I was late. But then I was always late. With youthful hubris I'd decided that if you don't know yourself by the age of twenty two, then you're never going to know yourself, and the fact of the matter -- almost a defining characteristic of my life -- was that I was always late.
Tardy some called it, but I saw 'tardy' as an Americanism, and I was English through and through. It was what I was thinking as I ran the last two hundred yards down the hill and around the corner to see the train pull into the station. Weighting up my options, I made a dash for the platform rather than the ticket office. Getting on the train was vital, and I couldn't afford to miss it by stopping to buy a ticket.
The train was one of the last of those with slam door carriages, thank God, and to the shouts and glare of the station master I trotted along the side of the now moving behemoth, opened the carriage door, got on and shut it behind me. I was tempted to lower the window and give the station chappy the finger, but then he was probably late for his bun and morning cuppa, and giving him indigestion wasn't really fair. I slumped into the only empty seat and grinned at the man sitting opposite who had lowered his paper and was glowering at me.
"Mornin'," I said, "bad news about the cricket." He frowned.
"What cricket?" He spoke with a plump counties accent and I could well envision him as a small boy at boarding school.
I shrugged. "There's always cricket being played somewhere," I said smugly; I didn't like cricket. He harrumphed, flicking his paper back into shape and raising it so as to cut out his vision of yours truly. The woman on my right chuckled and I smiled at her as I turned on my ubiquitous MP3 player and settled back for the journey.
I almost made it to London Bridge without having to buy a ticket, but as I didn't fancy getting into any trouble, I wasn't too miffed to hear 'tickets please!' as the conductor made his was slowly down the carriage.
"One return to London Bridge, please," I said. He rolled his eyes at me.
"You could have been killed getting on the train like that. By rights I should report you, but it's your life I suppose."
"Yes, yes it is, thank the heavens." I handed him a twenty and he gave me the tickets and my change. "But then ...." He paused, waiting politely for me to continue, "Are any of our lives really our own, hmm?" He looked at me blankly for a second, trying to work out if I was taking the piss.
"Dunno," he said, and shrugging, walked on.
London Bridge was bustling with the beginnings of the rush hour as I wove my way through the crowds, trying to beat the mob to the barrier. I cursed under my breath as a woman, wearing a hideous floral cardigan that did nothing for her voluminous bottom and pulling a trunk on wheels, turned abruptly across my bows. I wondered momentarily if I should suggest she wore indicators. She'd definitely have been pulled over by the pedestrian police, given a heavy fine and had three points on her ambulatory license. I laughed at the thought as I got into line behind a well heeled man in an expensive suit, carrying an even more expensive briefcase. He put the case between his legs, and as he leant forward to put the ticket into the slot in the barrier a youth darted in from the right, grabbed it, and was off and running.
"Oi!" The man shouted, turning as the boy disappeared back up the platform into the throng from the train. Ever the gentleman, I mentally shrugged and took off after the youth, the man following, calling out 'Oi!' and 'Stop that boy!' at sporadic intervals.
The crowds on the platform were thinning as we approached the end of the train, but the boy didn't stop. Instead he jumped off the end of the platform and ran across the tracks in the direction of the train sheds and sidings. I stopped, watching him as he neatly avoided getting wiped out by a fast through express. He turned back once the train had gone and, obviously grinning, looked directly at me. Then he gave me a cheery finger, and turning away, walked off into the darkness of the sheds. I started laughing at his sheer cheek just as the briefcase's owner arrived, but he was paying me little or no attention.
"Damn, damn, damn!" he said, panting and frustrated, "Where did the little bastard go?"
I pointed in the direction the boy had run. "Over there, somewhere," I said. "Into the sheds, I think, though he's probably out on the streets by now."
"Oh?" The man said, looking at me and sounding suspicious, "and how do you know that?"
"Because ...." I tailed off, looking at him as he ran his eyes over me. I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, sweater and a beaten up leather jacket, and my hair was probably over long, though that was the way I liked it.
"You're ... you're with him, aren't you?!" He took a nervous step backwards.
"No, David, I'm not," I said as his eyes shot to my face.
"How do you know my name?" He frowned, and I could see him trying to work out if and how he knew me. "I'm afraid I ...."
"It was a while ago," I said, flatly. "It was a while ago and definitely another country."
"Another country?" He stared at me and I responded in kind.
I was pretty sure I'd weathered the intervening years better than he had. His face was rather chubby now and his cheeks had lost their rosy glow, though he still had his thick head of neatly combed blonde hair with a few added highlights, I thought.
"Neil?" He was still unsure, but I was getting bored with the game.
"Bingo!" I said, thinking back to a time when he'd almost been a friend.
"Neil! Well bugger me!" I winced. "I mean, I mean gosh it's good to see you. It's been ages."
"Yes," I said bleakly. Memories of a time long gone had come back. Memories that I'd tried hard to bury for good. I felt the pain rear up, felt tears, unbidden, prickling behind my eyes. I blinked, hoping he hadn't seen.
He hadn't. He was thinking about his briefcase.
"How did you know that little bastard went into the sheds?"
I shrugged. "We made a film recently about a gang of street kids that live and work around here. He wasn't one of them then, though he might well be now. It's the kind of thing they'd do."
"Oh," he paused, looking me over again, then smiled and I almost fell for it. "If I were to offer a reward ... say a thousand, would you be interested?"
I shook my head "I'm late, David, sorry."
"But you were always late, Neil. Say two then."
"Three thousand?" I must have sounded bewildered.
"Five and that's my final offer, and only because we're old friends."
"Okay," I heard myself say. I forced a smile. "I could do with the money." Sure of himself, he nodded, then pulled out a crisp white embossed business card from his breast pocket.
"Deliver the case to this address by nine o'clock tonight and there'll be an envelope waiting. If you can't find the little bugger then call me and I'll give you a thousand as recompense, anyway."
"Very kind of you, David." I fell back into the roll as if I'd never escaped it, and he smiled.
"Goodbye then, Neil." He turned on his heel and I stood watching as he walked briskly down the now empty platform towards the barriers. Still watching I slid my hand into my jacket and pulled out my phone.
"You're always late," she chuckled. "Never mind, eh. It's all set up as you requested. Everything okay at your end?"
"Yes, everything's fine." David exited the barriers and disappeared from view. "See you later."
"'K, keep me posted."
"Will do. Bye." I close the clamshell and slid it back into my jacket before setting off for the station exit.
It took me ten minutes to walk through the maze of decrepit streets that surrounded the station. Because of the film we'd made I was known by the majority of the street folk, and felt reasonably safe, though there were still some on the streets that didn't know who I was and who would happily shiv me for the contents of my pockets, let alone the computer in the shoulder bag I was carrying. I knew the danger, and took care I looked the part and fitted in. On the whole I succeeded, and the film had been well received.
I glanced at a police van that drove slowly by, its metal riot screens pulled down over its windows, the squad inside in full body armour. I'd always been nervous of the police, and wasn't sure why. Maybe it was that I could never tell what it was that set them off. But by the time I turned into the street that was my destination they'd obviously decided I wasn't worth bothering about and had gone on their way.
The building I'd been heading for looked deserted as I pulled aside a sheet of corrugated iron and entered through the smashed glass and brass front door. In the past the building had been the swish headquarters of a recently defunct insurance company. Now, the lobby, still carpeted, smelt of urine and other unmentionable nasties. I stood for a moment waiting for my heart rate to slow. It had shot through the roof while the police van had followed me: they were all too good a sussing out weakness, and though I'd felt reasonably secure, there was the possibility they had been following me, which would have meant trouble.
Hearing nothing I peeked out at the street. It was empty. Breathing a sigh of relief I turned and walked across the lobby, past the reception desk and the bank of lifts and opened the stairwell door, the squeal of its hinges doing nothing to help my nerves. I'd got to the fourth floor when the door slammed open in front of me and two men walked out. Dressed in matching stained denim and leather, they were younger than me and infinitely more streetwise. The one on the right swung a bicycle chain loosely in one hand, whilst the other held a machete.
"Wot chew wan', fucker," Machete said. Bicycle chain giggled, a high pitched almost insane sound that echoed up the stairwell and sent a flood of adrenaline surging through my body. Though I had no intention of tangling with either of them I found my fists were clenching of their own volition.
"I've come to see Matt," I said, locking eyes with Machete. He glowered back, a smirk crossing his face as he grabbed his crotch.
"Wot, chew a poof, are ya?" he said, leering, "'cause ya can suck on a big un if ya wan'."
Bicycle chain giggled again, grabbing at his own crotch and copying his friend's antics. Briefly I pondered the idea they might actually be sharing the same brain, then decided not.
"And if I was, do you really think in your wildest dreams I'd want anything to do with the likes of you?" I knew it was a mistake the moment I'd said it, and was about to turn around and leg it down the stairs when a gun went off - or it could have been a bomb: it was so loud in the stairwell that I was surprised the building was still standing.
"Ow! fuckin' 'ell!" Machete screamed, dropping his blade and grabbing at his ear as it was cut by flying shrapnel as the bullet plowed into the door frame by his head. Bicycle chain shrieked; dropped his weapon in sympathy and pissed himself, the smell of warm urine mixing with that of cordite and adding to the already rank odour.
My ears were ringing so loud that I didn't hear Matt as he walked out onto the stairwell landing above. Then he coughed and I turned and looked up. The sunlight streaming through the window back-lit his dirty blonde hair making him seem somehow angelic: an angel with a nine millimetre Glock.
"Best get up here, Neil," he said, though I lip read more than heard it as I pushed past machete and climbed the stairs until I stood next to him. He was small for nineteen, coming to just above my shoulders, but the expression on his face then wasn't one I'd want to argue with.
"Don't mess with my friends, boys," he said. "Now, I've asked you nicely, so ... are we okay?"
"Yeah," Machete sputtered, cocking his head, still holding his damaged ear. "We're good, Matt, we're good," he added as he leant down and picked up his machete.
"Great. See ya then."
Machete nodded and, grabbing Bicycle chain by the arm, vanished back through the door, closing it quietly behind them.
"Idiot." Matt said looking up at me, a smile playing across his lips. "I thought you were going to phone."
I shrugged, and found I was nibbling my bottom lip. "I was, but then I thought I'd see if I could manage all on my lonesome."
"Yeah, right." We bear hugged. "Come on then Mister Bond," he said lightly punching me on the shoulder. "Let's move." I rolled my eyes and followed him up three more flights of stairs and out onto the penthouse floor.
Like the rest of the building the penthouse floor was full of old office furniture, but here the furniture had been neatly stacked against the interior walls and the whole place was spick and span clean. The outer offices had been turned into rooms, each of which was home to one of the members of the Grebes: the largest of the street gangs.
It had been Matt I'd met first when I'd started to do research for the film script I was about to write. He'd been busking with a harmonica, though it was his youth rather than his talent that had people throwing money into his hat. I'd thought at first he was a young looking fourteen, and bound to be picked up by social services. I was taken aback when I found out he was nearly eighteen. It had taken me an age to break through his outer shell, and I'd had to give as much as I was given. But eventually, with his help, I finished the research and wrote the script. It had been turned down over and over again until Matt suggested I try and make the film myself. When we eventually started production he'd been equally helpful, though he'd made it plain he didn't want to take part himself.
"Heya, Doco-Man," Rafe said idly. He was lounging on a large couch and flicking through a hard core porno mag.
Rafe was a big charismatic Barbadian in his late twenties, and the leader of the Grebes; the name he'd given to a large and disparate collection of street people he'd gathered together, housed, and generally fathered. Though the police treated them as a gang, the local council weren't so sure, and, through Rafe, funded some of their activities and turned a blind eye to their accommodation.
"Hiya Rafe," I said warily. I could never tell what mood he was in, and I'd seen his flash temper at work on a couple of occasions. Several of the other Grebes were lounging around the space, and I nodded at those I knew.
"Gun, punk." Rafe said, folding the magazine, getting to his feet and holding out his hand. Matt pulled the pistol out of his waistband and handed it over. Rafe slid it into his jacket pocket, then backhanded Matt, knocking him to the floor. I was incensed.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" I snapped, facing him off. He stood a good four inches over me with major muscle to boot, but at that moment I didn't give a damn. Slowly, he walked up to me until he was looking down into my eyes.
"He borrowed my gun, but I didn't say he could fire it," he said, his voice low.
"Leave it, Neil. Please," I heard Matt's tremulous voice but didn't turn to look at him.
"He saved my bacon back there." I growled, "saved me from the lowlifes on the fourth floor, so get off his case."
The room had gone deathly silent, and now I became aware of a stillness: a kind of group held breath. They were waiting. There were rules: I knew that, but I didn't know exactly what they were, and I didn't think they did either. Rafe had pulled all the street kids together and consequently was a large enough power in the area to be taken seriously. Not many messed with him I realised, and gulped as his fresh peppermint breath drifted across into my nose. We stood like that for close to a minute, then he laughed, though it was closer to a bark, and grabbed me by the shoulders.
"Come into my office," he said, pulling me across the floor into a small room and closing the door. Not that I could have done otherwise. "Sit, sit Doco-Man," he said, waving at a chair. He sat himself down on the edge of a neatly made bed. Running my tongue around lips I found to be bone dry, I sat down and looked across at him. Rafe wore his hair in a street style razor cut with sculpted sides, as was the current fashion, though if he wanted to I was sure he'd do well in any number of careers … not that being the leader of the Grebes was a career as such. He interrupted my train of thought.
"You care for him?"
"You care for him? Matt?"
"Yes," I said, frowning. "I like you all."
He guffawed and slapped his knees. "And I like you, too, Doco-Man, but you misunderstand me." His accent, which had always been street vernacular, suddenly changed as he lowered his voice: now it was as well educated as mine. "We all play parts. Fit into rolls we create. It's the way we are as humans ... the way we escape being the animals we truly are. Some of us help, and some of us don't. And by the way, I think what you are both doing is admirable, Neil." It was the first time he'd ever used my name and for some reason I found a lump in my throat. He sighed and reverted back to street. "No, Doco-Man. What I mean is you like him."
I'd known what he'd meant from the very first but now he'd given me a real opportunity to answer.
"Yes," I said quietly. He smiled.
"That's good, because he likes you, too." He lay back on the bed, putting his hands behind his head as the springs complained.
"I had to discipline him and Matt knew it. Some of the others would be thinking about challenging me now if I hadn't, and that I really don't need."
"No," I said, amazed at the turn of events. "You probably don't."
"So go. Go and do what you do so well ... Doco-Man," he chuckled and yawned. "We'll be reading about it in the papers?"
"I hope so," I replied, getting to my feet.
"Good. If you need anything I'm sure Matt'll sort you out. Bye now," he yawned again and closed his eyes.
"Bye." I closed Rafe's door behind me, walked over to Matt's room and knocked, well aware that every pair of eyes in the room was watching me.
Blank faced with a livid red mark on his cheek from where Rafe had hit him he opened the door, slowly looked around at the other Grebes, then beckoned me in. I closed the door behind me.
Unopened, the briefcase was sitting on a crudely carpentered wooden box at the bottom of his bed. Matt sat down by the pillow end so as I could sit next to the briefcase.
"Have you tried to open it?" I asked, the excitement in my voice obvious. He shook his head, then grabbed my wrist and sniffed.
"Wait a minute, Neil," he sniffed again and I looked at him concerned, then panicked as he started silently crying. I slid up the bed and pulled him into a hug, nestling his head on my shoulder.
"There, there," I started murmuring, stroking his hair and continuing to murmur. I was more than glad he'd whitewashed the cubicle's windows, as at least the other Grebes wouldn't be able to see anything. His silent crying became wracking sobs as I held him, and I knew I hadn't lied to Rafe when I said I cared. Then he started butterfly nibbling my ear and his hand landed gently in my crotch: I leapt to my feet.
"No!" I was trembling as I looked back at his tear stained face.
"Because," I said fatuously, pulling his one chair over to the foot of the bed by the briefcase and sitting down. He looked away, pulled out a towel and scrubbed at his face before throwing the towel down and looking back at me.
"Because?" Matt did sarcasm well, and this was a beaut.
"Yeah, because!" Then, in a softer tone, I said, "Because we're here for another reason."
"But I thought ..." he started, and suddenly I was unsure, and very, very nervous because of it.
It had been at the end of my first serious week of street research. Social Services had been singularly unhelpful in putting me in touch with any of the street kids, and I'd been bumped, avoided and even mugged as I tried to make contact myself. Part of it was because although I was over six feet tall, I looked young, and nobody seemed to want to take me seriously. It was winter, dark and drizzling, and I was as close as I'd ever come to giving up on the whole idea. And then I'd seen him. In one of the underground walkways at the Elephant and Castle he was sitting with his back to the wall, covered by an old blanket and playing harmonica, badly. I'd thought he was about fourteen as I stood in the darkness at the end of the tunnel and watched as a few people tossed him coins as they walked by, and one woman, a note. Then a middle aged man had bent over and they'd had a brief conversation before he'd got up.
I trailed them at a distance as they walked to a nearby park, and watched what they did. Feelings of anger mixed with sadness drove me away: back to my warm comfortable flat where I made copious notes, and wrote the beginnings of the treatment for the documentary.
The next day I went back to talk to him but he wasn't there. Or the next day either.
So I talked to the stall holders of the Elephant and Castle market, but most hadn't seen him, and the one who had spat at me and told me that perverts weren't welcome. I'd tried to explain what I was doing, but he still told me to piss off!
It was the middle of the following week. I'd been in a meeting at a production company in Covent Garden and as I left I saw him sitting on a bollard on the other side of the road watching me. Again it was dark and drizzling, and his thin jacket didn't stop him shivering. He walked across and stood in front of me, hands on hips.
"Excuse me?" I managed, gawping a bit like a fish. He chuckled, blowing on his hands before they found their way into his jacket pockets.
"You've been looking for me."
"I ... uh, how do you know?"
"Buy coffee and I'll tell you."
He took me to a Starbucks and ordered like it was Christmas. In a bemused haze I paid.
"So?" he said as we sat down, "what do you want." He spoke street, though I kept hearing a different accent sliding through when he wasn't paying attention.
"First off, how do you know I've been looking for you?"
"Harry," he said promptly, taking a huge bite of his muffin. "'Arry ve 'at." He sprayed crumbs over the table, then giggled in embarrassment. "'Orry," he coughed. "Sorry, 'Harry the Hat.' He runs a hat stall at the Elephant, and you spoke to him. He thought you were okay. He's got sense has Harry."
"Ah!" I said, taking a sip of my mocha and writing 'Harry the Hat' in my notebook. He was instantly suspicious, so I told him what I was doing, and explained that I needed his help.
Matt became my guide, my introducer, and finally when filming began, the production 'fixer'. He fascinated me, and the more I got to know him the more I wanted to know. We'd become good friends by the time school was mentioned, but he hadn't wanted to talk about his past, swearing that if I pushed him on the subject he'd leave. And because of it I hadn't mentioned that I'd followed him and that man to the local park and watched them. But the closer we became the more I had to know.
At this point I still hadn't been to the South London building where the Grebes lived, and most days Matt vanished as soon as we were through with work. Then in the middle of the third week, as Matt had started to feel more comfortable around me I took him back to my flat. He was very nervous, though he tried hard not to show it, and even more antsy when I closed the front door.
"You okay, mate?" I asked, taking off my shoes. He nodded, watched me put on my indoor mocassins, his face redder than the cold outside should have made him, then he shut his eyes and sighed.
I showed him the living room and my computer, then went to make coffee. When I came back he was sitting bolt upright on the couch, fidgeting.
"'Sup?" I asked, putting his drink on the table in front of him and sitting down opposite. "Look, if you want to take a shower or a bath you're very welcome. There's ...."
I petered off, his expression worrying me.
"I thought you were different, Neil," he said in a little voice, "I really liked you." He got up and started to take his clothes off, and I still didn't get it.
"What are you ...?" I was opened mouthed and frowning as he shot me a look that could have killed.
"Too slow, am I?" he said, his thick plaid lumberjack shirt following his jumper onto the floor. His t-shirt was full of holes, and he ripped it more getting it off. An unwashed smell hit me at the same time as the realisation of what he was thinking. He'd undone his belt and was about to drop his trousers when I jumped to my feet.
"Stop!" I shouted, my eyes wide with shock. "Stop it, Matt!" He froze and I realised he was shivering, even though the flat was warm. Slowly he looked up at me, tears streaming down his face.
"Why?" he sounded so hurt, so bitter, and yet underneath it I thought I could hear hope.
"Because I'm your friend, and I'm sorry if you thought I ... if you thought that ... if you ...." I sat down totally confused as to what I should say or do, then shot to my feet and ran to the bathroom. I came back holding a towel. He was still half dressed. "Here," I held out the towel, looking at the floor to avoid eye contact. "While you're in the shower I'll dig you out some clothes, though the trousers might not be a perfect fit." There was a brief moments silence before he took the towel out of my hand.
"Thank you," he said. "I ... I appreciate it, Neil."
I looked up at him. I'd never noticed his eyes were hazel, before. Hazel with green flecks. "You're welcome, mate. 'Sides, you uh, you need a shower."
"Yeah, I know." He stuck his tongue out at me, then scampered out of the room. I sat down and took a sip of my coffee, listening to the shower turn on. A couple of minutes later he started singing Queen's 'I Want to break Free.' I chuckled. It was badly out of tune and awful. I found him some clothes and left them outside the bathroom door.
I'd lit a joss stick and was working on the computer when he came back. He'd made fresh coffee and handed me a mug.
"Thanks," I said and he smiled.
"Sorry about earlier, Neil," he said. "I was, uh … a bit freaked out." I nodded and swivelled my chair around as he sat down on the couch. "I don't know when I'll be able to get these back to you," he said, fingering the cashmere sweater he was wearing. The jeans I'd found fitted him perfectly except for their length.
"Don't worry, Matt, keep them. They're old clothes and I was going to give them to a charity shop anyway. Besides, you're helping me, so consider it a quid pro quo."
"'K," he said, and seemed to relax. We spent the next hour companionably as I typed up my notes and read them back to him. He made several suggestions and agreed to introduce me to Rafe who was the leader of the Grebes, the largest of the street kids' gangs, and the man who ran the hostel where he lived.
Then the evening exploded.
He'd made it plain early on that he didn't want to, and wouldn't, talk about his past. But as that was one of the questions I had on my list for all the participants, I thought I'd give it a go.
"What's it like living on the streets?"
"It's okay," he said. "I guess it's like anything, there are good days, and bad days."
"So what would be a good day?" I smiled, encouragingly and he grinned back.
"Oh, well, for me it would be summer, 'cause I hate the cold. A good long summer's day spent with friends. Maybe a bit of busking for some pocket money, and then going out to the country with food and a few beers if it's possible, or else hanging out on Primrose Hill or Hampstead Heath." He blushed when he said 'Hampstead Heath," and like a fool I pushed it.
"It sounds good, but isn't Hampstead Heath a bit dangerous? I thought it had a reputation?" He shook his head, his clean locks falling over his eyes as he stopped. He pushed them aside and blinked.
"Na, it's okay."
"Don't you worry about men trying to pick you up?"
"NO!" Wincing, I watched as his whole body tremored and he clenched his fists.
It was only fair. If I wanted his friendship it was only fair. Quid pro quo meant so much more than just money. I swung the chair left and right, head down, left and right, staring at the keyboard. I'd never told anybody, and yet I badly wanted to tell Matt who I hardly knew. Why? It was as close to ludicrous as my emotions had ever taken me, yet I knew I felt something very powerful for him. It was as if he and I were fated to be friends, and friends confided in each other. I cleared my throat.
"I nearly ... I was ...." I began, then realised it was the wrong way to start. I took a deep breath. "I went to a boarding school in the country," I began again. "There was a master there." I paused and almost bottled out. It would have been easy to tell any number of stupid boarding school tales that would have kept him entertained. I glanced over at Matt, but he was looking fixedly at his hands that were clasped together. I went back to swinging the chair, looking at the keyboard.
"He was a good teacher, a really good teacher, and I thought that he was my friend. And then ...." I stopped. The stress I felt was almost overwhelming, but I'd begun and I had to finish. "Then one day I was badly stuck on a problem ... and he took me back to his room for tutoring ... and ... and he raped me." I stopped swinging the chair and staring at the 'D' on the keyboard I waited for his comment. A mug smashed into the wall in front of me, the coffee it contained soaking the back of my shirt and the flat screen monitor in front of me. I heard:
"YOU BASTARD!" As I was turning to see what had happened the second mug caught me on the temple.
Swirling darkness filled with the sounds of destruction.
Darkness and silence -- Darkness, and the sounds of sobbing -- Streaks of light and movement as I'm dragged -- Darkness and comfort and litany.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't die. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't die. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please don't die."
A blinding headache didn't come close to the way I was feeling when I woke up. It felt like the devil and his horde of minions with their cloven feet in clogs were performing Riverdance inside my head. I tried to open my eyes but couldn't and it seemed logical to lean out of bed and vomit.
Someone helped me drink from a glass of cold water and lay me back down and wiped my brow with a cool cloth. I was mumbling; mumbling like a loon as I drifted off again.
I felt marginally better when I came to next. An old man I'd never seen before was sitting next to me in a rumpled suit. He smiled as he shone a light in my eyes and checked me over with a stethoscope. I drifted off as I heard:
"Concussion, he'll be fine ...."
It was thirty-six hours later before I finally came to and got up. I was in bed wearing a pair of boxers and desperate for a pee, so I got up, and nearly put my foot in a saucepan that was on the floor next to the bed. Frowning, I put on a sweater then picked the pan up. It smelt strongly of bleach with an undercurrent of urine. My frown got deeper as I absentmindedly put the pan on the bedside table and went through to the bathroom. It had been cleaned, though the mirror and one of the doors was missing from the cabinet over the basin. I flushed, cleaned my teeth and then went into the living room. My memory of Matt calling me a bastard came sharply back as I looked around at the devastation. Most things that could be broken were, including the glass in the balcony door which now had a sheet of plywood in its place. It was a total disaster area and I swore I'd kill the little fucker if I ever got my hands on him, even though he -- or someone -- had attempted to clear up.
My head started to throb, and after I called the production company I was trying to place the treatment with, I decided to go back to bed. I was about to shake out the duvet when I realised I wasn't alone. A mop of dirty blonde hair was lying on the far pillow snoring gently. My rage new no bounds as I stalked around the bed ready to give the little shit a damn good hiding. I'd bared my soul to him and he'd ....
My anger vanished as I saw he was clutching a book I knew only too well. A book I would have shown him, but hadn't. I didn't understand how, or why.
Quietly, I went back into the bathroom and took a couple of aspirin. Then I grabbed a blanket from the closet and made myself comfortable in the recliner in the corner of the bedroom. I drifted off watching him sleep.
"Neil!" a hand nudged my shoulder and I moaned and pushed it away. I was far too sleepy and relaxed to want to move. The hand tried again. "Neil, you'll get cramp. Come back to bed, please." I smiled. It was a nice dream and I .... I yawned as I opened my eyes and looked up. Matt. He looked concerned. But then so he should.
"Matt, you're a little fucker," I said with enough of a smile in my voice to quell the sting.
"I'm so sorry, Neil. I didn't know ... how … how could I know?" He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and was still holding the book. I thought it was a pretty good question. He sat down on the bed facing me.
"So, tell me, 'cause I'm as confused as hell," I said. He ran his fingers through his hair and stood up.
"You need a shower, I'll get breakfast, and then ... and then we'll talk, okay?" I nodded at his back as he disappeared and came back with a towel. "Okay?"
"I nodded at you," I said, taking the towel and smiling. "After breakfast, then."
"Uh, do you have any money?" he asked, I nodded.
"My wallet's probably in my jeans. Oh, and take the keys." He found it and I handed him a twenty with which he left. The flat was overly quiet and though I tried not to think of why he'd gone ballistic my mind wouldn't let it alone. Worse still was the question of why he was clutching my old school yearbook, and with that one my imagination ran riot. I'd almost dozed off again by the time I heard the key in the lock and he came in whistling and carrying two paper bags. He handed out Lattes from one and serviettes and pastries from the other and for the next few minutes we pigged.
"So," I said, crushing the cardboard cup the coffee had come in and putting it back in the paper bag. "Tell me." He'd been wearing a half smile since he'd got back, and the way he'd eaten made me wonder if he'd starved whilst he looked after me. The smile slipped.
"Yes, what do you want to know?"
"I want to know why, when I told you something I've never told anybody else, you brained me. And I ...."
"You've never told?" I shook my head. "Anybody?" I shook my head again. "Oh."
"But more than that I want to know why you were clutching my old school yearbook."
"David Veloure," he said quietly.
"But I ...."
"He raped me, too."
If ever a day was cathartic it was that one. He said he'd thrown the coffee cups in rage as he thought I'd managed to find out his past and was taunting him with it. He'd wanted to kill me, not knowing, until he found the yearbook, that it had been the same man who'd raped us both. There were tears as he told me how his parents had called him a liar and disowned him; how he'd run away to the streets. Anger as I told him I'd followed him and that man to the park and seen them together. Rage as we talked about Veloure and what he had done to us both - Matt had arrived at the school the term I had left. And finally, as daylight waned to dusk: peace, as we discussed revenge.
Revenge, we both thought, was so much better served cold.
We discussed it on and off for the next few months as he'd helped me with research for the documentary's treatment. Discussed it as we discovered Veloure had given up teaching and gone into politics.
Then he'd become a junior minister in the Government, and knowing him as we both did, a plan became obvious.
"I'm sorry, Neil. I thought wrong," he said as I stood in the middle of his cubicle room, shaking. I was unsure of everything: everything, especially myself. We'd never. In fact since school I hadn't been sure of what I was. Straight, bisexual or gay? Or even, in my darker moments, if I was anything at all. Then there was Matt. Was he? Or was he just driven to it by circumstance? The one time I'd seen him had been the last. I'd made sure of that: 'employing' him as my assistant. I'd even offered him a flat share, but he'd refused with a strange look in his eye. We'd never, and God had I wanted to - yet now, with the briefcase in our possession, he'd wanted to and I ... and I ….
I sat down on the bed, sunk my head in my hands and started sobbing. I felt him move up beside me, his hand snaked around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug.
"It doesn't matter, Neil," he said, the sadness in his voice nearly breaking my heart. I hiccupped and tried to speak, but he 'shushed' me and started rubbing my back. Even in the midst of anguish it felt so good; so right, I almost started purring. "I shouldn't have tried, but I thought ...."
"No, no," I managed before hiccupping again.
"Oh, sorry," he said and started to remove his arm. I shook my head violently, reached around and pulled his arm back. Then I took a deep breath.
"I love you, Matthew!" I got out before another hiccup had me, and turned to look at him. His hazel eyes were wide with shock, his expression perplexed, and then as I watched his mouth turned upwards into the most beautiful smile.
"You do?" I hiccupped and nodded.
"I do." He looked at me a moment and then pushed himself away a little and raised an eyebrow.
"You do? You're sure now, because if ...." I didn't let him finish.
We sat scratching our heads.
"You're sure that's a biometric lock?" I said for probably the umpteenth time.
We were side by side up at the pillow end wearing fine latex gloves, the briefcase sat across our laps.
"Yes!" Matt said with exasperation, a smile in his voice that had been there since we'd woken. "For the ten billionth time it's a bleedin' biometric lock."
"Language!" I said tickling him. I'd found out it was his weakness, and he cracked up, squirming and giggling like an idiot. I stopped, and kissed him on the cheek. "So what do we do?"
"I'm not sure," he said turning the case over at looking at its bottom. "Ah!"
"Well, if we can't get in at the top, and we can't, I think ... hang on a tick," he leapt out of bed and started rummaging in the wooden box. He was nude and totally unselfconscious and I marveled at his beauty. He glanced up at me. "What?"
I smiled and shook my head. "I was just thinking how beautiful you are." He blushed and was instantly aroused.
"I think you mean handsome," he said, looking back in the box.
"That too," I said, and laughed. "This is amazing. I don't think I've ever been so happy."
"I know I haven't," he said, closing the lid and hoping back into bed with a small leather case. He unzipped it and pulled out a thin screwdriver, then, and with great care, he pushed out the pins that held the hinges together. The bottom of the case opened a little and he slid his hand in, pulled out a sheaf of papers and handed them to me. I looked at them then shook my head.
"Nothing." Then we hit pay dirt. Two DVD cases and a small USB stick. We grinned at each other, though we were both aware the DVD's might contain a world of hurt for someone. It was my turn to get out of bed and grab my bag. I took out my laptop and switched it on. There were two fast networks available and I logged through one to the fully encrypted online storage server I had. Then I copied all the data from the stick and the DVDs to the hard drive and then, as a 'just in case' sent it on the server as well. It was more data than I thought it would be, and as the transfer was going to take a while I got back into bed and wrapped my arms around him, my fingers brushing over his ribs making him giggle.
"Matthew," I murmured, looking into his eyes, amazed that he was there, as our lips met …. He grinned as his hand slid down my stomach to my crotch making me gasp …. I did the only thing I could and slid down the bed, taking him slowly into my mouth as he hissed with pleasure ….
Sometime later the computer 'beeped', rousing us from our soporific state. I looked at my watch. It was nearly nine fifteen.
"Fuck," I whined, "why am I always bloody late?"
"Phone him," he said, passing me my mobile. I thought, then shook my head, and got up. Slipping my boxers, jeans and t-shirt on I picked the laptop up and settled back on the bed with it on my lap.
"Whatcha doing?" Matt asked, snuggling up.
"Using Skype. Otherwise, and if he's serious, they'll know where we are."
"Veloure," he answered.
"I have it but I'm late, I'll be there by ten," I said and broke the connection. Matt was busy putting the stuff back in the briefcase and I started pacing while he finished. He smiled and handed it to me.
"You sure you don't want me to come?"
"Doubley sure, now," I smiled and kissed him. "I'll be back soon." I slipped on my leather jacket.
"You'd better be! We have a lot to talk about, don't you think?"
"Mmm," I kissed him again for good luck, then left, closing the door behind me. There were more than a few Grebes sitting around the penthouse now, and as I walked across towards the door Rafe strolled over and clapped me on the shoulders.
"Will you be back?" he asked, smiling. I nodded and couldn't help but grin.
"Good," he said, "you're welcome anytime, though if you hang out with us too long you'll need the tat!" He winked.
"Deal," I said and we shook. He escorted me down to the lobby.
"I'm glad, Neil," he said, "for you both. Glad indeed." We looked at each other and I nodded, then peered out through the corrugated iron at the street. It seemed dark and empty of life.
"See you later," I said, turning back to Rafe, but the shadows had already swallowed him.
I dropped off the case in the lobby of a nondescript building near Westminster. A man wearing a tailored suit that didn't hide the bulge under his arm was waiting, talking in subdued tones to the security guard. He stood up and walked across.
"You're Neil?" I nodded and handed him the case. He glanced at it, then took a fat envelope out of his inside pocket and handed it to me. "We don't expect you to mention this to anybody. Are you clear on that?" I nodded, slipping the envelope in my inside pocket. "Mute are you?" he said with a slight smile. I looked at him for a moment, then nodded and walked away.
A month later an item appeared on a well-known political pundit's blog. It was, the piece said, strongly rumoured that Undersecretary for Defense David Veloure was involved in sordid and illegal sexual activity with minors.
That evening the rumour found its way onto the national news and was strongly refuted by a government spokesperson, Veloure being abroad and unable to comment himself. The next day footage of what appeared to be the rape of a small boy by the minister in question surfaced on You Tube. The daily papers the next morning ran the scandal as front page news, though the footage itself had been removed from You Tube by that time.
Accusations of impropriety were made in the house, and at the next Prime Minister's question time the house was packed. Not since the Profumo affair was the country in such an uproar. Three days later the original film and a new one showing a different boy appeared on You Tube, as well as attached to emails sent to a several thousand of the Country's good and great. Veloure's position was untenable. He resigned. A month to the day later, the ex-public school teacher was found in the woods behind his house. He had hanged himself.
Roots are roots, and both Matt and I share an unpleasant one, though remarkably neither of us feel damaged. Matt moved in with me, and I'm now a fully paid up Grebe and have had the tattoo! Matt's into music and I'm into film, which makes for an interesting circle of friends, especially when you include a large percentage of the Grebes, and Rafe. The most important thing in our lives are each other, and it's because of what happened -- because of David Veloure -- that we met. Call it fate, or Karma, or whatever you like, but there's one thing I know and that's that life's very odd.
Finally, and I can say this for Matt as well as myself. Revenge is definitely best served cold … ice fucking cold.
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