Shining in the Sun – Excerpt
To my amazing children who put up with the absentmindedness and strange preoccupations of an author parent as if these things were normal.
The queue of traffic crept, grumbling and glistening, across the high moors above Perranporth. Alec re-peeled his back from the cream leather seat of his vintage sports car and let the faint wind riffle through his damp shirt. Idling forward in first gear, he wound the knob of the radio past random bursts of static and took a great drag on the summer air, letting the smell of gorse, hot roads and the sea fill him to the brim. He was on his holidays, and even a traffic jam was a treat.
In the back seat of the car ahead, a family battle waged among the sandy buckets, skim boards, wetsuits and windbreaks. Seat belts off, the children fought over the ledge along the back window and the opportunity to make rude faces at Alec for a few seconds, before being dragged away by their siblings.
Alec smiled at each in turn, took a mint out of the tin at his side and went back to twiddling the dial, narrowing down the stations until he finally settled on the genteel rhythm of the Pasadena Roof Orchestra playing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”. Even with this traffic, he would be at the marina soon, aboard the Lady Jane, free of the world for a whole month, and nothing could take the sweetness out of that.
In the meantime, the top was down, the car was a sleek joy in British Racing Green, and if he was running away from his life, he at least had the escape all planned out.
Tyres hissing on softening tarmac, the queue picked up a little speed. Alec eased down the accelerator. Sparrows chirped above. Distant wind turbines lazily turned, dazzling white against the deep blue sky. Then, with a sensation like that of a lift reaching the bottom of the shaft—an antigravity moment—the power sucked away beneath him. The Morgan shuddered and kicked. Alec pumped the accelerator madly, clinging to the wheel and shaking it. Oh not now, please. And, suddenly, mulishly as ever, the engine died.
Ahead of him, the queue continued moving slowly away. Behind him the first horn blared. He forced his clenched fingers off the steering wheel and looked wildly to either side, as if a lay-by might have sprung out of the grass in the past few seconds. Nothing. To the left the fields were bounded by a tangled green hedge he could have reached out and touched without leaving the seat. To the right only the narrow oncoming carriageway separated him from another hedge. Tiger lilies nodded in the verges, exotic and orange. The sea shimmered up ahead, and a salt-laced wind ambled over the moor. He could feel the combined irritation of every driver in the tailback building up like a head of steam under the lid of a saucepan. Cooking in their disapproval, he turned bright red, opened the door and scrambled shamefacedly out onto the road.
Pushing the car as tight to the wall as he could, he wrenched on the handbrake and slunk around to pull the red hazard triangle out of the boot. Straightening up, he caught the gaze of the driver of the Volvo Estate behind him and gave a helpless shrug. The man—a thin-faced, middle-aged patriarch in aviator sunglasses—beckoned him over with a languid “been driving all day, no energy left to be angry” motion.
“I’m so sorry,” Alec said, attempting to forestall any attempt at reproach, but the man was smiling, as was his plump, sandy-haired wife. Their three children scarcely glanced at Alec, engrossed in a video on the DVD player perched on the middle girl’s lap.
“Lovely car,” said the Volvo driver, in a Yorkshire accent redolent of the pits, cobbled streets and crusty fresh-baked loaves.
“I wish it could be a bit more reliable, though. I can see I need to install hazard lights.”
“Aye well. We’ll tell ’em in the village you’re ’ere. Happen there’ll be a garage we can stop at.”
“That’s terribly kind of you. Thank you. That would be marvellous.”
To the departing strains of “Hakuna Matata”, Alec climbed back in, dug Foucault’s Pendulum from the footwell and pretended not to flinch as each overburdened car behind his crawled past, their drivers looking at him with disdain as they went. Embarrassment shimmered like a heat haze over his head as he tried to concentrate on the labyrinthine plot. It would be good to be in Italy right now, unravelling the secrets of the Templars, particularly as there seemed more likelihood of getting a nice lunch out of it.
He weighed the tin of mints in his hand, wondering how long he would have to ration them, when the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen, happened. Vivaldi’s “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” came throbbing out from the glove compartment and jabbed him in the ear like a pointed stick. He held the mobile phone timidly in front of him and groaned. Oh this was the coup de grâce.
“Mother…” he sighed.
“Alec, darling.” The faint musical clink as she turned her numerous bangles travelled through the stratosphere and landed on him like chains. “I thought you were looking very tired last night. Are you sure this holiday idea is wise? I don’t like to think of you in that tiny, poky boat in one of your states.”
“It isn’t too late to arrange something else. I can phone Francois today and get him to hold us a suite of rooms. Think of it, how nice to have a family holiday for once. Dubai is beautiful this time of year, and I know Georgiana would jump at the chance to spend a few days with you. I may even be able to persuade your father to come—he mentioned only the other day that the markets were very slow at the moment. Think of it, all of us together. You should want to spend some time with your family.”
The bangles looped around his heart, around the arteries and veins, closing them off, squeezing. Squeezing the base of his throat. He tucked the phone into his chin and began to play with the GPS on the dashboard, to keep him distracted from the strangling sensations within.
“Mother, we have this argument every year. I need…” to get out. Away from you all. Please, just leave me alone. “I need an occasional break. Some peace and quiet on my own for a while.”
“Anyone would think you didn’t care about us.” Jangle, jangle went the bracelets. Alec imagined she was curled up on the sofa, stockinged toes tucked into the gap between the seats as she combed her hair for comfort, a little fluffy mohair mermaid on a boulder of leather.
“It isn’t that.” He groped for explanations but they eluded him. “I do love you all, very much, but…”
“Well then, there shouldn’t be a problem. I must say it looks very odd, your suggesting that Caroline should go to New York with her friends. I’m your mother, you can afford to ignore me, but you shouldn’t treat your fiancée so callously. Come to Dubai and bring her with you. I’d be delighted if she came too, you know how much I adore her. And I’m sure the poor girl wonders what you mean to do in Cornwall all month without her.”
“I told her before I left.” Alec fumbled the stylus of the GPS. It dropped between his feet, and he ground the heel of his right foot into the toes of his left to avoid swearing even under his breath. “I’ll sail. I’ll read books. Mother, it’s just that…”
“No, no, I know that tone of voice. Very well, then. If you don’t want to come to us, we can always bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak, and come to you.”
“What!” All the bonds inside him tightened. He abandoned his quest to roll the stylus towards him with his toes and sat struggling to breathe, his hands clenched in his lap. This is my time. My time. My one and only month of life. Leave me alone. Even in the privacy of his mind the litany sounded pathetic, childish and contemptible. “Mother, you just can’t…”
A recovery van with the legend Perranporth Motors came into sight around the corner of the high street and drove swiftly up the hill. Alec took a deep breath and then another, concentrating on unknotting his muscles one by one from the scalp down.
“Oh, I know we can’t stay on the yacht. I don’t suppose Caroline would want to. I certainly wouldn’t. But we can meet for dinner. Do lunch. Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s long past time we finalized the wedding, but both of you are always so busy. What could be better than…?”
“Mother, I have to go, I’m on the road. I’ll…” hide in my room until you leave, “…phone you later tonight, when I’ve arrived. We’ll talk about this.” He stabbed the red button, then turned the phone off completely and struggled with the impulse to hurl it under the wheels of the oncoming van.
Further humiliation ensued as the van held up the oncoming traffic in order to do a three-point turn on the narrow road and come to rest a couple of yards ahead of Alec’s car. There followed one of those excruciating roadside moments with which he had grown familiar over his years of owning this beautiful, but temperamental, vehicle. Two mechanics in blue coveralls lifted the bonnet and asked him questions he couldn’t answer about the mechanics within.
“I don’t know,” he said, to a question about the differential. The differential what? “I’m afraid I keep meaning to learn, but then I get it fixed, and it works, and I forget again.”
A real man, of course, would have been able to repair the thing himself, using a rubber band and a paper clip he kept for the purpose in his shoe. At the very least he would be able to give a detailed account of the previous breakdowns, and what the problems had been then. Alec’s father kept the service history of his cars in a row of leather-bound logbooks on the bottom half of the first bookshelf in the library, but Alec had rebelled against this as being far too dweeb-like. “I haven’t a clue, I’m afraid.”
“Never mind then, mate.” The younger of the two recovery men had the high-pitched voice of a woman. Closer examination revealed that, yes, she was indeed a recovery woman. Her shorn hair and piercings, as well as the shapeless, oversized coveralls and big boots had misguided him. Clearly, he thought despondently, even some women make better men than me. “We’ll tow you down to the garage and see what’s up with it there.”
Towed into Perranporth town itself and into a side street behind a wetsuit warehouse, he was given a Styrofoam cup of too-strong tea as he signed papers in the tiny, dingy office. Mechanics gathered round the car with all the professional admiration of crows around roadkill.
“Come back in about two hours,” said the manager. “We should know what we’re dealing with by then. We don’t get too many Morgan Roadsters in the shop, as you can imagine, so that may slow us up some. They have their foibles, these old things, but you can’t help loving them.”
“Yes.” Alec smiled with faint relief, finally hearing something which proved he was not entirely among aliens. “That’s it exactly. It has character.”
One o’clock found him standing on Perranporth High Street, wondering where he could find a fortifying lunch. He deserved something nice, with a half bottle of decent wine, in an airy discreet sort of place where the waiters wouldn’t intrude. Somewhere peaceful, where he could think things through and unpick the tangle of gold wire that seemed to have lodged in his chest.
But the high street proved short on exclusive restaurants. His white boating slacks and blue yacht-club blazer fitted into the crowd about as well as Captain Cook’s men must have blended in with the South Sea Islanders. Skimpy swimwear, lobster-coloured sunburn and dappled fat seemed the uniform of the day.
The sense of being out of place chased him away from the cowrie-shell necklaces and the swarming fast-food eateries. Next to a surf shop on whose white plastered front hung a disturbing sculpture—it looked like a woman drowning, but he imagined it was meant to be a sea nymph—a notice claimed one could cut through to the beach. That seemed preferable to sitting behind the black glass of the Chinese takeaway, eating limp noodles amongst dead flies and shrieking kids. He could walk along the beach for a couple of hours instead. Maybe get an ice cream, the sea at his left hand, blessedly and cleanly empty. A moral support he despised himself for needing.
The small path led past tourist apartments festooned with drying towels, to a narrow bridge over a shallow stream, clear as glass. Pavement gave way to fine white sand, and Alec took off his blazer, shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and his shirtsleeves. At once, better camouflaged, he felt slightly more at ease.
The sand slid soft and insinuating between his toes. The path branched, a larger half going down along the stream, straight out onto the beach. But he followed the smaller track up into the tussocks of long grass where the land fought the sea in irregular green sand dunes.
Light shone crystal bright. More orange tiger lilies bent down to the ground, whistled over by the sea breeze. Above, seagulls wheeled, their wings silver against the cerulean sky. Wind hissed in the grass and, beneath its high note, came the deep forestlike sigh of the ocean as it spent its last breath on the shore. The sound of it restored his smile. He could always sail straight to France this evening, as soon as he arrived at his berth. Anchor at Caen, spend the summer on the coast of France instead, leaving no forwarding address.
The sun kneaded the tension out of his shoulders. It would be unforgivably rude, of course, to allow his mother and fiancée to sweat and fume in St. Ives while he sailed off to Bordeaux. But it was pretty damn rude of them to deny him the one thing he asked for himself all year long, and then to expect him to thank them for it. Perhaps a week or so spent vainly waiting for him to return would finally drive home to his family that he had needs too.
In this defiant frame of mind, when he came out from the dunes to find the great sweep of Perranporth Bay before him, he was in the mood to appreciate it. He stood, gazing down, and took in a deep breath that tasted like courage. To his left, the stream meandered over perpetually damp sand in puddles bright as platinum. There, a hoard of children were skimming over the water like swallows on brightly painted skim boards, teaching themselves the astonishing balance needed for surfing.
If he followed the stream out to sea, it lost itself among tumbled rocks. Steps, green with weed to a point high over his head, descended precariously from a street of fine Edwardian hotels. Attached to the harbour wall, a great arch of stone stood out into the water. Waves echoed beneath it, tempting him to roll his trousers farther up and wade out, to pass through it. It should open, surely—like the doorways in the books he’d read as a child—into another world.
The long grass, on the other hand, suggested he should lie down and listen to the ocean. He should watch the butterflies go spiralling over his nose, and the crickets hop, bright green and self-obsessed, from tussock to tussock around him, until he was altogether soaked in sunshine and silence.
But then his stomach rumbled.
Fortunately, to his right, a large shack-like building covered with sea-weathered timber was surrounded by a crowd crammed onto picnic tables, eating burgers and chips. The smell of grease and spilled beer almost took his appetite away, but his aimless feet led him inside, regardless. Once there it seemed inevitable to buy fish and chips, and dare the house white at the bar.
The fruit machine and stained carpet drove him back outside, drink in hand. He wrestled himself onto the end of an uncomfortable bench and waited for his food to arrive.
The wine was cold enough for condensation to mist the glass and trickle over his hot fingers, and the meal when it came was not inedible. There was a distinct taste of onion rings about the batter, but the fish was surprisingly good, tender and delicate. He drank the wine quickly enough so that the chill disguised the taste, and watched the on, Great British public enjoy themselves on the beach.
In a line of multicoloured encampments, bright plastic windbreaks fluttered with a sound like sails in the breeze, and bathers struggled into or out of their costumes, performing the dance of seven veils with a towel. Beyond, the children being buried up to their necks in sand lay a damp, tawny-coloured expanse on which the energetic were playing beach volleyball or flying kites.
Behind that, the sea, turquoise where it washed the beach, deepened rapidly to indigo blue. In the shallow foam, more of the endless variety of people were paddling and trying not to jostle. Children and their parents waded out to catch the waves, then launched themselves belly down on their bodyboards onto the shore.
Further out, the aristocracy of the beach, the surfers, rode the waves like swans. Once he had begun to watch them, he could not wrench his eyes away. The sun had lowered now from the noon and shone behind their heads, making them sharp black silhouettes limned with light.
One man had edged his way to the very front of his board and stood with his arms outstretched like the Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce.
Alec only noticed that he had stopped eating when the fish fell off his fork onto his knee. Even then he brushed it away without looking down, heart in his mouth. Surely that wasn’t possible? Why didn’t the board tip up, hit its rider in the head and dump him into the waves? He watched with awe and fear, his spirit straining out towards the man, willing everything to go well.
But the surfer had no need of Alec’s help. He had tipped his head back, laughing with joy. Something about that silhouette caught at Alec’s chest with a painful thrill. The curve of the man’s arms against the shining sky was numinous. His body defined perfection, from his bare feet, braced slender legs, the arch of his spine, the turn of his throat, to the streaming scarf of his long hair in shadow. Alec had sat here expecting tawdry delights, not expecting to see a god come up from the sea. His heart leapt into his throat as if he was terrified.
Some other force lowered his fork onto his plate; he forgot where his hand was, caught up in the vision. The surfer, his surfer, had now, slowly and gracefully returned to the centre of his board and skimmed over the creaming froth at the edge of the sea. He was coming to earth! Lightly stepping into the foam, he pulled his board up, tucking it beneath his arm.
Alec held his breath, sure that the inhuman grace would not survive on land, sure the swan would come down from flight and reveal its ducklike feet. But no.
The spray of the sea had taken on a golden hue in the afternoon sunshine, and still the surfer was nothing more than a silhouette, tall and lean, faintly shining as the wetsuit reflected the sun. Squinting against the glare, Alec made out a shaggy head of hair, the dark strokes of long clean limbs. God! The man even walked like a flame.
He came closer. Colour slid across the edges of his silhouette. He was walking out of the haze like an ascended being materializing out of light. Don’t…don’t let him be… Don’t let him be what? What was Alec afraid of? That the man would turn out to be ugly? Or worse, that he would become ordinary, like a mirage disappearing into the sand at the very instant that he was about to plunge his blistered, parched mouth into the water?
A last moment before the eye could fully register the details and then his surfer took another step, walking out of legend and into the everyday light. It was the shaggy hair that caught Alec’s attention first, strawberry blond as eighteen-carat gold, tangled in wind- and salt-soaked curls around an open, smiling bronzed face. Alec breathed in deep. God! Oh God. For here was summer and holidays and freedom embodied in one lithe package, still glistening a little from the sea and striding up the hill towards him like all his dreams come true.
Of course, the man was not coming to him. Of course he wasn’t, he was going into the café to buy himself a drink or to meet his friends. Any moment now and he would walk away, without the faintest idea that he had shaken Alec’s careful world apart. He would go inside and meet his equally svelte, bikini-clad girlfriend and all the sun would be gone from the summer. He must not be allowed. Once, just for once in his life, Alec had to grasp and hold the chance for happiness instead of cravenly watching it pass.
So close now, Alec could read the make on his wetsuit, see the individual grains of sand that dusted the black material, the drops of water trembling on the points of his hair. Now or never. But Alec couldn’t, couldn’t. Could he?
He stood up. “Stop!” His mouth dried out as the surfer’s dark, dark green eyes looked into his, startled and curious. Suddenly he felt an absolute fool. He was inviting a good kicking, at least. But damn it, a man couldn’t always be afraid.
“Don’t go past. Please. Sit down and drink with me. If you go past… If you go past, I think I’ll die.”
Darren took a step back, snapped out of his post-wave high. What the…? He’d heard some chat-up lines in his time but that won points for being the most desperate. As he rocked back, leaning on his board, Krissy gave him a head toss of exasperation and led the others inside. He could hear them laughing all the way to the bar.
“Are you buying?” he asked, testing the water.
The guy had still not sat down, was leaning forward over his table, all Hugh Grant floppy hair, starched designer shirt and pleading. He gave a slight wince, as though he’d been all primed up to duck a punch, and fell over his lolling tongue to say, “Oh yes. Yes, of course. Anything.”
“If you like.” Not a flicker of calculation in the blue slate eyes, only a kind of awe, like someone witnessing the second coming of Christ. Darren tilted his head to one side to see if that would make the expression look more like lust. It didn’t.
The air crackled about him with the intensity of that stare. What the fuck? Had he caught himself another weirdo? Did he have some kind of “normal blokes need not apply” invisible sign above his head?
“I’m not sure it’s the sort of place where you can get champagne though.” The stranger dropped his eyes, gave one of those sweet, self-depreciating smiles all the rich boys must get taught at finishing school. What the hell was a man like him doing, anyway, having to pull rough trade off the beach when surely all he had to do was crook a finger and every strapping lad in his Eton rugby team would be on their knees in gratitude in seconds?
This is the point where you run away. Yeah?
“No, it’s not. I’ll have a beer.” Darren didn’t trouble with “thanks”. They both knew the sort of thank-you acceptable in this game.
“Really? You will?”
Darren watched the blush smoulder slowly from the man’s white open collar to the roots of his glossy coffee-brown hair, gobsmacked and annoyed with himself for saying yes. Annoyed with the stranger too, for giving him another chance to say no. C’mon now, get it out. “No, actually I won’t…” and walk away. C’mon now, Darren, you promised yourself.
On the other hand, the guy wasn’t a bad-looking trick. In fact he was gorgeous, his face all well-bred angles and perfect skin. When he looked down, as he was now, the blush turned brown eyelashes to bronze. They made soft little glinting fans over film-star cheekbones, gave him an inward, dreaming look as if he were up on a billboard, contemplating the scent of Eternity (bottled by Calvin Klein). If he was a harmless rich loony, it couldn’t hurt to take his money and give him what he wanted, could it? How many mental cases like Max could there be in the world, anyway?
“Really I will, but you’ll have to be quick or I’ll change my mind.”
“Don’t go anywhere. Please. Please.”
As he watched the man walk away—back straighter than a fire poker, bare feet frisking across dirty red tiles—Darren grounded his board and sank onto the bench. He pushed his fingers into the drying tangles of his hair, and as he did so, Krissy, bottled water and choc-ice in hand, slithered out from the crowd and propped a knee beside him.
“So you told him to go fuck himself, didn’t you?”
She unzipped and peeled her arms out of her wetsuit, letting the top droop like a deflated twin about her waist. Sand and water droplets gleamed on her dark skin and scattered in the neat cornrows of her hair like diamonds. She caught him hesitating and cuffed him on the side of the head. “Didn’t you?”
He pulled at the Velcro at his throat, fierce summer sunshine and shame roasting him together. “It’s only a beer.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake!”
“Krissy, I…” Darren rubbed a hand over the back of his neck to conceal his frown, scarcely conscious of hitching forward over the phantom throb of long-healed ribs. He was remembering his Nan lying broken at the bottom of the stairs, grubby hospital corridors, the old lady soldier-brave, talking away to the nurse, her skin gone blue as whey. Thinking of wheelchair lifts, replacement hips. Rehab for Kyle. Something to shut Dad up, if only for a second. “I need the money.”
“Not this much.” She placed her hand over his, a capable, almost motherly hand. “Not enough to risk another Max.”
“Yes, this much.” At the name his body tightened up, muscles locking solid. Pavlov’s dogs—I hear his name, I get ready to be hurt.
“I can get you a job at the office. They’re always looking for someone to do filing, make tea.”
If Darren looked up, he could see the stranger at the bar, nervously counting out change. Apricot-coloured afternoon sunlight drenched the man’s hair, made it look edible as treacle toffee. The white slacks had an old-fashioned charm, discreetly suggesting the curve of a nice arse without going so far as to flaunt it. Something about the posture, the poise of that carefully laundered back implied a private gym, an athletics coach or two, who made the man’s body their personal work of art.
He had a nice smile. Diffident, almost frightened. His teeth were crooked and slightly stained.
Despair slammed into Darren like a wave, sucking him down, slamming him, limp and helpless, against the lightless rock and ooze of seabed. I stack shelves all year long, Krissy. This is my month, my one month of freedom. You don’t understand. “I don’t want a job.”
“I can help you. I don’t have much spare cash yet, but—”
And now she thought he had no pride either. “I don’t sponge off my friends.”
“It isn’t like I don’t owe you.”
He shook his head, trying to shake the perfectly clear explanation in his mind out into words. I give them value for their money. I pay my way with the assets I’ve got. I don’t need your charity. Or your guilt. “But you don’t. That was a present, right? Just forget it. Maybe if I have a big emergency, then I’ll ask you. But this little stuff? I can handle it on my own.”
The stranger had stopped, arrested on the way back to the table by the sight of the two of them. Glasses and beer bottles shook in his fingers, chiming. He looked stabbed to the heart, and Darren knew he couldn’t get up now and leave. It would be like kicking Bambi just after his mother’s death.
Max hadn’t trembled, hadn’t looked at him like he was the driver of the chariot of the sun. Max had smiled that “I’m going to eat you up” smile and beckoned.
“Besides, it’s only a drink,” he said again. “I’m thirsty.”
“Prat.” Krissy shoved him hard in the head, leaving him with a roaring sensation in one ear, and opened her choc-ice. The top fell onto the bench beside him with a splat and lay there like the droppings of an enormous albatross. She made a sound of disgust and stalked away, throwing a glance spiked with poison at the trick, who returned her the flinch of a smile.
“Am I interrupting?” The man was like a ghost, soft voiced, all in white, such a lack of presence it was hard to remember he was there at all. Darren wondered, if you walked round him at the right angle, would he disappear altogether?
“Krissy,” he said. “She’s a good friend of mine. Surfing buddy.” And then, because his instincts had been all wrong about Max too, “I’ve a bunch of friends here. We look out for each other.”
“That’s good.” The man sat like a schoolboy, tucking himself neatly into the bench beside his upturned leather shoes and folded blazer. “All I seem to have is family, and they… But you don’t want to hear about all that. I’m Alec, by the way.”
“Ryan.” Darren concentrated on pouring his beer.
Condensation on the glass. Beads of sweet water reflected the sky. The beer was the colour of four o’clock sunshine and tasted of hops, bracing and tannin-sharp. Even with his eyes closed he could feel Alec’s gaze on his mouth, like the stroke of soft fur across his lips.
He put the glass down, opened his eyes. Alec recoiled, dropped his gaze to his shoes. He was, charmingly enough, drinking straight from the bottle, and it gave him a behind-the-bike-sheds air of schoolyard guilt, as though he’d been caught smoking by a teacher. “I don’t know what to say,” he confessed to the tabletop.
It was on the tip of Darren’s tongue to reply, “You don’t do this much, do you?” but that could be interpreted as disrespectful, and disrespect got you… Shit! He stiffened at the memory, rubbed one wrist and then the other.
“Are you all right?” Alec reached over, his cool fingers making stripes of sensation where they lay across Darren’s wrist. The skin was healed, but the pattern of hot, cold, hot sent a fizz of terror through him nevertheless.
“Not really. Shit, this was a bad idea.” He struggled out from the bench-and-table combo, grabbed his board. “Listen, mate, um, thanks for the drink but…”
Alec scrambled to his side, rangy as a greyhound, vibrating with regret and concern. “Maybe we could go for a walk?”
“What for?” Darren tried not to hug the fibreglass for comfort, ashamed of himself for being scared of this wet paper bag of a man but unable to stop.
“All these people make me nervous too.” The smile looked genuine enough. The look of awe warmed into something human, sympathetic, as Alec gave a small jerk of the head that might have stood in for a wry laugh. “I come here for the sea. Out there, where it’s clean.” He pointed at the great hump-backed glistening roll of the ocean.
Out, beyond where the toddlers shrieked, a lost balloon went sailing, red as poppies, into cloudless blue sky. An amber haze above the waves looked sweet as peach juice. Oh God, he could be there. He could be out there, on his own, nothing but him and the board, sun on his back and the moon tugging him forward on the crest of a wave. Flying, flying and never falling, at one with the sea.
“Yeah. Me too.” So what d’you need me for? If we’d both rather be out there? But he waited while Alec gathered up his shoes and socks, tie and blazer, something holding him in place—fellow feeling, or stupidity.
“I’ve never… I’ve never tried it. Surfboarding I mean. It must be wonderful.”
Darren laughed and looked up properly for the first time. Really looked at the man opposite him. Kind eyes. Indoor skin, already pink across the nose, a kind of high-stepping, gazelle-like grace. That faint sense that he wasn’t the only one terrified here. What the hell, it could hardly be worse than last year.
“You want to try? I can show you.”
Alec beamed as if he’d been offered the Holy Grail. This was no finishing-school smile. Too wide for his face, it stretched the skin of his cheeks into furrows, displaying the unexpected glint of a gold filling. “Oh yes please.”
“We’ll have to go shopping first. You can’t go in the water in that.” Even as he said it, the picture of Alec in dripping-wet white linen suggested itself, that modest drapery clinging to the curves and planes of him, gone half-transparent and tugging at prick and nipples. Dark nipples or pink? It was hard to tell with that mid-brown hair—could be either.
Darren walked away from the tables, up into the sparse grass of the first dune, stood looking down at the rainbow of holiday makers, the withdrawing water, wet sand like hammered silver above it. His hair tapped his cheek, stiffened with salt, and the nuclear reactor of the sun made his skin itch with heat beneath the black armour of his wetsuit. Riding the moment, his fast-beating heart steadying, he breathed in the heat haze—this could be okay—and unzipped.
Alec’s soft intake of breath faded into the hiss of the breeze, but he had on that look of religious ecstasy again. Darren made a strip show of peeling back the thick neoprene and watched to see if the expression would change. Alec’s indigo eyes rounded, flicked shyly across the length of his torso, and fixed in desperation on his necklace of wooden beads. He found himself almost insulted. It deserved something more. A compliment. A touch. Hell, he’d settle for a leer. But if Alec wasn’t going to react at all, what the hell was this about?
“I…” Alec took a half-step backwards, his body inclining away from Darren, his hands coming up to cover his nose and mouth. Running away, now Darren had just decided he might have a taste for this? How bloody typical.
But Alec’s hands fell. “Yes. Yes. Let’s…do that,” he gasped in a flustered, breathless voice. The sound of it twisted the pit of Darren’s stomach with desire.
Another long pause, until it became apparent to him that the man was frozen in place. Then Darren took him by the elbow, pulse hammering beneath his fingertips, and steered him gently along the path, out onto the high street. He tugged them both into the first clothing shop they came to, much more conscious among the crowds that Alec looked like a refugee from Ascot or Brideshead Revisited. It felt as if everyone was watching them, drawing the obvious conclusion.
“Here.” Darren pulled out board shorts printed with white and green hibiscus flowers, thrust them into Alec’s hands. The man stirred slowly from his paralysis, clutched them like a child’s security blanket to his chest, while Darren added sandals and sunblock and wondered how he raised the question of his tab. Time to find out exactly how much he was worth.
“I like your…” Alec’s glance flickered to his chest. He thought it stopped this time at the bright ring of flames tattooed around one nipple, but it was gone before he could be sure. “Necklace. I like your necklace.”
“Get one? There’s loads.” He ran his hand through a display of trinkets, sharks’ teeth and shells clattering. Behind the counter, Mrs. Blake pushed down her half-moon glasses to give him one of her looks over the top. Mr. Blake dumped an armful of children’s shortie wetsuits on top of the rack and scowled. The old man’s disgust made him feel better about the whole business, perversely enough.
He unlooped a string of black beads, tan cork and white shells, and draped it on top of the sandals. Cream skin and chocolate-covered caramel beads—if he was going to have to bite there later, he might as well make it look tasty. Besides, this was almost fun. Max would never have let him choose clothes, would never have worn a thing Darren didn’t have to plead for and…and why was he even letting the bastard in his thoughts like this? Surely it was time to move on?
“D’you want a wetsuit? How long d’you wanna be out?” It’s only an excuse, right? We go somewhere private, find a dune to lie behind and you ask for what you really want.
Though it was hard to think of Alec stuttering out the words. “I don’t… I’m not…”
The poor lad clearly didn’t do decisions well. “We’ll come out when you’re cold then, yeah? Stick ’em on, and we’ll bung your own stuff in a bag.”
Darren leaned a shoulder against the lintel of the changing room, listening to the rustles behind the stripy curtain. Trousers fell with a clank of keys, and then the soft weightless descent of pants. “Alec?” He slid the whisper into the cubical while the man was naked.
Darren fought off a sudden feeling of seasickness. This was the part that made him feel bad, dirty. Not the sex but the trade-off. He wasn’t a whore, whatever his father said, but this… It felt close. “Can you help me with something?”
“I owe the old girl for some stuff. You can’t lend me…?”
The concerned voice changed to blithe. “Oh, is that all? Yes, of course. Let me pay it for you. It’s no trouble.”
Darren tipped back his head to rest against the plywood and hugged his ribs. So he’d been right from the start. It was that kind of an arrangement. He didn’t know why it ached so much to find it confirmed.
“You want to watch him,” said Mrs. Blake at the till as Alec handed her his card. She scowled at Darren, and defiance prompted him to wind an arm around Alec’s back, prop his chin on the shoulder newly clad in an emerald tie-dye T-shirt. Alec’s blush welled through every pore and scorched his own cheek. “He’s only after one thing.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Alec said stiffly. His muscles tensed beneath Darren’s fingers, but he didn’t move away. That little frown must be saying “don’t interfere”, Darren thought with some relief as he watched the well-kept fingers key the pin number into the machine. 1371. He repeated it to himself as Mrs. Blake folded up Alec’s clothes and bagged them, putting the expensive leather shoes sole-up on top, glaring at him all the while.
“She’s not fond of you,” Alec remarked as they came out onto the sandy street and brushed past the queue at the kebab van.
“No,” Darren agreed. “Old witch. She’s happy enough to take my money—or yours. I won’t be going in there again. It’s not like she’s got the only clothes shop in Perranporth.” The arms of his wetsuit brushed him across the back of the calves. Seawater had dried into salt on his skin and he felt grubby and itchy. Mrs. Blake’s stare had a slowly penetrating quality. It carried on working even when she wasn’t there. “Listen, I’ll pay you back, yeah?”
Two children with ice cream cones brushed past Alec. He stepped into the gutter and gave a tight smile at the bumper-to-bumper traffic inching its way along the street, all glitter and fumes. “It’s really no problem.” He turned his head suddenly, transfixing Darren with an innocent, slate blue gaze. “Call it a tuition fee.”
The money was part of the deal but letting him treat it as something else was a kindness that twisted something inside him, around the level of his heart. “For the surfing? Yeah, that’s cool.”
He led Alec back the alternative route, past the sweet shop and the car park, and the place selling Fistral Bay Lifesaver jumpers at ten pounds a go. The crowd eddied around Alec in his new clothes as though he was one of their own. If there were stares still, it was now only out of admiration. The green of his T-shirt lightened his coffee-coloured hair to a soft bronze, and the thin, stretchy material clung to his torso, outlining defined muscles and the beautiful long line of spine, sweeping in an elegant S from lithe shoulders to that perky arse.
When he’d come out of the shop, he had walked like a man playing dress-up, but as he passed the skim-boarders, got his feet deep in the warm sand, all the tight contours of his body began to relax. The tensed shoulders dropped, the clipped, nervous stride lengthened.
“You look good like that.” Darren took the plastic bag out of Alec’s hand, hitched his board more comfortably onto his other hip, and offered what must have been his first smile of the date.
“I feel…” Alec looked down at himself, the baggy cropped trousers and bare feet, white ankles, white biceps. A shell glinted like pearl in the hollow of his throat. He looked up again with newborn innocence flavoured lightly with delight. “Different. Ridiculous. But…”
“More at home?”
Alec’s laugh was soft, apologetic, but his eyes shone. “Yes. Much.”
Out beyond the rock, Krissy, about the size of an ant, black against the burning water, was instantly recognizable by her style. She was a long way out, where the big waves formed over the reef, Tim and Jordan and Carl with her. He watched her pivot off the lip, a sparkle of spray like Christmas glitter against an almost white sky. Envying her, he walked farther down the beach, damp sucking sand about his toes, to where cliff and rock pools met.
They left the sunbathing crowd behind with the dry white sand. Cliff shadow fell cool over his sunburnt face. A family with nets and buckets full of rock-pool fish studiously ignored him as he laid the board down on the margins of the sea. He looked up to find Alec, hands on hips, looking out at the horizon with a knowledgeable eye. This seemed a different Alec. Here, in near solitude, he appeared less fragile, less anxious. Solidity poured into him, as if he only became real when no one was watching.
“According to the flags this is not a good spot.”
He looked bigger too, more sure of himself. Darren reached out a hand to take Alec’s arm and pull him towards the board. But something about that new confidence made his nerve fail. He drew his hand away, uncertainly, without touching. Rubbing his fingers around his wrist to soothe remembered aches, he thought, Shit. And this is where it all goes wrong.
“I know. I reckoned you’d want to practice how to stand, how to get up to standing, here where no one’s watching. We’d not go in deep.”
“You must think I’m mad.”
Well, yeah. Darren took a step back, gauged the best angle to run. But I kind of hoped you were harmless with it. “Why?”
“‘Don’t go past, I think I’ll die’?” Alec’s laugh too had expanded, grown warm and wry. It sounded genuine, honest, likeable. But then, so had Max’s honey-coated charm. “Dear God. It was a bit…stalkerish, wasn’t it? I’m not like that.” He turned away from the sea as it retreated before them both in its long, gentle afternoon withdrawal. His smile was that sweet, closed-lipped affair, all warm eyes and head-tilt that Darren felt had to be trained in. Nothing that heart-stopping could have come about without years of practice, surely?
“I’m not normally like that,” Alec corrected himself. “It’s the combination—it’s you and the summer. They made me brave. For a moment, at least.”
The hairs stood up on Darren’s arms, and the skin down his spine prickled, as it did when he felt the perfect wave build beneath him and knew it was now or never to catch it. Make the wrong move and it would drill him into the ocean bed, gone for good. What the…? “Yeah.” He tried to swallow and couldn’t quite manage it. “It does that to me too. The summer, I mean. You gotta ride the wave while it’s there, because the rest of the year’s gonna be shit no matter what.”
Alec’s mouth fell slightly, and if it was possible the intensity of his gaze picked up, blue laser bright. “Oh God, you too? It’s as though this is the only month I’m alive. I spend all the rest of the year being what other people want me to be. I’m not normally like this, because this is really me.” He took a step forward, hand out.
Darren’s heart drummed against his throat. The crawling sensation up his back intensified as all over his body his skin decided it had to be awake for this. He could feel it building like static electricity, streaming off him into the sky. Clouds should be boiling right now. If he let that outstretched hand touch him, lightning would follow the circuit, arcing down through them both, coring him out and leaving him gutted and smouldering, changed beyond all recognition.
He flinched away, dodged round the back of the board. “Hell, yeah. We must’ve been separated at birth, ’cause I know exactly what you mean.”
Alec took his hand back, looked at the palm and rubbed it slowly across the hollow of his hip. The moment passed, and in the undertow Darren cursed himself for missing it. Before last year he would have flung himself recklessly into that wave. Not any longer. “Come over here. Are you right-handed or left?”
The sun, low on the horizon, shone orange as a streetlamp as he positioned Alec’s feet on the board. Alec’s hand braced on his shoulder as he felt the cling of the wax and the tilt of the board beneath him, not at all balanced on its three stubby fins. “You have to…get…”
Darren pulled ankles farther apart, pushed down on corded thighs in lieu of explanations, manhandling Alec into position. The threat of lightning crackled in his finger ends, his face so close to Alec’s thigh he could feel the heat of it, welcome now that the day’s warmth was draining away. He ducked his head and pressed his cheek to the soft cotton shorts. Waited for the hand on his head, the low-voiced, anxious command to “suck me”.
It didn’t come. Alec wobbled and laughed, spread out his arms like a child pretending to fly, and for a long poised moment, muscles working beneath Darren’s exploring fingers, he was balanced on the nose and a single fin. “Shit!” said Darren, tension wiped out of him by admiration. “You know you might just be okay.”
After that performance he had no hesitation over getting the board in the water and Alec with it. He zipped his wetsuit closed once more as insulation against more than cold and pushed out to waist height. Swell tugged and nudged him. The lips of the waves curled over, all golden and crinkly as toffee paper. Above, a dozen seagulls flamed like phoenixes in sunset’s fire. Alec yelped and hopped. “Oh, oh God, you didn’t tell me it was this cold.”
Darren laughed, forgetting money and tricks and broken bones. He shoved Alec in the chest while he hopped and watched him go over in a flume of flying topaz spray. Alec emerged with his well-cut hair looking thick and slick as an otter’s pelt, the new T-shirt clinging to cold-peaked nipples, and a sputtering laugh that hovered somewhere between play and accusation. He scrambled, streaming, to his feet, and launched himself at Darren in a rugby tackle that took Darren’s knees out from beneath him.
The sky streaked overhead—a brief blurred image of cliffs and cloth of gold—and the sea came up to meet him. Grey underwater light, lances of sunset glitter through the ripples, and that first breathtaking chill of his dry wetsuit soaking up water. Then he emerged to find Alec laughing in glee and—bless the man—holding on to the board so it wouldn’t float away.
This laugh suited the new, private Alec, whose existence he’d only just begun to suspect—unaffected, unashamed. Darren liked it. Lunging back he got an armful of Alec’s narrow waist, his head jammed up against Alec’s breastbone. They went tumbling together, Alec’s heartbeat racing beneath his ear like the throb and hiss of the sea. Arms about him and long entangling legs between his. They wrestled, slippery in the surf, tumbling and laughing, breathing in the gold and flames of the sunset.
He let Alec win, lay under him, surrendered, while the froth of ripples tickled up him and teased his hair. Moving his hands he placed them carefully on Alec’s back. It seemed a moment for care, a moment suspended between two futures. The body above his was warm. Goose bumps stood out under his fingertips, but beneath the sea-chilled surface the core of Alec’s heat welled out in a delicious tide over his belly and groin. Closing his eyes, he waited for the expected kiss. And waited again. Alec’s interest wilted against his hip. Looking up, puzzled, Darren smiled. “You got me.”
“But what am I to do with you now?” Alec rolled off, sat hugging his knees, the leash of the board still in one hand. He watched the waves as though they worried him.
“You really don’t know?” Darren scrambled up onto his knees, leaned over and took the leash out of Alec’s hand. The fingers opened reluctantly, as if Alec clung to more than a board. What was going on here?
Sun, deep red as a flaring ember, touched the sea. He expected to hear the thunderous hiss and boil as it quenched itself, but only a chill, wilderness-scented wind came from it. Sand hollowed beneath his knees. What was going on? Could it really be that Alec didn’t know the score? They both had the same board but were trying to play different games?
“I think I’ve said before that I’m not really like this.” The goose bumps Darren had read like Braille beneath his fingers now stood out visible on the smooth white skin of Alec’s biceps, swept down the length of his arm. Silver-steel droplets of water splashed off the ends of his hair, darkening his T-shirt as fast as it dried. Closer to the town a ghost of sunlight still toasted determined sunbathers, but here beneath the shaggy brown cliffs, night came early.
Rising, Darren pulled at Alec’s arm, hauled him to his feet. “C’mon, it’s getting too cold. How about we get some tea, and you can tell me what you’re really like.”
Back at the car park, he opened the van and slid the board inside, fished out a towel for Alec, who stood looking at it as though he didn’t know what it was. Possibly he didn’t. He’d be the big-white-monogrammed-fluffy-towel type. Not the type for a second-hand Star Wars beach towel, with the pile worn off, that hadn’t been washed for a week.
Darren heard his phone ring, somewhere in the chaos of the back, and dived inside to fumble under blankets and airbed for the little flash of phone-charm in the dim.
Finding it, he thumbed it open, leaned back on the wall and watched the amusing performance of Alec struggling out of his wet gear in the tent of a towel he seemed reluctant to hold. Flashes of pale skin and muscle met his admiring gaze. “Yeah?”
“Is he gone?”
“Fuck, Krissy. No and I can’t talk now.”
“You’re at the van?”
“And he’s there too?” Her voice scaled the octave. He peeled out of wet neoprene and flung it over the passenger seat.
“Oh you loser. Now he knows what it looks like. Probably got the registration. He can follow you home, Darren. I thought we agreed…”
Darren sniffed the armpits of his cleanest shirt, hiding his face in a reflex action, even from her. “He’s…he’s different, Krissy. He’s okay.”
“You are such a loser. Get me his number, yeah? If you can’t look after yourself, I’m going to call him, put the fear of God and lawyers into him.”
“I don’t need…”
“Please. Please, Darren.” She was about to launch into some long impassioned account of how scared she’d been over the whole Max business. How insensitive of him it was not to realize that he had friends. How he’d cut her off last time, and look what happened. He could hear it all, rushing down the airwaves towards him. And yes, it was nice to have friends but…
“Sure, yeah, I’ll do that,” he said, just to make her stop.
He pulled the shirt on, wriggled out of his swimming trunks with the absurd feeling that if he displayed the goods on offer to their best effect, no one would be watching. It was…kind of nice to belong to himself again, to feel as if it was his choice whether to put out or not. “Promise.”
Dinner was pie and chips, sitting up on the hill on the edge of the park where the massive, brushed-steel sundial still caught a glint of gold on its thrusting tip. The boulders in the flowerbeds might have been made for sitting on, warm as firebricks against the backs of the legs. The pair of them squeezed close together on one, dangled their feet into waves of deep blue lavender, the scent of it spilling drowsily out into the night air. Below, the beach lay almost fully exposed by low tide, turning by slow degrees from a sheet of gold to a sheet of silver. The arch and rock island stood dry, sinister against a fading sky, but farther out the waves still rolled, turquoise and sapphire, indigo and silver, limned with flickering diamond.
“So, tell me who you really are, then.” Darren licked vinegar and crumbs of pastry from his fingers, and budged an inch or two closer so that he could feel the press of Alec’s thigh and hip against his own. He toed off his flip-flops and let them fall into the flowers.
“Well.” Alec ate with a wooden fork, like a maiden aunt. He smiled at Darren’s feet. “I’m Alec. Er, that is, Ptolemy Alexander St. John-Goodchilde.”
Darren choked on his beer. “No shit? That’s something to run away from right there.”
Alec’s quiet blue gaze grazed the side of his jaw, the smile on his lips. “Indeed. And my sister is Georgiana Cleopatra.”
“Oh, that’s so not right.”
“It was a measure of what they expect from us.”
A soft, dry little remark. Darren might have laughed again, if he had not caught the frown—the same frown that had been leveled on Mrs. Blake. Two creases about the brow and a darkening of the eyes. It wasn’t turned on him, but it made him falter nevertheless.
“My father built a business empire out of nothing more than obsession and cunning.” Alec’s lips compressed at the sides. “So naturally he wanted imperial heirs. I’ve been breathing business deals since I was six. I have stocks and shares in my blood.” He drove the wooden fork deep into the flesh of a chip. “It’s exactly as interesting as it sounds.”
“You sound like you hate it.”
“I don’t hate it, exactly. I can do it. I’m competent enough, and”—the fork emerged out of the other side of the chip, tore the paper bag on Alec’s knee—“I suppose the thing is that it’s easier to do what they want than to fight about it. It’s not so very horrible that it’s worth defying my father and hurting my mother to make it stop.”
“But you have to have a break, yeah? You have to have the summer off,” Darren said to show that he understood perfectly. Stocks and shares sounded pretty dull to him, and he’d folded the lids down on one too many microwave dinners on the factory assembly line to know exactly how it felt to be driven mad by the sameness of it all, the grinding, endless fucking tedium of work.
“Yes.” Alec’s frown washed away, the smile glimmered out once more. “I hand over to Gordon—that’s my second in command—and come down to the marina in St. Ives. I have a yacht there—the Lady Jane—and she’s like another world. The whole month is like another world, to tell the truth. A world I chose, instead of merely being born to.” His voice softened, puzzled and gentle. “I don’t normally tell people this. They don’t understand. But this month is all I have of myself. Everything else is for other people.”
“I always thought…” The first stars were being born, wobbly and pale in the band of sky above their heads. Down by the pub, the roar of voices and laughter mixed with the deep, catarrhy rumble of touring motorbikes. But here Alec sat on the boulder as white as a wave top, the shirt and slacks picking him out against the darkening night, quietly pouring out the secrets of his heart. Darren breathed in and let the breath go, relaxing into the stillness. Perhaps he might try a personal remark after all. “I always thought when you had money you could do anything you liked.”
Alec drew up one leg and laced his fingers about the knee. His head turned fully to focus on Darren’s face, those dark blue eyes the exact colour of the sky. “Did you?”
“Yeah.” Darren caught the gaze and smiled for no other reason but that he was content. He waved a chip in illustration of his point. “Me, if I had the money, I’d have my own shop here. A surf shop.”
“Hm.” Alec bit into his pie and looked surprised. He licked the overflow of curry sauce from his chin and fingers, managing to convey by body posture alone that he was terribly sorry, and he wasn’t normally so uncouth. “I wouldn’t say there was a lot of demand. You’d have three or four competitors in the same street.”
“They’re for kooks.” Darren tried to remember if he had ever sat like this with any of his summer sponsors, just talking, warm and peaceful and private together. What am I to do with you, Alec had said, as if he’d never done this before. More than that, as if he had no idea he was being offered companionship for pay. Could he really believe they were…what? Going out? Becoming friends?
The thought hurt like peeling a scab off a half-healed wound. “I mean,” he said, scrunching up his chip paper to cover any flinch, “I’d mend boards and kayaks, and I’d run a school—lot of kids coming through here who want to try at least, who’d love to sign on for a couple of days tuition. I’d sell proper gear—not the tourist tat—and in the winter I’d go to Taiarapu and Bells Beach. Show the world we do have surfers in England after all. Maybe win some prize money and plough it back in to the shop.”
“That could work.” Alec finished his chips and looked around for a bin to put the paper in. “Though the present economic climate is not the best for starting out in a new business. Particularly one not based on providing a necessity.”
He might claim not to like his work, Darren thought, but it seemed the work suited him. Alec’s eyes narrowed when he talked shop, his face and voice sharpened, making Darren wonder if “I’m competent” was some kind of modest upper-class understatement.
Alec hopped off the boulder onto the path, reached out a hand for Darren’s wadded-up rubbish, and stuffed it with his own gingerly into the top of the nearest overflowing bin. It was the maddest thing to get choked up about, but Darren had to turn aside to swallow down the lump in his throat. He ran each bead of his necklace through his fingers from the carved pendant and back again before he could be confident he didn’t look like he was about to cry.
Rich guys didn’t do this kind of thing, didn’t tidy up after you or listen to your mad ramblings about stuff that was never going to happen. They didn’t spill out their souls and tell you that you were more real than the rest of their life. Rich guys bought you and the best you could hope for was that they’d give you back in good condition after they were finished.
“Surfing is a necessity.” He crouched down to retrieve his shoes from the flowerbed. The blast of lavender in the face was like walking into one of those posh herb shops where you could buy a small bag of nettle leaves for a fiver. Today had been a bit like homeopathy, in fact. They’d hardly said a thing, hardly done more than walk together and paddle and eat chips. Nothing earthshaking. And yet that tiny dose of…whatever it was. Friendship? It had worked its way through his whole being, changing everything.
Maybe he should give up on the idea of tapping Alec for as much money as he could get and let this thing build at its own pace? Be ready to catch it or happy to let it go, both at once if he could?
“Like yachting is a necessity, yeah? You might not die without it, but you sure as shit wouldn’t be alive.”
Alec stuffed his hands into his pockets and gave a soft noiseless laugh through his nose, and Darren wondered if it was too late now to say “you’ve got a spot of…” and lean in to lick imaginary curry sauce from the corner of that neatly bow-shaped mouth.
“So,” he said, thinking of Tall Trees Nightclub in Newquay, lancing yellow lights through purple smoke, music that made you fly till dawn, the beautiful people off their heads with the beat and the booze. In his all-white gear, Alec would flare under UV light like a well-bred angel, and damn if he didn’t need something to unbutton him, let the hidden man out.
The month stretched before Darren, full of promise. Maybe Alec was in a whole different league from Max? Maybe he was the kind of bloke who could share the summer, instead of just paying for it? “What should we…?”
His phone buzzed in his back pocket, making his bum tingle. He flicked it out with a smile and the voice on the other end mullered all his hopes in three whining words. “I need money.”
Fuck you. Tucking the phone between ear and shoulder he turned away from Alec’s curious gaze and hissed, “Go fuck yourself, Kyle. You could try phoning some time you don’t.”
“Don’t jerk me around, dickhead.” Kyle’s voice spat like boiling water from a kettle, bursting out in jets of rage and fear. In the background of the call, a thrash metal band shouted something angry to the shredding steel of their guitars. The racketing clack of a train passing told Darren that his brother had gone to ground in the shed outside his squat, and that meant that Kyle had pissed someone off and been thrown out again.
“Like it’s any skin off your nose if your latest pansy boyfriend gets to pay a bit more for his tail tonight. You got money and I need it. Couple of thousand should cover it.”
Darren kicked at a stone in the path, breathing hard, trying not to throw the phone as far as he could over the edge of the path—watch it sail out, twinkle like a star before it smashed to smithereens on the harbour road. Satisfying as it might be, it wouldn’t help. “I’m not your personal…”
“‘Whore’? No? Could’ve fooled me. You still with that Max? Put me on to him, he’s an okay guy for a fucking shit-stabber. He’d pay me off like that.” The distant sound of fingers clicking, and Darren shook with a tidal wave of desire to stamp on them and break each bone individually under his heel.
“I said no, Kyle. Piss off and die.”
The distant radio clicked off. In the silence after, blinds rattled over the plastic shed window. “You don’t…” Kyle lowered his voice, whispering. Something landed on top of the microphone and slithered off with a scraping, hessian noise. “You don’t understand. They’re…”
A boom on the distant door. He could hear the shed tremble and groan, Kyle digging deeper into his pile of sacks, whimpering. His anger broke and frothed away into concern. “Hey…are you…?”
A rending, tearing sound. He grabbed the phone in both hands as if he could hold back what sounded like axes, chopping through the planks. Kyle’s breath hissed fast and panicky down the line. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay. I shouldn’t have said that stuff. You’re an okay guy, Darren. You’re my brother, yeah, you’re my family. My own flesh and blood. I know you won’t let me down. Listen, I need the money. I’ve got to say I can get it to them tomorrow. I didn’t mean to diss you, okay? It came out angry ’cause I’m fucking scared, Darren. Two thousand. It’s not much. Please. They’ll kill me!”
Darren tasted the vinegar of the chips, rancid as bile in his throat as he fought not to be sucked in again. What was he supposed to believe? It wouldn’t be the first time the little bastard had staged something like this to get one over on him. But it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been in trouble with a dealer either.
“They’re coming through the door, Darren!”
Ah, what was the point? What was the point of hoping for anything? Four weeks away from this kind of shit, was that too much to ask? And yet how could he listen to that whining desperation and say no? “Yeah fine. Listen, don’t worry. I’ll get it to you tomorrow. In the morning.”