden. Nothing now but bare twigs waiting for the summer. They talked little, but the silence wasn’t strained. Hell, Craig thought, he really liked Paul. Even in spite of this morning’s shock. He hoped to goodness all this hadn’t put him off entirely. He was still here though, wasn’t he? Gay Rule Number Three: Don’t stress stuff when you don’t have to. Sometimes, he simply had to trust his instincts. In some things anyway.
“The view here is beautiful,” Paul said suddenly. “Even in winter.”
Craig nodded as Paul sat down on the nearest bench and gestured for him to join him. “Yes. I love it up here. I always end up here when I’m… thinking. It reminds me….”
“Reminds you of…?”
“Nothing. I just like it. That’s all.”
That wasn’t really true, of course. But he didn’t want to tell Paul about home now. So when he asked Craig where he came from, he lied again.
“Oh, I’m a city boy, me. Grew up west London—Harrow way, though I was never one of the posh boys. I’ve lived here for always. Probably always will. How about you?”
Paul gave a short laugh, but the sound of it didn’t ring true. For the first time, Craig wondered how truthful either of them was being.
“I’m from Surrey,” he said. “Maybe one of your posh boys, though I left it a long time ago. Only go back now and again these days. To see… friends.”
He paused. Craig noticed that neither of them had mentioned family. That suited him fine. As long as he lived, he didn’t want to mention family again. At least, that’s what he’d told himself right up until this morning. Now things were different. Not that he felt anything at all toward his father. Hadn’t for a long time even at home. Even before he left to come to London. After all, the man was a religious bigot, obsessed with doing the right thing, keeping to the narrow way, following the rules and regulations of the Lord, as filtered through the rules and regulations of the Jerusalem Pentecostal Fellowship, his beloved church. And forcing his son to do the same. He couldn’t blame his mother for leaving all those years ago. Though he wished…. Never mind what he wished. It was all too late now. If he never saw either a church or a bible again, it would be a moment too soon for Craig. But still the letter worried him. He knew then that he would have to do something about it.
For a while, Paul and he chatted about work, his latest case—a divorce in North London—and Craig’s shoot. Modeling work, when it turned up, was always okay money. Better than the occasional acting job he did, anyway. He must have been the only person he knew who hadn’t been in The Bill. Not that he ever would; he didn’t have that kind of look. He was always more the younger brother with a few lines if he was lucky, or the male totty who got dumped before the main man walked in. Probably on a digital channel no one had ever heard of either. Though in one memorable episode of EastEnders, he’d actually been a gay male totty in the street. That had been a laugh.
“So,” Craig said, putting his hand on Paul’s where it lay on the bench. “Do you really work alone or have you secretly got a sultry assistant back in the office?”
Paul flinched and withdrew his hand, then shook himself and smiled as if to soften the rebuff. “Which do you think, Craig?”
“Alone. Yes, alone. I reckon you’re a one-man band, you are.” He’d meant to lighten the atmosphere but, as soon as he’d spoken, he thought how much of an idiot he sounded. “Hey, didn’t mean that to come out the way it did. I didn’t—”
“It’s okay.” He waved away Craig’s apologies. Such as they were. “It’s not your fault. The truth is I used to have an assistant, but I don’t have one anymore. You’re right. I’m on my own.”
Craig smiled. “That makes two of us then.”
Paul turned to face him. Glancing left and right, and seeing nobody nearby, he took Craig’s head in his hands and kissed him. Not a full kiss, but with the promise of something to hope for later. He drew away before Craig did.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed being with you, but I’ve got to go. I have business I need to attend to this afternoon. I can’t put it off anymore.”
“On a Saturday?”
“Yes. On a Saturday. As I say, I work alone, and neither of us are exactly nine-to-five people, are we?”
Craig shook his head. “No, but damn. It would’ve been nice to—”
“Yeah. It would.” Paul sighed. Then he reached out and stroked Craig’s face before resting one hand on his shoulder. “It’s still bothering you, isn’t it?”
“You know what. Whatever it was you read this morning. It’s bothering you.”
Craig turned away. “No. I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong.”
A short silence. Paul’s face was unreadable. It felt as if any moment now, he might turn and stride away. And not come back. Heart beating fast, Craig grasped his arm.
“Look, what about meeting up sometime next week?” he said, the words tumbling from his mouth in an attempt to keep the other man there. “I mean, I still owe you a drink, don’t I?”
For a long moment, Paul didn’t reply. Then he took Craig’s hand where it still lay on his elbow, and squeezed his fingers once before letting go.
“Yes,” he said. “I’d like that. Just as long as there aren’t as many half-truths as you’ve told me here today.”
With Paul gone, Craig didn’t stay long. It was becoming chilly with the breeze getting up. And the thought that Paul had seen through those half-truths of his didn’t make him feel any warmer. The letter lay like a stone on his leg. For another moment, he stared across the bleak grass and slopes of Ally Pally, listening to the noise of the traffic, a distant shout and, nearer, the yells of children playing, and then….
Then a flash of summer sun on grass. No, it’s spring because the air is cool. A woman laughing. The feel of the wind lifting his hair and….
He sprang up from the bench and shook the picture away. He didn’t like these reminders of his past life; they never told him much anyway. He’d been born in Devon, growing up there on his father’s farm. They’d never got on. For a whole lot of reasons, which over the years had gotten worse. When Craig was seventeen, he’d come to London. Never gone back. The life he was living now was the one he wanted. The woman in the dream had been his mother. Laughing. So it must have been early on in his childhood, a time he couldn’t rightly remember. In the time before she finally left, when he was six, he couldn’t remember there being much laughter. His father, with his growing obsession with obeying the Lord, had made sure of that.
Honestly, he had to lighten up. He’d just had a great evening with a bloke he’d been desperate to see for weeks, and now—even in spite of the morning’s ups and downs—Paul still wanted to see him again. Bloody hell, what could be better? He had to stop dwelling on stuff that really, truly no longer mattered. Father or no father.
He set his face for home, determined to make the most of the day just chilling and dreaming about Paul. Even the thought of him made Craig’s blood tingle. He couldn’t wait to see him again.
But with every step, he knew that he couldn’t ignore the letter. Soon, he would have to ring the woman who sent it.
He stared around his bedroom. He’d been sitting here for nearly two hours now and he still hadn’t made that call. Not that there was much to stare at; he liked to travel light. And the room wasn’t that big anyway. In fact it was the smallest in the house—with the exception of the loo, maybe—which made sense as he’d been the last one in after Maddy and Julie. They’d had the final say on him, so he was glad he’d passed the test.
Right now, all he could see was his collection of crime paperbacks, his Friends DVDs, and a couple of old T-shirts he hadn’t gotten around to washing yet. Not much inspiration there. Or not the right kind of inspiration anyway.
Sighing, he flopped back onto the bed and keyed in the numbers on his mobile. All of them this time.
Then he canceled the call and threw the phone down.
Craig couldn’t do it. All that life had been left behind seven years ago. It was impossible to do this now. It was funny how he could live his life the way he thought he wanted to—have fun, try to treat whatever happened as a laugh—but then with one moment everything could change. It could send him back to how it had been, back to what he’d run from.
More than anything right now, he longed for Paul, the need like a shaft of fire through his gut. But it was impossible to explain his life to a man he’d only just gotten together with. How could he when he couldn’t make sense of it himself?
Screw it. He should just bloody well ring. His father had vanished, hadn’t he? Andrea was worried. It was up to him to do something then. Besides, he needed to keep track of his enemy, get to his father before his father got to him. Wasn’t that what the bible said? Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Christ, where had that come from? He needed to get a grip. Stop being quite so dramatic.
He pressed redial and waited for the rings to start.
It took four rings for her to answer, and Craig found he was shaking.
“Hello, Andrea Trowbridge speaking.”
“Mrs Trowbridge,” he said, mind buzzing at hearing again the deep Devon accent of his father’s elderly neighbor. An accent he’d worked so hard to lose. “Andrea… it’s Daniel here. Daniel Clutton. Well, Craig Robertson now, I suppose. As you know.”
The sound of his birth name felt strange on his tongue. As if it wasn’t really him at all. Not anymore. She didn’t ask anything about why he’d left and why he hadn’t come back. Thank goodness. And Craig found he couldn’t bring himself to say the words they both knew he wanted to. Even though that was the whole reason for his call. So, stupidly, they talked about the farm, the latest exploits of the villagers he used to know, and whether or not the Neighborhood Watch was worth it. She even fell into the role of the almost-aunt she’d once been and asked him about London. And his life. He told her about the one or two acting jobs he’d had and the recent modeling assignments. She laughed when she heard that, the warm burr of the sound making Craig smile too.
He didn’t tell her about the men or about himself—at least not in that way. It was only when the conversation had slowed and he was beginning, even against his better judgment, to relax that she caught him off-guard.
“So then, you got my note,” she said.
He closed his eyes and swallowed. “Yes.”
“I didn’t know what to do for the best,” she said, the words tumbling into his ear as if in a bid to escape. “I’m sorry it was so short, but I couldn’t decide what to say. Not after so long. I’m sorry too that I haven’t contacted you before, especially after your letter. Things were difficult then and I wasn’t really sure what to write. And then… but never mind that. Your father’s never disappeared before, Daniel—I mean Craig. At least not like this, and he’s always come back. I do understand how awkward things got between the two of you—I’m sorry you went away, you know. And that you never got to do your A Levels. You were always such a bright boy, it seems such a shame. I’m glad you’re doing all right though—I knew you would. Sensible head on you, that’s what I always said. But your father—this time he’s been gone for longer. I’ve called the police, but they don’t seem able to do much. And I didn’t want to just leave it… so I thought of you. I’ve probably assumed to far, but….”
At last she took a breath, a long one as if she might be about to cry, and Craig knew he had to say something to stop her.
“It’s okay, Andrea,” he said, though he had no real idea if it was or not. “You’ve done the right thing. It’s fine.”
She began to cry in earnest then.
When he finally ended the call, he’d agreed to go to see her—something inside him couldn’t say the words “go home”—on the following Monday. Two days’ time. But what the hell was he going to do when he got there?
“If it wasn’t for work,” Maddy said, “I’d come with you. You know that. We both would.”
Craig grimaced at her and took a swig of beer. “Thanks. That’s kind of you but you really don’t want to get involved. Trust me on that one. You’re better off in the office.”
All three of them—Craig, Maddy, and Julie—were sitting in the kitchen just chilling. Their normal Sunday-night routine, even though only two of them could justify it by having normal jobs. Maddy worked in the Advice Service at the University of Westminster and Julie in PR at the British Museum. A part of him envied their regularity of employment, though he knew he’d be hopeless at either job. Mind you, he always enjoyed the office stories they brought back, though Maddy swore blind he had an unfair share of the glamour. He wished. Right now she was on the red wine, Julie on the white, and he was sticking, as usual, to the London Pride. He thought that suited him now. In more ways than one.
“Are you sure?” Maddy put down her glass and frowned at him. “If you really feel you need us, one of us can pull a sickie, can’t we, Julie? Or in the uni it might even come under compassionate leave? After all, your father’s gone missing. It’s family stuff.”
“Well, I—,” he began, but Julie—in typical fashion—got to the heart of things first.
“No,” she said, causing Maddy to almost spit out her wine. Almost, but not quite. Still speaking, Julie softened her words by refilling Maddy’s glass. “No, we won’t. At least not unless Craig asks either of us directly, rather than being forced into acceptance by social politeness. Honestly, Maddy, you’re way too much sometimes. Let the poor bloke think for himself.”
Craig smiled to himself. Julie always said what she thought and what you least expected. She never went along with the crowd. Maybe that’s what made her so good at PR. She made you think about things.
Maddy gave a rueful shrug. “Yeah, you’re probably right, Jules, but what man has ever managed to think for himself, gay or otherwise? Anyway, it’s a great chance of getting firsthand knowledge about Craig’s secret past. Who could resist it?”
Craig snorted. “Nothing secretive about me. You know everything there is to know several times over, believe me.”
Even to him, the lies seemed obvious. Maddy only laughed, but Julie pursed her lips and reached into the drawer for the Chinese menus.
“Before anyone makes any decisions about anything,” she said, “we ought to eat. Do you want something different or the usual?”
They went for the usual. Even Julie had a combination she’d had before. For Craig, there was something about Sunday nights that made familiarity the best option. This Sunday night more than any of them—after all, didn’t he have the strange journey “home” to face tomorrow? No, not home. It hadn’t been home for a while. His home was… where? He no longer knew. He wasn’t even sure he had one. No, this Sunday night he clung to anything that was normal with the strength of a small child clinging to a favorite toy.
So he had the seaweed, and the sweet and sour pork. Maddy went for prawn toasties and the lemon chicken, and Julie for the spring rolls and the Peking duck. They shared the special fried rice.
They were happy-drunk by eleven. Or rather Maddy was; she could never take her alcohol well, so he and Julie had to help her to bed at 11:30. Based on past experience, she’d be no worse for wear in the morning. The world of student advice would still be safe. For a while yet.
As Craig headed for his room, Julie tapped him on the shoulder. When he turned to face her, she was frowning.
“Look,” she said. “I know you and Maddy think I can sometimes be the bitch queen of Crouch End, but if you wanted someone who won’t take any crap to come with you tomorrow, I’m happy to be that person. Work can cope without me for once.”
In the gloom of the landing light, Craig smiled. Without her, he was convinced the museum would fall apart. If anyone was destined for greatness and the Women’s Institute circuit, it was surely Julie. Even though her offer had touched him, he shook his head.
“Thank you,” he said. “That’s kind of you, but I think I need to do this alone. And, really, you’re no bitch queen.”
She removed her hand, still resting on his shoulder, and stepped away. “Thanks, but to my mind going back is always scary. And I should know—it’s something I do as little as possible. But if you want to keep things distant from the people you live with, why don’t you take Paul? He might come in useful. Investigations are his job after all.”
For a moment, Craig almost laughed. What she said seemed ridiculous. He’d only just met the bloke. Properly. Why put him off even more than he already had by taking him on some wild goose chase to where he’d grown up?
But, a moment later, the idea didn’t seem quite so crazy after all.