Robbie awakens scandalously late (half nine!) with a fuzzy head. Since he only had two beers last night, he blames the curry and Fred Astaire for his strange, half-remembered dreams. After breakfast, he heads out to his favourite flower shop.
The shop assistant is new, and not one he's seen before. Student, working part time, Robbie judges. She sells him a bunch of pale yellow daffodils without comment, then returns to texting on her mobile.
Unless the criminals of Oxford are being particularly murderous, Sunday mornings are devoted to Val. Robbie crouches down beside the headstone, removing the wilted pink roses from the holder, and replacing them with the daffodils.
"Hullo, pet," he murmurs. "We closed a case on Thursday, so I've got a proper full weekend for once. It's been very restful." Robbie sighs as he gets to his feet. Val always knew when he was holding back the truth. "It's been dull as dishwater without James. He was busy yesterday. I'm not supposed to know, but he escorted Laura Hobson to a wedding. She's an old school chum of the bride. No reason why they shouldn't go together, if they want to. No reason I should think about it, and no reason in the world why it should bother me."
The sigh is louder this time. "It does bother me. I'm not sure why. It's not as if Laura and I... you know." He'd had 'The Conversation' with Val years ago, as he imagined that most happily married couples did. The one about carrying on with life if the worst happened, finding someone new to be happy with. Course, he'd expected it'd be Val carrying on. He was the copper, the one with a dangerous job. "She's a lovely woman and a good friend, but she's not the one for me." Just as well, he supposes, since he evidently isn't the one for her.
"She deserves a good man in her life, Laura does. Someone kind. Someone educated, who's got things in common with her. Who respects her. James is all of that. He's young, but he's steadier than he used to be. I think they could make a go of it. If they wanted." He starts to pace, circling the headstone. "Dunno what I'm going to do with myself today. Probably go down to the pub and watch a match. I thought about dropping over to James's flat, but... what if he's not alone?"
A harsh sound pulls itself out of his throat. Robbie isn't sure if it's a laugh or a groan. "Bonny lass, there's no fool like an old fool. I'm jealous. Didn't want to admit it—didn't want to see it. I should be glad for them, but I'm not."
Maybe that's why they didn't say anything. Didn't want to hurt my feelings. What would they think if they knew the whole truth? Oh, he's jealous all right, but it's Laura he's jealous of. "She's taken my James."
It's even more galling when he says it out loud, but maybe that's what he needs: to take a good hard look at his relationship with James Hathaway. Relationship? Bloody sodding hell. He'll be joining an encounter group next, or writing to an agony aunt. He doesn't like the word, but there is something between them, something more than casual friendship, more than the tight bond that forms between two coppers who've worked together for years. Any road, he thought there was. James is a kind bloke underneath the sharp-tongued jokes. Maybe he's been humouring his old governor.
Robbie knows what he needs to do now. Come Monday, he's got to make it clear somehow to Laura and James that he won't stand in their way. Love—even the possibility of love—matters. He knows that more than most. It shouldn't be interfered with. He lays a hand on the top of the headstone; partly a caress of sorts, partly to steady himself. It always helped to talk things over with Val. "Thanks, pet."
When Robbie enters his office on Monday morning, James is nowhere in sight, but an open folder on his desk and a half-written email on his computer testify that he's somewhere about. A moment later, the man himself appears, carrying two mugs of coffee. James is whistling something stately and complex. It sounds vaguely like Bach, but the tune isn't familiar.
"Good morning," James says as he sets one of the mugs on Robbie's desk. He's smiling. Not one of those slight-twitch-of-the-lips deals, but a full-on smile.
Robbie stares. "Who are you, an' what have you done with me sergeant?"
"Had your eyes tested recently, sir? Annual examinations are recommended at your age." James actually reaches into his pocket and flashes his warrant card. "DS Hathaway, at your service."
"Oh, very funny. You're a Cheerful Charlie this morning. Had a good weekend, did you?" The words are out of his mouth before he remembers that he really doesn't want to know about James's weekend.
"I did. Very inspiring. I spent most of it in the arms of Euterpe." Seeing his governor's frown, James explains, "Euterpe was the Greek—"
"It's too early in the day for Greek," Robbie grumbles. He doesn't want to hear which classical goddess James is comparing Laura to. "Stick to English, if you please. And you've got a report to finish, so get to it."
James blinks, and his smile fades away. Without further comment, he seats himself at his computer and begins typing. Robbie can't see his sergeant's face, but the stiffness of his back and the staccato click of the keyboard signal his change of mood all too clearly.
Bugger. He didn't mean to be so snappish. It's not as though James has done anything wrong. The lad doesn't know that Robbie knows who he was with this weekend. I've got to have a talk with him—but first, I've got to talk to Laura.
She's just finishing up a post mortem when he arrives. "Good morning, Robbie."
"Morning, Laura." He's not quite sure how to go about this. He supposes he'll handle it like an interview, and go by instinct. "How was the wedding?"
She brightens. "It went splendidly, thanks. Louise looked so happy, and I got to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in ages. The food was good and the champagne was excellent." Laura gives him a rueful smile. "I think I toasted the happy couple a few times too many. Fortunately, a friend drove me home."
Robbie struggles to keep smiling. Did you invite him in? Or did he invite himself? No, he can't imagine James Hathaway taking advantage of a woman who's had too much to drink. But if he spent the night, and was there in the morning... He pushes the unwelcome thoughts aside. It's one thing to theorise, but a good detective gathers facts. He's got to ask. "So, Laura... you and James...?"
She looks mildly surprised. "I didn't think he would tell you. But if the cat's out of the bag... Robbie, he was marvellous! So incredibly talented."
Dancing. Dear God, I hope she's talking about dancing.
"What he can do with those fingers is almost magic—" Robbie can feel the blood freezing in his veins. "But I'm sure you know that from personal experience."
"What?" It's been forty years or more since his voice cracked like that.
Laura stares at him. "Robbie, are you feeling all right? You haven't caught that throat virus that's been going around, have you?"
He shakes his head. "Just... erm... just a frog in me throat."
"Well, it sounds like you've got a whole lily pond full of them. How about some tea?" She leads him into the small staff lounge and switches on the kettle. "As I was saying, I'm sure you've heard James play his guitar."
The puzzle pieces fall into place with a snap that's almost audible. Christ, he's thicker than all the stone walls in Oxford put together. He ought to walk into Innocent's office, hand in his papers, and check himself into a home for decrepit OAPs... then sit in a rocking chair, drink lukewarm Ovaltine, and play bingo. She wanted James to 'accompany' her on his sodding guitar!
"He's talented at everything he does," Robbie replies evasively. It's true, and it saves him from the embarrassment of admitting that he's worked with the man for over five years and never once heard him play. That bit of a listen he had on James's iPod doesn't count. It was the whole band, and he could scarcely pick out one instrument from another.
"It was a duet?" he prompts.
"Yes, which is why I was so frantic," Laura says. "I could hardly go it alone." She hands him a large mug of tea and pours another for herself. "There were a group of us at school who were musical. No budding Mozarts, but we enjoyed playing together, and went to concerts sometimes. Louise plays the flute. Ethan—he's the one James had to replace—is a guitarist. Vanessa sings, and you know about me."
Robbie nods. Clarinet.
"Stephen plays keyboard, or at least he used to do. It's sad—he's got severe rheumatoid arthritis. His hands are nearly crippled, but he's taken up composing. We all decided that we'd give Louise music as a wedding gift. Stephen composed two pieces. One was a vocal arrangement for Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. Vanessa sang it during the ceremony. The other was a processional, a duet for guitar and clarinet."
She runs a hand through her hair. "Ethan called me on Friday afternoon to say that his kids had come down with chicken pox, and he didn't think he ought to go to the wedding. Bad enough that I had to find a another classical guitarist the day before the wedding, but it had to be someone who could learn a completely new, rather intricate piece of music in less than 24 hours."
"And you figured James could do it." Robbie sips at his tea.
"I didn't really know, one way or the other. I knew that he played and was in some sort of group, and I remembered when his guitar was stolen, how upset he was. A vintage Gibson isn't an instrument for a novice or a dilettante, unless he's wealthy."
Which James most certainly is not. Robbie remembers how much the fence was asking for the guitar. High as that was, it would still be lower than the genuine value. He reckons the guitar must've cost James at least two months' take-home pay.
"I emailed him a copy of the sheet music, explained the situation, and asked if he knew a guitarist who would attempt an eleventh hour miracle. Ethan had told me he'd be willing to pay for a professional to take his part." She beams. "And James, bless him, phoned me to say that the music looked interesting, and he'd be happy to give it a go."
No real surprise there. Robbie doesn't know what James looks like when he's playing guitar, but he imagines it's similar to when the lad is concentrating on a case: focused and sharp. And afterwards, when he knew he'd come to a successful end, there'd be one of those rare, sweet, genuine smiles. The sort of smile James had flashed this morning. Until his knobhead of a governor ripped into him for no good reason.
Robbie chats a few moments longer, then asks a few questions about the McKenzie case, which is the supposed reason he tramped down here. He pretends to listen carefully to answers he already knows, and suppresses a sigh. He's got to have another conversation after this one, and he's not looking forward to it.
On the way back to the office, he considers what he's going to say to Hathaway. For that matter, should he say anything at all? "Sorry I got snappish. I thought you and Laura Hobson were an item, and I was jealous. Silly me. Finished the report yet?" Talk about a cure worse than the disease...
Hathaway is still typing away when Robbie returns. He glances up from the keyboard, a look of bland inquiry on his face: the dutiful sergeant acknowledging his governor's return. When no orders are forthcoming, he bends over the computer again.
Robbie settles at his desk and busies himself with his own paperwork. God knows there's more than enough of it. After finishing the third budget report, he opens an Internet browser and types 'Yuterpee' into the search box. Fortunately, Google is accustomed to outrageously misspelled names, and it obligingly produces a screenful of results for 'Euterpe'. He clicks on the first. 'The Greek Muse of lyric poetry and music, her name means Giver of Delight.' Figures. 'In the arms of Euterpe' was Hathaway's smartarse way of saying he'd been playing his guitar all weekend.
When an hour has gone by, he decides to test the waters. "James?"
Hathaway turns to look at him, and his expression is as guarded as before. "Sir?" There's no sarkiness in the word, no edge of mischief. It's bland and respectful enough to be addressed to the Chief Constable himself, and it makes Robbie's heart sink.
"How are you getting on with that?" He juts his chin towards Hathaway's computer.
"Ten minutes, and I'll be done with it. Sir." Still the dutiful sergeant.
Robbie nods. "Good. It'll be time for lunch then. What do you think of heading to the Mole and Badger for a pie and a pint?" he asks casually, and adds, "On me."
Hathaway pauses for a split second. "Thank you, sir. That's very kind of you." Despite the 'sir' his tone is warmer, and Robbie can hear the unspoken words. Apology accepted.
He waits a few days before taking the next step. Robbie tells himself he's being cautious, making sure that they're back to normal. Good mates again. Or else you're being a coward, that other voice in his head whispers. He hasn't just been waiting, he argues in reply. He's been watching, too. Watching James.
James is always interesting to watch: the subtleties of expression, the quirk of a lip or an eyebrow that say quite a lot to someone who knows how to read them. The rest of his body is eloquent, too. The seemingly bored slouch. The sympathetic tilt of the head that invites a witness to confide in him. The sudden tensing of his long legs, like a hound getting ready for the chase. Robbie's noticed all these and more in the past. Now he's noticing something new. James is watching him.
Is it new? Or has he just been oblivious to it before now? Of course, James has always watched him the way a good bagman should watch his inspector: to learn, to receive orders, and to anticipate orders. Now Robbie thinks he's under a different kind of observation. Deeper. More personal. It makes him wonder what James sees—and what he's looking for. The impatient side of him wants to get this sorted right away. The detective and the long-married man know better. There are some things you don't rush if you don't want to bollocks them up. Robbie isn't sure what James wants of him. Then again, he's not entirely sure what he wants of James, so he supposes they're even.
He makes his move Thursday after work, as they're heading towards the car park. "How about a takeaway?"
"Could do, yeah. I was thinking we'd bring it back to your place."
James's brows shoot up. They almost always go to Lewis's flat. He shrugs. "Dinner chez Hathaway it is."
Before he opens the door, James apologises for the condition of his flat.
"Give over, man,' Robbie grumbles. "Can't be all that bad." He's visited witnesses in flats that ought to have been reported to Health and Safety, or maybe just had their contents shovelled directly into a skip. He's seen students' rooms that resembled disaster zones, despite the best cleaning efforts of the college scouts. Compared to those, Hathaway's flat is likely to be immaculate.
Chez Hathaway isn't perfectly tidy, which suits Robbie just fine. There's a pale green hoodie thrown over the back of a chair, and a pair of black trainers and white athletic socks on the floor nearby. Half of the coffee table is covered with books and the other half with sheet music. James's guitar case (closed, and presumably containing a guitar) is propped up against the smallest bookcase.
James leads him into the kitchen and sets the takeaway bags on the table. The room is clean and orderly except for a red and white mug on the counter. Robbie has only a vague impression of some nobbish heraldic design with lions and—are those arrowheads?—before James snatches up the wayward piece of crockery and places it gently in the sink.
They eat in the kitchen rather than on the sofa. No sense in taking the time to clear off the coffee table while the food goes cold. Between bites of Kung Pao chicken and Szechuan beef, and swigs of Tsingtao Beer they talk about matters great and small. Robbie watches with growing fascination as James argues for some complicated connection between Shakespeare and Isaac Newton. It's not the topic that enthralls and delights him (though if anyone could make bloody Shakespeare interesting, it'd be James), but the way his sergeant stresses the most important points with emphatic hand gestures. Usually it's a cigarette that he jabs into the air before him. Tonight it's a spring roll (crispy vegetarian).
Eventually, James notices Robbie's bemused expression. "What is it?"
Robbie gestures at James's right hand. "You gonna eat that or smoke it?"
James stares at the spring roll, as if noticing it for the first time. "Neither. I'm full."
Clean-up doesn't take long. James wraps the leftovers and stashes them in the fridge. Robbie puts the dirty dishes into the sink. There aren't many: two plates, three serving spoons, a fork, and a pair of black lacquered chopsticks. Since he's standing right there, he starts to do the washing up.
A long arm, shirt-sleeve rolled above the elbow, reaches past him to turn off the water. "Sir, no... please don't. I'll take care of it."
Robbie rolls his eyes. "I'm not made of candy floss, James. I won't melt in a bit of hot water."
"It's not right. You're my... guest."
Robbie would bet that last word was intended to be 'governor'. "Thought I was here as your friend," he says mildly. " All right. Have it your way, soft lad." He makes sure the smile is gone from his face before he turns and steps away from the sink.
James holds up one of the empty Tsingtao bottles. "Another?" He correctly interprets Robbie's hesitation, and produces a bottle of Abingdon Bridge from the refrigerator.
Robbie takes it with thanks, and allows himself to be shooed out of the kitchen. Just as well. He needs to give some thought to what he's going to say. For starters, he needs James to understand, to believe, what he said: he's here as a friend. It's not Sergeant Hathaway's governor sitting on his sofa; it's James's mate Robbie.
He takes a deep swallow of beer. He's not much of a talker. James is the one who's good with words. He's good at putting them together and even better at seeing through them. When James joins him on the sofa, his own bottle of Bridge in hand, Robbie's still trying to figure out his opening lines.
"Shall I put on the telly, sir?"
"We're off duty, man. If you won't call me Robbie—" He's made the request a dozen times if he's done it once. "—at least drop the 'sir'."
"Robbie," James says with a hint of exasperation, "do you want to watch the telly?"
He hesitates. Will that make it easier to talk, or will it distract them both too much? He could ask James to put on a CD, instead... Oh. Ohhh... He smiles, even as his heart skips a beat. "What about some music?" Before James can reply, Robbie gestures at the guitar case. "Play me something?"
James stares at him. "Wh— what?" He was gonna say 'why?' I'd wager a tenner on that. "Erm... sure. What do you want to hear?"
"Something by The Midnight Addiction?" Robbie grins at the sour look James darts in his direction. "I don't know what's in your repertoire. I suppose there are some tunes you can't play without the rest of your band, but you must know some solo pieces." He waves his hand vaguely in the air. "Play whatever you like. Impress me." You're good at that, lad. The music will relax them both, he figures, and make it easier to talk.
James crosses the room and retrieves his guitar from its case. Instead of returning to the sofa, he seats himself on the straight-backed desk chair, turning it around to face Robbie. He gives the guitar an experimental strum, frowns, and begins to tune it.
"So, what are you going to play?"
James, busy with his tuning, doesn't look up. "BWV 998."
"An' what's that when it's at home?"
James remains bent over the guitar, but the corners of his mouth twitch. "A Bach catalogue number. Prelude, Fugue, and Allegro in E-flat major. Well, just the Allegro, actually." His fingers run through a quick scale, then a series of staccato chords. Evidently satisfied, he attaches one of those clamp thingummies to the neck of the guitar, near the top. "It was written for lute sometime between 1734 and 1745, and is apparently based on a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. There's an interesting theory, shared by many of the top Bach scholars, that the full work is a musical allegory of the Holy Trinity."
Robbie's about to tell him to leave off the sodding lecture when, without warning or introduction, James starts to play. And then Robbie can't say anything, can't think anything, because the music seizes hold of him and demands his attention.
Robbie thought he knew what to expect. He's never heard this piece, but allegro means something fast and lively, and it's Bach, so something complicated and twisty. And it's James playing, so... skillful and earnest. He thought he was prepared. He was wrong. You can't prepare for music like this any more than you can prepare for being struck by lightning.
James's fingers fly across the strings with a speed that Robbie wouldn't believe if he wasn't watching. What did Laura call them? Magic? Miraculous, more like. He's not strumming; the fingers of his right hand are picking out a melody so intricate that it sounds like there are two or three guitars in the room. And though the notes rise and fall and wind around and around in flurries and trills that almost make him dizzy, each one is sharp and bell-like. 'Lively' is too feeble a word for this music, which is so intensely joyous that it hurts. He can feel the ache of it in his bones.
He tears his gaze away from James's hands (long and pale and strong they are), and studies his face. His expression isn't what Robbie would call joyous. Solemn, maybe. Intense. Focused. Then, just for a fraction of a moment between notes, James glances at Robbie. The joy is there, shining in his eyes.
He's sharing something he loves with me, Robbie thinks, and the realisation sends a shiver through him.
As the final notes of the allegro fade away, so do Robbie's plans for conversation. The music has left him speechless, almost breathless. He and James will talk later, and at length. (Eventually, unless he misses his guess, they'll do more than talk.)
He nods mutely at James, who gives him a smile as lovely and complex as the music, and immediately launches into another piece. Robbie leans back on the sofa. He doesn't need to say anything. For now, listening is all that matters.
- THE END -