"I don't like that word," Robbie snaps.
"It's accurate," James retorts. "'Freak: a person, animal, or plant with an unusual physical abnormality.' Are you going to tell me that doesn't apply?" He raises his left wing until it brushes the ceiling.
"Who called you that?" If he had the guilty party in front of him just now, Robbie might be in danger of committing Grievous Bodily Harm.
From the distant look in James's eyes, he's twenty years or more too late to take vengeance for his partner. "It doesn't matter."
"It matters. You matter," Robbie insists.
"It was a lesson I needed to learn in order to function in the real world." James circles around to the front of the sofa and sits down.
"Is this why you left the seminary?"
"No, this is why I went into the seminary. The Church calls it a blessing," James says bitterly. "A visible manifestation of God's favour, and a sign that the person may be called to a vocation in His service. Father Thirlwell started talking to me about the priesthood shortly after I made my First Communion."
Robbie blinks. That young? He remembers Lyn, long ago, telling him about the lacy white dress and veil her friend Maureen got to wear to church. The girls had been seven, maybe eight at the most. So this priesthood talk would have been after James read about Tom Martyn. He'd have seen only two choices for his future: a life as a servant of God... or as a public curiosity. No choice at all. If what he suspects is true, there's no great mystery about Hathaway's departure from the seminary. He'd been telling himself all his life that he had a vocation as a priest, but eventually, he realised it wasn't so. Or the seminary authorities realised it wasn't so. Either way, he suddenly found himself without a direction in life.
James has always made light of his expulsion, with jokes about fish pie and the like. But Robbie has been called to the scene of one too many suicides—young people who'd killed themselves after being sent down from university. Mostly they'd been kids already burdened with serious problems, but didn't that describe James? Had he ever been tempted? Or had the legendary Hathaway stubbornness saved him from himself?
"James... I'm not good at this. You're the one I depend on to be clever with words, only this time, you've got it all wrong. You are not a freak. You are... a marvel. A wonder. And you are..." Robbie wants to say 'beautiful', but that sounds like he's comparing James to flowers or butterflies, and he's thinking of awe-inspiring sights like shooting stars and tigers and glaciers. 'Thing of beauty' is closer, but 'thing' is a dangerous word to use in this situation. "Sod it! I'm not the poetical sort. I can't quote the boys in the band. I know I'm making a right mess of this, but I want you to understand how I see you. You are magnificent. And that's on top of being a bloody genius and a great copper, and the best mate a man could hope for." He shakes his head in frustration. "You're a wonder," he repeats.
James looks at Robbie as if he's never seen him before. As if he's a vital clue to... something. It's more than a bit unnerving, to tell the truth. What is going on in that oversized brain? "Tell me what you're thinking."
"It's a very unexpected reversal of the usual order of things: you quoting the Bible at me. Did you know that psalm already, or did you search for it?"
Robbie frowns. "What are you talking about?" Even when he still believed in God he wasn't much of a churchgoer. The only psalm he knows is 'The Lord's my shepherd', the one they sometimes read at funerals.
James continues to stare at him, transfixed, as if his governor is the amazing one here. Him, Robbie Lewis from Newcastle, as common as they come. A good copper, yeah, and clever enough on the job, but not a legend like Morse was, and as Hathaway could someday become. An ordinary man, in the autumn of his years. Plain, down-to-earth (and that phrase has new meaning now). He's content with himself and his life, but he's nobody special.
He says something under his breath. Robbie can make out just enough of it to know it's not English.
"Translation, if you please?"
"For so many marvels I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders," James murmurs.
"And that is... what, exactly?"
"Psalm 139, verse 14. That's a Catholic translation, from the New Jerusalem Bible. You'd probably know the King James Version." He shuts his eyes in concentration. "'I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works.'"
"Never read that one," Robbie says carefully, "but it sounds fitting."
"My advisor at the seminary assigned that psalm to me as a spiritual exercise. I thought at first that he chose it because it has a passing reference to wings. 'If I speed away on the wings of the dawn, if I dwell beyond the ocean, even there your hand will be guiding me, your right hand holding me fast.'"
"But that's just poetry, right? It's not talking about actual wings." Just when he thought his life couldn't get any stranger, here he is doing literary analysis of the sodding Bible. If there is a God, he must be laughing right now.
"It's a metaphor; a fanciful way for the Psalmist to declare that God is always with him. It took me a very long time to realise that my advisor wanted me to concentrate on verse 14."
"The one about being a wonder?" Robbie asks. James nods. "Which is talking about all human beings, I reckon. Miracle of life and all that."
"I can't tell you how many times I read that psalm over and over, even recited it aloud. I burned the words into my brain, but I couldn't believe that it applied to me."
"I can't help you with all that God and Bible stuff. It's rubbish as far as I'm concerned. All I can tell you is what I know—not because I read it in some book, but because I've seen it myself." He fixes James with his eyes, wills him to listen and to accept. "James Hathaway, you are a wonder."
"I don't... I can't..."
"Can't what? Can't believe me? Have I ever lied to you, sergeant? Ever?"
"You've never lied to me, sir."
Robbie notices the stress on the first word. Just about everyone in Hathaway's life has lied to him, it seems. His parents lied through silence, by not telling him the truths he needed to hear: that he was a good kid and deserving of love. His Church lied to him, pushing him into a life he wasn't suited for, and letting him think the inevitable failure was his own. And worst of all, James has been lying to himself for most of his life. "I'm not lying to you now," Robbie says with quiet authority, "and we'll talk more, later. Right now, I think you're ready for another nap. You look done in."
"I am feeling a bit tired," James says. The fact that he's mentioning it at all instead of snarking at Robbie means he's flat-out exhausted.
"Off with you then." Only when the bedroom door has closed behind James does Robbie allow himself to collapse onto the sofa. He rubs a weary hand across his face. A lie-down sounds very appealing just now, though he usually thinks of naps as being for children, invalids, and doddering pensioners. He can't afford to waste the time. He's got some thinking to do.
He sits at the kitchen table, staring into a mug of tea. What a sodding mess he's made of things... or has he? The outburst triggered by his stupid mistake may have done the lad some good. It's not enough. This is one of those rare cases where he'd actually recommend counselling, if he thought there was anyone who was halfway competent to deal with such a case. And if James would actually go. Not bloody likely. No, James will have to make do with his well-meaning and hopelessly-out-of-his-depth governor.
What has he got to work with? Robbie makes a mental list. He's been a copper enough years to know something about human nature, and he probably knows more about James Hathaway than anyone else. And he's a fair detective. Never mind all that psychology rubbish—treat this like a case. What has he learned today about James?
He grew up with conflicting messages about his difference from the authority figures in his life. His priest told him it was a blessing from God; his parents told him indirectly through their actions that he was an oddity who should hide himself away. It's a wonder they let him fly at all. Robbie supposes that James might have done his flying in secret, but that's not the impression he got. If they disapproved, why didn't they make him wear the binder all the time, even at home?
Mortmaigne. The other authority figure of James's childhood. Robbie would bet his pension on it. Based on the testimony from Briony Grahame and others, Augustus Mortmaigne preferred to prey on young teenagers. James left Crevecoeur at the age of 12, so he was most likely spared that particular horror. Still, he spent most of his childhood under the thumb of a soulless, manipulative bastard who treated his tenants as property. Robbie's thoughts are racing now. Mortmaigne was attracted to innocence. He admired beauty. Collected fine art. A beautiful blond boy with wings would be a living treasure—one to be prized and secretly gloated over. It was certainly no coincidence that the library at Crevecoeur contained a copy of a rare book about the most famous winged boy in history.
Robbie can imagine a conversation between the bloody Lord of the Manor and his estate manager. "Let the boy fly as much as he pleases, Hathaway. Nothing wrong with some harmless fun, eh? Just as long as he doesn't go too far out of sight—wouldn't want him to come to harm where no one can find him. He can soar over the south lawn and the knot garden. Her Ladyship is fond of the lad, and Scarlett loves to watch him. Providing that he doesn't land on the rose bushes, he may go where he likes."
And what could Hathaway Senior say in response to the man who was his employer and his landlord? Unless he wanted to be looking for a new position, it would have to be an obedient "Yes, m'lord".
How did James's father feel about his lordship's interest in his son? Grateful? It probably meant that his position was secure. Or was he resentful, half-suspecting that his employment owed more to his son's unusual nature than to his own abilities? Robbie is very sure that it was never Mortmaigne who called James 'freak'. His detective's instincts are pointing him in a very different (and unpleasant) direction.
What happened next? That's where Robbie has no evidence, only speculation. The Hathaways left Crevecoeur when James was 12—no, that's not quite right. What James told him during the Black investigation was, "I lived here until I was 12 years old." Could be that his parents stayed on the estate when James went off to that posh school. Did Mortmaigne pay his school fees, perhaps as an attempt to bind James to him with gratitude? Probably not. Attending a good school made it easier for James to go to university, to make an independent life for himself. Most likely he won a scholarship. He must have had some kind of a scholarship at university. Room and board come to a tidy sum in Oxford; Cambridge wouldn't be any cheaper.
James graduated from Cambridge with a starred First in Theology. This part is fact, not a guess. Robbie has access to some of his sergeant's records, especially those having to do with education and skills. He hasn't seen the more personal documents that give details about family. He could get at them, but that would be a violation of trust, and what James needs more than anything is to be able to trust someone.
All Robbie has to do is be that someone. It's very simple and utterly terrifying.
James emerges from his bedroom several hours later. Did he get any sleep? Robbie isn't certain. James looks calmer. He's quiet and subdued, but he meets Robbie's gaze directly when he says he's feeling better. "I'll get my statement typed now."
James seats himself in front of the laptop. After a moment of silent thought, he begins to type. He's not working at his usual lightning speed, but he's not as slow as a snail, either. He's got his sling pushed back to his elbow, and occasionally uses the first two fingers of his right hand for keys on that side of the keyboard. Robbie watches carefully for a few minutes, but doesn't see any grimaces of pain. And it's not as though the lad is putting all that much strain on his arm. He'll be all right, he tells himself, and opens the fridge to study the prospects for dinner.
"Finished." James pushes his chair back. "Care to take a look, sir?"
"Just one mo..." Robbie sets a pan of water on the hob. That done, he sits down in front of the computer. "Good. I'll email it to Innocent. She'll want a signed copy when you return to work, but this'll do for now."
They chat over spag bol and salad about nothing in particular. Robbie tries very hard not to analyse James's every word, look, and gesture. That talk they had earlier was like lancing a boil. A lot of foul, putrid stuff came out—stuff that had been festering for years—but that doesn't mean there isn't more inside. Doesn't mean he's cured now, or that he won't be vulnerable to new infections. What it does mean is that James is better than he was yesterday. For now, that will have to be enough.
Robbie does the washing up, then takes a bottle of beer from the fridge. He suggests they watch something mindless on the telly.
"Actually, sir... I was thinking... I'm getting rather rank. Time for a shower."
"Can you take a shower?" Robbie asks.
James gives him a sour look. "I'm not an ostrich, sir. I won't get waterlogged."
"Not what I meant, soft lad. Can you take a shower with that?" He touches his own right shoulder on the spot where James has a bandaged wound.
"Oh! Sorry. Yeah, it's okay. Sir Andrew said I ought to wait 48 hours. And obviously, I'll need a fresh bandage afterwards."
"Right. Let me know if you need a hand."
James waggles the fingers of his left hand. "I think I can make do with this one, sir, but thanks for the offer." He heads into the bathroom.
Robbie gets comfortable on the sofa and turns on the telly. He's still flipping channels when James returns, barefooted and smiling sheepishly. "Sir, if you wouldn't mind..." He gestures at the right side of his t-shirt, partially fastened shut with velcro patches. "I'm getting the knack of doing this one-handed but something seems to be stuck. Thanks."
While James showers, Robbie watches a repeat of the Top Gear polar episode. It's ridiculous, but it distracts him from listening too closely to the sounds from the bathroom. Would he even hear the thumpof an accidental fall over the roar of running water? He tells himself not to be foolish. James would cry out if anything of the sort happened, and besides, it's not as though he's got problems with balance or dizziness.
Richard Hammond racing a dog-sled to the sodding North Pole distracts him enough that he doesn't notice the sudden quiet of the water being turned off. The Inuit dogs pulling the sled are beautiful animals. He'd love to see them in action with a driver who really knows what he's doing. Still, he's got to give Hammond credit for— SnapSnapSnapSnapSnap! Robbie's off the sofa and halfway to the bathroom before he realises what he's hearing. That dull rattling sound is James shaking water off his wings.
He returns to the sofa, chuckling softly. This is—what was that phrase he heard on the radio?—his 'new normal'. Spag bol for dinner, watching Top Gear, and listening to his sergeant flap his wings dry. He remembers Morse quoting some Oxford scientist, "The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose."
Robbie lifts his beer bottle in salute. "Right you are, sir."
The next day, they start their new schedule. Robbie drops in first thing in the morning, then again at lunchtime, and after work. "The minute I walked into the nick, everyone was asking after you," he tell James at lunch.
"Everyone?" How James fits that much sarcasm into a single word, Robbie will never understand. "I can't imagine that Hooper was bemoaning my absence. Or Ripley."
In fact, Hooper had had some sharp remarks about lazy, overeducated toffs, though he shut his gob fast enough when he saw Lewis glowering at him. "Hooper was his usual charming self," Robbie concedes, "and I didn't see Ripley, but most of the rest of the team asked after you, wanted to know when you'd be back. Innocent sends her regards." Robbie chuckles. "Actually, what she said was, 'Tell Sergeant Hathaway to get well as quickly as possible.' I think it was more of an order than a greeting."
"One that I will happily obey to the best of my ability."
"And this is from Gurdip." Robbie removes a small plastic container from his coat pocket. "Some sort of sweet, I think."
James lifts the lid and takes a sniff. His eyes widen.
"That bad, is it?"
"No! Not at all. This is his grandmother's homemade halwa. He always smuggles some home with him after he visits her in Amritsar, and hoards it like gold. Did you tell him I was on my death-bed?"
"I didn't have a chance to tell him anything," Robbie says, chuckling. "Been here with you, remember? Innocent spread the word about you being on leave."
"And since she can't explain why I'm off for two weeks, everyone no doubt assumes that my injury is much worse than it is."
"Right. They think you've got a bullet hole in your shoulder, are taking painkillers, and have to avoid strain on your arm to prevent nerve damage." Robbie clucks his tongue. "Bloody layabout, you are." James's mouth twitches slightly, acknowledging the quip, but he doesn't look reassured. "Tell you what: tonight I'll bring you some old files to read through. Help keep your mind busy while your body is resting."
Robbie returns to James's flat that evening bearing Chinese takeaway and a briefcase full of cold cases. He's glad to see James tuck into his dinner, finishing his fair share of the steamed vegetable dumplings and honey spare ribs, and making a good attempt at the beef in black bean sauce. His sergeant's true appetite is revealed when he hurries from the table and opens a thick case folder with the enthusiasm of a child presented with an especially large portion of sticky toffee pudding. He takes ten minutes to study the summaries, then sets the files aside. Robbie hopes that he'll save them for the next day and not keep himself up all night.
They turn on the telly. Robbie flips the remote, pausing when he sees something familiar. He chuckles. "'Carry On, Henry'—haven't seen that in years."
James stares at him. "You're joking, sir. Please tell me you're joking."
On screen, a tipsy Henry VIII offers a flagon to a young woman—a stereotypical dimwitted blonde whose breasts are nearly falling out of her fancy gown. She protests that drink inflames the ardour. Henry takes another swig, and grins. "Yes. The more you drink, the 'arder it gets."
Robbie grimaces. He hasn't seen this one since it first came out in the early 70s. He went to the cinema with a couple of mates, and they all thought it was hilarious. Young men can be proper fools. He clicks the channel button. "Let's see if we can't find something better."
He finds a documentary about an American archaeological expedition in Turkey that was searching for the remains of Noah's ark. James rolls his eyes, but he doesn't object. Instead, he begins a detailed explanation of why the notion is absurd, from a biblical and scientific viewpoint. The conversation soon veers away from Noah, and hopscotches its way through geology, the history of shipbuilding, international politics, and a dozen other topics. Robbie doesn't know when he stops watching the documentary. It seems like just a few minutes later when he glances at the telly and sees a presenter talking about a dog show. He picks up the remote and clicks 'off'.
It's a good evening, and as he drives home, he reflects on how much he's enjoyed being with James these last few days. Pity about the reason, of course, but he's been having a very good time. And so has James, he's sure. James has been more relaxed than Robbie has ever seen him: laughing, chatting, joking.
It makes what follows even more difficult to understand. The next morning, he lets himself in to James's flat, and finds his sergeant sitting at the kitchen table. James has showered this morning, judging by his damp, tidily combed hair. He's neatly dressed in jeans and a plain black t-shirt. In front of him is a plate that bears evidence of a recently-eaten breakfast: bread crumbs and smears of egg.
James sets down his mug of tea. "Good morning, sir. Would you like some tea?"
Robbie shakes his head. "Already had one, thanks. Look, I won't be able to make it over here for lunch. Innocent has scheduled a meeting, and there's no getting out of it. For dinner, I was—"
"Actually, sir, I've been thinking about that. You've been extremely kind these past few days, and I do appreciate the assistance, but there's really no need for me to continue imposing on you like this."
"Imposing? You're not imposing." He stops himself before he can tell James not to be a sodding idiot.
"As I said, I'm very grateful for all you've done." He sounds completely sincere.
His mind is spinning. What brought this on? "If you're sure... It's really no trouble for me to drop in."
James stands and sets his breakfast dishes in the sink. "Obviously I'm not fit for work yet, but I can take care of myself well enough."
That's true. James has adapted very well to doing things left-handed. He's been doing his exercises regularly, and can use his right hand for tasks that don't require much strength or precision. He's a grown man. He doesn't want a minder. "Right, then," Robbie says, trying to sound casual and unconcerned. "I'll be off. Ring me if you—if there's anything you need." With a nod, he turns and walks off.
He doesn't get much work done that morning. At first he's bewildered. What did he say or do to make James shut him out so abruptly? Was he too much of a mother hen? He doesn't think so. Had James been humouring him? Tolerating his old governor... until he lost his patience? That doesn't feel right, but it's not easy to understand what goes on in that overactive, complicated brain. As the day wears on, his bewilderment turns to hurt, tinged with anger. Innocent's bloody meeting is a blessed distraction, as he has to concentrate on what's being said.
It's a temporary respite, and he feels his anger growing throughout the afternoon. He holds it in well enough, though he notices that his team is staying clear of his office unless it's unavoidable. At a few minutes past five he shuts down his computer and walks out.
In the car park he hears his name being called, and turns to see Laura hurrying towards him. He waits for her to catch up.
"Robbie, is James all right?" She sounds worried.
"Erm... yeah. He was fine when I saw him this morning. The wound's healing well, and he can use the arm a bit."
Laura's expressive brows shoot up. "In that case, I'll change my question: are you all right? You had a face like a thundercloud when I saw you earlier, but you were going into a meeting, and I didn't want to interrupt."
"Just a bit out of sorts. Nothing serious."
Those clear blue eyes study him, and Robbie is reminded that Laura's business may be with the dead, but she's a shrewd observer of the living, too. "I have a baked chicken cutlet waiting for me at home," she says, "along with mixed veg and brown rice. It's terribly healthy and nutritious, but I have a dreadful craving for something sauteed and drowned in a butter-wine sauce. Unless you have a better offer, I suggest we go to Mario's, where I can abuse my arteries and you can tell me all about the 'nothing serious' that has you out of sorts."
Mario's is overflowing with a noisy crowd who just got out of the cinema, but La Piccola Casa has a quiet table in the back. Laura barely glances at the menu before ordering chicken piccata with linguine; Robbie takes several minutes to decide on lasagne. At the waiter's suggestion, they split a small bottle of Pinot Grigio.
Robbie takes a swallow of wine. "Ta, Laura. I reckon that this is what I needed."
She raises her glass in acknowledgement. "What are friends for?" She doesn't press him to talk, for which he's grateful.
Maybe it's the wine, or just the undemanding company, but sometime between the salads and the mains he blurts out, "I've bollocksed things up with James."
Blessedly, she doesn't offer platitudes and false reassurances. Like the good friend that she is, she leans forward and says simply, "Tell me."
And he does. Not everything—no, not by a long shot. Even if Laura does know Hathaway's big secret, he's got no right to share the other things he's learned. He tells Laura what she's surely guessed: that James has had a difficult life, that people have let him down, that he finds it hard to trust anyone. "It was a bit rocky at the start, but we got past it. He trusts me, I'll swear he does. And we were having some good times, him and me, like best mates do. Especially last night." He exhales heavily. "Then this morning, he's all cool and polite. 'Very grateful for your assistance, sir, but I'm fine now. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.'" At Laura's sceptical glance, he adds, "No, he didn't say that last bit, though he may as well have done."
"Best mates," Laura murmurs. The look on her face is one that he's most used to seeing when she's working, whether in the lab or in the field. Analytical. Puzzle-solving. She'd make a good detective, if she were a copper. "Did you actually tell him that you consider him your best mate?"
"Course I did," he protests. "Days ago."
"And what did he say in return?"
He tries to remember. It was in the middle of that nasty blow-up about James calling himself a 'freak'. They'd both had a great deal to say. "He didn't say anything in particular about that. There was a lot going on, and we were both a bit worked up."
"Oh, Robbie..." Laura sighs. "To sum up—" She ticks the points off on her fingers. "You don't know if he heard you, you don't know if he believes you, and you don't know if he feels the same way."
Put like that, he feels a right idiot. "He knows I won't lie to him."
"Knowing something and believing it are two very different things."
That's true enough. He's seen it quite often, in his own personal life and on the job. Even when you want to believe something, it can be a challenge.
Laura cocks her head and gives him another appraising look. "I'm not going to give you advice on what to do about James. He's your awkward sod, as you told me once, and you've got to make your own decisions. What I will do is ask you some questions." She raises a hand, signalling for him to wait. "You don't have to tell me the answers—in fact, it would be better if you didn't."
"The Socratic method, eh?"
"Good Lord! Nothing that pretentious—just a few questions to help you sort your thoughts." She scatters them throughout the meal, enquiring about James's background and social life, and asking Robbie what he himself means when he says 'best mate'. At no point does she seem to expect him to reply, which is a good thing, since he doesn't know half the answers and isn't comfortable sharing the other half.
By the time the pudding arrives (they share a plate of chocolate profiteroles), Robbie's thoughts are sorted as well as can be expected. He's still not certain what's going on with James. If this was a case he'd be telling Innocent that he's pursuing a few leads.
He's not a man who likes waiting. Part of him would like nothing better than to drive straight to James's flat and settle this now. The sensible part of him—the experienced copper, the long-married man—knows that rushing in can be a dreadful mistake. Better to wait.
For two days, he contents himself with a brief daily phone call. "Doing okay? Need anything?" The answers, brief and polite, are exactly what he expected. "Fine. No, but thank you, sir."
On the third day, fate lends a hand. A phone call summons him into the Chief Super's office. He enters warily, but she just gives him a distracted nod while sifting through a stack of papers on her desk. "Robbie. There's a parcel here I'd like you to deliver."
"A parcel, ma'am?" Long practice helps him keep his voice even. If she needs something delivered, why doesn't she summon one of the office staff, or a PC if it has to be a copper? He's a Detective Inspector, for Christ's sake, not sodding Postman Pat.
"For Sergeant Hathaway. It was addressed to me, but there's a note inside indicating that the contents are for him." She points at a medium-sized box on the corner of her desk. The return address is Edinburgh.
From Sir Andrew? Must be. "What is it, ma'am?"
"How on Earth should I know? I'm not in the habit of opening other people's mail unless it's connected to an investigation. Hathaway can tell you, if he chooses to. You will be seeing him soon, Inspector Lewis?"
He knows an order when he hears one, even if it's phrased as a question. "Yes, ma'am. I'll be dropping in after work tonight."
He debates calling ahead. After much thought, he decides that advance warning will only give James an opportunity to prepare excuses to keep him out. He uses his key to enter the building, then knocks on the door of Hathaway's flat.
"Sir?" It really is amazing how much his sergeant can fit into that one short syllable. Surprised, puzzled, and perhaps just a little bit pleased.
"Evening, James. Got a delivery for you. Innocent asked me to bring it over." Robbie jerks his chin at the box in his arms. He steps through the doorway, and James automatically moves aside to let him pass. "Where d'ye want me to put it?"
"Erm... the coffee table. What is it?"
"Dunno. It was mailed to you care of the Chief Super, from Edinburgh." As soon as Robbie sets it down, he turns away from the table. Last thing he wants to do is give James the idea that he's trying to snoop. He shoves his hands into his pockets. "I'll let you get back to whatever I interrupted."
As he'd hoped, Hathaway's innate courtesy takes over. "Actually, sir, I was about to have a beer. If you'd like to join me?" He catches Robbie's look of surprise. "I've finished with the painkillers. It's been more than 24 hours, so I can celebrate with my first drink since..." He gestures at his shoulder.
Equipped with two bottles of Bridge, they settle down on the sofa. James takes his first sip. "Lovely. I don't drink all that much, and I wouldn't have thought it would be a hardship to do without alcohol for a week. I didn't need it," he says firmly, "but I've been very conscious of wanting it."
"With me, it was cheese," Robbie confides.
James cocks his head. "Cheese?"
"This was years ago. I had a throat infection and was taking pills for two weeks. The doctor told me I had to avoid beer and red wine, though spirits were all right, for some reason. There was a list of foods, too. I don't remember most of them. Bacon, kippers, bangers, pickled eggs... and any kind of aged cheese. No problem, I thought. Plenty of other foods in the world. It's not like I was a young lad, having a fry-up every morning." He takes another swig of beer. "I never knew how much cheese I ate until I had to do without. I felt like Wallace, pining for his bloody Wensleydale. One of the happiest days of my life, it was, when I walked into the pub and ordered a ploughman's lunch."
James nods. "Human beings are creatures of habit. If you get used to having something in your life, it's hard to do without it." He retrieves a pair of scissors from his desk, and carefully opens his box. There's a sealed letter, which he sets aside, and something wrapped in brown paper, with a yellow sticky note on it. James passes the sticky note to Robbie. 'I understand that yours was cut off in A&E. I hope you will find the enclosed to be a satisfactory replacement. You can best repay me by not wearing it before time. A.F.M.'
Robbie squints at the item James is holding. Some kind of garment. It looks a bit like a long waistcoat made of white spandex, but oddly shaped, and with straps dangling from it. "What's that?"
"It's a binder. For my wings. They cut my old one off me in hospital. I have a spare, but I made it when I was in my first year at university, and it doesn't fit very well." His long fingers trace the nearly invisible seams. "It looks like this one will be much more comfortable. Not as many backaches."
Robbie is willing to bet that this binder was custom-tailored for James. "That was kind of Sir Andrew."
"Yes, very kind," James murmurs, and his smile is bittersweet as he busies himself with folding the binder with excessive care.
Time to say his piece, Robbie decides. This is as good a moment as he's likely to get. "I think I may owe you an apology." Immediately, he has his sergeant's full attention. "I got something interesting in the post last week. Do you remember Philip Horton? Nell Buckley's friend?"
"The painter? Yes, of course." James looks understandably confused. Robbie is going about this arse backwards, after all.
He retrieves the postcard from his coat pocket. "Some of his work is going to be in an exhibit. It's a group show, but at a proper gallery. Not just student stuff, I mean. I thought I might drop in, take a look, only—" He falters. "I reckoned I'd wait until you were fully mended so we could go together. Maybe have dinner after. And then it occurred to me that perhaps I'd been taking too much for granted."
James is full-out gawking at him now.
"I told you the other day that you're me best mate. An' that's the honest truth, but I didn't stop to think if you—about how you feel. It can be an awkward thing, being mates with your governor, and I started wondering if I'd been presuming too much. If you'd been humouring me..." Sod it! He'd had a carefully rehearsed speech, but it seems to have vanished, along with all of the moisture in his throat.
"You wanted to go with me to the gallery... after I come back to work?" James asks in the same careful tone of voice he uses in interviews when nailing down an important detail.
"Well, yeah. Couldn't do it now." The cape from the charity shop covers James's wings, but doesn't really conceal them. It's good enough for in and out of the car, in the dark. In normal lighting, he looks like a hunchback from an old horror movie, or like an inept shoplifter wearing a rucksack under his clothing.
James drops his head. "I thought you were being kind. Entertaining me because I was stuck at home and couldn't go out." The puzzle pieces come together into a clear picture. Humans are creatures of habit, as James rightly said. He hadn't wanted to get used to a closer companionship, only to lose it when he was fully healed.
Robbie isn't sure if he feels complimented or insulted. 'Kind' is good, he supposes, but playing at friendship for kindness's sake? One of Laura's questions echoes in his mind: "Has James ever had a close friend as an adult?"
And then he remembers a conversation he once overheard between Val and her mother. Val was annoyed because a neighbour woman—a recently arrived immigrant—had called her 'Mrs. Sergeant Lewis'. "I didn't say anything to her, of course," Val had ranted in private, "but she made me feel like I was some sort of... equipment that the Force had issued to Robbie. Car, handcuffs, warrant card, and wife."
Her mum had replied placidly, "She's still learning our language, love, and I imagine she was applying the only rules of politeness that she knows."
If James can't distinguish between his governor Inspector Lewis being kind and his mate Robbie wanting to spend time with him, perhaps it's because friendship is an alien country to him, and he doesn't know the rules. "You're me best mate," Robbie repeats, "and I'm asking me best mate if he wants to go with me to a sodding art gallery."
James's smile is radiant. "I'd enjoy that very much, sir."
He doesn't know the rules. "Call me Robbie. Outside work, call me Robbie."
"Robbie," James repeats carefully, as if it's a foreign word, and he wants to get the pronunciation right.
"Much better. Now, I'm wondering how my mate James is, and I don't just mean the shoulder."
"Going out of my mind with boredom," James confesses. "Having you here to talk to helps, si—Robbie, but being stuck inside for so long is maddening."
"Can't stand being cooped up?" The words are out of Robbie's mouth before he thinks about their literal meaning.
James gives him one of his patented eye-roll smirks. "I'm not a rooster."
"Could have fooled me, the way you crow sometimes," Robbie snipes back. "Right. Getting back to your problem... I think I might have a solution, but I've got to phone someone in the morning. Can you hold out for another 24 hours?"
"I... yes, but..."
"Good." Robbie ignores the questions on James's face. He doesn't want to say anything more about his plan until he's sure that he can get it sorted. The first part will work, no doubt, but the second is less certain. "There's just one more thing we need to settle," he says.
"And that is?"
"Pizza or Chinese?" he asks, heading for the drawer where the takeaway menus are kept.
James's sputter of laughter follows him all the way into the kitchen.