Mating Habits - Part A (Complete)
Warnings: Mentions of insects and creepy crawlies. Minor references to violence.
Notes: Zoo AU: Peter and Carl are Head Keepers in different sections of a zoo. Peter is Head of Insects and Reptiles, Carl is a specialist in panda mating habits. They meet when Peter needs a new lodger, and Carl needs somewhere to live...
For plastic_beads - this is based on her idea for a zoo setting, particularly the characters of Peter and Carl.
Thank you to the ever-lovely mimioomin for beta-ing. Again :)
*UPDATED FROM THE BOLD TEXT 01/02/17*
A IS FOR APHIDS
Aphids have the ability to survive alone for much of their life cycle, reproducing through parthenogenesis, with no requirement for a mating partner. They live on a series of different host plants, producing wings when necessary and flying away in unseasonable weather or when their host plant dies. As winter approaches, mating finally occurs and they find a 'home’.
‘Are you Peter Doherty?’
Peter considers the man looming in the doorway. Casting a dark shadow over the spill of sunlight. A bundle of rage and battered leather, although it’s far too warm for either. Summer is Peter’s least favourite season: it fills the zoo with visitors, gaggles of school children scattering noise and litter, and bored parents with toddlers, trailing sticky ice cream and godawful cuddly merchandise from the gift shop.
But this visitor is a marvellous specimen. Quite unlike anything else Peter has seen in the usual sleepy stumble of holiday zoo-goers. His face is all elegant angles and cheekbones you could bounce a pen off. Skin sun-kissed gold, as if he’d been outdoors more than once since January, unlike most of the population. A dark mane of hair curls over his collar, smooth and enticing as silk. Peter battles the urge to reach out and stroke it, suspecting he’d get his fingers bitten off.
He moves with feline grace, danger concealed in the languid roll of his hips, the tilt of his head. Peter expects him to growl at any moment. Jaw gritted tightly in anger, like a bear trap clamped shut.
The man rakes a hand through his hair and sighs. ‘Are. You. Peter. Doherty?’
‘Given your aggressive posture and the tone of your voice, both of which suggest you want to locate Peter Doherty in order to beat him to a bloody pulp, I’m rather inclined to say no.’
‘Yeah, he’s Peter.’ Drew glides past, balancing an overflowing bag of feed pellets. Ever helpful Drew. His trusty Head Keeper. Peter adores him, despairs of him, and would like to lock him in a cage for further analysis, in equal measures. ‘Hey, if he owes you money, mate, he’s nothing to do with me.’
Ah yes, money, that’s often it. One of the many things Peter can never quite keep track of. Or research people harassing him for some paper or other, as if ideas can be produced to order. Possibly an irate father trying to track down his wandering son, he looks about the right age for it. They usually end up in the insect house, the boys, transfixed by a giant spider or the tight, mysterious coils of a snake.
‘Do you have any idea what time it is?’
He wasn’t expecting that.
‘’Fraid not. Time isn’t really my area.’
Peter decides he must be late. People only ever barge in and start banging on about time when they’ve decided he should be somewhere else, in the past. Which is fucking ridiculous. Because he quite plainly isn’t, so there’s no merit in discussing it.
Still, there’s something about the way this man asks. Angry, certainly. Curled fists, shoulders tight and threatening as storm clouds. But there is something else wrapped within the tight folds of his anger. Something desperate and lost. Peter wonders, wildly, if he really does need to know the time. There must be, he supposes, a clock around the place somewhere. Computer, maybe.
‘Not your area… Right.’
He looks around him, as if he’s only just noticed where he is. There is a particular way that people look around in the insect house: heads perfectly still and dead ahead, only their eyes moving, wide and flickering up, down, side to side.
His eyes are arresting, and Peter feels an urgent need to identify their colour. Blue, clearly: primary colour, cyan, wavelength somewhere between 450-496 meters. But cobalt, midnight, royal, sea, sky, what? At the moment they’re simmering. Fury and frustration bubbling in the blue. (Ultramarine? Lapiz lazuli? Indigo?) Based on the evidence of his eyes alone, Peter is 30-40% certain he’s about to be punched in the face.
Then he closes his eyes, stealing away the colour. For a moment, the world feels shockingly black and white. Peter has to squeeze shut his own eyes to escape.
‘What’s that called?’
Peter blinks – drowning in blue. Cerulean. Ha! He drags his attention back to the man in front of him – follows his gaze down to the creature perching on Peter’s arm. He scratches its head idly, watches its antennae twitch, the sharp flick of its tail as it resettles.
‘No, I mean, what is he?’
‘Haven’t a clue, I’m afraid. Amphibian, Lissamphibia, obviously. But beyond that… I know what he’s not. You’re not a salamander, are you? Hmm?’ Peter strokes a finger along Jasper’s antenna. It twitches in response. So he does it again, and then reaches for his lab book. ‘No, you’re not. Although we thought you were for a week, after you ate an entire baby lizard, didn’t we? Bad boy. But no coastal grooves. And the spots…’
And then he looks up at his guest. Still watching intently.
‘See, his skin isn’t scaly, so you’d think it would be moist and smooth but- Look, c’mere.’
His new friend has the twitchy look people get in the insect house, that half-suppressed shudder as if they can feel something crawling down their spine. But he moves closer to Peter anyway. Doesn’t object when Peter grasps his wrist and guides his hand gently to Jasper’s back.
‘Oh.’ It’s a sound more than a word, breathed through parted lips. And Peter would quite like to hear it again.
‘Yeah. Like velvet, isn’t it? He’s a puzzle.’
When he releases the man’s wrist, he moves his hand away. Not immediately, though, not before a last tentative stroke down the creature’s spine. And he looks at Jasper with something more like curiosity than revulsion. Unusual. It makes Peter feel positively charitable.
‘Oi, Drew, can you tell this gentleman the time, please? He seems quite invested in it.’
Drew laughs, and doesn’t look up from where he’s un-arranging things on a shelf. No bloody wonder Peter can never find anything.
‘He doesn’t want to know the time, Peter. I’d imagine he wants to know why you were nowhere to be found when your new lodger arrived.’
‘Eh? Surely that’s between me and my new lodg- Oh.’
Peter assesses the facts. Angry man. Who knew his name. Bags – now that he looks – dumped outside the door. Half past six, according to the computer screen over his shoulder. And Peter has the unsettling shadow of a memory, scribbling something down in the blank spaces of the crossword, phone cradled between his ear and shoulder, in the middle of that test on aphid responses to light stimuli.
Lodger (new), 5pm, Wednesday…
‘Oh fuck. Aphids. It’s always the bloody aphids.’
The man’s face does several things at once, and Peter can barely catalogue them fast enough. Can’t decide whether to watch the changing skies of his eyes, or the quirk of his mouth, loses vital seconds between them. Confusion – irritation – fury – a flash of pure exhaustion – disbelief – and settles into something like amusement. He glances longingly back at the open door. For a moment, Peter is utterly terrified that he’ll leave.
‘Erm, we haven’t been introduced.’ He extends a hand to be shaken. And dons his most persuasive smile, the one he saves for moments when he needs to dazzling and brilliant. ‘Peter Doherty, Head of Insects and Reptiles.’
Drew scoffs, and continues sorting his carefully managed chaos into disarray. With labels on.
‘He knows that, Peter. This is Carl. He works here.’
Peter looks down at the familiar lanyard just peeking out of Carl’s jacket. Just the edge of a zoo ID badge visible. And then back up at his face, which looks positively gleeful.
‘Charmed, I’m sure.’
Wednesdays are a tricky beast.
Carl spent a summer after university looking after elephants, and the first thing he learned is that you can’t make an elephant move when it doesn’t want to. They simply sit down and regard you with vast, indifferent eyes. That’s what Wednesdays are like.
Monday and Tuesday are old enemies. Carl has steeled himself against them: he sneaks out of bed before they can pull themselves together, while the dawn is still peeking around the edges of the night, up and out too fast to catch. Thursday and Friday mean the end is nigh. Saturday is victory day. Sunday’s his day off: he can lie on the floor all day and stare at the clouds, he can stare into the bottom of the bottle. Sundays don’t count.
Wednesdays are relentless fuckers. They sit on his chest and wait, crushing the air out of him, making every breath hurt. But Carl tackles tricky beasts for a living, and he knows if you can’t tame it or train it, you just have to withstand it.
This is a bad Wednesday. He wakes up when it’s still dark outside. Already pinned down to the bed, watching the sun crawl across the sky. He listens to the alarm on his phone screech – in neat five minute intervals – and tries to persuade each of his limbs to get out of bed. It takes threats and bribery and a couple of swigs of the flask tucked beneath his pillow. But get out of bed he does.
His therapist suggests change. He has, Carl argued, already changed jobs. Zoos, she said, same job in a different place. Why exactly did he leave his last zoo? And Carl doesn’t know why everyone has to focus on the punching-in-the-face incident. When Carl spends most of his day actively not punching anyone, and never seems to get the credit for that. (Actually, his therapist had suggested a lot of things, until Carl chucked a chair through her window and then she – or rather the restraining order – suggested that he might like to remain more than one mile away from her office at all times.) Change. He concedes that she might’ve had a point.
He lives in a rented box. Grey walls, decorated only with an eclectic assortment of damp patches. A futon that doesn’t fold up anymore, and creaks in protest whenever Carl tries to turn over. His desultory possessions neatly arranged in boxes, stacked along one wall, in what he’d tried to convince himself was an artistic gesture. But mainly looks like Ikea. It was just for a few days, while Carl got settled. A month ago. He can feel the walls moving damply in on him, one inch at a time.
Moving on a Wednesday was a mistake. He doesn’t know why he agreed to it. Actually he does, and he blames Peter-bloody-Doherty. Entirely. The man had been bewilderingly vague on the phone, interspersing deep suspicion of Carl’s interest in his spare room – despite the wonky handwritten ad he’d found on the noticeboard – with a series of bizarre exclamations. He’d tutted and huffed at his suggestions of Monday or Tuesday, then muttered something about fire, ohfuckery, where’s the fucking, oh nevermind it’s stopped.
It should come as no surprise when five o’clock arrives, and his new landlord doesn’t. So Carl checks that he’s at the right place, at the right time, and he waits. And waits and fucking waits.
The desire to slide to the floor, settle amidst his scattered belongings, and just stay there is strong. Carl has dragged himself through the day. He’s been rude to visitors, shouted at school children, insulted a panda and pissed off at least one of his new colleagues. What he wants is for Wednesday to be over. And he doesn’t know now what he was thinking. Wants, dearly, to go back to his grey box room and fold himself away.
He calls the phone number, from the bit of paper folded carefully in his pocket, and listens to the ringing echo through the locked door. Then he decides to go and find Peter Doherty. Head of Insects and Reptiles, so that’s where he goes. People smirk and nod sympathetically in turn when he tells them who’s he looking for. Finally, he’s directed into a makeshift office, just as dark and cool as the rest of the house where the insects and reptiles live, the creature in front of him no less alien.
He looks like a mad professor. Tufts of hair raked up in all directions, speckled with patches of grey. He’s dressed in a three-piece suit, in the middle of summer. Or at least, he must have been, at some earlier point. Jacket discarded now over the back of a desk chair, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, half unbuttoned beneath his waistcoat. Thoroughly absorbed in whatever the hell he’s doing and barely looking at Carl. Managing to suggest – without doing anything as polite as actually speaking to him – that his very existence is a tremendous inconvenience.
Carl very often wants to kill people, between three and twenty on a daily basis. But rarely is the urge so immediate and insistent upon meeting someone. Within three minutes, he has considered punching Peter in his indifferent face too many times to keep count.
And then Peter does start speaking, and really, Carl thinks he preferred him mute. It was all much simpler. He’s speaking mainly to a small lizard creature, rather than Carl, admittedly. Crooning to the lizard-thing perched on his arm, one delicate finger tickling its head. Carl finds himself drifting in the surprisingly soft tones of his voice, wondering how it would feel to be touched by those long, careful fingers. He finds out, moments later, when they capture his wrist. Firm. Cool. Certain of their task, as they guide Carl’s hand to touch the creature.
Somehow, Carl is not punching anyone in the face, but is instead stroking a small reptile. It is soft and warm beneath his fingertips, shivering gently in response, and he doesn’t know why the touch of velvet makes the backs of his eyes feel heavy and hot.
He looks away, to give his eyes something to do. Catching Peter out of the corner of his gaze. Not quite aware he’s being looked at, too busy concentrating on the not-lizard and maintaining the steady pressure of his grip on Carl’s wrist.
Peter is younger than he first thought. Close-up, as he moves into the light, shifting closer to ease the angle of his wrist, Peter has the face of a mischievous angel. One who’s tumbled off his cloud once or twice and gone awandering in dubious places angels should fear to tread. Adventures written in the delicate lines traced around his eyes, at the corners of a mouth that promises very un-angelic things.
Discombobulated, Peter is actually rather charming. Carl watches him trying to piece it together: his sudden furious presence, the bags dumped by the door, the phone call, the missed appointment. Sees the moment all the pieces slot into place. Watches Peter’s eyes flare cartoon-wide, and finds himself worryingly beguiled. Rather than the angry triumph he’d been looking forward to.
‘’s not far to the house, I’ll walk you,’ Peter says, ‘I’m nearly done here.’ And mutters about just needing to finish a couple of things, won’t be a mo...
Half an hour later, Carl is still sitting outside, smoking his third cigarette. Wondering if this is all an elaborate ploy to get rid of him. Then Peter tumbles out of the door, peers around like a startled meercat, spies Carl and grins.
‘Oh, good! I thought you might’ve gone.’
The house really isn’t far. Ten minutes, give or take a pair of ludicrously long legs that Carl has to struggle to keep pace with, from the gates of the zoo. They’re nearly there by the time Peter notices and slows, then mumbles something apologetic and heaves one of Carl’s bags onto his shoulder.
The house is also a catastrophe.
It feels like walking into a giant car boot sale. Or the world’s biggest lost and found office. Or possibly the inside of Peter’s head. Every surface is piled with stuff, stacked on top of other stuff. Papers, journals, files, books, tower around the living room. Objects fill all the spaces his eyes can see – ornaments, sleeveless records, batteries, candle stubs, crumpled postcards, a camera with no lens, a typewriter with all its keys missing apart from a lone E-
He decides not to pay too close attention to the shady tanks he can spy around the room. But he suspects Peter’s the kind of man who brings his work home with him.
Carl’s room is a stark contrast, white and clean as a bone. He can feel the tangible absence of stuff around him. Empty space. Double bed with a mattress still wrapped in plastic. Small desk and chair tucked into the corner. Naked windows, a battered curtain rod hanging empty. Lit by the cold glare of a bare bulb.
Peter surveys the bedroom with him, as if seeing it for the first time, squinting and raking his hair the wrong way with nervous fingers.
‘Er, yeeeah. I’ll sort some curtains, obviously. Last lot caught fire a bit. It’s got the usual mod cons, you know, bed, desk, chair…’ He waves a hand around expansively. ‘Light bulb… Mm. Make yourself at home.’
It takes Carl seventeen minutes to unpack. He thinks very seriously about packing everything back up again and running for the hills. Or rather, back to his damp, grey box room. Entirely devoid of unhelpfully tall, perplexing men with eyes like the night sky.
Carl decides he might sleep on it.
Peter is woken by shrieking. At a wholly unacceptable hour. The clock says- Oh bugger. The clock is lost somewhere on the floor, presumably still under the stacks of fallen papers, that cascaded off the bedside table when he sent the alarm clock flying yesterday morning. It had it coming. Nasty, shrill thing. No respect for a man’s sleep.
The sky, a slice of moody mauve through the gap in the curtain, says four am. Maybe five. The shrieking hasn’t stopped. Peter sighs and resigns himself to getting out of bed.
The shrieking is coming from the lodger’s room – Carl’s room – and Peter gets as far as the door before pausing. He’s had this problem once before: dashing into his last assistant’s bedroom to gallantly rescue her from a violent attacker, only to find her in the throes of ecstasy beneath the Head of Aviary. Peter wasn’t particularly concerned but afterwards, the poor girl had stammered and turned a worrying shade of scarlet every time he spoke to her, and then left the zoo two weeks later.
‘Er, Carl..?’ He knocks, a tentative tap-tap. ‘Is everything alright in there?’
The high-pitched sound is muffled by the door, but Peter decides it means noeverythingisnotallfuckingright. So he opens the door.
And finds Carl standing on a chair, gesticulating at the air. Not currently shrieking, but with his mouth still open, lips parted breathlessly. Wearing very little except for crumpled boxers and an expression of barely contained terror.
‘I don’t shriek,’ mutters Carl, not looking at Peter.
‘Right. Of course. You were, um, screaming manfully..?’
Peter follows his wide-eyed gaze up to the ceiling. To the dark, furry shape curled in a tight ball, tucked into a corner.
‘Ah. That’s Abigail.’
‘Fuck. Why the fuck is there a massive spider in my fucking bedroom?’
‘Actually, Carlos, the interesting thing about Abigail is that she’s not technically speaking an arachnid…’
Carl squeezes his eyes very tightly shut and Peter gets the distinct impression he’s not really listening. He encounters this a lot more often in life that he finds reasonable. In fact, Carl appears to be counting under his breath, or possibly praying. Peter catches the words Jesus and Christ amidst a litany of fucks.
He is, Peter thinks, rather fetching with his eyes closed and his mouth open like that. A soft flush pinking his cheeks, and creeping down his chest. He can think of at least five ways to stimulate a rush of blood to Carl’s face and chest, and he’d rather like to try them out immediately. Perhaps, though, not quite the time.
Then his eyes open in a sudden flash of blue – it makes Peter think of the flood of sunrise in a dawn sky, the way the light saturates the dark in one rush – and entirely derails his observations.
Carl takes a deep breath – chest moving in and out – and rakes his hair away from his face.
‘Peter. Peter, it is four in the fucking morning. And there is a massive spider – no, shutup, I don’t give a fuck if she’s not an arachnid, I don’t care what inordinate amount of legs either of you has- There is a massive fuck-off spider in my bedroom. Would you kindly – before I fucking murder one or both of us – get her out!’
Peter considers a) pointing out that Abigail fails to qualify as an arachnid partly because she would be considered too leggy, but also because of an interesting quirk of her skeletal structure. b) asking Carl to clarify what exactly he finds inordinate about Peter’s legs, and whether that’s a good thing or not. c) seeing how long he can get away with going nowhere at all, and observing the frankly obscene curvature of Carl’s spine, unencumbered as it is by clothing.
However, a quick glance up at Carl’s face makes him reconsider. He decides, just this once, it might be best to do as he’s told. So Peter gestures Carl down from his perch, and when that doesn’t work moves him gently, one hand on the hot, oh-surprisingly-silky skin of his waist (and he files that away for later reference, along with a note to touch Carl’s skin in at least three other places for comparison), easing him down from the chair. He clambers up and scoops Abigail into his palms, c’mon old girl, murmuring his apologies for all the manly screaming. Then he bids Carl goodnight and fucks off.
# # #
Carl surprises himself the next morning by waking up and feeling remarkably okay. Just possibly more than okay. The sun is shining and there are no massive, unclassified creepy crawlies in his bedroom. It isn’t Wednesday.
He may well be living with a lunatic, who has no grasp on time or personal space. But Peter’s nowhere to be seen when Carl emerges, when he finds the bathroom unoccupied and grits his teeth through an icy shower, or when he leaves for work and realises he doesn’t have a door key, and has to just slam the door behind him and hope for the best. Still, Carl finds it strangely hard to dim his good mood as he strolls through the still-empty streets, the sun peeping around the clouds with its orange smile, glinting off the imposing zoo gates ahead.
He likes the zoo. It’s been a little over a month since he arrived, but people are friendly and the place is well run. Carl is good at new places. A childhood spent shuttling around between his parents mean he’s developed the ability to slide into places without anyone noticing. He knows how to make the right noises in polite conversation, insinuate himself with a joke, an interested question. He’s been for a couple of nights out at the pub, has lunch in the keepers hut now and then. He can do friendly. Besides, Carl is good at his job. And that excuses all manner of sins.
Carl is here because of a woman. Shi Jing. She is beautiful: huge dark eyes, ringed in black, twelve stone of muscle and luxuriant black and white fur. They’re still getting to know each other, feeling out their way. He’s learned that she doesn’t like early mornings or sudden movements, demands a fresh stock of bamboo in the afternoon and is given to swiping playfully at keepers with her massive claws when bored. Carl has learned not to turn his back on her. They get on marvellously.
They arrived quietly at the zoo, no fanfare, no surprises. Carl had taken great pains to ensure it. Two seasons to settle in before the tiny, precarious window of mating time in March.
Shi Jing has refused all efforts at mating, thus far. She had to be dragged away from her last potential mate, after she sunk her teeth into his shoulder and wouldn’t let go. Carl had arrived just in time to witness the chaos. The panicked keepers had turned fire extinguishers on the bears to break up the fight. Carl doesn’t regret, even slightly, the broken nose he inflicted on the moron whose bright idea that was. Nobody argued when Carl insisted on a transfer to another zoo.
This morning, everything is quiet when Carl arrives as the enclosure. Shi Jing is stretched out in the sunshine, all almost-six-foot of her, chewing on a stick of bamboo. She opens one eye in greeting. It always strikes Carl as the lascivious wink of a heavily-kohled film starlet.
He holds up his gift of the day: a bright pink, soft ball. Rolls it gently towards her and waits. Slowly and with great effort, Shi Jing sits up and regards the ball. She picks it up in one large paw. And then tries to eat it, testing it between her teeth. Then lets it drop. And resumes her sunshine meditation. Early days.
Carl Barat is a conundrum. Homo Sapiens… Obviously. Male, European descent, Caucasian. But beyond that, Peter runs out of classifications. Carlos Baratus Circumflexicus.
Generally speaking, Peter enjoys a good conundrum. He fired his last three assistants and two keepers for being tedious. Despite Drew’s protestation that you can’t write ‘less interesting than watching mould spores grow in a coffee cup’ on an HR form. Today, Peter is supposed to be investigating a new specimen. Phasmatodea, of some form or other. The creature arrived this morning in a painfully small tank, with a post-it note saying “stick insect?” Peter had forced Drew to phone the zoo the creature was sent from, to recommend that whoever was responsible should be fired immediately. They’re asking ‘why’, exactly, Drew muttered, waving the phone in Peter’s direction. For being a useless fuckwit, called Peter, and left him to relay the message.
But Peter doesn’t classify his new sticky friend. He feeds him some leaves, half-heartedly coaxes out his concealed wings to measure their span. And then spends the afternoon with him balanced happily on the edge of his coffee mug, whilst Peter stares into space and muses about the newest mystery in his life.
People are rarely interesting. A few of them are interesting enough, surprising now and then, entertaining in between. Drew, for instance, makes him laugh and better, he finds Peter funny without needing a two-hour explanation and a background reading list. He has entirely forgiven the time Peter set him alight during the aphids temperature stimulus testing (and very nearly forgiven the fact that he left him burning for an additional three seconds for the extra data). He doesn’t insist that Peter pretends to care about things like schedules and appointments and a miscellany of stuff that’s of no interest to him.
When he sticks his head around the door and says Pedro, ‘ve you got those end-of-month stats?, he isn’t remotely surprised when Peter looks baffled and demands: why can’t you get bloody Brian to do it?! Drew simply points out that Brian left the zoo, six months ago, and does them himself.
Carl is interesting. Peter likes the shape of his name in his mouth. Like a sigh, quiet and unassuming. Quite at odds with the man himself: a writhing mass of nervous energy and anger, tightly zipped into a leather jacket. He is a storm cloud in human form.
Peter needs to know more. He’d like to tie him down to the kitchen table and map out every square inch of golden skin, and find out how sensitive he is, subject him to changes in light and temperature and touch, find out where he’s ticklish, how he reacts to pleasure, to pain. He’s come to understand though, sadly, that people rarely respond positively to that kind of suggestion.
Peter clatters through the hallway about twenty minutes after Carl gets home. (Of course, ‘gets home’ is an understatement – as when he got to his front door, Carl realised he hadn’t managed to find Peter or front door keys during the day – which necessitated forcing the sash window in the living room open and tumbling head-first into his new residence. Fervently crossing his fingers that a kindly neighbour doesn’t call the police before he’s managed to get his hands on a cigarette and a cup of tea.)
‘Carl? Caaarrrl! CARL!’
Carl supposes it’s nice to know that Peter hasn’t entirely forgotten the existence of his new lodger in the space of twenty-four hours. He also wanders if Peter insists on all his entrances being this elaborate pantomime of clattering limbs and shouting and things tumbling in his wake. He sips his tea and waits.
‘Ah, there you are,’ Peter says. Carl wonders where else, exactly, he’s been looking. ‘Get it out!’
‘Fuckinghell.’ Carl snorts tea and splutters messily over the table. He sighs and mops at his shirt, without much effect. ‘Most people offer to buy me dinner first, you know.’
Peter’s eyes fix on the tea spattered down his front, trailing it down his shirt to the damp spot highlighting his crotch, with a crook of his eyebrow. Carl shifts in his seat, trying to adjust the wet denim sticking uncomfortably to him.
Peter presses on, unshaken.
‘You said her. Most people, when faced with a ‘massive fuck-off spider’ in their bedroom at four in the morning say: get it out.’
Carl pauses to consider that: most people.
‘So, this happens a lot then..?’
‘Not a lot.’ Peter sweeps into action, in that alarming way he seems to have when he wants to avoid something, all long limbs and fluffy hair, too many sharp angles moving much too fast. Salvaging papers from the flood of tea and stacking them haphazardly together. ‘More than once, certainly.’
Carl is fairly convinced that Peter does everything more than once. For the good of scientific rigour, presumably.
‘Peter, I would prefer – for future reference – that no creatures, regardless of the quantity of legs in their possession, enter my bedroom uninvited.’
‘Mm, noted. It’s just that Abigail’s an insomniac and she has very little regard for privacy. She goes for a wanderabout sometimes… No. Right. No uninvited creatures.’
He watches Peter moving about – he seems to drift about the room, moving in a gentle cloud of chaos – and eventually works out that he’s making more tea. Watches the way he sloshes boiling water into the pot and then roots around for teabags, gets distracted and starts flicking through a pile of post and muttering crossly at it, then returns to clattering spoons and cups about. Finally, he presents Carl with a steaming mug of tea. And a biscuit of uncertain origin.
‘Sorry,’ he says, testing out the word as if it’s uncomfortable in his mouth. ‘About last night. You’re not moving out, are you?’
‘No,’ says Carl, before he can think about it. It’s a reflex: the only thing he can say, fixed in the beam of Peter’s attention. His gaze is dark and soft. Startling. It flits about lightly, uncertain, undecided, brushing butterfly-fast on anything of interest, then it settles. Heavy and saturating like treacle. Carl thinks he could get stuck in it and sink beneath the surface.
‘Excellent. I have questions.’ He flings himself into the seat opposite Carl, and produces a notebook, battered and scribbled on, leaves jammed with papers that try to escape. He rescues them with deft fingers, with an ease that suggests it happens a lot.
‘Carl, what’s your full name?’
‘All of it?’
‘Mm, if you wouldn’t mind.’
Carl Ashley Raphael Barat. He rarely surrenders his name in full, but something about the expectancy in Peter’s face, the pen poised in his hand, make it seem necessary. So Carl mutters all the syllables between his teeth and waits for the inevitable smirk. The delighted beam that greets them is somehow worse.
After that, Carl finds himself answering the rest of Peter’s questions in a half-stupor. Too bemused to object to the tombola of queries that fire at him, scatter-shot. Yes, he moved around a bit as a child. No, he doesn’t speak any other languages fluently. Blue, he supposes, if he had to (and apparently he does) choose a favourite colour. There isn’t, so far as he knows, a history of psychosis or left-handedness in his family. Or heart disease. Moomins were his favourite childhood television programme. He refuses to comment on how ticklish he is, on a scale of 1 – 4, but he doesn’t recommend finding out. No, he doesn’t have arachnophobia, he just doesn’t like large uninvited guests in his room in the middle of the night.
‘Right,’ says Carl. Determined to wrestle some kind of control from this onslaught. ‘My turn.’
Abigail, he asks, she belongs to Peter, does she? A pet? Peter frowns, and helps himself to one of Carl’s cigarettes. Not a pet, he says, more of a companion. She lives here.
He says it defiantly, mouth set in a pout around his cigarette. Fixing Carl with a stare that defies disagreement. A schoolboy threatened with being parted from the precious loot in the shoebox under his bed. (And Carl tries not to wonder what terrors a teenage Peter kept hidden at the back of his wardrobe).
Is there a neighbourhood watch scheme around here, is Carl’s second question. If so, he suggests Peter furnishes him with some front door keys, to avoid him breaking and entering. Ah, says Peter, and blows a single, perfect smoke ring. He watches it float above his head. Measures it against the length of his finger.
Um, yeah, the door. That, he explains, doesn’t always work. Sometimes, if you give it a bit of a shove- he demonstrates and knocks the contents of the rickety table onto the floor. Carl snatches his cup out of the way and despairs. He regards the ridiculous man folded onto his knees on the floor, scrabbling amongst papers and cigarettes and broken biscuits.
‘Still’, Peter smiles up at him suddenly, ‘you worked out the window. That’s… good.’ He stills, papers abandoned to the floor, but he doesn’t get up from where he’s kneeling at Carl’s feet. As if he can’t quite decide on something. For one long moment, Carl is convinced he’s about to be given a treat, or possibly tickled behind the ears.
Then Peter is gathering up his notebook and shoving errant papers back into the folds as he goes. He pauses in the doorway. Ruffles his hair, casually, glancing back over his shoulder.
‘Oh. Yeah. Would you be amenable to that sort of thing?’ He waits and turns to look at Carl properly, irritated by his confusion.
‘Dinner… and all that malarkey.’
‘Are you asking me out?’
Peter pauses – mouth caught in an moue of uncertainty. As if, for once, he doesn’t know the answer.
‘I’m just… asking.’
Carl shrugs. He empties his teacup, and reaches for the remnants of his cigarettes. He’s answered quite enough mind-boggling questions for one evening. And if he knows the answer to this one, maybe he doesn’t want to hand it over just yet.
‘Try it and find out.’
# # #
We love dramarama, right
- Mating Habits - Part A *UPDATED*