Chapter 1: Foolish Things.
The sun hung nonchalant in the summer afternoon, and the dappled shadows it made, passing through the trees of the Wayne estate, played casually on the outside wall, as well as on the inside of the rich, wood-lined room where Bruce and Alfred were sitting. Mr Wayne sat composedly on the lush red of the chesterfield, quietly brooding over The Financial Times, while his Butler sat absorbed in the latest crime novel that had taken his fancy. Beneath his Sea Island cotton shirt, Bruce was unusually bruise free (something Alfred approved of), but his abdomen was tensed involuntarily and the occasional tap-tapping of his right foot was forcing Alfred to re-read the previous paragraph.
Having re-read the same sentence three times, and then a fourth because the clock chimed, Alfred finally surrendered and closed his book. Time for tea. He couldn't understand why Mr Wayne was choosing to read that particular paper. He was sick of seeing Bruce do chores. He ought to enjoy himself and read some crime fiction, or a silly English romp, he thought.
'Plans, Master Bruce?'
Rustling the paper, Bruce paused before saying matter-of-factly: 'I have an appointment at Arkham.'
'You're going to see Joker? Again!' questioned Alfred. Exasperation made his voice weedy.
'It's John, Alfred. John,' Bruce corrected him.
'Quite,' said Alfred disapprovingly. 'But, sir, aren't you worried about people making connections? Batman, Bruce Wayne, Joker and his criminal gang? You do remember all those people he murdered, don't you?'
'No one is making connections, Al, because no one cares enough about John Doe to scrutinise him that carefully. He's just another nutter to them, Al, locked safely away in a cell. That's all,' and Bruce shuck the paper as if that concluded the matter.
'Locked up for a reason, I might add, sir,' pressed Alfred, but Bruce appeared not to be listening. Letting out a half-sigh of thinly concealed frustration, Alfred continued: 'I am just frightened that with Batman retired, John is filling a gap, so to speak. Maybe take up an old hobby…maybe respond to Miss Kyle's invitation? I think she is staying in town for you, you know? Take her out, enjoy yourselves…'
'Not interested,' said Bruce evenly, and then he added: 'Well maybe I'll bump elbows over a coffee…'
'– and then take her out to dinner! Hell – take her on holiday, sir!' encouraged Alfred.
'I said I'd give up Batman, Alfred. Not settle down.'
'And what is so bad about settling down, may I ask?' Alfred's voice was irritated, high, thin and spoken in a tone that had little love for Batman.
Bruce lifted the paper a little higher.
'Well! What is wrong with Selina Kyle?' exclaimed Alfred, truly frustrated at the unwavering stubbornness so typical of his charge. 'I can't see you making do with a pussycat, sir. You'd be bored to tears. Selina is a tiger – why, with your mutual love of danger, I think if there ever were two people that could work out how to tame a marriage together, it would be you two…why, I - .'
'Alfred – .'
'Please, sir! You have already admitted you can NOT be Batman forever. She cannot be Catwoman forever either! You complement one another – why you – .'
'I am sorry, sir…I am sorry…' Alfred composed himself, his right hand squeezing his left.
'Alfred, I don't like women.'
The words seem to echo, bouncing off the lacquered table, the marble lamps, the crystal decanter, to land back in the spot between Alfred and Bruce. A ringing suspension of sound that stated a fact both men had somehow known for a very long time.
The silence between them went on too long. Alfred watched as Bruce got up from the chesterfield, wearing an expression he had only ever seen Batman wear: a cold, cruel mouth, a mask-like stillness, and a look in the eyes that could only be described as bitter disenchantment. It was a face that frightened Alfred, because deep behind those eyes he knew there were tears; tears that had frozen, petrified and turned to stone. Alfred's mind was dumb as he watched his child leave the room.
Shaken and very much alone, Alfred sank into the iron-leather chair and, to his surprise, began to cry. I want you to be happy Bruce. Every time you punish yourself, you punish me…you're killing me Bruce…I want you to be happy Bruce…by God, you deserve to be happy.
Bruce, you deserve to be happy!
Driving his car was one of the few things Bruce Wayne really enjoyed. He took the long, quiet, scenic root on the way to Arkham and this meant he could put the gear stick into fifth and pressure his purring engine to a roar. He loved the fast lane, and driving helped him think. He wasn't sure why he had admitted that to Alfred, he wasn't comfortable with it either. – but there was one thing Bruce Wayne was damn sure he wouldn't let happen, and that was letting Alfred bully him into marriage – with two kids playing on the floor and a cushy, old Labrador snoozing beside the fire place. That just left Alfred serving tea with lavender-scented shortbread, a regiment of doilies and miniature silver cutlery.
A soft voice reminded him that that was probably not what Alfred had in mind when he suggested meeting Catwoman, but Bruce wasn't having it. Alfred had used his affection, twisting his arm behind his back until he was forced to give up Batman, and as much as he wanted Alfred in his life, Bruce bitterly resented retiring.
The big oak tree was coming up and the road was dead, so Bruce indulged in a little car-play, whooshing and vrooming and startling birds from the low hanging branches of the trees. If he just went on as usual and never mentioned it again, then maybe Alfred would do the same. Yes. If Bruce put on his stern-face every time Alfred approached the subject, then Bruce was sure his butler's nerve would give. He would trust that Alfred's natural embarrassment would prevent further discussion of his love of men.
Vroooom-ooom. Thinking further, he wondered if, for appearances sake, he ought to go flirt with some totty at one of the parties happening at the weekend. No one could resist Bruce Wayne in a tux.
Bringing his engine down to a steady purr, Bruce rounded the corner and the asylum's silhouette became visible against the furious blue of the skyline. It was always the same just before he saw John: the excitement in his chest curdled with a dread at the centre of his stomach. You could never be quite sure who you were about to visit when you went to visit John. A child, a melancholic, a flirt, a madman – a reasonable John or a ridiculous John? Bruce admitted, the man's paranoia got to him sometimes.
As Bruce entered the visitors room, he could tell it was a melancholic John.
'Hey buddy!' John did his best to smile, but the emotion in the wide show of teeth stopped before it reached his eyes.
'Hi John,' and Bruce took his seat, nodding in thanks to the security man standing at the back of the room.
'So…how are things? How's rapport with Dr Phillips?'
John's lips pulled an extravagant number of shapes, as did his eyebrows, before answering. 'Well I had a GOLD star this week – but…they took it away.'
Joker looked deeply uncomfortable, deliberately not looking Bruce in the eye has he played with the chains that bound his wrists together. A chain that snaked below the table and down and round both his ankles too.
'– and? Did you deserve it?'
'NO!' shouted John, clearly outraged. 'Well MAYBE! I don't know…'
'Well,' Bruce said foxily, 'I have something to cheer you up.'
Joker leaned forward, 'Oh?'
'I've been thinking more about this fantasy of ours. Let's pretend the doctors cure you. They find the right balance of therapy and meds and they allow you to come and spend some time with me under house arrest. What would you wear?'
Smiling in disbelief, John faintly shook his head. 'You REALLY are crazy, aren't you?'
'Come on, I thought we'd start with the wardrobe first. Here: take a look!' and Bruce slid a couple of glossy magazines towards John.
His pale mouth made a big round 'O' as he scrutinised the magazines in detail. 'Well, gee Bruce! I don't know what to say. THANK YOU! – but these guys? They're so…'
'Suave?' offered Bruce, silkily.
'– corporate!' blurted John.
Smiling, Bruce folded his right leg over his left, and leaned as far back as the squat, badly made frame of the chair would allow. 'It figures. Here try this! Page 21.'
'I reckoned you'd like colourful. Italian. Lush. Silky – have a look at the three-piece.'
John beamed, mouthing wow and then he frowned. 'Ahhh – it is LUSH – but could we stick to purple and green?'
The polished oxfords that had been revolving sensuously above Bruce's left knee stopped. 'What – for everything?' he faltered.
John nodded, seemingly quite enthused at the idea.
Wayne considered the genuine smile now on John's face and decided to compromise. 'Well, I suppose lilac can be sophisticated. Lilac and avocado, primarily…introduce some floral blues…have different shades of lilac,' Bruce paused. 'I could make that work.'
Looking up, Bruce saw John's eyes that seemed enlarged and reminiscent of a love-struck puppy. He couldn't help but grin, and then he turned, catching a glimpse of the guard, who looked quite simply aghast.
'– and diamond prints, and a big SHINY stopwatch – and –.'
'– and a clown-flower in the pocket?' reproved Bruce. 'No John. Lilac it is – but let me do the rest!' Then, with a pursing of his lips, he decided to indulge John. '– but you can have a pocket watch…gold…we will dandify you in the finest!' he promised.
Ecstatic and then agitated, Bruce turned to catch a glimpse of the guard again, who was wearing such an expression of scandal that Bruce could no longer see his eyebrows. Gruffly, Wayne coughed and turned back to John, speaking in a now serious tone: '– and John? If you were to receive private tuition in something, what would that something be?'
'THEATRE!' exclaimed John dramatically, raising from his seat in true thespian style, stretching his chains with a clink, and then he wavered. 'No. POETRY! Oh – how about something musical?'
Bruce nodded approvingly. 'What kind of music would you like to learn to play?'
'JAZZ! Big band!'
'How about I get you a saxophone?'
'OH!' John gushed maniacally, clearly enchanted with the idea.
Then, sadly, their moment was interrupted. 'Mr Wayne, I am afraid your time is up,' came the professional voice of a lady doctor Bruce was familiar with, but whose name he didn't know. Covering most of his face with his hands Joker mouthed 'I don't like her', and Bruce winked. Then Mr Wayne stood and left John, who was still beaming appreciatively and who was clearly much happier than he had been when Bruce arrived. It was his duty to get John away from this place (even if it was only in his head) and he wouldn't let anyone interfere with duty. He followed the woman out into the corridor.
'Doctor?' enquired Bruce politely.
'Hibbert,' answered the middle-aged female.
Smiling, in what Bruce knew to be his most charming smile he asked, 'Enrichment is good for the patients, is it not, Doctor? Would Arkham agree to me buying musical instruments for patients who want to learn? I'll pay for the teacher too – I'll even pay for private tuition?' Dr Hibbert didn't answer, looking stunned, so Bruce decided to sweeten the deal. '– and I want to invest more heavily in the existing Arts and Craft Fund. After all, working creatively with the hands is excellent therapy.'
Still wide eyed and disbelieving, Dr Hibbert slowly inclined her head. 'Well, thank you Mr Wayne. It is most kind of you to offer – I'll talk to Dr Phillips.' With that she smiled appreciatively, and Bruce mirrored her, stretching his lips approvingly.