So approximately ten thousand years ago, Iggycat won a little fic giveaway competition. Originally I planned to write a oneshot of a few thousand words as a prize, but things got a little out of hand. The original prompt was something to do with Alfred and Arthur meeting on a train. I took it and ran with it, very far away.
I can only apologise for taking so long. Iggycat has been very patient with me, far more than I deserve.
This is a slightly different fic to what I'm used to writing. It almost feels unfinished, but I kind of wanted to try something experimental, something uncertain, something with blank spaces and immature characters. I guess you could call this soft-grunge-lit.
I hope you enjoy this. I'm not sure about this at all. But then again, when am I ever?
To see my writing tag for this story, please go to my Tumblr: tagged/petals-on-a-wet-black-bough
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The first time Alfred met Arthur was on the Tube. He was new in England – thirteen years old; he and his parents and brother had just moved there for his father's job – and he and his mother had been shopping for new shoes on Oxford Street. Alfred had no real interest in shoes: just to annoy his mother, he had chosen the stupidest, most ugly-looking shoes in the shop. She'd sighed, and asked if these were really the shoes he wanted.
"Yes," Alfred had said, stubbornly. Mrs Jones had sighed again, and shifted her handbag further up her shoulder, and paid for them.
They'd got on the Tube, on the red line: Alfred hadn't yet learnt how to read the map, or the proper names for the lines, or how each stop corresponded to the adjacent one or the streets above. He just slouched along behind his mother. They caught the train. Alfred sat down beside another boy, an older boy of about fifteen, who was almost a head taller than him. He was skinny, with wide-set eyes, and thick eyebrows, and spiky blond hair, and an ear piercing.
Alfred didn't know many boys with ear piercings. Academically, he knew some boys had them – but ear piercings were mainly for girls. He wondered how it felt. Did it hurt, he wondered, for boys more than girls? Was that why boys didn't get them very often?
The boy noticed him staring. "What are you looking at?" he said.
"Did it hurt?" Alfred said. He indicated the piercing, a thin silver ring threaded through the boy's left earlobe.
The boy's eyes narrowed. He stared at Alfred for a minute – then he said, "No." He turned away, and put his hand inside his pocket, and drew out an mp3 player and some red earphones. He put them in his ears.
Alfred watched in fascination. The boy was wearing a leather jacket, dark red, just a little darker than the shade of his earphones, and it was a bit big on him. It swamped his shoulders, and almost covered his whole hands. Alfred wondered vaguely if this boy would have chosen the shoes he had today. He glanced down at the floor. The boy was wearing heavily scuffed black boots, with red laces.
"Do you like red?" Alfred said.
"Alfred, shush," said Mrs Jones.
The boy frowned again, and removed one earbud. "What?" he said.
"I said do you like red?" Alfred repeated. The other boy continued to look confused. "I'm Alfred," he added, as though the mention of his name would clear things up.
But the other boy just stared and frowned and said nothing.
"What's your name?" Alfred persisted. Perhaps this other boy was shy. Alfred knew quite a few shy people, and he knew that most of the time they just needed a gentle push to overcome their shyness and start functioning like everybody else. His brother Matthew was shy. Matthew said that he wasn't shy, Alfred was just too loud.
The boy looked discomfited. "Arthur," he said eventually. He said it quietly and slowly, and briefly Alfred wondered if he was lying. He decided quickly that it didn't matter.
"Hi, Arthur!" he said, cheerfully, because when you were cheerful it made other people cheerful: that was what his dad said. "I'm Alfred!"
"I know," said Arthur, slowly, "you just said."
"Where are you going?" Alfred asked, undeterred by Arthur's hostile confusion.
Arthur continued to stare at him, eyes slightly narrowed. "Home," he said, eventually.
"Me too," said Alfred, "Where do you live?"
"Shush," said Alfred's mother, and she elbowed him gently in the side. "That's enough, Alfred. Leave the poor boy alone."
"But Mom –" Alfred began – and then Arthur stood up, and shuffled off towards the other end of the carriage, cheeks pink. Alfred huffed, and slumped down in his seat. "Thanks a lot, Mom," he mumbled.
"People don't like to be bothered when they're travelling, sweetie," his mother said, peaceably.
Alfred just sighed heavily, and took instead to staring at the back of the newspaper of the man sitting opposite him. "Mom," he said, after a few minutes had elapsed. "Can I pierce my ear?"
"No," said Mrs. Jones.
And that was the end of the matter.
That was the first time they met. London was a big place, and Alfred and his family lived out in the suburbs, in Ruislip. Alfred didn't see where the older boy with the small silver hoop in his ear lobe got off the train in the end, but sometimes he thought of him, oddly, in moments when his concentration lapsed, and he found himself staring out of the window at the green, green grass, or when the sky turned a deep shade of red as the sun reclined gracefully upon the horizon. Really, in the grand scheme of things, over the following two years Alfred didn't give Arthur any significant amount of thought, but the other boy remained there, on the peripheries of his mind, flitting in and out of his consciousness only very occasionally, and as he grew older, Alfred came to laugh at the notion of his younger self shamelessly interrogating the skinny, awkward punk boy on the westbound central line train to West Ruislip.
It all felt very long ago, though in reality Alfred had only celebrated three more birthdays – but it all seemed so intangible, so distant, part of an old life Alfred knew about only because he'd seen it in faded photographs. And so when he saw Arthur a second time, once again on the tube, the central line again, though this time heading East, it felt like a hard shock, like hitting cold water with one's arms and legs spread out, stomach first, choking for breath.
Alfred was sixteen, and caught firmly between child and adulthood, which was very frustrating. His face was almost entirely adult – his jaw was widening, squaring out, and his nose, though still thin, was lengthening, as was his body – but his cheeks still retained a childish flush of red, and were round with the fatness of a baby, and though he was most definitely growing up, he wasn't really growing out. All in all, it was exciting, but quite annoying.
Still, he had a naturally handsome face, he knew, and he was popular with the girls at school, and some of the boys too. He'd kissed quite a few of the girls, when they'd hung out together after school, sitting on the wall and swinging their legs back and forth, and in the woods, where they went every few weekends to get drunk on cheap alcohol and smoke weed. Alfred liked it, because it made him feel mature, intelligent, responsible, even though he was entirely aware of the contradictory nature of this notion and his activities – sneaking out of the house with his brother to participate in underage drinking and clumsy fondling with his schoolmates.
But when he saw Arthur for the second time, on the eastbound tube that evening, he didn't feel very mature at all.
Arthur had changed too – not so much in height – in fact, Alfred was the same height as him now, perhaps even a little taller – but his features appeared more chiselled: his cheekbones were stronger, his nose, which had a bump in the middle and was slightly off-centre, was somehow more prominent, and his eyes looked rather more piercing. In fact, his whole self seemed to leap slightly forwards from his surroundings, cast in sharp relief, brighter and almost too intense for Alfred to look at.
Alfred couldn't help but stare at him.
Arthur still wore boots, though these ones had no red laces, and were beaten-up old brown things. His jeans were old too, ripped and faded, and they clung to his thin legs, held up by a worn leather belt. He was wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo of some obscure band Alfred didn't recognise, and a thick grey hoodie, and a leather jacket.
Alfred blinked in wonder.
And then Arthur turned around, and met his eyes, and frowned.
Alfred didn't look away. "Did it hurt?" he said.
Arthur said, "Can I help you?"
Alfred could hardly breathe. "Arthur," he said, "Arthur, it's me, remember?"
Arthur raised one thick, dark eyebrow.
"Alfred," Alfred said weakly.
Arthur frowned. "Sorry," he said, "I don't –" and then he stopped. "Wait," he said, "you're that kid from – you were asking me about my ear piercing!" He raised his hand to his ear, and Alfred saw that the thin silver hoop was gone, replaced by a red glass plug.
Alfred laughed breathlessly. "Yeah," he said, "yeah, that was me. Bet I was pretty annoying, huh?"
Arthur, to his relief, quirked up his lips. "Yeah," he said, and he laughed, just a quiet little huff, but it was a sound that filled Alfred, curiously, with an odd sense of accomplishment, as though his sole endeavour on first meeting this boy, and now again, two years later, was to make him laugh. "Yeah. You were a bit weird."
"Yeah," said Alfred, and they shared an uncomfortable grin. Arthur had a nice smile, though it was a bit awkward, and made his eyes look slightly further apart than they actually were.
"How old were you back then?" Arthur said, quickly, after they shifted into embarrassed silence. "Twelve?"
Alfred snorted indignantly. "I was fourteen!" he said.
Arthur's eyebrows went briefly up towards his hairline, and he gave another quiet little bark of laughter. "Ah," he said, "right, of course. So, what, now you'd be...sixteen? Seventeen? God, you've shot up, haven't you?"
"Sixteen," said Alfred. He felt suddenly mildly irritated with the other, uncomfortable and embarrassed, as though by saying, "God, you've shot up," Arthur had made a cooing sound and patted him condescendingly on the head. He kicked one heel backwards and forwards on the floor of the train.
Arthur regarded him mildly for a minute, then reached into the pocket of his jeans, and pulled his phone out. He said nothing as he tapped silently away at the screen. The irritation built inside Alfred's chest and stomach.
"So," he said, quickly, abruptly. "Where're you going?"
Arthur looked up, lips pursed, one eyebrow raised. Alfred immediately felt stupid. He said nothing, though. Just stared back.
"I'm meeting a few friends," Arthur said, cautiously, and turned back to his phone.
Alfred knew it was impossible to get a signal on the underground.
"Cool," he said, "what're you gonna do?"
"I dunno," said Arthur. He glanced briefly at Alfred, then went back to staring intently at the screen of his phone. "Get drunk, probably."
Arthur looked up at him again. This time he was frowning. "Why are you asking?" he said.
Alfred hesitated. He wasn't really sure of that himself. He shrugged, trying to look impassive. "Oh, y'know," he said. "I was – I was gonna meet someone too, but he bailed on me." He looked Arthur right in the eye.
Arthur leant back a little, his body rocking and swaying with the motions of the train. "You want to come with me, don't you?"
Alfred did, though he wasn't sure why. What he really wanted was to make Arthur take back the "God, you've shot up" statement, thought that, of course, was impossible, given that it had already been vocalised.
"Can I?" he said. He immediately hated himself even more. He detested sounding like a child. He should have said something cool and witty, he thought.
Arthur said nothing. The train rattled to a halt. Arthur turned, wordlessly, and stepped onto the platform. Alfred watched him morosely, his cheeks burning. Arthur took a couple of steps forward – then he turned around, and shot back a questioning look. "Well?" he said, "Aren't you coming?"
Alfred almost bolted from the train to the older boy's side – but instead, he managed to stick his hands in his pockets, and slouch over towards Arthur.
"Alright," said Arthur, and Alfred wondered suddenly, painfully, if Arthur had expected him to remain on the train, to stare at him in surprise as he glided away. Or perhaps Arthur had known he would eagerly step onto the platform with him, and as soon as they walked out onto the street above, Arthur would vanish, would melt away into the crowd, would spin on his heel, and run, sprint down the road and out of sight. And Alfred would be left abandoned, a lonely, stupid child. He swallowed.
Arthur walked a pace ahead of him up the steps, and through the ticket barriers. Outside, it was dark. People hurried in and out of the station, shaking rain from their umbrellas, searching through their pockets for tickets and Oyster cards, folding up their newspapers and lighting cigarettes. The road and the pavement were slick and shiny, like wet tar, and the rain gleamed in the dim glow of the streetlamps like thin silver needles.
"Come on," said Arthur. They walked along the street together, side-by-side. Once or twice their shoulders brushed. Arthur didn't look up at him. Alfred tried his best not to look, but it was difficult. He wondered what they were going to do. His heart began to hammer away, hard in his chest.
They stopped at a small corner shop. Arthur turned to face him for the first time since he'd got off the tube. "Go on," he said.
Alfred was confused. "Go on where?" he said.
Arthur's lips twitched. "Go in," he said. "Go and get us something to drink."
"You don't look it," said Arthur, and a strange feeling of warmth flooded Arthur's stomach. "Besides," said Arthur, "they never I.D in shops like this. Most of the money they make is off underage kids."
"I'm not a kid," said Alfred, before he could stop himself.
And Arthur smirked, and said, "Prove it."
He'll run away, Alfred told himself. He'll run away, while you're in the shop trying your best not to get arrested, and then you'll be stood here alone, and he'll be laughing to himself somewhere.
Arthur said nothing, but stood still, his hands in his pockets, watching him.
Alfred turned, and headed into the shop. Inside, the shelves were packed, bursting with food and household items and cheap magazines. Alfred headed over to the refrigerated cabinet where the alcohol was kept. Behind the counter, a couple of middle-aged Asian men conversed in a rapid tongue Alfred did not know. They paid him no attention whatsoever. He stood in silence, and stared down at the rows upon rows of shiny bottles, wondering which he should pick up. He didn't want to look foolish, after all, by choosing the wrong one. He ran his finger slowly along the colourful lids, reading the prices that were written in thick black felt tip pen on yellow cards along the front of the cabinet. He had a ten pound note in his wallet.
Outside, the rain continued to fall, and behind the counter, some foreign radio station whistled away on a crappy old radio, while the two men there continued to jabber together. Alfred squinted through the streaky windows at Arthur. Arthur wasn't watching him, but looking down the street vaguely, lips pursed. Well, thought Alfred, at least he hasn't left me. And so he turned back to the cool drinks cabinet, and blindly grabbed a bottle, and approached the counter.
A couple of feet away, the men stopped talking. Alfred's palms felt oddly sweaty, and his breath seemed to catch in his chest. They wouldn't serve him, he was sure. They would know he was only sixteen, and they would refuse to serve him, and Arthur would laugh, and leave him, and he'd be stranded here, looking like a complete fool. Perhaps they would even call the police. Could they do that? he wondered. It was possible.
He placed his bottle on the counter.
Before, in the woods, with his brother and his friends from school, he'd never had to deal with this problem. They'd brought stuff from home, and the kids who had older siblings or fake had purchased the alcohol cheaply from shops down the road. But Alfred didn't have a fake I.D. What the hell, he wondered, suddenly, was he doing here? He didn't even know Arthur. He'd just invited himself along to – whatever it was they were doing. Probably a sequence of efforts, he thought bitterly, designed to utterly embarrass him, and prove what a kid he really was.
"Nine ninety eight," said the man behind the counter.
Alfred stared at him wordlessly.
The man looked back, bored, wanting, Alfred thought, to get back to his conversation.
He pulled out his wallet, and placed the ten-pound note in the man's hand.
The man didn't even bother to check if it was fake or real – he just shoved it into the till, handed him his alcohol, now nestled in a thin plastic bag, and thrust a two pence coin at Alfred, before turning away.
Alfred blinked – then spun around, and hurried out to Arthur.
He wanted to smirk, and say something cool and cutting – but instead he just gave a little one-shouldered shrug, and said, "Where now, then?"
Arthur looked slightly surprised – but he quickly composed himself, and pushed his hands into his pockets. "Come on," he said, and set off down the road. Alfred followed him, irritated once more. He pictured meeting Arthur's friends. He imagined Arthur turning to face him, smirking as he melted back against a wall of boys several years older than Alfred. He imagined Arthur taking the bottle, flapping a hand at him, saying "run along, now," and leaving him in the thin rain, alone and with nothing but two pence and an Oyster card with about three pounds on it to his name. He stared furiously at the back of Arthur's head. He was beginning to like the older boy less and less.
Arthur turned down a side street. There was a wheelie bin halfway down it, open and slicked jet black with rain. It stank. The walls were painted with graffiti. Perhaps, Alfred thought, I could turn around, and run for it. I could take the bottle with me and go get Matt and we could have this. Then he'd be all alone, and he'd look like the idiot. But he just continued following Arthur's slender back.
A sudden crackle of laughter broke somewhere around the corner, and Alfred started.
"Come on," said Arthur, gesturing vaguely behind him.
Dubiously, Alfred followed Arthur round the corner. The street ended with another collection of damp bins, and a low brick wall, splattered with white paint. Two boys perched on top of the bins. Another leant against the wall where two girls sat smoking.
"Arthur!" said one of the boys, waving. He had shoulder-length blond hair, curled slightly by the faint haze of rain and mostly hidden by his thick woollen hat.
"Alright," said Arthur. He turned to Alfred, and, seemingly as one, all of his friends turned too. "This is Alfred," he said. He didn't seem very enthusiastic, Alfred noted, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to go home. He wondered what on earth had possessed him to ask Arthur if he could come out with him. Brief insanity, he thought helplessly.
"Hey," he said.
Nobody responded. "Where d'you know him from?" said one of the boys – the tanned one with the spike through his ear, and the curly dark hair.
"Lives near my Dad," said Arthur. "Give us a fag."
"Get your own!" said one of the girls, but the tanned boy extracted the box gently from her hand and held it out to Arthur. He made as if to hand the cigarettes back to the girl – then he paused, and looked over at Alfred.
"Want one?" he said, tilting his chin up.
Alfred didn't actually like smoking that much. He'd tried it, but he hated the smell, and the taste, and the way the smoke had clumped and gathered in the back of his throat, and burned.
Arthur watched him carefully.
"Okay," Alfred said. "Thanks."
The boy smiled, and nodded, and Arthur wordlessly handed him his lighter. It was red. The girl who had originally held the cigarettes made a quiet, irritated noise. She was pretty, or at least she would have been if she hadn't scowled so much, olive-skinned and dark-eyed. She wore a men's t-shirt with the logo of another band Alfred didn't know splashed across the front, and a short black skirt, and ripped tights. She was the sort of girl Alfred would have clumsily hit on. He considered it briefly, then decided against it.
"Arthur," said the other girl. She had a surprisingly refined, melodious voice. "I got those tickets to see The Chevin. You owe me."
"Righto," said Arthur. "I'll pay you back later."
"You'd better," she said. "Last time I didn't see anything from you until two months after the gig."
Alfred lit up his cigarette, and stared through the cloud of smoke at the little group. Aside from the guy and the girl with darkish skin, and the guy with the hat and the girl with the posh voice, there was also a guy with choppy bleached hair that hung in his eyes. He sucked in his lower lip, and slowly rotated a silver ring through it. Alfred stared, mesmerised. At his school, nobody had anything pierced, except the girls, who were allowed tiny diamond studs in their earlobes.
The boy noticed. "What?" he said.
"Nothing," said Alfred. He vaguely remembered asking Arthur, years ago, if his piercing had hurt. It hadn't felt weird or uncomfortable to ask back then. Now he really didn't know what to do with himself.
The boy stared at him a moment, then turned around to talk to the posh girl. Her clothes were posh too, but ripped, artfully, and she had a long, aristocratic nose, and a beauty mark. She didn't even spare Alfred a glance.
He wondered if any of them would notice if he backed away down the alley. Probably not.
The irritation he'd felt towards Arthur earlier returned.
"Alfred," Arthur said, in a bored tone, "pass us that bottle."
Alfred blinked dumbly.
"The vodka," Arthur said flatly.
"Oh," said Alfred. He withdrew the bottle from the bag, and handed it over.
Arthur's green eyes narrowed. "Are you not having a drink?" he asked.
"Oh," said Alfred again. He felt incredibly stupid.
Arthur's friends, save for posh girl and lip-ring boy stared at him in silence. Somehow it was worse than the idea of them laughing at him. He wished they'd just get it over with, then he could go home.
"Yeah," he said, and took the bottle back, and opened it, and swallowed a mouthful. Then he passed the bottle on to Arthur.
"Cheers," said Arthur, and he too drank, then handed it to the boy with the blond hair and the hat, and took a long drag from his cigarette.
"My parents are away next week," said the posh girl suddenly. "You can come over at the weekend if you like."
There was a general murmur of assent.
"Are you going to come, Alan?" said the girl.
Everyone was suddenly staring at him again.
"Er," said Alfred.
"Alfred," said Arthur. "His name's Alfred. You'll come, won't you mate?"
"Oh," said Alfred. "Yeah. Sure."
"Okay," said the girl. She turned back towards lip-ring boy, who immediately pressed closer to her, backing her against the wall. She tilted her nose up, and blew smoke in his face without changing her expression. "You can't come," she said.
"Not what you said last night, baby," he said.
She exhaled again. "You're disgusting," she said.
Alfred coughed loudly, and turned away from them. Thankfully, the vodka was immediately passed back to him.
Arthur watched him drink it, silent, his green eyes somehow gleaming through the smoke and the dimness of the evening. He still wanted to punch Arthur and impress him at the same time. He shuffled his feet, and put the cigarette to his mouth.
Posh girl and lip-ring boy murmured something behind him, far too low to hear. There was a sudden exhalation of breath, and Alfred turned to see them vanishing round the corner, hand-in-hand. Lip-ring boy threw the stub of his cigarette away as they went behind the big metal dustbins, and Alfred watched it bounce, flare weakly, and extinguish.
"Er," he said, looking round at the others. It seemed that nobody else had bothered to spare the pair a glance. Was the whole group supposed to be going somewhere together? "Where are they going?"
The boy with the hat and the blond hair narrowed his eyes and peered at him, as though he had something on his face. Alfred resisted the urge to check. The girl with the olive skin threw her head back and cackled.
Arthur just raised his eyebrows, but his lips were twitching. Alfred felt his cheeks start to turn red.
"Gilbert," said Arthur, still managing to supress his laughter, "has probably gone behind the bins to stick his fingers inside Anna."
"Oh," said Alfred. "What?"
Arthur laughed, and shook his head, throwing an arm around Alfred's shoulder, and taking the bottle of vodka from the other blond boy. "Oh, mate," he said. "You're ridiculous!"
Alfred wasn't sure whether this was a compliment or an insult – but he liked the way Arthur grinned at him, and put his arm across his shoulders, and shared alcohol and cigarettes with him, and the way he let him hang out with his older, cooler friends – and so he laughed too, and gratefully took the vodka when it was offered to him.
He wasn't sure how he managed to get home. But his parents, as usual, were still not in by midnight, when he stumbled through the door. Matthew said they'd gone out for dinner with some important colleagues, or something.
"Where have you been?" he said, suspiciously. "Al, have you been drinking?"
"Don't tell Mom and Dad," Alfred said, and he tore into a bag of Monster Munch, then tripped up the stairs, and collapsed into bed.
Thankfully, Matthew didn't say anything, and his parents simply apologised for not being in when he'd got home.
"What did you do?" they asked.
Matthew had shrugged. "Watched a movie," he said.
"Saw a friend," said Alfred.
He didn't see Arthur again until the weekend. When he'd woken up, bleary-eyed and a little sore after his first adventure with the older boy, he'd been hit by a sudden rush of panic and annoyance – how was he going to see Arthur and his friends again? He didn't know where they lived, he didn't know what their phone numbers were, and apart from Arthur, Gilbert, and Anna, he didn't know any of their names, and he had no idea what their surnames were. But when he looked at his phone, he found Arthur's name added to his list of contacts, and a number that looked legitimate. Alfred fervently hoped it was. He sent a text to it, just to be sure – but there was no reply. Thoroughly irritated with himself, and quite miserable, he flung himself back into bed.
But a couple of days later, his phone buzzed, and when he checked it, to his delight, a message from Arthur was flashing on the screen.
Anna's, it said. 8pm Saturday. Then there was an address in Richmond. Alfred wondered how big Anna's TV was.
Huge, was the answer. It took him over an hour to get there – he had to get the tube to Notting Hill Gate first, then change onto the District line, and then he got lost between the station and Anna's house – but finally, he found himself standing outside a large, detached house with wrought iron gates that were almost twice as tall as he was. He had thought his own home was fairly big – at least by London standards – but this was ridiculous.
There was a silver intercom embedded into the wall beside him. Alfred pressed the buzzer, and waited.
A click. "Hello?" said a girl's voice. He thought it belonged to Anna.
"Hi," he said, "Anna, it's Alfred."
There was a pause, shortly followed by a quick snatch of whispered conversation Alfred didn't quite catch, and then Anna hurriedly said, "Oh yes, of course, come in." Then she hung up, and the gates groaned open.
Alfred quickly decided that it would be a far better idea to hit on Anna than on the grumpy dark girl. And then he remembered Gilbert, and decided against it.
The front door opened just as Alfred reached it, and Anna appeared, wearing a man's jumper and leggings with a galaxy print on them. "Come in," she said, gesturing towards herself.
"Your house is, uh – neat," said Alfred.
"Yes," said Anna. "Come on."
She led him upstairs, ushering him speedily past rooms with big, closed doors, and through hallways with thick carpets and crystal chandeliers. They only passed one open door, where Alfred caught a glimpse of a monstrous flat-screen television, mounted on the wall and gleaming like a polished mirror, reflecting two fat sofas upholstered in purple and gold. There was a funny scent to Anna, Alfred realised, as they left the TV far behind, a scent that was vaguely familiar, and that made Alfred wrinkle his nose slightly. The smell seemed to cling to the fabric of her clothes, to her hair. Alfred closed his mouth and tried not to breathe too deeply.
"Here we are," said Anna, opening one of the big doors at last. The scent grew stronger. Gilbert, the dark boy and the dark girl, and the blond boy with the hat all sat smoking on the carpet, leaning against walls and cupboards and the back of a large purple sofa. The room was large, and divided in two by a wall with an archway cut into it. Through the archway, Alfred spied a double bed, and a desk, and another television. Disappointingly, this one was about the same size as his own.
"Gilbert, I told you to open the windows," Anna snapped.
"I've got it," said a voice, and Arthur appeared through the archway. He raised his eyebrows when he saw Alfred – and then he smiled brightly, as though he was genuinely delighted to see him, and said, "How are you, mate?"
"Er," said Alfred. "I'm okay. You?"
Arthur just smiled again, and stepped closer to him. He smelt of it too – that scent which hung around Anna, and had grown even stronger in her bedroom. It was weed, he realised suddenly: he'd tried it once before in the woods, when somebody had stolen some from their older brother, but he hadn't liked it much. The smell alone had made him gag. Matthew seemed to like it more than he did, which was a bit embarrassing, given that Matthew was nowhere near as cool as he was. But then again, he could hold his drink better than his brother, so it evened out in the end, he supposed.
"Here," said Arthur. He was holding out a spliff.
Arthur stared at him.
"Thanks," Alfred said. He decided he could just hold it up to his mouth occasionally. Nobody would notice if he didn't actually smoke it. Probably.
Anna sat down primly on her bed. "Are you going to pay me back yet, Arthur?" she said.
Arthur waved a hand. "I said I would," he replied.
Anna made a quiet, angry sound. The room fell briefly into silence. The breathy, cracking voice of a singer and the plinky sounds of a guitar being tickled trickled down to them through the smoke. Anna reached out for her iPod, docked on the little table next to her bed, and turned the volume up. Alfred listened, though he didn't recognise the song, or the artist. When the song ended, another came on. It sounded almost exactly the same.
"Gregory and the Hawk is a snoozefest," said Gilbert, "stick something else on."
"Gregory and the Hawk is not a snoozefest," Anna said archly, but she picked up the iPod once more, and changed the song.
Alfred didn't recognize this song either, but Gilbert seemed appeased, and the beat was faster, so he leant backwards against the wall and said nothing.
"You can sit down, you know," said Anna, after a moment. She was staring across the room at him, unsmiling. Gilbert smirked from where he sat, leant against her legs.
"Alright," said Alfred. He felt his face reddening. He sat down beside the boy with the blond hair and the hat, opposite Arthur. The blond boy put his spliff between his lips, and smiled widely at him.
"Hello," he said. "Alfred, yeah?" He had a faintly European accent.
"Yeah," said Alfred.
The boy shook his hand. "Francis," he said, and gestured to his right. "This is Toni," he said, indicating the tanned boy, who also smiled, and waved a hand cheerfully in greeting. "And this is Chiara." He waved towards the pretty girl with the olive skin and the scowl.
She gave him a sharp nod, then looked away.
Francis leant in a little closer to Alfred, and nodded towards Gilbert and Anna. "And those lovebirds are Gilbert and Anna."
"I heard that," Anna said crisply.
Alfred smiled weakly through the faint smoke. He moved the spliff up to his lips, inhaled it briefly, then blew out. Gross, he thought.
Arthur smiled at him, and Alfred felt a brief flash of pride deep inside his stomach.
He still felt unsure, though. He didn't really know Arthur's friends. He didn't really know Arthur, he realised – in reality, he was some guy he'd met on the Tube. They weren't friends or anything. How, he wondered, had in ended up in Anna's posh house in Richmond, listening to bands he'd never heard of and smoking weed? He looked around, and felt suddenly an overwhelming sense of disassociation. The faces that surrounded him meant nothing – loomed in a vaguely ominous fashion over him, older and wiser and more mysterious – and he suddenly had no idea what he was doing. He wished that they had something to drink – then he could relax. He turned his spliff over and over, hoping that nobody would notice he'd hardly smoked any of it.
Toni and Chiara were arguing about something nearby, their voices low. Chiara slurred her words, swore, informed Toni that he didn't get Lana del Ray, like most of the populace, and punched him wearily on the shoulder. Toni just laughed.
Alfred held his spliff until it began to burn his fingers. The smell of the marijuana was pungent. He sighed, dropped his head back, and yelped as it smacked against the wall. His teeth crashed together, and the room spun.
"Alright?" said Francis, though he didn't sound overly concerned. His voice seemed to come from somewhere on high.
Alfred blinked furiously until his vision righted, and the room ceased to spin. When he looked up again, Francis and Arthur had stood up, and were all the way across the room, heading into the hallway. Neither of them looked back, or said anything to him. He stared for a moment – watched the door swing shut – and waited. He waited. They did not return.
The song changed again, once, twice. The music was slower now, twangy and regretful, but Gilbert did not complain. He sat against Anna's legs and smoked, his head tilted back. Her hand moved over his head: Alfred watched her trail her pale fingers through his bleached hair, pressing into his scalp. Toni and Chiara continued to bicker quietly. Alfred turned towards them.
"Uh," he said, "Hey – Toni – where did Arthur and Francis go?"
Toni's lips twitched, but not unkindly. "They, uh," he said. "I think they went – you know."
Alfred shrugged. He had no idea what Toni was talking about.
"You know. They've gone to do some kissing."
"They've gone to play hide the fucking sausage, Antonio, you stupid fucking idiot."
Alfred hesitated, turning Chiara's words over in his mind. Did they mean, he wondered, what he thought they meant? He stared back at Chiara. And she stared at him, silently, eyebrows raised. He opened his mouth.
"They're banging," she said.
"Oh," said Alfred.
He sat back, letting his head tip backwards against the wall once more. Toni and Chiara went back to their previous argument. Gilbert rested his head in Anna's lap, inhaling from his spliff, and blowing the smoke upwards, just barely missing her face. Alfred felt strange – cold, and lonely. What, he wondered, was he supposed to do? Was he supposed to start talking to the others now? He glanced around at them. None of them spared a single glance for him. They were all lost – absorbed – in their own little insular bubbles, pressed up against the ones they loved to fight and fuck with, and here he was, childish, scraggy, stupid, alone. Not for the first time, he wondered what the hell he was doing here.
He stood up, and looked around for an ashtray. There was none, but he saw that somebody had stubbed out in a glass tumbler on Anna's white bedside table. He pushed his spliff in there too, and glanced briefly towards the brown-haired girl.
"I think," he said, hesitantly, "I think I'll go. Now. Um."
"Alright," she said. Her voice was a little slurred, a little tired. She didn't even look up at him. In her lap, Gilbert's eyes were closed. He almost looked like he could be asleep. Alfred opened the door, and headed out into the hallway. Nobody called after him. The sound of unknown bands and their scratched guitars followed him downstairs, and into the large lobby he'd first entered. Arthur and Francis were nowhere to be seen. He paused, chest tight for a moment, once his hand was upon the doorknob – but he heard nothing. And so he stepped out onto the porch, and made his way miserably down the road towards Richmond Underground station.
When he got home he collapsed straight into bed, and the next morning, he showered for half an hour, until the scent of weed was entirely gone from his skin and his hair. He changed his bed linen too.
Matthew watched him from the doorway.
"Why're you doing that?" he said. "Been having some night-time difficulties?"
"Fuck off," said Alfred.
That afternoon he received a text from Arthur. Where did you go? it read. Alfred ignored it. He was still annoyed at Arthur, and at himself. He was so stupid. How, he lamented, how, had he been too dumb to see that he was just a thing for Arthur to laugh at – a kid to mess around with and make fun of? He pictured Arthur and Francis and Toni and Chiara and Anna and Gilbert all sniggering at him. He pictured Arthur and Francis. He blinked rapidly, attempting to push the image from his head.
He didn't reply to the text. An hour later he received another. Are you pissed off with me? it said.
Alfred groaned and pushed his phone back into his pocket, and tried to concentrate on his homework. Ten minutes slipped by. His phone buzzed once more. I'm really sorry, the message said, I shouldn't have left you. You busy tomorrow evening?
Alfred slammed his chemistry book shut. What do you want? he typed.
Arthur texted back almost immediately. Let's hang out, he said. Where do you live? I'll bring something to drink and make it up to you.
In the end, they didn't drink that much. Arthur bought a couple of cans of Strongbow, but they finished up sitting on a park bench sharing a portion of salt and vinegar-covered chips, and throwing bits to the ducks.
Alfred wanted to ask Arthur about Francis. He didn't. He just ate his chips and pretended to text someone whenever things got a little too quiet.
At last, Arthur inhaled, and Alfred knew he was going to ask about why he'd disappeared at Anna's house. He could just sense it. It irritated him.
"Why did you leave?" Arthur asked.
Alfred's stomach curled.
Arthur sucked salt off the tips of his index fingers, and wiped them off on his tight jeans. "Anna's, I mean."
Alfred shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I just…I was bored."
A silence passed between them. A particularly bold duck waddled over, and Arthur bent to see if it would accept a fat, greasy chip right out of his hand. It wouldn't, so he tossed it to the ground.
"Not a fan of getting high, eh?" he said eventually.
"Not really," Alfred said. He felt tetchy. He wanted to tell Arthur to go away, but at the same time, he couldn't think of anything worse. He wanted to know if his piercing had hurt and where he bought his plugs from and how he met his weird friends and why he listened to that boring, dry music, and if he'd paid Anna back for those concert tickets yet. He wanted to know if he'd really fucked Francis. He didn't know how to ask any of this. Instead, he said, dully, "Where do you live?"
"North London," said Arthur. "Are you from New York?" he added, quickly.
"Cambridge," said Alfred. "It's near Boston."
"Cool," said Arthur, though he clearly had no idea one way or the other. "Nice. Do y'miss it?"
"Why do you care?" Alfred said.
Arthur raised his eyebrows. "Alright," he said, "easy."
Alfred snorted, stuffed the last couple of chips into his mouth without offering them to the other boy, and crumpled the paper up into a ball.
"You don't have to pretend to like me," he said, at last. "I'm not a kid anymore." And then he wished he hadn't said that, because that was definitely something a kid would say.
Arthur didn't laugh though, or deny "pretending" to like him, or smirk. Instead, he just said, "Alright" again, and stared off into the middle distance.
Alfred folded his arms, and watched the ducks miserably. He wanted to stand up and walk away, but that, he thought, would feel like losing, and he didn't want to lose to Arthur. He remained where he was, as still as a statue.
Eventually, Arthur turned to him. "Listen," he said, "I'm really sorry, mate, I am. Next time – come see me on Friday night. All of us'll be there. We'll just hang out and have something to drink and I'll get us a cake."
Alfred blinked. That seemed a strange thing to say. He couldn't resist. "A cake?" he said.
Arthur smiled, a little, secretive smile that Alfred rather liked, though he couldn't say why, exactly. It seemed honest, he thought, yet somehow mysterious. "Why not?" he said.
Alfred shook his head, resigned. "Alright," he said.
He'd be friends with Arthur, he decided, until he found out all about his ear piercing, and his odd taste in music. And then he was done.
"My friends like you," said Arthur presently. "They all want to see you again. I want to see you again."
"Huh," said Alfred. And Arthur didn't press the matter, but they sat side-by-side for another half an hour, saying nothing. And then Arthur got up and walked to the Tube station, and headed back to the City, or North London, or Timbuktu, or wherever the hell he was really from. And Alfred felt a little bit annoyed and quite a lot pleased.
True to Arthur's word, they met up that Friday night. Alfred took the Central line into the city, then changed to the Northern line, and got off at Mornington Crescent. It was already dark when he arrived there, and cold. Arthur was there, though, waiting for him outside the tube station with his hands in his pockets and a strange, half-concealed, wistful smile on his face. Alfred didn't understand it, but he said nothing.
Together they walked to somebody's flat – Alfred asked if it was Arthur's, but it wasn't, so he didn't ask who lived there – and the roof was flat, so they climbed up the fire escape and sat out there without everybody else, huddled up in ugly jumpers and thick fleeces and scarves, and they smoked.
At first Alfred thought that Arthur might have forgotten about the whole cake thing, so he said nothing, not wanting to look stupid, but presently Arthur cracked his back, and said, "How about that cake, Francis?" and Francis groped around behind himself, and pulled an ASDA bag onto his knee, and extracted a store-bought chocolate cake.
"Anyone got a knife?" Francis said.
They all looked at one another – and then laughed at their own foolishness, and Alfred felt oddly warm.
Toni suggested fetching one from inside – so perhaps this was where he lived, Alfred thought – but Anna shook her head, and took her ridiculous, thick-rimmed glasses off, and they used those to slice the cake up. It was absurd, and they couldn't stop smiling, and Arthur leant against Alfred and tilted his head back, and Anna sucked cake off the arm they'd used for cutting, and Gilbert smiled at her, eyes half-lidded, and Alfred couldn't stop grinning with his whole mouth, baring his teeth, and his tongue tasted like cheap Sambuca and rich chocolate.
Their breath clouded before them and twisted up into the sky, and later Alfred forgot what it was that he said, but whatever it was, it made Toni and Francis and Gilbert lean backwards and cackle, and he argued with Chiara about something, and when he reached over for the bottle while she was red-faced and shouting back, he saw Arthur smiling at him almost proudly, and they bumped one another with their elbows, and grinned, secretively, as though they alone knew something wonderful that nobody else in the world did.
"Isle of Wight!" Toni slurred at some point, when there were people getting cash from the Barclays machine beneath, and stumbling from one bar to a club. "Let's go to the Isle of Wight this summer, just us!" And he gestured round the group, gathering Alfred in with the sweep of his arm. "All of us!"
And Arthur said he had a tent – no you don't, said Francis, and yes I do, said Arthur – and they could sleep in that, and get a couple of those cheap disposable barbeques, and swim in the sea at midnight. Francis kept insisting you don't have a tent Arthur you liar you're always lying and Alfred shouted that he did have a tent so they could just take his, and Toni and Francis cheered drunkenly. Gilbert said he'd drive them too, in his dad's old van, and Chiara said that was a fucking awful idea, and at some point Alfred felt his eyelids growing heavier and heavier and heavier…
And they drooped, and shut –
And then he was awake again, but his head was heavy.
Anna and Francis and Toni and Arthur were all singing along quietly to some song that drifted up from a club somewhere in the street below, and Alfred couldn't make out the words, but he thought it had something to do with foxes…
And then Chiara was snoring loudly, and Gilbert was muttering about going home, and he pulled Anna up, and laid a hand on her backside, and together they struggled down the fire escape, and vanished into the night.
There was no bus, Alfred thought, dimly, from Camden to West Ruislip – or if there was, he couldn't remember it – and a quick glance at his phone told him it was too late to take the Tube.
"You can stay here, if you like," Toni mumbled, and Alfred didn't know where Arthur had gone, but he nodded gratefully, and collapsed into a squashy brown sofa that smelt faintly of smoke and bread and stale water. And he slept.
The next few weeks were wonderful. Alfred hung out with Arthur and Francis and Toni and Chiara and Anna and Gilbert, and they dangled their legs over the sides of bridges and walls, and off buildings, and shared bottles of cheap alcohol, and took it in turn to buy cigarettes.
Arthur introduced him to his strange hipster music, and though Alfred had to agree that Gregory and the Hawk were a bit of a "snooze-fest," he liked Arcade Fire, and he liked The Horrors, in the way you liked a great white shark, or a scorpion, because they were interesting to look at behind glass or steel bars, but he wasn't sure how he'd feel about getting up close and personal with their music.
Sometimes Arthur smiled at him, in that odd, secret, lazy way of his, and Alfred felt warmth swell up inside his stomach and his chest, pride, because Arthur was proud of him, respected him, and this made Alfred proud in return.
At school things suddenly seemed strange, different, as though his friends and his brother and his classes and his homework were the Other, and the rooftop nights and smoke and ripped skinny jeans were his real life, now. Sometimes he felt like he was spinning through time at top-speed, bypassing everyone around him, and looking back at their slow lives, wondering how they hadn't noticed that they'd stopped.
"Alfred," his friend Kiku said one day, "you can come over tonight, if you like. I haven't kicked your butt on Halo in a while."
Alfred loved video games. And it was true, he hadn't beat the absolute shit out of Kiku in ages. But still…he pictured the grey London skyline, and Arthur's green eyes, and the way the flames from their lighters would pick out Francis' hollow cheekbones, and the purple tones in Chiara's hair, and the way the scratchy music would wobble its way heavenwards.
"I can't," he said, "sorry."
Kiku didn't ask for an explanation, because Kiku wasn't like that. But his lips pressed together briefly, and the set of his shoulders was stiffer.
"Where do you go at the weekends?" Matt asked him that evening when Alfred was listening to music on his laptop, and hunting through his wardrobe for a pair of shoes he probably didn't even own.
"Sorry," said Alfred, "I didn't know I wasn't allowed to have friends."
Matt ignored him. "And why are you listening to Arcade Fire? Finally had enough of Niggas in Paris?"
Alfred showed him his middle finger, and Matt snorted, and disappeared back into his own room.
That night they were going to meet up again, just him and Arthur, at Angel. There was a gig, Arthur said, and he'd got tickets from a mate who couldn't make it, and did Alfred want to go?
He did, of course, even though he had no idea who was playing – mainly he wanted to go, he thought, because Arthur had asked him to, Arthur had thought of him when he'd been handed the tickets, and that meant he was important, to some degree, or at least that he lingered in Arthur's head to some narrow degree. And so he'd thanked Arthur for this, and said "Sure," and they'd agreed to meet up at the station just before nine.
"Where are you going?" his mother called later, as Alfred grabbed his jacket from where he'd thrown it down earlier, and thumped down the stairs like a whole herd of elephants.
"Out," Alfred called, "Seeing my friend. Don't wait up."
"Hang on a minute –" she called again, but Alfred slammed the door behind him, and jogged off down the garden path and down the road to the station.
Arthur was starting to cost him a fortune in Tube fares.
At ten minutes to nine, Alfred made it to Angel. He wasn't certain where Arthur was coming from – he seemed to melt in and out of being whenever he felt like it, and though Alfred had encountered him on the Tube several times, somehow he couldn't picture him travelling through those tunnels on his own. He liked to imagine that the older boy would just materialize, somehow, and as he stood still and gazed at the red circle with the line through it bearing the word "ANGEL," he pictured Arthur fading into view before it, encircled by it, the shape hovering around his back and his head like wings curving up into a ring.
He stood by the ticket barriers and waited.
Ten minutes ticked slowly by. Alfred waited.
Two more minutes. He fidgeted.
He took out his phone. Up by the barriers, there was some signal. There wouldn't be any on the train, he knew. He sighed, and pushed it back into his pocket. Another ten minutes crawled past. Eventually it was almost half-past nine, and Alfred's hands and feet were cold, and his knees were stiff. He pulled out his phone again. It was worth a try, he thought. Arthur might have forgotten. The notion repulsed him, though he supposed if Arthur anxiously apologised and promised to make it up to him, it wouldn't be quite so bad.
I'm at Angel, he typed, where are you?
The message sent – and he waited – but nothing came back. Perhaps he was still on the Tube, Alfred thought hopefully. He shifted his weight from side to side, then scrolled through his contact list for Arthur's number.
It rang and it rang.
Arthur didn't pick up.
The phone went on ringing.
He hung up, pressing the red button on the touchscreen with a tad more force than was strictly necessary.
A thick wave of travellers crested up the steps and rushed past him. He flattened himself against the wall, watching their shadows dance across the floor and one another in the sickly white light. Finally, they passed through the barriers, and disappeared into the wet, black night.
Alfred sighed, and called Francis.
The fact that he had to do this was inconceivably frustrating.
He gritted his teeth, and tapped his foot, and folded his free arm across his stomach while he waited for Francis to answer.
"Francis," said Alfred, "It's me."
There was a momentary pause.
"Alfred," said Alfred, hurriedly. He felt embarrassed, and for a moment he entertained the notion of hanging up and heading home, and never venturing into central London ever again.
"Ah," said Francis, "hello!" He didn't sound entirely irritated or even surprised by Alfred's call. "What's going on?" The words sounded strange in his accent; out of place, lost, even.
"I'm supposed to be meeting Arthur," he said, "He said he'd meet me at Angel. Do you know where he is? I've tried calling and texting but he's not answering me."
There was a momentary pause, a still quietness in which Alfred could faintly hear Francis breathing, and no background noises. Then Francis clicked his tongue, and the moment ended.
"Arthur," said Francis, and the way he said it suggested bitterness or anger, and yet it was neither of those things. Instead he spoke gently, as though he was about to break bad news kindly. "Arthur probably won't come."
"What?" said Alfred.
"What time did he say he'd meet you?"
"Uh," said Alfred, and his hands felt so very cold. "Like – over a half hour ago."
"Hm," said Francis, and Alfred briefly thought that was it; Francis wasn't going to say any more – and then he said: "Arthur is a liar, Alfred. He makes shit up."
"What?" said Alfred again. He was beginning to feel stupider by the minute. It was as though he was regressing back to when he'd only just met Arthur and his friends, that night in the wet alleyway, and he felt awkward and out-of-place, as though he was clinging to the edge of their group, and dragging them down, unbalancing and inconveniencing everybody there.
Francis sighed. "He's always done it," he said. "Ever since I've known him. I don't know why. He just tells lies. Like it's a hobby. Like he cannot help himself. I guess maybe it's a problem."
"Well – obviously!" Alfred snapped. Francis huffed down the phone. Static crackled. "Sorry," said Alfred, though he wasn't, not really. "What – do you mean, like a – like a mental problem?"
Francis blew air again, in that way he always did, that way that was so typically French, that Arthur had always laughed at and teased him about. "I don't know," he said. "Sorry."
"It's okay," said Alfred. The words felt like a Herculean effort.
Francis hung up. Alfred's phone screamed silence into his ear. Beneath his feet, another train rattled into the station, and slowly another tide of passengers washed over the top of the stairs. His phone beeped, and hung itself up.
He didn't think about Arthur again. Or at least, he tried not to. But Alfred was stubborn, and he found it all too easy to hold grudges, and to be fascinated by shiny new things. Matt told him it was childish, but he'd always been too competitive, and the way he saw it, Arthur had got one up on him. So in reality, Alfred thought about Arthur quite a lot over the following two years.
He thought about how Arthur had beat him, how the other boy had won, and he thought about how he might have been the victor – how he could still be the victor, if he could just meet Arthur again on the red Central line, somewhere in the dark rattling tunnels of London. And two years slid steadily by, and Alfred went to sixth form with his brother, and got his grades, and applied to university, and was accepted and another year dragged past, and the moon waxed and waned and the Earth turned, and even in in his second year at university, Alfred was still thinking of Arthur.
It wasn't that he did it often – he didn't – but Arthur was always there, somehow, an image, the scent of smoke, the prick of cold night air and the sound of slow, sad guitars echoing faintly in the back of his cranium. And every so often the reverberation would tremble, somehow, and sneak into his own awareness, and he would find himself dwelling a little on how Arthur had beaten him, on those evenings in Camden, on the canals, and of the smell of weed in Anna's house, and on Arthur's messy hair and red shoelaces and green eyes.
And then he would quickly forget all about it, and Arthur would retreat once more to the darkest part of Alfred's skull, and lurk there, and wait.
And then, one day, when Alfred was on the Tube, returning to the flat in central London his parents had agreed to rent for himself and Matt (because living at home was lame), he looked up, and across the carriage saw a shaggy head of blond hair, and a pair of wide-set eyes, and bushy dark eyebrows, and a black leather jacket.
Darkness swept past outside the train and the fluorescent lights inside sluiced like water down window panes. The train clicked and rolled and then squealed as it pulled in to the next stop.
A little old Indian woman got on the train. Alfred watched as Arthur pulled his headphones out, and jumped up from his seat, offering it to her.
"Thank you," she said, and Arthur smiled widely, and nodded, and Alfred's stomach felt like it was eating itself.
Arthur moved to stand in the middle of the aisle. Alfred stared. Arthur looked up. His eyes widened and his lips parted as though he was about to say something. Alfred couldn't have that.
"Did it hurt?"
"Wh-what?" he said.
"Did it hurt?" said Alfred again. He paused. Arthur stared blankly at him. "It's what I said to you when we met before. Both times."
"Both times?" said Arthur.
Alfred's throat felt like it was closing up. His stomach tightened, and he had to fight very hard to resist the urge to punch Arthur in the face. "We met twice," he said. "Last time, when I was sixteen, and when I was –" he hesitated. Arthur just looked at him. "A kid," he said.
"Oh," said Arthur, and he blinked. "Oh." His lips twitched, just briefly. "Yes. Fancy meeting you here."
"Fancy it," said Alfred.
Arthur wobbled as the train suddenly slowed, then sped up again, and reached up to grab the red railing above his head. He kept his eyes on Alfred the whole time. They were big, bigger than Alfred remembered, and almond-shaped, and green, and wide-set, and he looked as though he'd never put a foot wrong in his entire life.
"What are you up to?" Arthur said. He swallowed. "These days?"
"I'm at university," said Alfred. He tilted his chin up a little. "Doing archaeology."
"Oh," said Arthur. "Wow…whereabouts?"
"Queens'," Alfred said.
Arthur's eyes widened, almost imperceptibly, but Alfred saw it. "What?" he asked.
"I," said Arthur. He stopped. "Nothing."
"No," said Alfred, "go on, tell me. What is it?"
Arthur stared at him a moment longer. He stood above Alfred, though suddenly, for the first time since Alfred had first known him, he didn't seem that tall. In fact, he looked quite short. Tiny, even. Alfred leant back comfortably in his seat, spreading his legs, relaxing his arms. Above him, shaking with the motions of the train, Arthur seemed uncomfortable, unbalanced.
"What are you doing right now?" said Alfred.
"I'm at university," said Arthur. His voice was quiet, lost in the sound of the train hurtling through the tunnels, of the click and snap of the wheels and the track pushing against one another. "Queens'."
"Who'd've thought it," said Alfred.
Arthur glared at him. "What do you mean?" he said.
Alfred tried to hide his grin. "Y'know," he said. "You seemed so badass. You thought you were James Dean or some shit."
Arthur looked supremely annoyed. Victory swelled in Alfred's stomach. At last, he thought: at last.
"I'll have you know I got straight A's at A-level," he said.
"Whatever," said Alfred.
Arthur just shifted from foot to foot once again, and said nothing. Alfred wondered where Francis was; where Toni and Chiara and Anna and Gilbert were. He pictured them, swinging their bony legs back and forth on top of a building somewhere in Camden, with the moon behind them and smoke rising up steadily from the streets. He thought of their music, of the scent of their alcohol, of their too-big jumpers and their tight jeans and filthy boots. He looked back again, to Arthur. Arthur was staring down at him. He looked almost scared. Alfred wondered briefly if Arthur was worried he might punch him for standing him up two years ago at Angel. Alfred wondered if he would.
"You still got the same number?" he asked.
Arthur flinched. "Er," he said, "no."
"Gimmie your phone," Alfred said. He pulled his own phone out from his pocket, and held it out. Arthur continued to look anxious, and confused. "Put your number in," said Alfred, "we should get shitfaced together."
Arthur stared at him a moment longer. Then he seemed to relax. "Okay," he said, and they swapped phones. "I have tickets," he said, suddenly, "for – for Alt-J. You want – do you want to come? With me?"
Alfred wondered if he'd got the tickets from Anna. He didn't ask. "Sure," he said, "thanks."
They switched phones back.
The train rolled to a halt. Alfred glanced out of the window. "Well," he said, and he got up, "this is my stop." He was taller than Arthur now, by about a whole head.
Arthur seemed to have noticed this too. He stared, open-mouthed at him for a moment, looking rather unpleasantly surprised once more. "Yeah," he said finally.
"See ya," said Alfred, and he hopped off onto the platform just before the doors could close.
In truth, Alfred half-expected – three-quarters expected, at least – that Arthur would not call him, and that everything about him going to university had been a lie, and that this was it, the unglamorous whimper of an ending to what he had unconsciously imagined would one day become a great, sprawling epic. But that evening, when the sun was almost entirely absent from the sky, and the street lights and house lights and flat lights and office lights and car lights and cats' eyes were lighting up the smoke-coloured sky, his phone buzzed.
Good to see you again mate, it said. Want to come over for a bit? I'd like to see you. A. Then at the end of the text there was a street address.
And it did not need stating, but Alfred saw that the second "see" was different, very different to the first.
He sat in his room quietly, and waited until he heard his brother's key scraping in the lock. Then he stood up. The front door slammed.
"Hi!" Matt called. "You in, Al?"
Alfred moved out into the hallway.
"Yeah," he said, "how was your day?"
"Okay," said Matt, toeing his shoes off and kicking them aside. He looked up. "What's up with you?"
"Nothing," said Alfred, and then he said, "I'm going out for a bit."
Matt looked a bit taken aback, though Alfred didn't know why. It wasn't like he never left the flat, after all. "Oh," he said, "okay then. When will you be back?"
"Couple of hours," said Alfred. He began to hunt for his jacket and his keys.
Matt's face was still a bit funny – somewhat off – but he just nodded, and asked if Alfred wanted him to wait before eating dinner. No, said Alfred, and Matt said okay again, and eyed him almost suspiciously for a few moments more, then went into the kitchen to get himself a drink.
Alfred opened up Arthur's text again, and typed out, Sure, see you soon.
Matt reappeared in the hallway, holding a pint of orange juice. He watched Alfred put his shoes on, and he didn't say anything, but his presence there, a few feet away, picked like a vulture at Alfred's gut.
"What?" he said.
"Nothing," Matt said, airily.
Alfred slammed the door on his way out.
Arthur's house was actually not too far from his own. It was a ten minute walk from Alfred and Matt's door to university, when he walked quickly, and if he headed straight through campus and cut across the park, it barely took twenty minutes to reach Arthur's.
Arthur was living in a terrace. There were four floors, Alfred counted, and a tiny paved front area where the bins stood. Arthur lived at 6A. Alfred rapped on the door and waited, hands in his pockets.
For a few, terrible moments, there was silence, and Alfred was convinced that Arthur had stood him up again, that Arthur didn't live here at all, that Arthur had vanished from London, from the country, from the face of the earth and was currently careering about the sky at high speed, pinballing between the stars. But then he heard footsteps from behind the door, and a handle turning, and the door opened. And there was Arthur, pale and strong-featured, and looking ever so slightly startled at the fact that Alfred had turned up.
"You came," he said, after a moment. His voice betrayed none of the brief surprise that had flickered in his green eyes when he'd opened the door.
"Yeah," said Alfred. Why did you think I wouldn't, he wanted to say.
Arthur nodded, and stepped back. "Come in," he said.
Alfred stepped inside. Arthur hadn't bothered to turn the lights on in the hallway and a wash of darkness lay across the carpet and the walls.
"This is – nice," he said. He looked around helplessly. There was a large stack of shoes on a shelf beneath the stairs. "Who else lives here?" he said.
"Just a couple of people from my course," said Arthur.
They said nothing.
"History," said Arthur.
"Cool," said Alfred. He toed his shoes off.
Arthur stared up at him through the darkness. Alfred could only dimly see the shape of his iris, the gape of his pupil almost swallowing it whole.
"Come upstairs," said Arthur. He took a step forwards, then stopped. "Are you hungry?" he said.
Alfred wasn't, but his body felt oddly rigid, and his chest seemed unnaturally tight, "Sure," he said.
Arthur said, "I'll make us something," and disappeared into the kitchen.
Alfred hovered awkwardly by his shoes for a few seconds – then turned, and edged upstairs. Arthur didn't call after him from below, so he supposed that this was allowed.
On the landing upstairs there were four doors. Two were closed. Of the two that were open, one led to a bathroom, where the windows were open and blossom petals drifted in from a tree outside to land on the window sill and around the sink. The other one led to a bedroom, where Alfred could just about make out the shape of a bed and a lumpy duvet. He stepped into the room, and turned on the light.
It was a fairly small room – smaller than his and Matt's rooms, certainly. There were posters on the wall, pictures torn from magazines, pictures of bands whose names he vaguely remembered, and a few photographs, mostly of Arthur with people Alfred didn't recognise, people with floppy fringes and thick-rimmed glasses and dreadlocks and gauges in their ears. There was a photograph of a large grey rabbit, too. Alfred squinted at the pictures, but nobody in them even slightly resembled Arthur.
Propped up in the small space between a wooden chest of drawers and the bed was an acoustic guitar. A couple of sheets of paper were scattered on the floor beside it, and when Alfred poked them with the tip of his toe he recognised the rapid scribblings of a musical score. On the desk, close to the bed, were a couple of packets of pills and a box, labelled Carbamazepine. Next to these stood an old-fashioned record player, teetering uncomfortably close to the edge of the desk. A few vinyls were stacked up in the thin space between it and the wardrobe. Typical, thought Alfred, what a hipster, and he poked through the jackets, failing to recognise any of the bands.
The records were all slightly dusty, he noticed, and he wondered if Arthur kept them for show more than anything else – if really Arthur liked Nicki Minaj and Maroon 5 and Beyoncé, and the stack of vinyls and the (also dusty) record player were ways of enhancing his non-mainstream credentials. He snorted to himself, thinking it rather likely – though he couldn't quite picture Arthur wriggling his hips and singing Single Ladies in the shower. He shifted uncomfortably, turning away from the desk and the records, and moved towards the window.
The curtains were still open, and the street outside was dark, though the sky was that odd shade of pale that is particular to London at night, constantly illuminated by aeroplanes and office blocks and nightclubs and taxi cabs. Against this cloudy canvas, Alfred could dimly make out the shape of a couple of trees, and weedy hedges, and lacklustre bushes. He imagined Arthur sitting propped-up in bed at night, curtains thrown back, gazing out at it all. He imagined the faint light catching on the tip of his nose; the ends of his eyelashes.
He glanced down from the sky, and trailed his gaze along the windowsill. He frowned. It was rather dusty too, like the vinyls, like the record player, as though it hadn't been touched for quite some time. A slight chill wriggled like a tiny fish down Alfred's spine. He felt uncomfortable, though why, exactly, he was not sure. Something wasn't right, anyhow.
Downstairs, Arthur called up to him. Alfred left Arthur's room rather hurriedly. He closed the door behind him, and the landing and the stairs were at once swamped by darkness.
Arthur had made spaghetti bolognaise. It didn't smell good. Alfred took an apprehensive bite. It didn't taste good either.
"You got any cheese?" he asked, and Arthur hopped down from his position on the kitchen counter to retrieve some from the fridge. Alfred practically drowned his food in the stuff. At least it made it somewhat palatable, he thought.
"Is it alright?" said Arthur. His eyes were wide and slightly anxious, as though to disappoint Alfred would be utterly crushing.
Arthur nodded, too, looking away from Alfred, as though affirming something to himself.
That's one more person my cooking hasn't killed, Alfred imagined him saying internally.
Arthur hopped back up onto the counter. His legs looked thinner than ever in his skin-tight jeans.
"I never really thought you'd go to uni," Alfred said, suddenly. He shoved another forkful of spaghetti and cheese in his mouth, wondering why he'd said that.
Arthur fixed him with an odd kind of stare. "Did you think I was stupid?"
Alfred almost choked. "No."
Arthur said nothing, but continued to stare.
"I just…" Alfred shrugged. Arthur didn't look like he truly cared, anyway. Alfred couldn't really recall a time when Arthur had ever looked even slightly bothered by something. Alfred wondered how bothered Arthur had been when he and Francis had fucked.
They ate. Arthur finished his meal. He ran himself a glass of water from the tap, and drank it slowly, eyeing Alfred the whole time, as though sizing him up, estimating, attempting to determine his value.
Alfred put his plate down. He wasn't sure how much of Arthur's shitty cooking he'd eaten. It probably didn't matter anyhow.
They looked at each other for a long moment. Neither of them spoke.
Then Alfred said, "It's good to see you again, y'know. I…I missed you."
Arthur said at once, "You didn't miss me."
Alfred was taken aback. "Yes I did."
"No you didn't," said Arthur. It felt like a pantomime. "No-one ever does."
What the hell does that mean, Alfred wondered, and he frowned. Arthur continued to stare at him, eyes wide and bright, shoulders drawn high and close, tensed, as though he was a wild cat poised to pounce, or perhaps spin and flee in fear.
"I did miss you," Alfred said, carefully. "I always wondered how you were doing."
Arthur didn't speak. His whole body was motionless. He looked like a character from the television screen, paused, muted, indefinitely.
"You're at university, though," Alfred said, desperately. "Where I am. Cool, good. That's…cool." He looked desperately around the kitchen. The tap dripped sadly, once. "Are you," he tried, somehow, somehow, managing to keep his voice calm, level, even. "Are you…uh, seeing anyone?"
Arthur blinked, as though awakening from a spell. They stared across the linoleum floor at one another. The fridge hummed softly, tunelessly in the background.
Then he moved, seeming to awaken every part of his body in turn, breaking each section, each organ, each limb from the invisible ties that had bound it. He had tucked his fingers into his palms, Alfred noticed.
"No," he said, eventually. "No, there's…there isn't anyone."
Alfred, looking away from Arthur and at the wall opposite, nodded, slowly. There was silence for a moment. Alfred didn't dare move; didn't dare look at Arthur. What if he had got it all wrong?
Their empty plates and dirty cutlery clinked quietly as Arthur picked them up, transferred them to the sink.
They went upstairs, wordlessly. They sat on the bed, side-by side. The silence stretched out for what felt like a century. They hadn't bothered to switch the lights on; the room was illuminated only faintly by the pale white glow from the upstairs landing.
"Al," said Arthur. His voice was quiet; no-nonsense. His hand moved; fell to the top of Alfred's thigh.
Every muscle in Alfred's body contracted, squeezed, screamed like brakes suddenly slammed down by a heavy foot. He tried to swallow. He tried to breathe. He turned and looked at Arthur.
Arthur looked back at him. He had moved closer – his face was mere inches away.
Thank fuck, thought Alfred, and he kissed him.
Arthur responded at once, enthusiastically, confidently, as though he'd always known where this thing between them was going, as though he'd mapped the route out himself. He probably had, Alfred thought, and for some reason, this idea annoyed him. He tightened his grip on Arthur's narrow waist, and pulled him back onto the bed. Arthur did not protest – he merely kissed Alfred harder, held him tighter, tighter, his fingernails digging into Alfred's skin painfully, as though to ensure that he would remain there.
Alfred had no plans to leave.
"Turn over," he grunted, and Arthur complied at once, rolling onto his back and tugging Alfred forcefully down on top of him.
Alfred had never slept with another boy before. He liked boys, sometimes, if they were rugged-looking, muscular, hard and male and handsome and manly, like he was – but he had only ever slept with girls, who were distant enough from himself not to worry him. Arthur was nothing like a soft-breasted, long-haired girl, and he was miles away from Alfred's favourite quarterbacks and movie stars. Arthur was something else, something pale and skinny and pierced, holey, something entirely alien.
But he was enthusiastic, kissing hard enough and rolling his hips insistently enough that all anxieties and uncertainties about committing this act evaporated almost as quickly as they formed.
"Come on," Arthur whispered, and his voice somehow sounded both violently loud and desperately soft in the strange room, "I know what you need."
And Arthur did not state what it was that Alfred needed, but Alfred forgot everything anyway, and slammed his hips against Arthur's hips, and shoved a thigh between his legs, and rocked and pushed and rutted so hard that when Arthur came, his scream was virtually indistinguishable from one of agony.
Alfred just about managed to force a hand into the front of his jeans before he came too, in his underwear, for the first time in about three years. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and hissed through the pleasure – then when it began to fade, and he looked, he saw Arthur spread out on his back beneath him, narrow-eyed like a cat, watching him intently. He briefly struggled, attempting to think of something to say.
Arthur rolled off the bed, tugging his t-shirt off over his head, and turned away from him. Alfred watched numbly, his gaze following the sharp angles of the other's bared ribs.
"I've got some reading to finish tonight," he said. "And I need a shower." He turned around, and began removing his socks.
"Right," said Alfred. He hesitated – then tried to stop himself – then said it anyway: "Will I see you again?"
Arthur, heading out onto the landing, stopped, and gave him a rather odd look. "Yeah," he said. His eyes moved briefly down Alfred's body, then back up to his face. "I'll try and see you at uni sometime this week. Give me a call or something."
"Okay," said Alfred.
Alfred had to walk home in dirty jeans and dirty underwear. Matt was in his room when he reached home – Alfred could hear the sound of a movie playing from behind his door (something with lots of gory, unrealistic violence and screaming women by the sounds of it) – so Alfred hurried into the bathroom, and turned the hot water in the shower on, twisting the pressure up to its highest setting, until the noise of it blared over the bloody chop-stab-punches behind Matt's bedroom door, and the frantic babble screeching away inside Alfred's own head.
That night, he slept badly – jerking awake, heart pounding every hour or so – and by the morning he was no less sticky than he'd been the previous evening.
He checked his phone at once for missed calls or texts from Arthur – but there was nothing there – only his alarm, bleating feebly in an effort to rouse him from bed. He turned it off, and went straight back to sleep.
Alfred didn't hear from Arthur for another couple of days. Then, one day, his phone rang. And it didn't stop ringing for nearly two weeks straight.
One day, his phone rang during a seminar. Everybody looked up. His professor glared at him.
"Sorry," said Alfred. He'd assumed his phone was on silent mode – but it continued to ring, loudly and insistently, while he fumbled through his bag to retrieve it. He caught a glimpse of Arthur's name on the screen, briefly, before hanging up, and switching the phone off, rather embarrassed.
"Who was it?" mumbled Alfred's coursemate, leaning in close.
"Nobody," said Alfred, quickly. It would be strange, he thought, to tell other people about Arthur. He didn't want to. He didn't feel ready yet. It would remove some of the magic from their relationship, from their rare encounters. And besides, he wanted Arthur all to himself. What if Arthur found somebody he liked more than Alfred, and pushed him away again, but this time, failed to return? Alfred knew he wouldn't be able to stand that.
After class, he sat down on a bench outside the library, and called Arthur.
He picked up after just one ring. Alfred told himself that the notion that the other had been anxiously waiting for his call all day was stupid and childish.
"Hello," said Arthur.
"Hey," said Alfred. "Sorry I couldn't answer, I was in class."
"Right," said Arthur, "that's okay. What're you doing tonight?"
These were the words he'd heard almost non-stop for the past two weeks, or thereabouts. What are you doing tonight. Alfred knew what it meant; what it always meant.
It meant sex; it meant pressing their bodies close together, it meant their chests and stomachs, slick with sweat and saliva and other bodily fluids sliding against one another, hot and jerking with uncontrollable gasping breaths. It meant their mouths glued so firmly to each other the blood stopped flowing to their lips when they kissed, and buzzing almost painfully when they finally pulled apart.
It meant uncomfortable, kicking, scratching fingernails and toenails, and the sickly, salty scent of sweat, and wet sheets, and sore skin.
Arthur always wanted to fuck hard, with the lights off, beneath the covers. He wanted their eyes screwed up, balled into thin little wrinkles, and their hands bruising each other's arms and waists and hips, and he wanted them to pant and groan into each other's mouths, and to never make eye contact, not once.
But Alfred, chewed from the inside out by that strange insistent ache inside of him, slid his palms down Arthur's forearms, and curled his fingers around his wrists, and stroked Arthur's trembling hand with the pad of his thumb. And sometimes he wanted to pull back, to slow down – stop, just for a moment – and look the other in the eye, and move slowly over him, push in deep and hard, and watch the way the movements changed the expression on Arthur's lovely face. And he didn't want to put his face so close to Arthur's that he couldn't actually see, but he wanted to keep his eyes open, and to look at Arthur's eyes, and not for their lips to touch, but for their breaths, the very oxygen they breathed to kiss. He wanted to feel Arthur's gasps and moans and pleas for more on his chin and his lips and his cheeks.
And after they were done, he always wanted to turn to Arthur, and watch him; just watch him, sunk deep into the mattress and the pillows, blissed-out, saturated with pleasure. He wanted to take in the sight of Arthur there with him, in bed with him, close by, close enough to stroke and hug and poke…
But then Arthur would get up, and get dressed. Or he'd kick Alfred out of bed, and his face would be hard and unreadable, and his eyes distant.
Once or twice, when they fucked in Alfred's flat, Alfred would fall asleep while Arthur was still there in bed with him. He'd drift off, gazing at the other, sleepy and even more messy-haired than usual from beneath heavy, prickling eyelids, sure that this time, this time would be different…
And Arthur would gaze back at him, saying nothing, his fingers curled on top of the sheets, mere inches from Alfred's, as though he didn't quite dare to touch him…
And then he'd wake up the following morning alone, reaching out for the cold space Arthur had occupied just a few hours before.
Matt never said anything, but Alfred was certain he knew.
Time passed. Alfred didn't see Arthur for several days.
Then one night, he was awoken abruptly by his brother's voice and a cold rush of air as his duvet was ripped from his back.
"Get up," Matt was saying.
Alfred rolled over.
His brother stood at the end of his bed, blinking blearily and looking angry. "Next time your friends wanna visit you tell 'em not to come so fuckin' early."
"What are you talking about?" Alfred said. But Matt only pointed out into the hallway, then left, grunting at whoever had dared wake him.
Alfred rubbed a hand over his eyes, retrieved his glasses, and stepped out to see who it was.
He stopped abruptly. It was Arthur.
"Oh," he said. "Hey." He wished Arthur could have come a little later, after he'd had a chance to shower.
"Morning," said Arthur. His hands were jammed in his jacket pockets. He stared at Alfred for a brief moment, then turned his attention to the walls of the apartment.
"Nice place, this," he said, as though he didn't actually care. "Fancy going out?"
"It's like six in the morning."
Arthur laughed. "Actually," he said, "It's eleven."
The idea of Arthur, fresh and awake at only eleven am didn't quite sit right with Alfred. He thought about all the cheap drinks he'd seen Arthur consume – all the weed and the cigarettes he'd seen him smoke.
"Have you even slept?" he said. It was hard to tell. Arthur's skin was naturally so pallid.
Arthur just snorted. "Come and get coffee," he said. He pronounced it the way Alfred did, only highly exaggerated. CAAH-FEE.
"Alright," Alfred said. He would have said yes to anything Arthur suggested.
Arthur looked pleased.
They headed down to a small, independent coffee shop across the road from university. Alfred knew it was there, obviously, having stared down at it, hazy-eyed, during many a long, dull seminar, but he'd never been in. He and his teammates preferred to get their coffee at the on-campus bar, where they knew everyone, and the TV blared out sports matches all day long, and the girls working behind the bar gave them free espresso shots, and everyone wore university hoodies.
Arthur had obviously been there before. The girl behind the counter, who had long, dark hair, a half-shaved head, and multiple piercings waved at him from where she was busy cleaning the coffee machine, and he waved back. The shop was almost entirely empty; only two other people were in there, sat with their backs to the peeling-paint walls, plugged into Macbooks. A hollow, fumbling acoustic guitar track, accompanied by a hoarse, soft female voice played through hidden speakers.
The girl who had waved at Arthur leant across the bar, and gave him a quick, one-armed hug.
"Haven't seen you for ages!" she said.
Arthur just smiled.
The girl looked at Alfred.
"Alfred," he said, quickly, holding out his hand.
She smirked at him, for some reason, and shook it. "Mei," she said, and Alfred spied a flash of silver on her tongue. "What can I get for you?"
Arthur ordered some disgusting-looking chai latte. Alfred asked for a large cappuccino, and a Danish pastry. His stomach was beginning to clench painfully.
"Let's sit down," said Arthur, once they had paid, and Mei had presented them with their orders, still smiling in that awful secretive way of hers. He headed for a small, round table at the back of the room. Alfred, as always, dutifully followed him.
They sat down.
Alfred took a sip of his drink. It was still much too hot. He pushed it away. Arthur had not touched his own coffee yet, and was instead simply watching him.
"Why'd you come to see me?" Alfred said.
Arthur raised one thick, dark eyebrow. "What d'you mean?" he said.
"Well," Alfred shrugged, and busied himself with his pastry. "You know…I thought I wouldn't see you again. Until, er, I called you or…whatever."
Arthur's eyes were narrowed somewhat. "Do you not want to see me?" he said. He didn't sound particularly angry, despite the look on his face.
It confused Alfred greatly. "I – do," he said, hastily. "I'm just – surprised." He took another sip of his cappuccino. Arthur continued to watch him. "It's just that – how come I didn't see you for so long?" he blurted out. "After the gig thing you never showed up to? I didn't see you for like two years, then we meet again on the tube and suddenly you wanna be best buds again, or whatever?"
Arthur just blinked. "What gig thing?"
Alfred frowned. "In Islington. We were supposed to meet at Angel."
Arthur continued to look nonplussed.
"It was after that night on the roof," Alfred said, insistently. "I think it was at Toni's. In Camden? You asked me like a week after that if I wanted to come to some gig with you."
Arthur just smiled, still looking a little confused, and shook his head. "You're spraying your Danish everywhere, Jesus. Can't you eat more like a human and less like a pig?"
"Do you still see Toni?" Alfred pressed. "And Francis and Gilbert? And Anna, and Chiara? Do you still see them?"
"Alfred," said Arthur, irritably, "stop making such a mess! Stop waving your food around!"
Alfred sank back in his seat, giving up.
Arthur said nothing, but continued to watch him carefully. His eyes were an even brighter shade of green than usual. They seemed to glow in the low light of the café.
"Why do you never tell me anything?" Alfred said.
Arthur picked up his coffee. "I do," he said, and quickly swallowed down a mouthful of his chai latte. Alfred watched the bob of his Adam's apple with rapt attention. He didn't say anything until after Arthur had placed his mug back on the tabletop.
"No, you don't," he said.
Arthur rolled his eyes and frowned, looking away. "Oh, give over," he said.
"You just disappeared," Alfred insisted. "You just vanished that night, when I went to meet you at Angel, and I didn't hear from you for two years, and then suddenly here you are again. I don't even know your last name! I don't know where you went to, I don't know why you didn't speak to me for two whole years and then were suddenly fine with fucking me, I don't know why you won't answer any of my questions but expect me to leap up and follow you when you show at my place and click your fingers like I'm a fucking dog!"
He had more to say – more complaints, more worries, more fury he wanted to spit into the other's face – but then Arthur, very quietly, said, "Kirkland."
Alfred blinked, his thoughts momentarily derailed. "What?" he said.
"My last name," said Arthur. "It's Kirkland." He stared across the table at Alfred for a moment, somehow entirely bared to him, open and vulnerable and honest – and then his face twisted into a bitter sneer, and he snapped, "Did my telling you that enhance your life in any way? Did it? Do you think things have changed for the better now?"
"I just…" Alfred could hardly think. He wanted to know – he wanted to know everything about Arthur, wanted to ask him all the questions he'd always wanted to ask him (the piercing, his friends, his music), yet somehow, knowing a little bit more about him only strengthened the hungry pangs for knowledge that shuddered through his body. He sat back, saying nothing.
Arthur glared at him across the tabletop, face hard and stony. No, his eyes seemed to snarl, I didn't think so.
Alfred didn't mention it again, Arthur's secretiveness – not for a while, anyway. Besides, strangely enough, he sort of liked it; the air of mystery Arthur carried with him, the dust and sparks that seemed to fly from his heels along with the strain of some faint, magical music one could hear, but never fully understand. (Alfred was perfectly aware he was romanticising Arthur's existence. He didn't care. He was certain that if he believed for long enough, the truth would burst forth, bright and brilliant like a flower. Arthur could probably work magic by snapping his skinny white fingers.)
He did, however, see Arthur again. He had worried, that morning, when they'd said their stiff goodbyes in Arthur's hipster coffee shop, that it was truly the end – that this was it, he'd used up all his chances, all his wishes were gone, and the moment he turned away, Arthur would evaporate into thin air. But he'd blinked, and Arthur hadn't gone: he'd just stuck his hands in his pockets and said, "See you around," and left. Alfred had kept his eyes fixed on the other until he'd reached the end of the street and turned out of sight.
Sometimes he thought about texting Arthur, just to see if he still existed – but he didn't. He had to resist. He didn't want to annoy him, or come off as desperate. Because he certainly wasn't desperate. He was sure, though, that he'd have another long wait to endure before Arthur melted into his life again – so he was pleasantly surprised when, one early afternoon the very next week, he left a lecture hall, laden down with books and paper and notepads and pens, to be confronted by Arthur's bright green eyes and thick dark eyebrows, and his straw-like hair.
"Oh," he said, surprised. "Hi."
"Hello," said Arthur, "It's Orange Wednesday. Fancy seeing a film?"
Alfred was so surprised he couldn't think of anything to say for a long moment – and then he said possibly the worst thing he could have said, which was, "Don't you have anyone else to go with?"
Arthur smirked meanly. "Obviously not," he said, "or I wouldn't have asked, would I?"
"I guess not," said Alfred. He was a head taller than Arthur, but it rarely, if ever, felt that way.
"Come on then," said Arthur, and together they headed off to the bus stop.
"Are you bothered what we see?" Arthur asked, and Alfred said he wasn't. "I'll pick, then," said Arthur, and he chose an action flick with a chiselled blond American man in the leading role. It was the sort of movie Alfred would usually have loved – there were lots of explosions, and car chases, and fights, and cheesy memorable lines – but after the first fifteen minutes Arthur leant over to him, and whispered, "He's fit, isn't he?"
Alfred felt a bit ill after that, though he couldn't say why.
(He knew why, in truth, sort of. He just didn't want to think about it; was too scared to contemplate whether or not it was true.)
He didn't say anything.
Through the dark, he felt Arthur's eyes on him. He felt the weight of them evaluating, assessing, judging.
"He is," Arthur hissed again. He was speaking quietly; none of their fellow moviegoers showed any signs of having heard him, but the words snapped and roared in Alfred's ears. Then Arthur whispered, "I'd fuck him."
Alfred's ears felt hot, and his throat felt hot, and he could taste something bitter on the back of his tongue. He glanced sideways through the darkness of the cinema at Arthur, who was staring right back at him, smirking and smirking.
And so he reached out, and grabbed Arthur's neck, hard (he hoped it would bruise) and smashed their lips together.
Arthur squeaked – perhaps in surprise, maybe protest – but then his hands fisted in the front of Alfred's shirt, irreparably creasing the fabric. And at the same time they sank down in their seats, out of sight.
"Are you going to fuck me here?" Arthur whispered, and Alfred thanked whatever god might exist above him for the dense blanket of blackness enshrouding them. With even the tiniest amount of extra light, Arthur would have been able to see the dark red flush covering his cheeks and his nose and his ears and his forehead, a marker of immaturity. He was certain Arthur, clinging to him, hot and wanting, was not blushing. He was certain Arthur never blushed.
"Not here," muttered Alfred, "come on," and he tugged the other to his feet, and together, they stumbled down the steps and out into the disorientating light of the corridor between screens one to seven.
Arthur was snatching greedily at his belt, and Alfred was sure they wouldn't make it – and then suddenly the illuminated blue sign for the men's toilets blossomed before him, and he pulled Arthur in behind him, and shoved him into a cubicle. The bathroom was empty. They were alone.
"Fuck," Arthur growled, low and feral, and Alfred thought inexplicably of the dust in Arthur's bedroom, and wondered where the other belonged.
His hands tightened on Arthur's shoulder and waist, and he slammed him hard against the wall. The thud of Arthur's body against the wooden partition was painfully loud in the quiet bathroom, and for a moment, Alfred paused. He had never hurt another person in his life. The idea was repulsive to him. He was bigger and stronger than average, he knew, and had therefore always been exceptionally careful not to get too rough when playing sports or messing around with his friends. But then Arthur hissed, "What are you waiting for? Get on with it!" and arched back against him – and it took less than ten seconds for Alfred to remove Arthur's belt and pull his jeans down to his knees.
Arthur hissed again when Alfred pushed two fingers inside him – and once more, Alfred hesitated – but Arthur snarled, "Don't stop, don't you dare stop." So Alfred didn't.
It was rough, and more than a little bit painful – neither of them had exactly come prepared, so they had to improvise – but at one point Alfred slipped out, and Arthur seized the opportunity to turn round and face him, and Alfred put his hands under Arthur's thighs and lifted him up, pressing him back against the wall, and that drove Arthur wild.
He was like a feral animal in bed, Alfred discovered (or pantsless, anyhow), a ferocious untamed cat, all teeth and claws, spitting and hissing and yowling, primal, and it could never hurt enough for him. At one point his teeth sank deep into Alfred's neck, and it hurt, it hurt like nothing else, but it felt real, it was proof that they were there, they were both there together, Arthur was clinging to him, desperate, and he wasn't about to vanish out of sight.
"Arthur," he breathed, whispering it into the other's shoulder, and Arthur groaned, and his hands wriggled beneath Alfred's shirt and his nails nipped red grooves into his skin.
It didn't occur to Alfred that they could easily be discovered; that somebody could open the bathroom door and walk right on in, and hear them – hell, they were probably audible out in the corridor between the screens – but even if they had been, he doubted he would have noticed. All that mattered was the scent of Arthur's skin, and the feeling of his legs wrapped around Alfred's thighs, and the fact that they were pressed together, as close as they could possibly be…
Arthur, suddenly, made a broken, choking kind of noise – and Alfred shoved into him once more, as hard as he could, completely lacking in any precision whatsoever. And then there was a hot, dizzying rush – and when he could see again past the stars floating in his eyes Arthur was leaning against the wall, a bit red in the face, and scowling.
"You dropped me," he said.
"Oh," said Alfred. "Sorry."
Arthur rolled his eyes, cleaned himself up with a wad of toilet paper, and re-fastened his belt and jeans. He turned back to Alfred. "Are you coming?" he said, "Or are you just going to stand there all day with your dick out?"
"Oh," said Alfred again. He fastened his own jeans quickly, then followed Arthur back to their seats. It all felt very odd. Alfred had no idea of what was going on in the film by this point, and for some reason he felt empty and tired and dejected.
Arthur said nothing more to him until they were on the bus home – and even then it was just "See you later."
He didn't see Arthur at all, for the rest of that week, and he spent a lot of time wondering why he was cursed to have this curious relationship where he bounded along behind Arthur like an overly-eager puppy, desperate to please and to impress, yet simultaneously detested the other.
Though, in all honesty that wasn't an entirely accurate description of his feelings. Alfred couldn't detest anyone. That, he supposed moodily, was his downfall. Arthur was so mysterious, so fascinating, a strange, other-worldly being, infinitely more mature and a thousand times cooler than he would ever be. It hit him, one day, though, that this idea of Arthur he had gripped onto and cultivated and admired since he was just a kid with his mom on the tube in central London was just that – a blown-up poster with the colours intensified and all flaws photoshopped away. It left him breathless, the realisation that Arthur, his Arthur, his idea of Arthur, was in fact totally false, and in truth he didn't know the other at all.
He remembered the dust in Arthur's bedroom, and how he'd wondered at it, yet at the time it had just seemed to add to his ethereal appeal. Perhaps, in reality, it was just a dusty bedroom.
The next few days were slow and miserable, and spent alone. Matt seemed to notice his sudden bad mood, but didn't say anything about it. Alfred was glad. He didn't feel like having to explain himself to anybody. He didn't feel like unloading the last few years of his life on another person, spreading the events out before them and explaining why they made his heart ache so. Even he wasn't sure why it hurt. In the darkest, quietest hours of the night, when he was far too hot, and too tired to sleep, he had attempted to quantify what had actually happened: all of his experiences with Arthur. He had attempted to phrase them, silently, in his head, put the occurrences into words, if only in his mind. But the results were depressing. In truth, he hardly knew anything of Arthur. When compared to his relationship with his brother, with his parents, with his friends at university, with Kiku, who he still saw in the holidays, this thing of his and Arthur's was miniscule. And yet it infiltrated every tiny crevice of his soul, it occupied his waking thoughts and night-time dreams, his conscious and sub-conscious desires. It was a great mystery, a sprawling yet delicate and flimsy whodunit – whydunit, really – an unsolved case or code destined to remain forever uncracked, yet not for a single moment far from his mind.
All he really wanted was to pin Arthur down; examine him through a magnifying glass; trace his shape and smell his neck and taste his lips. It was pure infatuation, he realised, and always had been. That was enough, though. Infatuation would do.
Things all came to a messy head about a week after the incident in the cinema. Alfred was working on an essay for university in his bedroom. Out in the hallway, he could hear Matt rushing up and down, searching for his keys and his shoes, and finally jogging out of the door with a faint yell of "See you later, Al!" Then the front door slammed shut and all was quiet.
Alfred turned some music on, disliking the silence, and wrote another four hundred words. He stared at the screen a bit, wrote fifty-two more, then erased them. Then he stood up, stretched, and headed into the kitchen.
Arthur was sat at the table.
Alfred stopped. "Oh," he said, trying to think of something more interesting to say. He couldn't, so he just said, "Hi."
"Hi," said Arthur.
They looked at each other.
"What are you doing here?" Alfred said, eventually.
Arthur shrugged, delicately, somehow. "Though I'd come to see you," he said.
Alfred thought Arthur wouldn't offer any more than this – but then Arthur said, "Your brother left the door unlocked."
"Matt," said Alfred, stupidly, then instantly regretted it.
Arthur smiled, then quickly attempted to hide it. "I believe that is his name," he said.
Alfred laughed, awkwardly. He couldn't for the life of him remember why he'd come into the kitchen in the first place. He wondered if he ought to offer the other some coffee, or turn the radio on. Perhaps he could look up some of Arthur's pretentious plinky music.
He suddenly remembered something.
"Hey," he said, "is this about those Alt-J tickets?"
Arthur looked confused. "What?" he said.
"When we met up again," Alfred said, "You know, on the Tube. You said you had Alt-J tickets. You asked if I wanted to go see them with you."
Arthur blinked, slowly. He looked strangely to Alfred like a person on the television emerging from a coma. "Oh," he said. The word seemed to drag out far longer than the movement of his lips had suggested. "Oh." He looked somewhat sheepish. Alfred couldn't recall ever seeing Arthur like that before. "I, er…I don't really. I made it up." He shifted on his chair, then stood up, and moved to the other side of the kitchen. He seemed supremely uncomfortable. It was a very odd look on him.
Alfred watched the shift of Arthur's shoulders; the twitching of his fingers; the tension settling down his spine. The back of his neck was ever so slightly pink. Years ago, he'd thought that Arthur probably never blushed. He felt the echoes of their past ringing back at them, as though through a long, dark tunnel. He wondered if Arthur ever remembered these kinds of things. He breathed in slowly, trying to calm himself.
"Was that," he said, nervously. "Did you…did you do that because you wanted to have a reason to – to see me?"
The colour of Arthur's neck grew somewhat darker. He suddenly seemed keenly interested in the unwashed bowls standing beside the sink.
"Arthur," said Alfred.
"I wanted," said Arthur, quickly, "to give you a reason to see me." He seemed to instantly regret saying this; the last word came out choked, as though it had been tortured and forced out into the air between them. Arthur stubbornly refused to look away from the sink.
Alfred blinked. "Why," he said, "why would you think I needed a reason?"
Arthur turned; stared at him. His jaw was clenched. He looked like he was about to say something, but couldn't quite decide how to phrase it.
The room was quiet. Alfred had not even the faintest hint of an idea of how they had ended up where they were. "Arthur," he said, slowly, carefully. "Are you – okay?"
"I'm fine!" said Arthur quickly, though his hands were curling up into fists, and his voice was becoming shrill. "I'm fine!"
And somehow, in that moment, Alfred suddenly realised that Arthur was not fine, not in the slightest – and that he had always known this, had always been aware that there was something not at all "okay" going on with Arthur, something to do with the dust on his shelves and the repetitive disappearing and the refusal to share anything other than his first name. Hell, perhaps "Arthur" was a lie, too. The latter thought froze Alfred's insides suddenly, painfully.
"I," said Arthur, and he looked around helplessly, all of a sudden seeming very small and very lost. He no longer seemed anything like the Arthur of Alfred's youth; the Arthur who had smoked and smirked and known all about buying alcohol and weed, who knew about music nobody else had ever heard of, who moved through the streets of London like a ghost, fading in and out of sight, sliding through walls, disappearing into the pale night sky like smoke. He no longer seemed to be that cool hipster, who was somehow both young and old, both carefree and infinitely wise, sexy and scruffy and insane in all the right ways.
Instead, he just seemed short, and anxious, and somewhat unstable.
And all Alfred wanted to do then was keep him there, keep him close by his side, keep him inside the flat and never let him go. Because if he did, he knew he would not meet Arthur again. Not ever.
"Arthur," said Alfred, "Arthur." And Arthur stared around wildly, nails digging into his palms, as though desperately searching for an escape route. And Alfred stepped closer, closer to him.
"Please," said Arthur, but Alfred just shook his head, and moved in closer still, and reached out, and took his hand.
There was a moment where they looked at one another – eyes wide, mouths open, as though truly seeing each other for the very first time – and then Arthur made a little choked sound, and flew at Alfred, and grabbed him by the shoulders, and bit his neck, pressing his body hard against Alfred's, as though trying to disguise what was happening as another meaningless sexual encounter, as though if he moaned loudly enough, bit down hard enough, ground his hips firmly enough, it would become so. But Alfred held onto him tightly. And Arthur clung to him, and shook, and his face was pale, and Alfred didn't know what it was, but it terrified him.
"It's okay," he said, bewildered, "it's okay."
Arthur made a noise – perhaps he said, "It's not okay," but his voice was muffled. And Alfred felt like he'd wandered too far in a swimming pool, and hadn't noticed that he'd reached the deep end, and the tiles beneath his feet were suddenly pointing down at a sharp, unexpected angle, and he was slipping, gasping for breath…
He took Arthur to bed.
The sun was shining outside, just, fading in and out of sight behind soft grey clouds, and the remnants of the early morning rain still lined the windows and bruised the pavements and the roads dark grey. And it seemed to Alfred that suddenly he was looking at Arthur, properly, for the first time.
Arthur was tense upon the mattress; the lean muscles in his arms and legs and stomach were tight, and he was poised, prepared to strike or to flee. His nails and cuticles were bitten, Alfred noticed, and there was a small red mark on his arm, as though he'd picked and picked at an old scab there. His expression was guarded. His bright green eyes moved quickly across Alfred's face, calculating, sizing him up.
Alfred wondered if Arthur saw him too, now, properly. The remnants of his old, childish self thought that Arthur had probably always been able to see the truth of him; to cut through his skin and bone and flesh and peer into his soul. But now, he realised, slowly, with effort as he knelt above the other and watched him, silent, mouth slack, now he saw that it was impossible to know everything about a person. It was probably impossible to even begin to define someone. People were contradictions and liars and cheats and desperate and tender and kind, and even though Arthur had left him an infinite amount of times, sometimes for a matter of days, sometimes for years, he had kept coming back. And Alfred liked that. Alfred liked Arthur. Alfred liked the way Arthur grinned and laughed, and the way he could be protective and sweet, and cheeky and secretive and nice, even Arthur could be nice. Perhaps Alfred was just a masochist but he wanted more of Arthur.
"Don't go again," he said, suddenly.
Arthur looked uncomfortable. Trapped. "I," he said, and then he didn't say anything else, but he reached up, and wrapped his arms around Alfred's neck, and pulled him down, and kissed him.
They fucked, slowly, the sun not quite warm on their bare skin, and Arthur tried to shut his eyes and pull Alfred down close to him, press their cheeks together. And Alfred tried to pull back, sit up so he could take all of Arthur in, his pale skin and big cheekbones and wiry hair and far-apart emerald eyes.
And Alfred panted, and said again, "Don't go, don't go."
Arthur pressed his lips together, and said nothing in response. And then Alfred went down on him, messily, unskilled, and Arthur dug his fingers into his scalp and held him there until his thighs trembled.
"Don't go," Alfred said once more, when they'd both come, and were lying side-by-side on Alfred's double bed, staring up at the too-white ceiling.
"Why," said Arthur. His voice was hollow.
Alfred didn't know what to say.
They lay in silence for a while. Then Arthur stood up, and started getting dressed. He seemed to do it very slowly.
Alfred watched him. "Do you not like me?" he said, eventually.
Arthur was sat on the end of the bed, pulling his shoes on. He didn't look up. "Why would you think I don't like you?" he said. "We just fucked, didn't we?"
He straightened up; got to his feet. He didn't leave. He just stood there, as though he was waiting for something.
Alfred's mouth felt like it had been packed with gauze. "Are you going to run away again?" he asked.
Arthur's back stiffened. "I don't run away," he said. The words struggled from between his lips, jerking robotically. If Alfred hadn't know better he would have thought Arthur was about to cry.
"Yes you do," said Alfred. "You always do. You disappear for weeks or months or years and I don't know why."
Somewhere above them, somebody was laughing. A van drove past outside, blasting something obnoxious and auto-tuned. The sound faded away into the distance. Alfred imagined it was shaped like a curve, growing larger and louder, but never quite managing to reach the place it was approaching, falling away and back into nothingness far too soon.
Then Arthur said, tremulously, "Do you want me to stay?"
"More than anything," said Alfred. It sounded incredibly pathetic.
Arthur shuddered a little. A moment passed. Then he stood up and left. Alfred glimpsed his face as he wrenched the bedroom door open, and hurried out into the hallway. His eyes glistened in the dull afternoon light.
Alfred lay on his back for a long time, and grew chilly as sweat dried on his stomach and his chest and his back.
Outside, it started to rain, and Alfred didn't get up.
When Matt got home that evening Alfred was quiet. They didn't say much to each other, but Matt made him mac and cheese, and when they were sitting in the living room with their feet on the coffee table he asked if everything was okay.
"Yeah," said Alfred, trying to sound surprised that his brother would even ask that question, and stood up, and went and opened his bedroom window, and looked out over the wet city. He thought about climbing down the side of the building, even though he knew he wouldn't be able to, and disappearing down some dirty, cigarette-butt-stained alley. He wondered if this was how it all began.
Matt remained in the living room for a while. Then about half an hour later, he came into Alfred's room. Alfred was trying to do some reading for his next lecture.
"I'm busy," he said.
Matt sat down on Alfred's bed. "Who is he?" he asked.
"Who?" said Alfred. His throat felt tight, and his back was cold.
"Your friend," said Matt. He said friend in a strange way; differently. Arthur was a very different sort of friend, after all.
"No-one," said Alfred. He studied his book intently.
"You're a real miserable douche when he's not around," said Matt.
Alfred shrugged. "I'm a miserable douche when he is," he said. He wasn't sure why he said it. Usually he'd have just punched his brother.
Matt was quiet for a moment. Then he said, "So why do you hang out with him, then?"
Alfred wanted to tell Matt to fuck off and mind his own business. Instead, he said, "He makes me happy."
"You just said –"
"It's difficult," said Alfred. "It's difficult, Matt, okay?"
Matt stayed still on his bed for a little while, perhaps considering his words, perhaps waiting for Alfred to divulge his feelings. But Alfred remained silent; and eventually, Matt stood up, and left the room.
Alfred stared down at the words before him, seeing the neat black shapes, but comprehending none of them. He thought about how Arthur made him miserable. And he thought about how Arthur made him happy. And he resolved to try.
A week later he and Arthur met up at some tiny pub with bare floorboards and peeling paint on the walls, and fairylights strung above the bar. They arrived at the same time; Alfred saw him walking along the street towards him, hands deep inside his pockets, and he was so sure it was an illusion, an apparition, somebody else, some unmentioned relative of Arthur's who looked like him, so much like him…
And then Arthur stopped before him, and said, "Hullo," and Alfred said, "Hi," and they headed in together.
The sky above was low, and dark grey, and swollen with a budding storm. The air tasted metallic.
Inside, the pub was quiet. A few hipsters with stripy jumpers and ratty jeans sat at tables in pairs, talking in low, secretive voices, nursing pints of beer.
"I'll get it," said Alfred, and Arthur said, no, and Alfred told him he could pay for the next round. They sat down.
They hadn't spoken once during the week. Arthur had texted him earlier that day when he was coming out of class, asking if he wanted to go for a drink, and Alfred, as always, had agreed. He watched Arthur warily over the top of his glass.
He looked tired, and thin, and pale.
They drank in silence for about a minute, then Arthur quietly said, "I keep thinking, whenever I come to see you, you won't be here."
"I'm always here," said Alfred. His throat felt tight, and he wondered if he would be able to stop talking once he'd started. "I always show up, even when you don't."
Arthur looked down at his own hands, stubbornly avoiding eye contact.
"Are you going to run away again?" Alfred said.
"I don't," said Arthur, and Alfred looked at him, and he seemed to shrink a little. "Probably," he said, eventually.
Alfred swallowed a mouthful of beer. Then another one. It was difficult to swallow. "Where do you go?" he said.
Alfred hesitated briefly. "Don't you get tired?" he asked. "Of always running?"
Arthur didn't answer. Alfred stared down into his glass, and listened to the mournful sob of the man playing through the speakers behind him. He kept thinking that when he next looked up, Arthur would be gone, once again, and he would be left staring at an empty chair, an empty table, filling the space Arthur had once occupied with his own fantasies and being left cold and disappointed once more.
He felt trapped, in limbo with his knowledge of Arthur. All at once he knew everything and nothing about him; everything because he was constantly there, on the edges of his thoughts and dreams, and sometimes there in real life too, naked and grinning and laying an arm across Alfred's shoulders, choosing him, returning to him, every time, every single time, even though he wasn't always there…he still kept on coming back…
But then he knew nothing, too, less than nothing. He knew nothing of Arthur's family, of his friends, his flatmates. Where did he go when he ran? Why did he run? Why did he come back? Why did he draw Alfred in, then send him flying out again like a kite? Why, why why – so many whys unanswered, echoing endlessly to each other.
Alfred looked up. Arthur hadn't left.
He swallowed. "Do you think people'll leave you?" he asked, and Arthur started, as though he hadn't expected Alfred to speak to him again. "Are you scared of being abandoned? Are you scared people will get bored of you? Is that why you keep leaving?"
"Alfred," said Arthur, quietly.
"Please don't leave again," Alfred said.
Arthur said nothing for a long moment. The song playing through the speakers changed; it was Arcade Fires, Alfred thought.
Then Arthur said, "It's not very healthy to rely on other people."
"I don't rely on you," said Alfred, "And I don't want you to rely on me either. I don't need you. I won't die if you go away. But I want you to stay. Because I like you. I like spending time with you. I like your music, and I like your smile, and I like your weird fashion, and I like the fact that you pretend you're so tough, and I like that you bothered to hang out with me when I was a dumb, annoying kid, and I like kissing you and sleeping with you, and I like…I like you, Arthur."
For a long time, Arthur was silent. Alfred thought, sadly, suddenly, out of breath, that he might have said too much. Was what he'd said stupid? Did it mean nothing, in reality? Did Arthur even care?
They sat across from one another, on either side of the table, avoiding eye contact. The buzz of other people's conversations and the low thumping of the music was drowned out by the blood in Alfred's ears. He was probably bright red, he thought, and he remembered thinking that Arthur almost certainly never blushed, and then he remembered that Arthur did blush; he recalled the scarlet flush on the back of his neck…
He looked up.
Arthur looked uncomfortable. His eyes were oddly bright. He said, "I didn't think you were an annoying kid."
They looked at one another. Alfred said, "What?"
Arthur moved in his seat, shifting his weight from one side to the other.
"Well," he said, "I mean – I kind of did. At first. You were a bit weird."
Despite himself, Alfred smiled.
"But, y'know," Arthur said, focusing his gaze on his hands, crossed on the tabletop, and his dry knuckles, and bitten fingernails, and peeling cuticles, "after a while I sort of…started thinking of you as my…my little brother, I suppose."
Alfred raised his eyebrows.
"Obviously I don't anymore!" Arthur snapped. He was quiet again for a moment, and then he said, "You grew up."
Alfred didn't feel particularly grown up. He still felt a bit of a mess; a bit like that desperate kid he wasn't so far away from, who tagged along after Arthur and his strange and fascinating hipster friends, hilariously eager to be accepted, to be one of them, to be cool. Even now, he thought, he was still pursuing the older boy; pining after him.
He suddenly realised that Arthur hadn't said "We grew up." He blinked, thinking, the cogs of his mind turning slowly, painfully. Perhaps Arthur already thought that Alfred had left him behind – had shot past him – had moved into the world of adulthood while Arthur floundered about, clinging to his old obscure bands and raggedy clothing and alluring mystique?
Arthur had always seemed so self-assured.
Alfred breathed in, slowly. He leant across the table, towards Arthur, carefully, afraid he would spook and run once again. "I don't feel like I grew up," he said. "But I'd bet you anything no-one ever does. I think everyone's kind of confused and scared, Arthur. Probably some of us are good at hiding it. You are."
Arthur pulled a face. "You think I'm mental," he said, quietly.
"What?" said Alfred.
"Francis told me," Arthur said. "One time. He asked why we didn't hang out anymore and I didn't really say anything and he asked if it was because you thought I was crazy. Well," he laughed humourlessly, "found out I was crazy. Am crazy."
"You're not crazy," said Alfred, and then he shook his head, "and even if you are, I don't care. I like you. Don't you get that?"
Arthur still looked uncomfortable, though he was no longer avoiding Alfred's gaze quite as insistently as before. Instead, he stared up at him, then seemed to come to himself, and looked away, moving his head to the side, jerkily, as though he had to force himself to do it. As though Alfred was the sun and he was too bright to look at directly.
"Look," said Alfred, a little breathlessly; it felt as though he was standing up. As though he'd been crouched down for too long, far too long in the ocean, and the salty water had soaked into every square inch of fabric it could find, and now he was getting up, and slowly, so slowly, the water was leaving his clothes. And the weight bearing him down into the sea was growing lighter and lighter, and if he stood for long enough, the water would be gone, and he would be dry, and warm…"Look, you keep running away, but you also keep coming back, and it's that that matters to me, okay? Like…it's your decision, I'm not forcing you to do anything but I'd like it a lot if you stayed. With me. I would. And…and you keep coming back to me, and…that has to mean something, right? I'd like to think it does. So…just…you don't have to make up your mind right now, but…just think about how you keep coming back, you know?"
Arthur looked at him blankly.
Alfred felt stupid and childish. "Okay," he said, and stood up.
Arthur did not move; did not speak.
"Okay," said Alfred again, and he left.
Arthur did not run after him; and though when he was outside Alfred sorely wanted to turn around, to run back into the pub and grasp Arthur by the shoulders and shake him, he didn't. He walked home.
By the time he had reached his street, big, purpling clouds had gathered overhead; and when he took out his keys to touch into his building, the first few spots of rain were splattering onto the pavement, and making streaky zebra stripes against the windows.
Matt was in, sitting in the living room with his friends Kat and Carlos. Kat was okay, but Alfred didn't get why Matt liked Carlos. The guy was the very definition of the word "jerk".
"What's up, Alfie?" said Carlos.
"Fuck off," said Alfred. He stomped down the hallway, and locked himself in his room.
He sat down on his bed. He could still hear the voices of Matt and Carlos and Kat, though they were fainter now, muffled by space, as though there lay a great, dense distance between the three of them in the living room, and Alfred, alone on the edge of his bed, staring at his own feet. He listened, and listened, listlessly, failing to comprehend a single word, until the sounds echoed and clanged dully off one another, like old, cracked church bells. They seemed to toll as some great marker, some sign that something important was about to happen; some realisation would hit him, some epiphany would burst like a firework in his face. If Alfred's life had been a movie, music would have begun to stir, softly at first, then unfurl itself, like a dragon, and burst forth, aflame, with a great roar of drums and trumpets. But his life wasn't a movie, and there was no music – not even ugly bells – just the muffled sounds of the others' conversation, unfamiliar and meaningless.
He waited a little. If he tried hard enough, he thought, he could almost believe that this moment was important. It still could be. Perhaps it was, he mused, if he decided it was; right at this moment, in the present.
Matt and Carlos and Kat continued to make sounds.
It was a funny thing, time, Alfred thought. You could try all you wanted to split life into the categories of past, present, and future, but in reality, all that existed was now. Now. An endless series of nows, trying but never quite managing to exactly replicate the now that had preceded it. What was so often called the past had been a now, once upon a time. And the fanciful future was simply a now waiting to happen. Nothing was certain, in truth: nothing could be certain until the very moment of its becoming a now.
Alfred shuddered, and thought of Arthur.
Perhaps Arthur didn't exist in this now. Perhaps he belonged to no now. Perhaps he was an anomaly, drifting on the edges of Alfred's nows, but never quite making it inside. He imagined staring at Arthur from behind a thick pane of glass. He imagined watching him drift close to, then far from the glass, watching him, watching him, but forever unable to reach out and touch him.
That was how it had felt, he thought, ever since he'd first seen Arthur, on that day coming back from Oxford Street on the Central Line. Arthur was there, constantly, near or far – and yet totally separate from him, as distant as distant could be, seen and unseen in the same moment.
And then Alfred thought again, and he thought that maybe, maybe that wasn't how it had felt. Perhaps that was how he felt in the present, in this now, looking back on the old nows retrospectively.
He thought about his mother, about the way she'd go misty-eyed when retelling some dumb story about him and Matt when they were babies: about how they'd thrown food at one another, had entire conversations consisting of nothing but gurgles and shrieks, had pressed their noses together and cackled like witches. He thought about his own memories of childhood, of sunny summer days spent biking and rollerblading and kicking soccer balls into his dad's head. He was sure there were times when he'd fallen down and skinned his knees, or been yelled at in school, and he knew he'd fractured his arm when he was five…but really, when he thought back, all he saw was the sun, and the smiles of his friends and family, and all he heard was laughter. When he thought about Arthur, too, he thought about the way the older boy had made him feel so special, so grown-up. About how he'd picked him, chosen to allow him into his select group of friends. About how he'd kept on coming back for him.
Maybe it was nothing but a pair of metaphorical rose-tinted spectacles.
The past, he thought, his past, was a kind of mythology. Youth especially. Perhaps he was ascribing special meanings to things that at the time had been nothing; substanceless fluff long since blown away by the spinning of the earth. Just because it seemed meaningful when he gazed back on it didn't make it so.
Alfred imagined the old nows falling away, rotting and dying the instant they passed. He imagined them tipping into an endless, black void, swallowed up, never to be seen or heard or thought of again. Never to matter.
Perhaps it was empty, everything. Perhaps it meant nothing. Perhaps his time with Arthur didn't matter; had never mattered.
He had built it into an epic, his time with the other. A legend, a great story, a flashy star-spangled Broadway production.
And it wasn't.
It never had been.
He lay back on his bed. He closed his eyes.
And he thought about how Arthur had kept on coming back to him.
And he thought about the way Arthur smiled at him, and the weight of his arm across Alfred's much broader shoulders, and how he liked cake and cigarettes, and the way he teased Alfred but got all huffy when Alfred teased him back. And the way he always let Alfred tease him. And the way his kisses tasted when they were drunk and tired.
He thought about little things; moments of smiles; flickers of warmth; gentle nudges with elbows; the grumpy silence when both of them knew an argument had finally ended.
And he knew he wasn't about to sprint through an airport to tell Arthur how he felt.
Arthur would come back, he thought. His entrance would be sheepish, void of drama. He would refuse to look Alfred in the eye. He would refuse to answer his questions.
They would get coffee.
They would sit together, still and quiet.
They would hold hands.
Alfred felt warm at the thought.
This would happen.
Alfred rolled over, and tucked his thumbs beneath his fingers.
He didn't fall asleep until long after Carlos and Kat left, and the flat was still, and quiet.
Not quite the right kind of quiet.
Alfred dropped off when his eyelids grew too heavy to remain open. He slept.
Arthur didn't come to him that night. Or the next. But the night after, he awoke with a violet start. His head hurt, as though he'd just been the receiver of a sharp smack.
"Ow," said Alfred, squinting through the darkness. He blinked, and felt grit in his eyes. "What the hell, Matt?"
"I told you," Matt said, angrily, "to tell your dumb friends to come at a normal hour. It's five in the fuckin' morning!"
Alfred found his glasses; waved them in the direction of his face until they settled upon his nose.
Matt's voice was rough, his hair tangled, and there was a deep crease between his eyebrows.
"What're you talking about?" Alfred said. He slid out of bed, and sloped into the hallway, cracking his spine.
The light was on, and for a moment it blinded him, burning white-hot against his retinas. Then the flames cleared a little, and beside the front door, he saw Arthur, slump-shouldered and haggard, with grey bags beneath his eyes.
He coughed. "Hi, Al," he said.
"Oh," said Alfred, then instantly regretted it.
An awkward pause bulged the walls of the hallway.
"You're both idiots," said Matt, and stomped back into his own bedroom, slamming the bedroom door behind him.
Arthur stood awkwardly, hunched in the anaemic light, arms pressed into his sides, fingers fighting not to touch each other. He looked to Alfred like he might be about to bolt, or implode, or collapse like a Jenga tower. Alfred wondered which part of Arthur he would have to touch to cause him to spill over sideways.
"Sorry," said Arthur, at long last. "I know it's late."
"Early, really," said Alfred. He considered. "I dunno."
Alfred looked at Arthur. Arthur stubbornly looked away. Alfred wanted to reach out and touch the other; run his hand through his hair and see if his fingers caught on tangles, stroke a finger down his cheek and see if it felt like he remembered. He wondered if his skin was cold.
Arthur took a deep breath. "I didn't know if you'd want to see me," he said at last.
Alfred was bewildered. "I told you I did," he said.
"Mm," said Arthur, "yeah."
"I still wanna see you," Alfred said, his voice cracking with fatigue, "even at five in the morning."
Arthur looked slightly abashed; but more than that he looked hopeful. His dark eyebrows rose, slowly, as though they hardly dared to believe the news. "Really?" he said.
Alfred shrugged. "I guess," he said. "Sure."
Arthur swallowed, watched him.
"If you're just fishing for compliments I'll punch you," Alfred said.
Arthur looked lost for a moment – then he smiled, tentatively, showing his canines – and when Alfred grinned back, he smiled even wider.
"Your brother didn't want to let me in," he said. "I was stood out there knocking for nearly ten minutes."
"He probably thought you were some random drunk," Alfred said.
Arthur smiled again, weakly. "Didn't you hear me?" he asked.
Alfred pulled a face. "I sleep like a log," he said.
Arthur looked down at his feet. The toes of his shoes moved, and he pressed his hands together, and tangled his fingers. "When he opened the door, he said, Are you the guy my stupid brother's been mooning over?" he said. He looked back up at Alfred, hopeful and afraid. "Are," he said, "Am…am I?"
Alfred shrugged. "There isn't anyone else," he said, "dumb, huh?"
The corners of Arthur's lips twitched – and then remained there, curled up into a smile. Arthur was beautiful when he was happy, Alfred thought.
"Yeah," Arthur said.
They stood there in the hallway, motionless, facing one another under the yellow ceiling light. No sounds crept beneath the door from Matt's room, and Alfred knew his brother would have collapsed back into bed, tugged the duvet over his head, pressed his knees to his chest, and fallen once more into a deep, deep sleep.
"Do you want coffee," said Alfred, suddenly. "Or – or tea?"
Arthur nodded. "Tea'd be lovely, thanks," he said.
In the kitchen Alfred fetched milk from the fridge, and found a box of unopened tea bags on one of the highest shelves beside the sink. He switched the kettle on, and retrieved a dry mug from the draining board. It had been sat there, clean but untouched, for the past few days.
When he poured the milk, it was sour. He gagged a bit.
Arthur, lingering a couple of paces away from him, next to the microwave, fidgeted. "Smells like it's gone off," he said.
"Yeah," said Alfred, and he stood there, helplessly, the open bottle dangling from his fingertips, unsure of what to do.
"It's fine," said Arthur, and when Alfred didn't react, he stepped closer, and took the milk from him. Their fingertips brushed. "Leave it," he said.
Alfred blinked, and looked at Arthur. It felt, strangely, as though he hadn't seen him in a long time; or at least, not in a bright light like the ones shining above. It was somehow very odd to see Arthur there, in his and Matt's kitchen, standing beside his mugs and his microwave and his kettle, holding a bottle of milk and assuring him he'd be fine without tea. It was such a little thing, so familiar and normal, and utterly devoid of the mystique and magic of Camden nights enshrouded in cigarette smoke, or of dark cinemas that smelt of sex, where he saw the shape of Arthur's jaw and nose and eyelashes, illuminated by the blaring white screen, but saw none of his features. This was nothing like the drugs and the unfamiliar music and the odd friends who had vanished into the dark like ghosts; this was ordinary, and in the light of his flat he could see the shade of Arthur's eyes, and the shape of his probably once-broken nose, and hear the sound of his voice, unaffected by alcohol and the sounds jangling and wailing from a stereo.
Arthur was looking at him. "What is it?" he said, a little of that old hostility edging his tone.
Alfred shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "Just…I'm glad you're here."
Arthur blinked a few times, then swallowed. He shifted his weight, moved one foot, as though intending to turn and begin pacing around the kitchen. But he didn't move. He stayed where he was. He looked away – and then he looked back at Alfred.
Finally, Arthur said, "Is…is this it then? Is this…" He trailed off, and stared hard at the fridge, at the postcard from Alfred and Matt's parents when they'd gone to Switzerland, at the takeaway menus and Snoopy magnets and Pizza Hut vouchers.
"What did you think it would be like?" Alfred said. He was suddenly convinced that Arthur was going to bolt again. His chest grew tight, and all of a sudden it was exceedingly difficult to breathe.
Arthur shrugged with one shoulder, awkwardly. "I – dunno," he said. "I thought maybe I'd have to do something crazy to, y'know, prove that I lo–" He stopped, his cheeks turning scarlet. "I thought I'd have to do something impossible for you."
"We don't – we don't have to anything impossible," Alfred said. He could feel his own face beginning to heat up, but he refused to look away from Arthur. "It's not…being with someone isn't supposed to make you do impossible things, or feel crazy shit, y'know? It's just – something – like…I like being with you, and I like seeing you in my kitchen, and using my stuff, and I like sleeping with you and I like the idea of being able to going to bed with you and knowing you'll still be there in the morning. You know? I don't care about finishing each other's sentences or you laying down your life for me. I just…I just wanna know you'll be here. And I want to make you happy."
Arthur didn't move. He didn't even blink, or, apparently, breathe.
Alfred felt stupid. "Sorry," he said, "that was fuckin' sappy."
"Yeah," said Arthur, but he was smiling, still, smiling wider than Alfred had ever seen him smile before. "You're an idiot," he said.
"So are you," said Alfred.
And Arthur ducked his head, but when he looked up again, he was still smiling. And Alfred reached out, and took the milk, and placed it on the counter. Then he took Arthur's hand.
"We should probably stick together, then," said Arthur.
Outside, the sun was hidden behind a thick blanket of cloud. But the streetlamps illuminated the pavements, and the tall skyscrapers in the city and along Canary Wharf flashed out a steady warning to planes and helicopters.
The city was so big, and yet it seemed so close, and calm, and familiar, like Alfred could pick it up and cradle it against his chest with one arm. He wondered just how far he'd be able to see on a clear day, if it weren't for the blocks of flats and offices and churches and houses.
From the corner of his left eye, he could see Arthur, still and quiet at his side. Still there.
He breathed in, deeply, gathering his courage.
"Will you run away again?" he said.
Arthur did not respond for a long while.
In the distance they could hear a strange scuffling, flapping noise; two pigeons, fighting each other on the railing of the balcony a storey or two below.
Then Arthur said, "Maybe."
Alfred didn't say anything.
"But maybe," said Arthur, hesitantly, "Maybe – this time – you could come too?"
And Alfred reached out, and took his hand.
The fridge hummed, and the fighting pigeons swooped up, and past the kitchen window. And Alfred, wonderfully, felt terribly happy.
"Let's go back to bed," he said. "Then we should probably pick up some milk later. Matt'll beat me up if he can't have his Frosties for breakfast. Well. I mean, he'll try to beat me up. He won't be able to, 'cause, y'know, I'm bigger than him."
In the houses and flats across the city, lights were turning on in bedrooms and bathrooms, and the first trains of the day were rattling into sight, curving and snaking around one another and across London. Later on, it would probably rain.
Later on, they would head downstairs and down the road, and buy milk, together.
And Arthur looked at him, eyes shining, and squeezed his hand, and said, "That sounds good."