AU a bit. Future-fic.
For the lovely mimioomin (who very kindly beta-ed). Belated xmas wishes. <3
IT’S JUST A FAIRYTALE
This house is a grave. Peter writes the words neatly over the front door, and steps back to appraise his work. Then he reaches up again, the long stretch of him unwinding like a cat, to ink in a full stop.
‘Well. That’s made all the difference,’ mutters Carl.
Carl is sulking because there’s no hot water. Barely any cold water, come to that. He’s sulking because there are no spoons left and things actually living in the kitchen sink. Because he’s just found a bearded man named Steve eating the last of their cocoa pops, dry from the box in big handfuls, getting stuck in the tufts of his beard. He is sulking because absolutely none of these things are unusual. And it’s only fucking Tuesday.
Peter Doherty is the worst housemate in the entire known universe. Carl thinks this most days, with a mixture of despair and admiration and murderous rage. On good days, he wonders if there’s some kind of official award he could nominate Peter for, because surely this consistent level of sheer bloody minded disastrousness shouldn’t go unrecognised. On bad days, Carl wonders if he would get away with cutting Peter into tiny pieces while he’s sleeping and smuggling out the severed chunks of his housemate’s endless limbs in bin bags.
Cold water and bearded cereal-pilferers do nothing to dim the sunshine burning brightly over Peter’s existence. Because Tuesday is his day off. That sacred, precious hoard of hours when he doesn’t have to drag himself out of bed before dawn cracks an eye open, and dig holes for the dead. There are days when Peter feels himself being buried along with the bodies, dirt filling his eyes and mouth and brain. Days when his thoughts are confined in long, blocky rectangles. All the words stuck in straight lines. And he wants to bury them all. But today is for the living. Although Peter suspects that if he doesn’t invite Steve the beardy stranger to leave, and start boiling enough kettles for Biggles to have a bath, he might be digging his own grave before the day’s out.
Fourteen. It takes fourteen kettle-fuls of boiling water to fill the bathtub. Fourteen lots of the slow watching wait, high screeching whistle, careful-careful-not-to-spill carrying into the bathroom and pouring steaming streams of water into the tub. Some people would say this was a waste of a day off. But Peter likes the soothing repetition of it. The clear purpose of his task. Likes the way he can see the tension ease out of Carl with each gush of steam. The way he melts in the heat, all the anger and tightness in his face dissolving like soap suds.
‘D’you ever think about your funeral?’ Peter asks, from a safe distance. Perched on the closed toilet lid while Carl is slumped in the bath. Close enough to splash, too far to touch.
‘I think about yours a lot. Does that count?’ There is no real menace in his voice. Words more sighed than snarled, turned soft and lazy in the steam like Carl.
The water’s hot enough to blush Carl’s skin a pretty shade of pink. And there’s so much of it on display, bare and wet, stretched out in the tub. Bubbles cover his dignity, more or less – and Peter decides it’s safest not to mention that they’re more Fairy than bubble bath – but there’s still plenty to keep Peter occupied. And so long as he keeps talking, mingling words with the steamy air, he can’t be accused of spying. Meanwhile, he has all the time in the world to take advantage of Carl’s heat-sated state – eyes half closed, head tipped back to bare the golden arch of his throat – to drink him in. Inky coils of dark hair painted over his face, plastered to his neck. Water droplets loitering on his golden skin, creeping their delicate trails over all the soft, secret places Peter wants to touch.
‘Want me to scrub your back?’
‘Will it shut you up?’
‘Er maybeeee… If you let me scrub your front too.’
Carl is a master of the long-suffering sigh, but it’s dampened by all the hot water, and the way he flops back without a fight. Offering himself up to Peter’s hands and his very thorough ministrations. Squirming delightfully in response as Peter scrubs at his skin, touching as much as he can get away with before Carl changes his mind. Although he needn’t worry, going by the way he arches up into Peter’s touch, pressing closer when he rubs roughly over the sharp ladder of his ribs, the hard buds of his nipples dark and wet. Biting down on his bottom lip, plump and pink like summer fruit, makes Peter want to sink his own teeth in. And even Carl finds it hard to sound annoyed whilst he’s whimpering like that. So emboldened, Peter slides a hand deeper into the bubbles, ignoring the wet creeping up his sleeve, and finds him very hard indeed.
‘Urrrgggmmffg,’ says Carl.
‘I said,’ he sighs, ‘just get in.’
And Peter doesn’t need telling twice.
The house is too big. Carl has walked around it twice, and from every angle, whichever eye he squints out of, there’s too much space.
Small, he’d said. Modest. He’d avoided bachelor pad, because it’s too fucking depressing. But he regrets it now. Four bedrooms. Four. He’s had to give the guitars their own room. Put a little desk in another, that he’s optimistically calling the study in his own head. His bedroom is an expanse of white space; a massive glassy chandelier hovers above the bed, all sharp edges and glinting light. It dangles like a hung man from a rickety chain, hooked into the ceiling. Looks ready to crash and cave in his skull in the middle of the night. Of course, we could have that removed, said the estate agent, following his gaze to the sharp spikes of glass. No, no, Carl said, leave it. He suspects that might the most excitement he’s going to get from bedtime.
Surrey, then. It has come to this. He feels rather like he should be keeping bees. Blonde estate agent, all pink lips and eager for her commission, looked alarmed when he muttered about hives. Carl wonders if he’s going a bit odd. And if living alone is entirely the best solution for that.
By breakfast, on his third day, Carl decides he might be losing his mind. Perhaps he should take the estate agent’s suggestion of getting a pet. A cat, she’d said, he looks like a cat man. He isn’t. Carl had smiled politely and ignored the flutter in her lashes as she handed him her card. Tossed onto the fire – real flames crackling through logs, smoky and violent – as soon as her precarious heels had tottered down the driveway.
Maybe he should get a cat. Carl peers around the living room, the endless stretch of wooden floor and scattering of furniture. The walls and cupboards are bare. Emptiness all around him. Maybe a very large cat. He squints to make out the hands on the clock. Eleven o’clock. In the morning. Fuck, days are long when you’re sober. Which Carl decides was his first mistake.
He misses days four to eight. Lost in a long, dark stretch of shadows dancing over the walls and thinking blissfully about nothing at all. Not the ache in his hip that makes him feel a hundred years old, and has him stretched out flat on the wooden floor. Not the album he’s not writing or the doctor and his fucking grim proclamations about livers and lifestyle choices. Not the woman who won’t answer his calls and the swirly knot of dread that one day she might, and he’ll have to say something neither of them believe anymore. Definitely not the balcony or the bedsheets. Bottles marking out the time; dark and light swapping places behind the windows.
Ten days in, Carl is talking to his shadow. On the eleventh day it starts talking back. And they don’t get on, at all. Sarcy fucker. Carl needs a plan. He sits in the study for half an hour, watching the sun creep over the blank walls. Gets a crick in his neck and his thoughts. Then he snatches some paper and a pen, swipes a bottle of wine from the kitchen, and de-camps to the balcony. Sunshine and sweet wine lubricate his brain into action and he watches his hand scurry across the page.
Always eat breakfast.
Do not talk to the shadows.
Eat your five-a-day.
Find out how to get bees??
Tour buses are made for dwarves. And you’d never fit seven of them in here. Peter stretches, one leg at a time, trying to regain the feeling in his toes. He feels like he’s been locked in a box. Or a coffin. Turning him to ice from the inside out. Probably only a matter of hours before rigor mortis sets in.
Four in the morning is brutal. That nasty gash, deep and dark, between night and day. It’s when all the demons get in. Bad enough in a place with bricks and mortar, something solid to hide behind. Rattling down the motorway in this metal casket, walls shaking around him, it feels like he’s teetering on the edge of the world. Ready to plunge off the cliff-edge and crash into the abyss.
All good reasons to crawl into Biggles’ bunk, he decides. Besides the usual ones: the bundle of warm skin and soft limbs, silky hair, smoky breath, that will sigh and grumble and shape itself around him.
It’s alright for Carlos, he’s built on the right scale for this tiny contraption. And Peter marvels at the unfairness of his friend. Carved like a marble god in Barbie’s dream house proportions. Stretching up on tip-toe to reach the high cupboard in the kitchenette. Folding neatly into his bunk.
Peter drags himself out of his stupor. Forcing life into his limbs, propelling himself upright. Knowing if he doesn’t shake off this chilly gloom, it will cling to him all day, damp and grey like mist. Hanging like a heavy curtain between Peter and the world, shutting out all its colour.
Carl is sleeping. Sprawled on his front, sheets tangled around him, drooling on his pillow. For a moment, Peter just watches. Reluctant to disturb him from the pleasant sleepy land he’s found. Thinks about taking himself to the sofas instead, stretching out under a blanket with something black and white on the telly, watching the muted shapes flicker, and waiting for daylight. Then an arm reaches out, fingers grasping empty air in the darkness. Flicking back the edge of the bedsheets as Carl rolls onto his side, making a Peter-shaped space beside him. C’mere then, he mumbles.
He shudders when Peter’s cold skin touches his, and curls closer. Tucking himself around Peter like a blanket, arm winding around his waist and legs tangling together, face nuzzling into his neck and making soft, comforting sounds that might be words. Abyssagain? Yeah, Peter sighs and starts to say sorry, breathing it into Carl’s hair with a kiss. He smells like smoke and aftershave and whisky and not-quite-clean skin. He smells like something of Peter’s. That unique blend of innocuous things which will always smell like home.
It is the morning of Carl’s sixth week in his new house. The new is getting softer in his head. Soon, he thinks, he might say house, at least to himself. He’s halfway through breakfast, when there’s a loud clattering sound at the front door. Followed by banging and a barrage of small crashes, and some frenzied swearing. There have been no phone calls. No invitations. One letter, written late at night in a sloping hand, smudged with too much wine and too little sleep, sent weeks ago. His return address scribbled at the last minute on the back of the envelope. No reply. Not that he’s been checking, asking at the tiny local post office, every day.
Carl finishes buttering his toast and then goes to answer the door. He isn’t remotely surprised by the long figure that unfolds on his doorstep, righting the hat on his head. Amidst a chaos of over-spilling bags and hat boxes and a battered guitar case.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ he says. Which is bewildering enough that Carl stands back to let him inside, without argument. And then finds himself compliantly lugging bags and boxes and piles of books after the tall intruder.
‘Just passing through, are you?’ he asks, heaving a bulging leather holdall into the living room.
Peter smiles benignly.
‘Couldn’t find anything bigger, then, Carlos?’
Carl glares at the room with its vast space and light.
‘I’m thinking about extending.’
‘Yeah? Always said you could use a few more inches,’ says Peter. And Carl thinks about throwing him out, there and then. But he settles for throwing himself at Peter instead. In a crash of cases and limbs and hard wooden floor, which his right hip seriously regrets. But there’s the familiar weight of solid flesh on top of him, breathing hard and fast, and a wet mouth against his own. After weeks of nothing, it feels like clinging to a life-raft. Mm, you know, some people say hello first, murmurs Peter against his mouth. Some people wait to be invited, sighs Carl. Be waiting forever, wouldn’t I? And Carl supposes he’s right, so he settles for kissing back.
Later, as the setting sun stripes the room gold and grey, Carl looks at his visitor. Half asleep, stretched out across the length of his sofa. Nestled into the plumpest cushions, Carl’s only blanket draped over legs that seem to bend in all directions at once. Practically purring in contentment. Careful what you wish for, Carl mutters to himself. But it’s quite hard to mean it.
Carl would make a good cat. He wouldn’t agree, of course. Likes to think of himself as a dog, Biggles, faithful to the end. Peter knows better though. He’s felt the cool indifference turned on him whenever Carl decides he’s misbehaved. When he hasn’t got anything that Carl wants: praise, obedience, songs.
He’s rubbish at fetching, anyway.
Peter reaches over to take the lighter out of his fingers and tosses it to the end of the bus. And all he gets is Carl blinking after it and smacking him on the arm. Whatthefuck?
Exactly my point, Peter nods, getting up to retrieve the lighter. Opportunistic too, he thinks, as Carl mumbles a request for whisky after him. Anything else? he asks. Glass of milk? Giant ball of wool..? Carl glares at him, trying to work out how exactly he’s being mocked. But he lets Peter placate him, putting the lighter and whisky in his hands, settling against him again.
When he has a lapful of sleepy Carlos, warm and pliant, letting Peter’s hands stroke through the soft velvet of his hair, fingertips scratching his scalp and making him sigh contentedly, he’s convinced of the boy’s feline wiles. Irresistible. Impossible.
He’s observed the way his friend drifts door to door, always able to find a warm bed for the night. Usually in the arms of a soft young thing, happy to let Carl come and go, and a mother who’ll eye up those golden curves and sharp ribs in the morning and insist on feeding him up.
With a dog, at least you can put a collar on him. Mark him out as yours. Possession makes Carl’s hackles rise, and jealousy leaves him spitting and clawing to get away. Hates the way Peter takes against his friends. Furious at the perfectly practical suggestion that Carlos could simply befriend fewer cunts.
Still, he knows he will always open the door. Every time Carl turns up in the middle of the night. That soft sound that’s more like scratching than knocking. Weaving his way into the room around Peter, seductive curves and big blue eyes, stealing the warmth of his bed and all his cigarettes. Make a good rent boy too, Peter supposes. Affection for hire, so long as you can pay in treats.
But Peter can the days disappearing, spooling between them like a ball of wool. Fears the day the frayed end of it slips through his fingers. He’s running out of words and favours to buy Carl’s attention, distracted by new, shinier things. Gaps widening between these quiet, gentle moments together, when Carl presses into Peter’s hands like he belongs there. He sees it in the hard lines of his back when Carl pauses in the doorway, leaving, reassembling himself. Stolen cigarette tucked between his lips and zipping himself into his tough leather shell.
Someday soon Peter thinks he’ll wander off and never come back.
‘Been busy, then?’
Peter peers around Carl’s shoulder into the music room, where the guitars are sleeping in dusty silence. He’d insisted on having the tour. Looking pointedly at the spare room next to Carl’s while being manhandled away. Carl knows exactly what he’s like: give him a room of his own, and he’ll cover it with the sprawl of his books and broken typewriters and trinkets and hats and never leave.
It isn’t that Carl likes having someone else in his bed. Or not just that, the friendly weight of another body in the early hours, to anchor him down. At least, Carl reasons, with one elbow digging into his spine and a mouth greedily nuzzling his neck, he knows where Peter is. Can be certain he’s not setting fire to the kitchen or nicking the silver.
Besides, Peter’s always taken up more space than he should. Give him an inch and he’ll take the whole world. He fills the house like a one man slapstick sketch, walking into lampshades, bashing into things and knocking over vases and books, arms flailing and drinks spilling. A delightful, messy presence that chases away the shadows and the silence.
He can’t imagine Carl living anywhere. Thinks when he’s not with Peter, he’s probably put neatly back in his box like Indie Barbie. All his little accessories, leather jacket, tiny Carlos hat and DMs, shiny electric guitar, tucked away for safe storage. Then dusted off for the next tour.
He knows, really, that there’s a house and girlfriend and children. A piano. Kittens. All the stuff that people are supposed to have by now. Ticking off every box on the checklist of a good ageing Rockstar. He keeps Peter is a separate box. Whenever he collides, occasionally, alarmingly, with Carl’s real life it makes his head spin. Too jolting and seasick-making, as if he’s fallen down the rabbit hole into a parallel dimension, even to be amused by the vein throbbing in Carl’s forehead. The way he goes cross-eyed trying to look in two directions at once.
It’s harder to believe in Carl these days, since he became a solid presence in his life again. Easier to have faith in the ethereal creature he carries around in his head, filling the shady corners of his days and haunting his nights like a succubus. He understands that Carl, trusts the way he can make him do anything, rearrange the words in his mouth and his perfect golden body on all fours. Without any of the difficult negotiation and careful handling the real thing requires.
He still shows up like an apparition. Appearing without warning on beaches and loitering at the side of stages, and at his fucking front door. And every time, Peter mutters dire warnings to his stupid, foolish heart as it soars and flutters and ignores him entirely.
Peter lives between places. Appearing suddenly and whisking Carl away on a magical mystery tour. His trusty camper van forever breaking down. Stranding him by the sides of motorways and down country lanes, always at the end of an invisible phoneline, right in his ear and miles away.
Carl has visited him in lots of places – hotels and apartments and houses – all of them temporary. Knowing if he found his way back weeks or months later, there’d be nothing but empty rooms and aggrieved landlords to greet him.
There’s always a gap, a space of seconds or minutes that expands between them, when he arrives. A moment when he can’t connect the man in front of him to the boy in his head. It’s like walking into something solid and he can’t understand how to get through it. Slams himself headfirst into it, flinging his arms around him, closing all the gaps between their bodies. And then something gives – sometimes in that moment, the first press of skin to skin – or in a smile, the flash of something in dark eyes, words in both their mouths at the same time. Melting into something more familiar than himself. It’s like seeing your own reflection: that secret, hidden self, at once your opposite and completely the same.
Carl isn’t scared of flying. He’s scared of crashing to the ground in a fiery mess of bodies and metal. More scared of the moments before: seeing the end coming and not knowing what to do. He’d wept once, during a whisky-soaked bout of turbulence, and proposed marriage to the woman sitting beside him. Her husband had been furious when they landed safely.
The first time the band went on a plane, Carl had spent the whole flight pinned upright in his seat. Seatbelt firmly clasped throughout. Enduring Peter’s mockery – Biggles flies to victory, eh… Not very derring-do, is it? – until he spied his knuckles gripped bone-white around the armrests and relented. Spending the rest of the journey re-enacting his favourite Hancock’s Half Hours in real time, so Carl didn’t have a spare moment to reflect on his impending demise.
Later, thoughts of Peter become entangled with that soaring rush of terror that fills his belly every time a plane takes off. As he flies towards and away from him, over and over. Comes to Paris, Peter says. Come to Hamburg. Fucking Thailand. It feels like a test. Making Carl battle all his fears at once; locking him in a metal tube and dredging up all his four am fears for company. Love and loss and the helpless heart-wrench of hope.
Are you supposed to take your seatbelt off before you crash? Carl doesn’t know, but fears it’s exactly that sort of worry that would occupy his final moments. No grand reflections on a life well-lived or soul wringing regrets. Just petty administrative concerns about the correct procedure to prepare for death. And the needling knowledge that every tabloid would report “Pete Doherty’s Ex Bandmate Dies in Fiery Crash”. Barat, 33, was the sole fatality in the air disaster. Reportedly the indie rocker removed his seatbelt in the final moments before the plane crashed into the tarmac. The pilot described the move as a “rookie error” and stated that Barat had only himself to blame…
‘…Carl? Carrrl? Carlos, we landed about five minutes ago.’ He blinks up into the face of his friend. Taking a moment for it to settle into focus, the lines of his face smudged softer, streaks of grey marking out the time that’s passed. More of him now, more solid than the wispy memories in Carl’s head.
Feels a hand at his waist, fiddling with the clasp of his seatbelt. ‘Think it’s safe to take this off now, yeah?’
Carl looks out of the window, sunlight blazing across the tarmac. Blighty stretching out grey and solid around them. Home again. Safe and sound.
There are the factory years. They buy a knackered old warehouse, and turn it into a knackered old studio. Draped in flags and dreams. It fills up with magical ideas for songs and scribbled masterpieces on the backs of envelopes, and broken typewriters with half-finished lyrics caught between their teeth, and groupies and hangers-on endlessly cluttering up the space, and random artists and girlfriends and aunts and photographers and muttered arguments and snide asides and an NME journalist who spends an entire week camping in a cupboard before anyone notices.
The fights are epic. Filling the space and shaking the vaulted ceilings. Songs crashing and snarling into smashed guitars and shouted words and furious feedback. Rehearsals turn into mini riots. There are tears and tantrums and threats of broken fingers and tales of broken promises and hearts.
Peter bans Carl’s girlfriend, so Carl bans Peter’s girlfriend. And flea-ridden strays. Which Peter says means that Carl’s other band can’t come in either. Carl insists on a strict no-drugs no-groupies no-pretty-dark-haired-guitarists-who-are
Finally, they look up midway through a rehearsal-cum-fight and find themselves alone. Heavy metal doors banging behind their backs, dragging them back to the present. To realise that John and Gary have locked them in. And refuse to let them out until they’ve made up, or broken up the band. Find something you can fucking agree on! And then they’re alone.
Carl throws the first punch and misses, but Peter throws the typewriter. Which Carl insists – loudly and with some force – is excessive. And ends up with a cold milky tea shampoo for his troubles. So he tries to force-feed a guitar cable down Peter’s throat, and settles for throttling him with it. And then there’s some rolling around on the floor. Shoving and wriggling, and knees and elbows clashing, fists meeting mouths, and mouths meeting mouths. Fuckingbastardfuckoffohhhfck swapped between them like spit and tongues. Moaning and grumbling smear together in a hot crash of teeth and bitten lips, insults swallowed with gasps and whimpers. Hands grappling with shirts and buttons flying, zips and legs dragged apart, and bodies grinding together hard enough to bruise.
Afterwards, sharing a cigarette from mouth to mouth, they shift carefully in each other’s arms. Trying to ease out the kinks in necks and bruised spines without moving apart.
Too fucking old for this, mutters Carl.
Yeah, Peters sighs around the cigarette. We need to get a bed.
They scrabble a piece of crumpled paper and a pen from the wreckage, and try to agree terms. After a long, fractious hour, and a bit more rolling about on the floor, a few more insults and kisses and cigarettes, they have a compromise. No pets. No partners. No family members. Some drugs. And a double bed for the corner of the studio.
Don’t look at me, says Carl, I’m not apologising. Pressing the words into Peter’s neck and smirking at the way they shiver down his spine. ‘Salright, says Peter, you sound better begging than apologising anyway. Fuckoff, sighs Carl, companionably. To the others, I mean. He curls closer into Peter’s warmth, away from the chill of the hard floor beneath them. Leave it to me, says Peter.
‘The thing is, John,’ Peter sits their bass player down at the table, ‘all this nonsense has to stop.’
Carl nods gravely. John looks torn between amusement and bafflement.
Peter waves the list of Nos in his hand. No pets, no partners, no family members. Yes, that includes children. And cousins. And John’s great-aunt-in-law Matilde.
‘But she lives in Denmark,’ says John.
‘Nonetheless,’ says Peter.
‘She’s never even left the country, in ninety-six years.’ He looks up at Peter, then at Carl, and back at Peter. ‘She doesn’t even know what Camden is.’
‘Irregardless,’ says Carl. ‘Rules are rules. No exceptions. We just want to make sure everyone’s clear.’
‘Yeah,’ Peter nods. ‘Fair’s fair, John. We know what the Danes are like. All bacon and chaos. It’s not on. This is a serious place of work.’
Carl rubs at the dark bitemark in the curve of his neck, and tries not to grin.
‘Well, I don’t know how I’m going to break it to her,’ mutters John, shaking his head. ‘Does this mean we can actually record the album now?’
‘Er, yeah,’ Peter looks at Carl, who raises an eyebrow. ‘We’ve just got to have a word with Gary first, about his nan.’
Carl doesn’t eat jam. Or the hot buttery pastry that sits on his breakfast table. Or the sticky chocolate spread in his fridge, finger-printed all over the cupboard door. Of course, officially, he doesn’t drink the half-bottle of red that disappears each evening, but Carl suspects you can only cheat so far before you get caught out. So he eats his porridge and spends twenty minutes fidgeting on his yoga mat every morning before his first smoke.
The point is, he doesn’t eat jam. Certainly not strawberry jam, thick and bright red, wrapped in red-and-white checked paper from the little shop in the village. Appearing in his bag of groceries along with the rest of the contraband, unbidden, when he takes his grudging mid-morning walk over to collect them.
Norah makes it, Peter says, when Carl questions him. Who the fuck’s Norah? You know Norah, Peter frowns at him and spoons more jam onto his toast, Norah who runs the little shop. She makes jam. Only strawberry though. Bit of a condiment fascist if you ask me, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Carl watches the globs of shiny red stuff melting into the pools of golden butter, sinking into thick slices of white bread.
‘S for you, actually. She says you need fattening up.
But you eat it all, says Carl. Pointlessly. Watching Peter scoop a bright, sugary spoonful straight into his lips. Red and sticky. Begging to be tasted.
Well. Peter pauses, mouth wrapped around the spoon. Sucking in a manner that’s surely obscene before lunchtime. You can’t, can you? Only being polite. It’s the thought that counts, anyway.
Carl thinks about murdering Peter. At least once a day. He wonders if that counts. It’s strangely soothing, a damn sight better than meditation. Today he thinks about jabbing the jam spoon right into his throat and watching him spurt a hot, red arc over the breakfast table. Bright red and sticky.
He also thinks about fucking Peter. Several times a day. Considers flinging him over the breakfast table, listening to the smashing of cups and cutlery clattering to the ground. Swirling his fingers in strawberry jam and fucking that smirk off his face with them, sticky and fast and rough, the way that makes him squeal and squirm under Carl’s weight. Maybe slathering it over his own cock and force-feeding it into Peter’s greedy mouth, fingers catching in his hair so he can’t struggle away until he’s licked every sugary inch clean. Although Peter only struggles because he knows exactly how much he likes it. Eyes wide and shocked, lips pouting and fighting a grin.
Oi, what’re you smiling at? Peter looks almost worried, he thinks. Carl finds the thought immensely cheering.
Mm? Carl shifts in his seat and reaches for the pot. Oh, nothing. More jam?
‘So, this spare room…’
Carl wonders, for the hundredth time, why in a house with more bedrooms than people, they always end up spread out on the wooden floor. Boards digging into his bare back. Aching all over, again, from the tumble of limbs and bruising kisses.
‘You don’t need a spare room. You’re just visiting.’
‘Could be a guest room, then.’ Peter takes the cigarette out of Carl’s mouth, ignoring his protesting grumble.
‘Guests are invited. You’re more of a… persistent squatter.’
‘Yeah, well, possession’s nine tenths of the law, and all that.’
‘Mm, you’d know.’ Carl watches the words land and winces. Grateful when Peter laughs and reaches up to smack him clumsily.
‘Possessive happens to be my best thing.’
‘Seen what you do to your possessions, haven’t I?’ Carl rolls onto his side, groaning at the sharp pull in his hip. His gaze falling onto a typewriter abandoned on the floor, keys half-broken, casing cracked. Can’t help a twinge of sympathy.
‘I cherish them. No-’ He moves then, feline fast and surprisingly, rolling on top of Carl and pinning him down. Avoiding Carl’s fists. Cigarette caught between his teeth. ‘No, shut up, I do. Cherish the things I love. Old and battered and past their best as they may be, my love.’ And gives up, cackling, as Carl knocks him onto his back. And demonstrates exactly which of them is past their best.
His hat stand is littered with hats, and none of them fit him. His house is scattered with typewriters that don’t type in a straight line. Scraps of pictures and pages torn from books and scribbled notes and wonkily typed edicts arranged in precarious piles or pinned to walls or fluttering about like leaves. Tiny golden deities and brass buttons and military medals adorn his shelves like a museum to some forgotten place.
There isn’t an inch of empty space. Things as far as his eyes can see. One thing in particular, a tall thing that’s all angles and elbows and huge doe eyes and-
‘Peter…’ Carl looks again at the hat stand he doesn’t remember buying. The paper he never gets to read. The man at his breakfast table in a silk robe. ‘Peter, exactly how long have you been living here?’
Peter doesn’t look up from the newspaper crumpled in front of him. Yesterday’s. With big bits missing, roughly torn out.
‘Err, what’s today?’
‘Twenty-first.’ Carl pours his tea, watching the dark, steady stream. ‘Of June.’
‘Right. Yeah… six months? Give or take.’
Carl nods and sips his tea.
The problem is that Carl’s done this before. More than once. Knows how it goes, the stretch of months and even years, steady and slow. But one day something cracks. And it spreads, insidious an unstoppable. Then the shouting and breaking things and long, tedious talking into the night. It always ends the same way: empty spaces where mysterious bottles used to sit in his bathroom, and dark shapes where furniture covered the floor, and a cold hollow in his bed.
And he can’t bear it again. Worst this time, worse than ever because Peter fills so much space. All the junkshop miscellany filling his house and all the space inside his head and the swelling feeling inside his chest. The thought of so much emptiness makes Carl ache like he’s caving in on himself.
It comes back to him, now and then. That heavy, broken feeling somewhere deep inside. An agonising, jagged fracture. As if a sudden movement or the wrong word would break him apart, once and for all. Like a bad break that never quite sets, aching in the winter and on damp mornings. In sudden sharp bursts. Reminding Carl how fragile they are.
They tried and they failed. And tried and failed. And he can’t bear to try again.
He tells himself he’s just saving time.
Peter watches calmly as he shouts and slams things, smashes china against the wall and flings books in all directions. Lights a cigarette and sits back as Carl tosses bags and hat boxes over the balcony. For a grand finale, he heaves a typewriter over the railings. They both watch it crash messily to the ground below. Keys spilling out in a pool of broken words.
‘Am I next, then?’
He doesn’t look terribly concerned. But then Carl supposes people probably shout and throw things around Peter quite a lot. He shakes his head.
‘Feel better now?’
Carl looks at the wreckage and nods. He does, actually. Better than he should. Feeling the frantic pounding of his heart, blood throbbing hot and fast, aching with something that isn’t anger anymore. Sorry, he says, because he thinks he probably should. Peter shrugs.
‘You’re taking me typewriter shopping,’ he says. Then puts out his cigarette with a decisive twist. Wrapping his hand around Carl instead, delving deftly into his jeans. Making him gasp and clutch at the railings. ‘But bed first. All this fucking on the floor’s knackering my back.’
The key is small and gold. Carl has tried it in the lock over and over, trying to wear away the stiff edges. Carried it around with him for two days. Aware of its weight, burning a hole in his pocket.
Finally, he drops it on Peter’s plate at breakfast.
Peter lifts it gingerly in giant fingers. Runs a fingertip down its sharp edges.
‘Are you asking me to move in?’
‘I’m asking you to stop breaking and entering.’
He watches the smile twitch at the corners of Peter’s mouth.
‘Not good enough, Biggles.’
‘I’ll go if I’m not wanted. I could be packed in… two days.’ He crumples up his face, glaring at Carl when he smirks. ‘… a week, maybe a month, tops. Gone like a flash.’
Carl sighs. He wonders if there’s a polite amount of time to wait between giving someone a key to your home and punching them in the face.
‘Peter. Please live with me. Please don’t leave. Ever.’
The smile spreads over across his face like a flag being hoisted.
Victory. Surrender. Homecoming.
‘Biggles. Thought you’d never ask,’ he says. Spooning another helping of jam onto his toast.
Something tugs on Carl’s heart, tight and insistent, opening something up like a knot that’s been tied tight. And he thinks this must be it. This rush of terror and irritation and want and relief. This must be what happiness means.