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lomax61 last won the day on February 14

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    Brian Lancaster (published pen name)
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  1. Stanley Cheung woke with somebody else's hangover. How could it be his? The last time he'd drunk alcohol was almost two months ago at the Lunar New Year celebration. There was no way he had consumed anything last night on a Thursday work night. Was there? Everyone knew he only drank on rare occasions and then sparingly. At parties, he could nurse a single glass of red wine all evening. Hangovers had always been somebody else's problem. Maybe he’d had an allergic reaction to something, but this certainly felt like his recollection of his one and only hangover, because this morning he felt as though someone had sucked all the moisture from his throat, beaten his body with bamboo poles, and then emptied a dumper truck full of bricks onto his head. Something else didn't feel right either, something about his leaden body. Too stiff, too heavy and cumbersome. Perhaps those sensations were symptomatic of this magnitude of hangover because nothing compared to the broken skull sensation. Maybe he would lie still a little longer. He didn't dislike alcohol. More the other way around. On dates, he would accept and seductively twirl a glass of vintage Bordeaux, using the wine more as an accessory, to wet his lips, to sniff at intelligently like the connoisseur he was not. Rarely would he finish the drink. Some of his male companions figured out the truth because they had dated Asian men like him before, whose faces turned rosy after a glass or two of alcohol. Rosy would be fine. Stanley's turned beetroot after half a glass. Not just that, but too much alcohol had once reduced him from an ordinarily intelligent and articulate college student into a slurring, slobbering mess. Back then, even in his inebriated state, he'd had the sense and foresight to stagger to the bathroom and guzzle copious amounts of tap water before heading straight to bed and waking with a far milder version of what he was now experiencing. An Irish colleague once explained a theory, which, whether fact or fiction, made a lot of sense to Stanley. Most Europeans, he said, can drink alcohol without any reaction because their ancestors learned to purify water using grain and yeast and the process of fermentation. In doing so, they created an ale that became the staple for all the family. Fermentation produces alcohol, which is essentially a poison to the human body, but because their ancestors drank this poison over the centuries, modern Europeans were born with a level of immunity. Hundreds of years before this, the enlightened Chinese had learned a simple truth: boiling water kills disease-causing microbes, including bacteria and parasites, and could very quickly be made safe to drink. Sometimes nature's simplest solutions are the best. Like Stanley, some Chinese people experience an immediate reaction to alcohol because they do not have the enzymes that allow their bodies to break down ethanol. In truth, he didn't give two hoots about the theory, but getting his mind to concentrate on anything other than his physical and mental state felt like a perfect distraction. Unable to prise open his eyes, he pressed his face into a funky-smelling cushion, trying to stop the room from tilting and his stomach from churning like a KitchenAid. After several deep yoga breathing inhalations and exhalations, after the fabric surface became hot and damp with his breath, things finally began to normalise. And then an unpleasant smell rose from the cloth. Stale, male sweat, and something else, the pungent odour of vomit. Please, no. Had he puked during the night? "Coffee," came an irritated female voice as something clanked down nearby onto a glass surface. "What time did you get in last night? You stink like a brewery." With an effort of will, Stanley unglued his head from the cushion and peered across the room. The woman had walked to a lampshade and snapped on a light. Stanley blinked twice and then gasped. Dark Marvel comic posters lined the walls around a giant plasma television; superheroes with harsh expressions and some with hideously deformed sidekicks. Where the hell was he? "You're gonna lie on that couch all day, aren't you?" she said, her voice tainted with defeat. "I'm off to work. Pete tried to get hold of you last night. Not sure what it's about." "Where am I?" Mottled and cracked with dryness, his voice sounded unusually deep. "Christ! How much did you drink?" Even frowning, she looked pretty in a tired Amy Adams kind of way. Curled chestnut hair fell to the collar of her open beige trench coat, which revealed a hugging, knitted pencil sweater dress in chocolate brown, long legs, and a well-kept figure. "I don't remember." And with those three words spoken, the realisation hit him that he remembered nothing about the night before and how he had ended up in this strange woman's home. "Why do you do this to yourself?" She stood, looking back at him while holding the front door open. "Janice?" came a faint female voice from outside. Once again, he lowered his face into the cushion, silently asking everyone to be quiet. "Don't come up, Trish. I'll come down." This time her voice softened with something resembling concern when she spoke next to his ear. "Drink the coffee, then go and have a shower; you'll feel much better. I'll give you a call later. And I'll meet you at the restaurant at seven. Please don't be late tonight. I need your support with this new client. If I can land this job, I might actually stand a chance of saving the company." And with that, she kissed him gently on the back of the head. After a soft click, the room fell mercifully silent. A few minutes later, Stanley sat up and immediately regretted doing so. Wisps of coffee had reached his nostrils, but he needed to calm his nausea first, so he dropped his heavy head forward into his hands. And instantly pulled away, horrified. How could he have grown huge, hairy feet overnight? After a poorly considered shake of his head, he rubbed his hands into his eyes and peered down again. Long feet with golden hair on the toes protruded impossibly from the end of his jean-clad legs. Testing his sanity, he scrunched up his big toes, and the massive digits moved to his brain's command. Panicking now, he reached for the coffee and took a large gulp. Fortunately, the bitter liquid had cooled by then, and he drained the whole mug. After taking a few steadying breaths, he stood up from the sofa and stopped a moment to steady his balance. Apart from the ugly posters on the wall, the flat wasn't so bad, a little spartan perhaps. A racing bicycle leaned against one wall next to a bookshelf. Between two doors, a wooden table had a couple of cheap, foldable directors’ chairs on either side. Dirty work boots and scuffed training shoes lined the skirting board on one side of the bike. First things first, Stanley headed towards an open doorway that appeared to house a small kitchen. On his way, he passed a wall mirror and froze. A tall boulder of a man—Caucasian—stared back at him, horrified, the deep blue eyes wide beneath a mop of wild, scruffy hair, a dirty blond colour as though peppered with concrete dust. Everything about the look screamed blue collar, from the creased and unwashed jeans, the untucked red and black checked lumberjack shirt and white tee beneath, the massive arms and chest, to the golden nine o'clock shadow. Quite handsome, actually, came a voice deep within Stanley, one he quickly shut down. "Nooo!" said the man in the mirror. "This cannot be happening. Who are you?" Even his voice sounded weird, deep and raspy, and not just because of his dry throat. Right then, someone's mobile telephone trilled on the glass coffee table, sounding like a buzz saw going off inside his head. He grabbed the weapon of torture and answered the unknown caller. "Hello?" he croaked tentatively. "What the fuck have you done with my body?" came a voice he recognised well—his own—using a tone and language he did not. "It's Stanley." "Stanley Chung. Yeah, I know. That's not what I asked." "Cheung not Chung. How do you know?" "I have your wallet, don't I? The one with your phone password and all your credit card PIN numbers written on the back of a blank business card. Really smart, Stanley." Stanley had forgotten he'd kept the card. More importantly, why was this person going through his wallet? A large thumb and finger pinched the bridge of his nose. First things first. "And who are you—um, I mean—who am I?" "Don," came Stanley's flat voice. "Bradley." "Which? Don or Bradley?" "Don't be a fucking smartass. First name, Don. Family name, Bradley." "I wasn't—" he began but then stopped. "What happened to us, Don Bradley?" "How the fuck should I know? It's some kind of Black Mirror meets Twilight Zone shit. Maybe even Groundhog Day. Have you checked the date?" Stanley had heard of none of those things. "What? No. Why?" "It's Thursday, the twenty-third of March." "Friday—" "No. That's what I'm saying. It's Thursday. Again. What did you do on Thursday?" Stanley began to shake his head but quickly decided against the idea. From memory, nothing unusual had happened to him on Thursday. "I went to work, same as always," he said until his brain caught up. He looked up at the Joker wall clock as panic rose in his throat. "I can't go to work like this. And you can't go to work for me—" "Relax. I'll phone in sick for you." "But I never take sick leave. I work in Human Resources." "Then that'll be another first, won't it?" The calmness in the voice helped to ground Stanley. "Want me to phone someone for you, or not?" "No, I'll—" said Stanley and then faltered, rubbing his forehead. "Yes, I suppose you'd better. They won't know this voice." "It's just before eight. Will anyone be there?" "Brittany, the receptionist. Her number's in my phone contacts. I work for a firm of solicitors called Dempsey Floss. Tell her I've come down with a stomach bug and should be back in tomorrow. And to let Linda, my boss, know when she comes in." "I'll sort that out as soon as we've done. Now let's get back to this clusterfuck. Do you remember where you were last night?" Once again, Stanley tried to remember the night before, but once again, everything came up blank. "I have no idea. But wherever you were, I have a horrible hangover this morning. Or rather, you do, if that makes any sense." "Yeah, that does a little," came Stanley's voice, as the person using them considered his words. "I woke with a bit of a hangover yesterday morning. Look, we’re gonna need to meet up." "Nice idea, except I have no idea where I am. Some grungy student digs, I think, with a bike and superhero posters—" "You're in my flat, smartass, and I'm in yours. With photos of you all over the walls. Vain much? And what's with the fucking pink kimono in the glass case—?" "Don't touch that. It's an antique Daxiushan." "A what?" came the voice and then stopped. "No. Nope. I don't want to know. Forget I even asked. My flat is in West Ham, by the way. Where's this place?" "Chiswick Park. Okay, so we're both on the District Line. I wonder if that means something. Look, I'll come to you—to me—to Chiswick Park. There's a coffee shop around the corner from my flat. Meet me there. I know the owners. Turn left out of the front door, go down to the end of the road, and turn left onto the high street. It's two roads down on the right called Coffee Banoffee." "Yeah, that definitely sounds Chiswick." Whether on purpose or not, the man pronounced Chiswick like a tourist, the second syllable as in wick for a candle, which had to be the worst of Stanley's pet hates. A person did not pay premium to live in a select neighbourhood of London only to have savages misspeak the name. "It's pronounced chiz-zick, not chiz-wick." "Whatever." "And please bring my phone, so I can at least text Linda. I don't suppose you know how long it takes to get to Chiswick from here?" "Why would I? Who the fuck would I know in Chiswick?" Chiz-wick again. Stanley sighed and shook his head gently as he peered up at the maniacally-grinning wall clock. "There's a travel card in my wallet," came his voice down the phone. "Which should be with my house keys in the empty fruit bowl on the table. The card is in a plastic pouch tucked behind the condoms. Zones one to three." Stanley closed his eyes and sighed. What had he done that the gods had decided to punish him by body-swapping him with a Neanderthal? "Good. Chiswick Park's in zone three," said Stanley. "Other side of town. Give me a couple of hours. I'll meet you there at eleven. But first I need to shower and take some aspirin or something." "Bathroom cabinet. Neurofen 400. You're gonna need two with my constitution. And no touching the junk while you're showering." An uncharacteristically bawdy laugh came down the phone. "See you later, Don." # Stanley entered the coffee shop and immediately spotted the hunched-up Stanley—fake-Stanley—at a corner table. Seeing himself through another person's eyes turned out to be horrifying, especially when he recognised the pissed off look as he glared at his phone. Fortunately, the impostor hadn't noticed him yet. Before confronting him, he needed another caffeine fix, so he joined the queue of three and waited. At first, the journey over on the train had been fascinating—experienced in the body of someone physically bigger and more powerful—but very soon became unsettling. Within a short space of time, he began to freak out at the attention. Usually, Stanley could blend into the fray. Shorter and leaner in stature than most Londoners, and, by his own admission, not ugly but unremarkable, those traits meant that when other men did hold his gaze, usually in gay bars but sometimes on public transport, he could immediately recognise the intent. Everybody—women, girls, men, boys, old and young, and even small kids—stared openly at tall, good-looking and well put together Don Bradley, and Stanley had absolutely no idea how to respond. Naturally, he'd had a good look at the muscled, well-endowed, naked form of handsome Don Bradley in the mirror and understood the attraction. But after the first half-hour of intrusive stares on the train, he had deferred to glaring self-consciously at the floor. One older and attractive woman getting off the train at Westminster had bumped into him, apologised when he met her eyes, and then smiled before handing him a business card and asking him to call her. Did Don have to put up with this kind of attention all the time, and had he developed a mental coping mechanism? Because Stanley did not like the public scrutiny. Not. One. Little. Bit. When he moved to the front of the queue, the handsome barista, cheerful West Indian, Bernard, approached him. Stanley grinned at the name badge—Bernard rarely wore his—nodded and then spoke without thinking. "Hey, Bern. Can I get the usual?" "Sorry, sir," came Bernard's confused voice, as he looked down at his badge and then at Don's eyes, trying to place him. "Do I know you?" Stanley closed his eyes and shook his head gently before pulling ten pounds from Don Bradley's wallet and handing the note over. "My apologies. I'm on autopilot this morning. This place looks exactly like my local coffee shop in West Ham, just as relaxed and comfortable. Can I get your special triple shot caramel latte? Largest size you have and as hot as possible." "Done," said Bernard, punching the order into the till. "I'll bring it over. Where are you sitting?" "With the guy in the corner." "Stan?" said Bernie, his voice lowering, but not before he gave Stanley's new body the kind of once-over he knew well. "Interesting. Not his usual type. But a word to the wise. He's in a weird mood this morning. That anything to do with you?" "Could be." "Funny, too," said Bernard, holding out Stanley's change. "That's usually his poison. He ordered an Americano today, and two Danish pastries, which is a total first." "In which case," said Stanley, keeping his gaze neutral but secretly mortified at the number of calories going into his body. "Can you take for another Americano? Keep him happy." "You got it," said a brightly-grinning Bernard. "Be nice to him. He's a good guy usually." When Stanley approached the table, fake-Stanley glanced up from the phone, his eyes scanning Don Bradley's body with disgust. Before he could say anything, Stanley spoke first. "What on earth are you wearing? It's soiled, creased all over, and there are holes in the sleeves and down the front," he asked, his voice lowered, taking a seat opposite. "It's the coolest thing you own. Everything else in your wardrobe looked like clothes for school kids. Thought I'd had my body swapped with some dirty old perv, until I looked in the mirror and saw this looking back at me. Thankfully I found this tee shirt on your windowsill." "For a good reason. It's what I use to clean the windows. You're wearing a cleaning rag." "Yeah, well. You've not only given me a shave, you've dressed me like a Mormon missionary. So, I guess we're even." Stanley looked down at the navy woollen jacket, crisp white cotton shirt, navy chinos, and cleanest trainers he could find. In his eyes, they not only looked good, but they fit the body perfectly. But fake-Stanley continued to view him with disgust, so clearly not an ensemble he wore often. "This is weird," he muttered. "You think?" Stanley looked down at his phone in fake-Stanley's hands. He reached into his jacket pocket and brought out the man's phone and placed the device on the table top. Right then, Bernard came over and put their drinks on the table. Fake-Stanley seemed to make a point of ignoring him, so Stanley looked up, shrugged and smiled his thanks. After a sip of his sweet drink, he relaxed. "What did Brittany say," he asked. "Any problems?" "All sweet," said fake-Stanley, before his eyes widened, his attention drawn to someone passing behind Stanley's back. "Wow, nice rack." "Stop that!" said Stanley, after looking over his shoulder and catching the eye of a passing woman. "It's sexual objectification, demeaning to women, and, moreover, totally out of character for me." Fake-Stanley's eyes came back to his, the cold judgement plain. "You're queer, aren't you?" "I'm gay, yes. Is that a problem?" "Not yet. You have a boyfriend I need to know about?" "No, not for some time." Strictly speaking, that was the truth, although he and best friend Rupert might just as well be boyfriends because they went everywhere and did everything together. They even dressed similarly. And Stanley knew from their friends that Rupert wanted to take things to the next level but was waiting for Stanley to make the first move. This idea seemed to make sense to everyone but Stanley, who held out on a soft dream that he would meet his Prince Charming one day. Maybe this little episode was the universe's way of telling him to wake up and settle down with Rupert before he lost his chance. First things first, he needed to find out how to get his own body back. "Ever had a girlfriend?" asked fake-Stanley. "No." "What? You've never had sex with a woman?" "No. Can we get back on track now?" "Never?" "Never." Fake-Stanley's grin widened as he went to take a sip from his drink. "You know, I've half a mind to take this body for a test drive, get him to sample the delights of the female form, go for a sail down the Bristol Channel, so to speak. He ought to know what he's been missing all these years." "Really? Are we going there?" said Stanley, sitting back. "Be my guest. But if you and your half a mind think that body is going to attract the same amount of attention as this one, then think again. And if you're going to try me out with women, then it's only fair I repay the favour and trawl the gay bars of Soho tonight. I'll bet money I get a lot more attention than you. They'll be lining the bar walls with condoms and lube in their hands, waiting to welcome me into their beds with open legs—" "Yeah, yeah okay," said fake-Stanley, the colour draining from his face. "Point taken. No using each other's body for sex. Let's get back on track. So how about gay friends? You must have gay friends." "Are you a homophobe—?" "No!" said fake-Stanley loudly, and then quieter. "No, I'm not. A couple of our labourers are gay, and they're cool. But I'm not. What I meant was that I'm not sure how I'm supposed to act around your friends, if I get to meet them. That bloke at the counter called me 'love' and 'sweetheart' and it freaked me out a little. As the real me—as you—people automatically know I'm straight, so I don't have to hide anything. They just view me as a normal heterosexual male." "You keep telling yourself that." "What's that supposed to mean?" "I've only been you for a morning, but I'm pretty sure everyone wants to get in your pants. Men and women. I even sensed a woman's Jack Russell eyeing up your arse." "Fuck off." Stanley smiled in triumph. Fake-Stanley's arrogant stare had taken on a vulnerable, and frankly, adorable confusion. Across the table from him, Stanley Cheung was not a bad looking Asian guy, even if the objective realisation felt a little narcissistic. Now that he had him on the run, Stanley decided to enjoy taking this Don Bradley person down a peg or two. "And I know your dirty little secret," said Stanley. "I opened the cupboard doors at the bottom of your almost empty living room bookcase. And guess what I found?" "You got no right looking through my things." "But it's okay for you to go through my wallet?" "That's different. That was a case of necessity." "I found paperbacks by Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Le Guin, as well as Dickens, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Huxley, Camus, Faulkner, and, of course, Hemingway, to name a few. All well-thumbed, all read more than once. What's that all about? Most people would be proud to have them sitting on their bookshelves, not hidden away. Instead, you have photos of a past-their-best football team, a tacky beer tankard with breasts, old copies of DC and Marvel comics, and Men's Health magazines. "Fuck you. The tankard was a present from my granddad. And I'm not most people." "You can say that again. You know what I think?" "No, and I don't think I want to." "I think you're what they call an inverted snob. You don't want people to know you're well-read and educated, and you proudly wear your blue collar, down-to-earth persona, as a badge of honour." "Don't fucking psychoanalyse me. I am your basic what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of bloke." "Of course you are." "Can we focus here?" "Okay, okay," said Stanley, holding up a large palm to indicate a truce. "Let's go back over the past twenty-four hours. What were you doing Wednesday?" So unlike real Stanley, the figure opposite breathed out a heavy sigh, folded his arms like a petulant twelve-year-old, and slumped back in his seat. "Wednesday lunchtime we finished a job over in Greenwich. I'm a brickie—a bricklayer—and plasterer by trade. Anyway, the foreman stumped up for lunch and a couple of beers to celebrate. And by a couple, I mean a shitload. Ended up being a mammoth session, and I passed out on the sofa at home. Which is why I—and you—had a stonking hangover the next morning." "This morning. Yes, thanks for that. Your—girlfriend, is she?—wasn't too impressed." "Jan? Janice was there this morning?" "Yes. You don't remember?" "No. Wait, yes. She must have stayed over. Did she make coffee?" "Yes. She seems really nice. Reminded you about meeting her for dinner with her client tonight." Fake-Stanley's face morphed from confusion to horror before he covered his whole face with both slender hands. "Fuck!" "What?" "Fuck, fuck, fuck—" "Will you please stop using profanities while you're wearing me—" "I didn't go. My brother Pete is going to call me today around eleven and ask me to help him plaster his spare bedroom this afternoon. Then after I've changed, we'll end up heading uptown, having too many beers at O'Leary's on Gates Cross Square, and then getting stoned in the back bar with his friends. By the time I get to Ming’s two hours late, Janice and her clients are leaving. I can barely stand. Worst of all, she doesn't even have a go at me, just tells me to go home and sleep it off, and says she'll call. But I knew I'd totally fucked up, could tell by the 'red card' look she gave me that I was being sent off. Stupidly, I staggered back to O’Leary’s, intending to carry on drinking with Pete, but I think I must have jumped in a cab before I got there, because I don’t recall much else. All I remember is that I fucked up the evening.” Stanley had stopped listening at the mention of Gates Cross Square, because he was familiar with some of the bars around there, although he'd never heard of O'Leary's. Had he been uptown last night? Rupert often hauled him off the couch on Friday or Saturday night and dragged him up to Soho to meet his friends. But rarely on Thursday. "Except you didn’t,” he said absently, catching up with the rest of fake-Stanley's words and taking in his distress. “Didn’t what?" "Mess things up. Not yet, anyway. It's still Thursday." Fake-Stanley's brows creased, and he looked up, his chocolate brown eyes holding a measure of hope. "Give me my wallet." "I haven't taken—" "Just hand me the fucking wallet." Stanley did as asked, and fake-Stanley frantically went through the bits of paper, business cards, condom, and plastic cards, placing them in neat rows on the table. Finally, with a deep sigh of relief, he found what he sought. With a flourish, he snatched out a thin piece of paper. "Receipt for an engagement ring," said fake-Stanley. "I picked this up yesterday from Tottenham Court Road and was going to propose to Janice after dinner. I collected the ring, but got highjacked by my brother." "I'd be happy to pick it up." "And then go to the dinner for me—as me." "I—no. I don't know who you are. Can't you make an excuse? Say you're still hung over?" "She really needs me to do this. Maybe that's why this thing's happened to us. Please, Stanley. You need to do this for me." After a moment's hesitation, Stanley sighed and pushed Don's phone over the table to him. "Text your brother. Tell him you're busy today. Where's this restaurant?" "It's called Ming's. Posh place. One of Jan's haunts around Soho,” said fake-Stanley, as he stuffed the contents back into his wallet and began texting on his phone. "I'm telling my brother I'm meeting a potential client today. He'll understand." "Ming's?" asked Stanley. "Chinese restaurant serving Cantonese fusion? On Churchill Lane?" "Yeah," said fake-Stanley, stopping and looking up. "You know the place?" Stanley smirked. Friends often went there near closing time after a night in town, when most of the evening punters had already left. Rupert would invite one or two of the Asian drag queens from Lipstick's last show, friends out of their frocks and back in their drab daytime clothes. With Rupert holding court, the conversation around the table tended towards the bitchy, sniping about the night's more ugly punters or lesser talented queens in the show. Stanley didn't mind. He sat back and listened because the food was always excellent. Moreover, the chef was an old friend, usually in a good mood because he'd be clocking off soon and happy to rustle up unique dishes not generally on the menu. "Been there once or twice." "So, you know where it is? Good." Just at that moment, fake-Stanley's phone buzzed on the table in front of him. "You've—I've got a text message," said Stanley. Fake-Stanley snatched up the phone and stared briefly at the screen before pushing the phone display into Stanley's face. Rupe: Told Paulie you'd help on the door of L tonight. Know you're working late and its Thur but nobody else is available. Be there at nine. "Who the fuck is Rupe? And why is he ordering you around?" "Rupert. He's been my best friend since high school. Hang on, I think I remember this. He's talking about Lipstick, this drag club at the back of Gates Cross Square. I remember texting back from work, asking why he couldn't step in himself. And he said he'd already agreed to help out with the makeup, which is probably true." "And did you go?" Stanley scratched Don's thick scalp. Had he gone up to London last night? If he had, he had no recollection, especially if something extraordinary had happened. "I've no idea. But I've never been known to let people down when they ask a favour." Fake-Stanley narrowed his eyes at Stanley. "That wasn't meant to be a dig," he said, his palms raised in front of him. "You did one for your brother. Okay, so you forgot the one you'd already promised your girlfriend. These things happen." "They do." "Mind you, If I'm doing you a favour tonight, to try and put things right, the least you can do is reciprocate. Paulie—the husband of the owner—will do most of the work. You just have to stand by and step in to help if things get busy. And not drink alcohol. I can't hold my drink." Fake-Stanley glowered with horror, but after a moment of reflection, his face softened, and he nodded his agreement. "How are we playing this? Do you want to hand me back your phone and wallet?" "No, I think we should keep each other's possessions. And it might be a good idea if we stay in each other's company until tonight. In case we bump into anyone we know. Here's my suggested plan of action. Let’s head uptown to pick up your ring, then while we're up there, have lunch somewhere neither of us will be recognised. Would Janice approve of these clothes if I wore them tonight?" Fake-Stanley scrutinised the clothes, this time screwing his nose up but then relenting and nodding. "Yeah, she probably would." "So, I don't need to change. But that outfit you picked for me needs a serious rethink, if you're going to pull off a believable Stanley tonight. I suggest we go back to my place after this and pick out something more appropriate." "And I don't get a fucking say?" "Yes, of course you get a say. But nothing too wild, please. We also need to work on removing expletives from your vocabulary in company—" "Not going to happen." "And you can help by—I can't believe I'm saying this—suggesting where I can sprinkle some in." "You're meeting Jan's clients. And believe it or not, I can behave when necessary. I don't think you need to worry about tonight." "In which case, let's use the time to get each other up to speed with the people we're mixing with and how we act in their company. Agreed?" "Sounds like a plan," said fake-Stanley after a long pause, before balling his hand and holding the fist in front of Stanley. After rolling his eyes, Stanley met the petite fist with his huge, clenched paw. "You can start when we leave here by smiling at Bernard and apologising." They finished their coffees and chatted some more before getting up and leaving. Stanley picked up their empties and took them to the counter. "Thanks, Bern," called out fake-Stanley from the door. "Sorry. Not quite myself this morning." Stanley rolled his eyes at Bernard. Never a truer word. # That evening, when a nervous Stanley opened the door to Ming’s and stepped inside, a potent but familiar and distinctive odour caught his attention. Ming’s chefs used belachan, a Malay variety of shrimp paste, in some recipes. Although claiming to serve authentic Cantonese food with a fine dining twist, he knew the owners to be Malaysian Chinese from Kuala Lumpur, and as such, a couple of Malaysian dishes always found their way onto the menu. Something else familiar greeted him, Lee Yi Ling, the muscle Mary, protein shake, potato queen—totally in love with his own body image and his local gym—who manned the maitre’d station. Stanley and his other Asian friends were invisible when he waited their table, more interested in his reflection than serving them or deserving his gratuity. Not this evening. Yi Ling’s face lit up on seeing the scrubbed-up version of Don Bradley. As fake-Don, Stanley felt wholly justified in using Don’s good looks to get what he wanted. “Good evening, sir. Do you have a reservation?” “Hello, handsome,” said Stanley, providing an overdone wink. “I’m with a party of four. Booked under the name of Janice Bowman.” The real Don had given him as much information as possible on Janice in the time available. They’d been together four years, meeting online through Tinder, a joke and a dare played on them by their individual sets of friends—both hated online dating apps—which turned out to be a winner. She lived in Putney but originally came from Wimbledon Village. After attending the Chelsea College of Art and Design, she attained her interior design degree and worked two years for an Italian design firm. Her current obsessions ranged from architecture, Italian furniture design, fashion, tennis, and, of course, Don. When Don articulated his knowledge of Janice and the things he liked about her, he seemed to have something of an epiphany or a revelation at having to join the dots about what attracted him to her and admitting just how important she had become. One thing Stanley knew was that he had never felt the love for someone that shone from fake-Stanley’s face. Tonight, she sat at one side of a table, looking as pretty as Stanley remembered her that morning, although she appeared a little strained around the eyes, nodding as the man opposite her talked. As Stanley approached the table, her gaze met his, and her features softened. “You made it.” She breathed out with relief as Stanley went over and pecked her on the cheek, the way Don had told him to greet her in public. Possibly in their late fifties—around the same age as Stanley’s parents—the couple sat a little stiffly at the table. The man appeared happy to talk across the table to Janice while the woman looked either bored or tired or maybe both and sat unspeaking. Still on his feet, Stanley reached out a hand and began shaking hands. “This is Roger and Emilia McPherson,” explained Janice. “The clients I told you about. They just arrived in town. They’re launching three of their holiday resorts across the UK—” “Sanctuaries. Located in rural areas,” said Roger, who appeared to like the sound of his voice. “We have plots in the Peak District, along the shores of Loch Faskally in Scotland, and Snowdonia in Wales. Not sure how much Janice has told you, but we build cabin resorts, each designed to blend seamlessly into the landscape, self-sustaining, and using local materials, where possible. But our guests expect the best of luxury inside the cabins, which is why your lady’s pitching for the interior design contract, as I’m sure you’re well aware.” Stanley took a seat opposite the woman, who smiled briefly and wanly before her face returned to screen saver mode. “Emilia suffers horribly from jet lag,” explained Roger. “We landed this afternoon from Tokyo, and she’ll need time to acclimatise.” “I sympathise entirely.” Stanley did, too. He remembered his trip to Hong Kong and how the first day wandering around in the blistering heat and suffocating humidity had felt like he was still on the plane, still in a dream—or a nightmare. “Really?” asked the man, looking puzzled at Janice. “We were under the impression you didn’t travel much.” “He’s messing around,” said Janice, putting her hand on Stanley’s arm. “He’s never flown long haul. The furthest he’s been is Italy for a European football match.” “One hour time difference and I still got jet lag,” said Stanley grinning and making Roger laugh. “So, I can only imagine what twelve hours in the air must do to you. Have you ordered yet?” “Just this minute,” said Janice. “Roger chose. I know you’re a little fussy, Don, so he’s gone for a selection of their signature dishes, something for everyone.” “Hope that’s okay, young man?” said Roger. “I’m sure that’ll be perfect, Roger,” said Stanley, unsure what would come but knowing he had rarely been disappointed by the restaurant’s food. “We ordered a bottle of vintage Bordeaux, too. Would you like a glass?” said Roger, reaching for the bottle. “I’m going to stick with water tonight,” said Stanley, as Janice squeezed his arm. “Hope that’s okay with everyone?” “My father told me never to trust a man who doesn’t drink.” said Roger, staying his hand on the bottle but raising one eyebrow. “Oh, trust me, he drinks,” said Janice, grinning at Stanley. “A little too much, sometimes. His crew finished a building job yesterday, and the foreman bought them drinks all afternoon.” “All evening, actually. I wasn’t in a particularly communicative state this morning,” said Stanley, smiling at her. “And that’s not fair on Janice, who had to force feed me coffee. Now, Roger, tell me more about this project. Are these cabins similar to outward bound lodges?” The ploy worked, and Roger appeared to enjoy getting back to talking about their life’s work. “More upmarket. Aimed at the luxury traveller. The press has taken to branding us as wellness holiday providers, with the emphasis on the physical and mental health of our guests. Very popular with the new generation of traveller, but we’ve also had international businesspeople staying, for conferences and training retreats. We’re already established around the Asia Pacific region.” “In which case, Janice will do you proud. Luxury interiors are her specialty. Where in Asia Pacific are you?” “New Zealand, Malaysia, Borneo, and Indonesia. Emilia is originally from Malaysia.” “Penang,” said the quiet woman, her features finally coming to life. “Really? My grandfather did his national service there in the late fifties. When Malaysia—Malaya, as he used to call the country—was still a UK colony. He was there because of something to do with communist rebellions at the border,” said Stanley, and then realised he had been talking about his own grandfather and not Don’s. “The Malayan Emergency,” said Robert, chipping in. “Back in our not-so-illustrious colonial past. My father would have been stationed in Kenya around the same time.” “Small world, eh? Sorry, did you tell me the name of your company?” Stanley asked Emilia in an attempt to keep her in the conversation. “No, he didn’t. It’s PlainSight. Roger’s idea. From a book he was reading at the time called Hidden in Plain Sight.” “Jeffrey Archer,” said Stanley and noticed Janice turn to look at him. “You like Lord Archer’s books?” asked Roger. “I’ve not read them, but I’ve certainly heard of that one. I’m more of a science fiction and fantasy fan, to be honest.” “Ursula Le Guin,” said Emilia, smiling finally. “I read the Earthsea trilogy as a child. Absolutely captivating.” “I love those books,” said Stanley. Thankfully, Don and Stanley had that much in common. Stanley didn’t have the same passion for books as Don, and certainly not science fiction, but he had read and loved the first Earthsea trilogy. While he chatted to Emilia about the stories and shared their disappointment at the television adaption, Roger and Janice spoke about the project. During a lull in the conversation, Stanley excused himself to visit the restroom and noticed the chef in the corridor, standing at the open back door, having a cigarette. Before heading in, Stanley talked to him and asked if he could add one of his specialist dishes to their order, a particular item that had always pleased the crowd. At first, the man stared back suspiciously, but then a familiar smile lit his face, and he nodded enthusiastically before stubbing out his cigarette and heading back to the kitchen. On Stanley’s return to the table, Janice stood waiting for him in the corridor. Over her shoulder, he noticed Yi Ling observing them from the cash register. As Stanley drew level with Janice, she went up on tiptoes, put her arms around his neck and pecked him on the lips. “Just checking on you, love,” she said, smiling into his eyes. “I can tell you’re not yourself—” “I’m fine.” “No, you’re not. I know you, Don. You’re trying really hard, but I know you’re out of your comfort zone, and I completely understand. And I didn’t mean for you get all dressed up, but I absolutely love that you did and for doing this for me. I’d begun to think Roger’s wife was going to bail on us. Believe it or not, she’s the one who has the money and calls the shots. And then you start talking to her about those books she loves, ones I’ve never heard of. You’re a bit of a dark horse, sometimes. But I’ll make it up to you tonight when you come back to mine.” Stanley hadn’t considered the eventuality of performing as Don, and the thought sent a shimmer of anxiousness through him. “Let’s see how tonight pans out, shall we? We haven’t eaten yet.” Once again, she pecked him on the lips but then released him and patted a speck off the shoulder of his jacket. “Go back there and woo them,” she said as she headed to the restroom. “But thank you. You’re doing a fabulous job.” As he approached the table, he was pleased to see Emilia more alert and animated, chatting to Roger. Both peered up and smiled. Anyone could tell they had been talking about either him or Janice—probably about both of them. By the time Janice returned, the food had begun to arrive. Yi Ling brought the final dish out last, covered by a silver cloche and waited for a nod from Stanley. “I hope you don’t mind,” said Stanley. “I ordered another dish, a simple one, but something I know the chef cooks well and is also from your part of the world, Emilia.” With a nod from Stanley, Yi Ling removed the cover to reveal the Malaysian noodle dish. “Oh, Don. Char Kway Teow. Thank you so much,” said Emilia with delight, staring at the dish, her hands held as though in prayer beneath her chin, and her eyes finally coming fully to life. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed this. Janice, he’s such a clever thing. It’s one of the most popular street foods in my part of the world. In Hokkien—which is a Chinese dialect—Char means stir-fried and Kway Teow refers to this tagliatelle style of flat rice noodles. Your man has made my night.” “Takes a lot to impress the little woman, Don,” said Roger. “Well done, young man.” Putting the familiar food in front of Emilia turned out to be a masterstroke. Once they had all sampled the dishes, she took over the conversation, talking about her childhood in Malaysia, how she had met Roger and their inspiration for PlainSight. At around ten, Stanley’s phone began buzzing in his pocket. “My apologies.” Stanley pulled out his buzzing phone and peered at the screen only to see his own name displayed. Fake-Stanley was calling Don’s number. Something serious must be up. “Sorry, everyone. Can you give me a moment? I need to take this call.” Stanley excused himself and walked outside onto the street for some privacy. “Stanley,” came the voice the moment he thumbed the accept button. “Can you get your arse to the club? Like, right now. I need your—my—muscle. Your pal Paulie’s getting into one with these drunken wankers, and I’m about to wade in, but if you could bring me and my bulk to help out, that would be really helpful. Shit. Gotta go.” As the call dropped, Stanley’s skin went cold. Memories of last night flooded back. After Rupert had volunteered him to help Paulie at the door to Lipstick, the night had dragged until five drunks in suits had tried to barge their way in without paying. What had started as a shouting match with Paulie refusing them entry soon devolved into violence. Rupert had come out and dragged Stanley away as they piled into Paulie and screamed at him to call the police. Eventually, the good-looking ginger-haired man in the club—Rupert called him Marmalade—who Stanley had been eyeing with interest from his previous visit but had never found the courage to speak to, had rushed to assist. By the time the police arrived, Paulie had been beaten unconscious and taken away in an ambulance, and Marmalade had disappeared altogether. As he stood there, he sensed someone approach him. Janice. “Jan,” he said, putting the phone in his pocket. “Someone’s in a spot of trouble not far from here. Came out without his wallet, and he needs a quick loan.” “Oh, Don. It’s not Pete, is it?” said Janice frowning. “No, it’s this new bloke, Stanley. He’s a good guy, love, if a bit forgetful. I promise I’ll be back in half an hour tops. Can you explain to Roger and Emilia for me? Tell them I want to carry on with our conversation and maybe share a Malaysian dessert with Emilia.” “Don Bradley, you are too nice for your own good sometimes.” “You wouldn’t have me any other way.” “No,” she said, smiling up at him. “No, I wouldn’t. Now go and save the day, my gullible knight in shining armour.” # Stanley walked around the corner from Ming’s, flicking through the apps on Don’s phone, trying to find a cab hire company. He could have jogged, even with Don’s heavier body, but that would tire him out. Even at a steady pace, everything might be over by the time he got there. No way was he risking that again. Just at that moment, a white London style taxi pulled up to the kerb in front of him, its yellow for-hire sign illuminated. The passenger door had an advertising logo of a large stopwatch with an arrow going forward at the top and one going backwards at the bottom, and the words PROM Cabs written beneath. All the windows were tinted, but Stanley could still make out the silhouette of a driver. Without thinking any further, he climbed into the passenger seat. “Where to, governor?” “Can you take me to a club called Lipstick? It’s on the far side of Gates Cross Square off Tottenham Court Road.” “The drag club?” “That’s the one.” “Are you sure? Been a bit of trouble outside there tonight. Sounds like a couple of drunken punters causing trouble with the people on the door. Been a bit of a scuffle, by all accounts.” “Yes, I remember.” “Sorry, guv?” “I meant, yes, I heard. A friend of mine just called. Asked me to go over and help out. Any chance you could hang on when we get there? I need to get back here, to my—uh—girlfriend. And can you put your foot down, please?” “Right you are.” By taxi, apart from having to circumvent a couple of one-way streets, they reached Gates Cross Square in no time. The cab pulled up outside Lipstick into the aftermath of the incident, but very different to the one etched in Stanley’s memory. A squad car parked hastily at the pavement with its light still flashing. Two police officers took statements from what Stanley assumed to be witnesses, including a couple of drag queens he recognised. Spectators stood beyond, enjoying the unlikely scene. At any other time, the sight might have prompted a chuckle from Stanley, but not tonight. Tonight, when he looked out the window, a tight knot of fear gripped his stomach. Mercifully, Paulie and fake-Stanley sat on folding chairs outside the club. Stanley breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Paulie very much conscious, laughing with fake-Stanley, while ginger hottie Marmalade sat away from them, a handkerchief held to his forehead, glancing nervously at them both. Each of them appeared to have been through the wars. Fake-Stanley had a smear of blood on his cheek and a white handkerchief wrapped around one hand. Paulie kept plucking fresh tissues from a box on his lap and putting them to his nose to staunch the bleeding, but that didn’t stop him from laughing at fake-Stanley’s banter. Rupert stood behind the trio, further back near the entrance, arms folded and glaring at them with disapproval. Stanley reached for the door handle, but stopped when the taxi driver’s voice issued from the cab’s communication system. “Sir. Looks like the police are still taking statements and you might get involved. Can I suggest you stay here while I call your friend over? Give the two of you a chance to speak together?” “Okay. Yes. That makes sense. Thanks,” said Stanley, shuffling over to make room. The cabbie, whose face he could not make out, lowered the driver’s window and called out to fake-Stanley. Only he acknowledged the cabbie’s voice and stood to listen. Stanley couldn’t hear what was being said, but fake-Stanley came immediately towards the passenger door. Turning back once, he called out something to Paulie and Marmalade, now engrossed in their conversation, before climbing into the back. “What happened to you?” Fake-Stanley appeared to be high on adrenaline, because he spoke fast, his breathing shallow. Stanley checked him over, barely noticing as the cab began moving again. “Best fucking night ever. Me and your mate Polly—" “Paulie. Put your seatbelt on.” Fake-Stanley looked to the heavens but did as asked while he kept talking. “Paulie, Polly. Whatever. We saw off these wanker-bankers trying to barge their way in without paying. Fucking classic. Your mate, Paulie, stood his ground and, of course, they didn’t like that. Started calling us names like gaylords, queer fucks, and shirt lifters—well, you know the score—because that’s the kind of lame-arse dickheads they are. That’s when I called you. But when they started laying into Paulie, I lost my rag. They won’t make that fucking mistake again. Don’t think they banked on me and him fighting back. And when Rory waded in—” “Wait. Who’s Rory?” “Rory. Ginger bloke sitting with us. I think he likes me—you—by the way. When he joined in, those bastards all but shit their pants. Ran off down the road like the walking dead was chasing them. Reckon we’d have finished them, too, if it hadn’t been for that wanker friend of yours, screaming at me for getting involved and then wussing out by calling the fuzz.” Stanley remembered things differently, but what would be the point explaining. “What happened to your hand—?” “Sorry about that. Used it to smack big mouth in the nose. Paulie got me some ice, but it’s gonna hurt like hell in the morning. Where are we going? I told your mates I’d be back in a minute.” The cabbie must have heard because he turned on the intercom and spoke. “Back to the restaurant, sir. Something about unfinished business with your girlfriend.” “Oh, yes,” said Stanley. “Thank you—” “Actually, I was talking to the other gentleman, the real Mr. Bradley.” Both of them turned to stare at the driver, who carried on talking. “Rather than explain, can I suggest you use this time to bring each other up to speed on what’s happened tonight? But when we reach the destination, only the real Mr. Bradley should depart.” “Hang on. How come—” Without waiting for a response, the driver switched off the comms and blacked out the partition windows between the driver’s compartment and the back of the cab. The two of them stared at each other for a moment before fake-Stanley began to speak. “You’re still me. So, I s’pose I’m still you?” Stanley nodded. “Then you’d better give me the low-down. What happened with Jan?” Stanley explained everything quickly; details of the project Janice had pitched for, his faux-pas about his grandfather’s national service in Penang, how he and Emilia shared a love of Earthsea, and the dish of Char Koay Teow he had ordered specially from the chef. Stanley reminded him that he still had his number if needed. Finally, they reached a lamppost outside the restaurant, and fake-Stanley took a deep breath before putting his hand on the door handle, opening the door, and stepping down onto the pavement. “Don,” said Stanley, as he followed him out of the cab. “Yeah.” “All the best,” said Stanley, standing awkwardly. “This has been—interesting.” “Can say that again, buddy.” “The engagement ring’s in your inside jacket pocket. Janice is an absolute gem. You’re a very lucky man. And, more importantly, she adores you. Don’t mess this up, okay? I’ve got a very strong feeling that you might be on a promise tonight.” “Permission to engage the enemy, Sergeant?” “You are such a nerd,” said Stanley, chuckling and holding out his hand for a handshake. Fake-Stanley stopped and looked at the outstretched hand. A mischievous grin lit up his face as he placed his hands on his hips. “And you need to go back and talk to Rory,” said fake-Stanley. He had been thinking about heading back, but to speak to Rupert. “You never know, you might be on a promise, too.” Ignoring the outstretched hand, Fake-Stanley smiled broadly and held out his good fist. Stanley grinned back, rolled his eyes, but brought his hand up to join in with the fist bump. Above them, the lamppost light fizzled, then flickered off and on. And Stanley found himself looking in the opposite direction. Not only that, but he stared back at the unmistakable face of Don Bradley, his fist still connected to a much larger one. At the same moment, Don had seen the same thing because his mix of shock and relief was evident. “Sorry, sir,” came the voice of the cabbie. “Need to rush you. Got another job coming through.” Stanley climbed into the cab and slammed the door shut, watching Don Bradley’s impressive form head into the restaurant. “Ouch,” said Stanley, as the cab moved off with a jolt, when he looked down to see his hand wrapped in a blood-stained handkerchief. “That hurts.” He sat back in the seat and watched the world go by, noticing with overwhelming relief the reflection of plain old Stanley Cheung staring back at him. But he grinned to see a scratch on his cheek and the skin-tight black silk shirt Don Bradley had picked out. Never had he been so pleased to look at his reflection. Another memory flashed back from the night before, of being in the back of this same cab, sharing with another passenger, a very drunk Don Bradley. “Who are PROM Cabs?” he asked the cabbie. “Thought you might ask,” said the cheerful driver, through the now transparent glass screen, his bulky back to Stanley. “We look after the London circuit. After business hours. But as you’ve probably guessed by now, we’re more than just a cab service. Truth is everybody stuffs up. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, and occasionally irreversibly. Some of those last ones often come up to the city to drown their sorrows, or worse. Our job is to keep an eye on the worthy ones, ensure they get home safely, but also to provide a timely intervention to put right one mistake. Put. Right. One. Mistake. PROM. Get it?” “I didn’t make a mistake.” “Didn’t you? Are you sure? You certainly helped to fix one tonight, though, didn’t you? You’re a good person, Stanley Cheung.” “I’m not sure about that.” “And this is somewhat unusual,” continued the driver, “but I’ve been sanctioned to offer you one final gift. This is not a service we offer everyone, but something the bosses upstairs approved. You get to glimpse two versions of a future Stanley Cheung based on the life choices you decide to make, starting from tonight. One through the right window, and one through the left. I can’t tell you what to look for, or give you advice. But you only have one glance through each side, so think carefully about what you’re looking at. Whatever choice you make, you’ll need to live with, and exit through that door once we arrive at your destination. Will you accept the gift?” Would he? Stanley wasn’t sure. Would he want to know how he turns out in the future or leave things to destiny? Maybe a quick glimpse couldn’t do any harm. “Sure, I’ll take a peek.” “Okay. Pick a side.” Stanley shuffled over and peered first through the left passenger window. Even though the taxi seemed to be moving at speed, the view remained static. Daylight flooded the square outside a bar just down from Lipstick. At first, he didn’t know what he was looking for, with people passing by on the pavement. But then he noticed a frighteningly older Stanley in a mess of casual clothes; a mustard yellow baseball cap on the table in front of him, dark glasses, grey sweatpants, and burgundy fleece—the kind of uncoordinated get-up Don Bradley might wear. He sat on a bench at a table in the sunshine, drinking wine and laughing with a much older Rory, who sat with his arm draped casually across Stanley’s shoulders. Sporting a sizeable gut, Rory had a pronounced double chin and was almost entirely bald on top. Cropped ginger hair lined his head around the sides, and his gingery-grey eyebrows sat above deep green eyes. Older Stanley still had a full head of hair, but unkempt and with streaks of grey throughout. He had also piled on a few pounds. At the shock of seeing his aged self, he backed away from the window with something bordering on disgust. Shuffling across to the other window, he saw himself with Rupert. Like the previous scene, Stanley sat next to him on a metal bench, but this time he sat beneath a sign for Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. Both had untainted jet-black hair, both immaculately dressed alike in black jeans crossed at the knees and black polo neck sweaters. Both were older—if the lines on their faces told a story—but neither had put on weight, both as lean as they had been when younger. Paulie would have called them GQ over-fifties, Asian hotties, or DiLFs even, and Stanley had to agree. They made an astonishingly handsome and charismatic couple. But as he began to smile at the scene, something struck him. Neither of the pair appeared happy. They were not sitting close together, a space of at least six inches between them. Rupert’s gaze had drifted off somewhere to the right, his usual air of carefully cultured boredom evident, of constantly seeking out something better. Older Stanley stared at the ground, lost in thought, but raised his gaze to Stanley’s. And at that precise moment, present-day Stanley met his older version’s eyes and hiked in a breath. He knew that look well. The expression reflected profound sadness, of opportunities missed, and of stoically putting up with the lot he had been given. Older Stanley looked as though he had forgotten how to live and love and laugh. “Where shall I drop you? Tube Station?” Stanley threw himself back in the seat, turned to the left window, and then to the right. Eventually, his gaze travelled to the cabbie’s silhouetted form in the front seat. “Don’t suppose there’s anything through the back window?” A soft chuckle came from the cabbie. “Sorry, guv. No.” “In which case, take me back to Gates Cross Square, please driver. Back to Lipstick.” He looked up into the driver’s mirror and saw the cabbie’s dark glasses staring back, a grin on his face and a barely discernible nod of the head. “Right you are, governor. Right you are.” * * *
  2. Anthology Pot Luck Theme: Turn Back Time British born Chinese gay man Stanley Cheung wakes with somebody else's hangover. Not only that, but he is laid out on someone’s couch in a grungy student digs where a strange woman is telling him he smells like a brewery. The thing is Stanley rarely drinks. When the woman finally leaves, he finds out that not only has he woken as six-foot-three, ripped, blond-haired, straight Caucasian Don Bradley, but today is not Friday. It’s Thursday. Again. He is reliving the same day but this time as somebody else.
  3. Thank you for posting a link to my old story, @Renee Stevens Looking forward to reading the next round of stories.
  4. Thanks for the clarification, Renee (and @Valkyrie). I thought I might have missed another update.
  5. When are the Spring Anthology entries being published?
  6. Great post. I value the feedback I receive from readers on GA. Quite often the freely given comments (@Myrplease don’t force comments) and guesses from readers at how the plot will develop, helps me to keep a story fresh. Honestly, without feedback, and especially without comments however short and succinct, I would stop posting stories here. What other benefit is there for a writer? But giving feedback effectively is an art. As an writer, I am putting my heart on the line every time I post or publish a story. If I am being given feedback on GA, particularly constructive feedback, it should be considered and sensitively delivered with the aim of helping an author to improve the story. It should not be an opportunity for a reader to climb on their soapbox, to vent to other readers about their personal beliefs or opinions. When published, we have to suffer enough fools commenting on our stories, but at least they have paid. As writers we can also help ourselves by soliciting feedback. I always leave a footnote on my stories with something like “Thank you for reading. What do you think will happen next? Please let me know what you thought of this chapter by leaving a comment, or at the very least, a reaction, and any suggestions you may have for improvement.” A fellow member also suggested leaving a message about PM-ing (private messaging) the author if they find any glaring mistakes or silly typos, to save us embarrassment. I do agree with @Zuri comments about the thumbs up symbol but I dislike even more the introduction of the tick/check symbol. Why was that introduced? Are we giving readers who don’t want to leave reactions or comments a marker so they know which chapters of our work they have read? I would rather have the angry symbol each time than the tick/check.
  7. Just finished mine. Needs redrafting in places, approved by my editor, then I'll submit.
  8. Wow, thank you, Renee. I am honoured. This short story had been sitting around for years, so I was grateful to have the reason to dust it off, and delighted that it sat in a group of such excellent stories by GA authors. The anthology feature is a great way for writers to put up their stories. If you have something you want to showcase, then this is the perfect platform.
  9. lomax61

    Chapter 25

    Sunday morning, Spencer stood outside the Bermondsey apartment in a plain white towelling robe over his tee and pyjama bottoms. Overlooking the Thames, someone had adorned the apartment’s concrete terrace with lush evergreen plants and bushes in China blue and white pots, and terracotta plant holders, not unlike Muriel Moresby’s penthouse apartment. Spencer cradled a mug of steaming coffee against his chest, watching a barge inch down the Thames. Tiger sat stock still beside him, watching vigilantly as birds chirped excitedly in the naked branches of a tree across the way. Behind him, a door slid open and shut. “Bit fresh to be out, isn’t it?” said Marshall, coming to stand beside him and putting a warm and comforting arm around his shoulders. Spencer noticed he had a matching towelling robe on, with a folded newspaper stuffed into one pocket. “Aren’t you cold?” “Her royal highness wanted to come out and do her business. And then forgot all about it when she spotted the party going on in the tree over there.” Built on a lower floor, the apartment looked directly onto treetops lining the river walkway. Marshall had told him they were cherry trees and would blossom spectacularly in spring. Something else on his long list of things to look forward to in the new year. “She does love the terrace, doesn’t she?” “Of course, she does. We both do. Her, because she’s finally got some open space.” “And you?” “Because it’s not too far from the ground. In case you ever feel the urge to step over the railing.” “Arse,” said Marshall, pushing his nose into Spencer’s ear and nipping the lobe. The moment he had walked over the threshold, Spencer had fallen in love with the flat, which felt far more like a home than Marshall’s South Kensington space. All of the furnishings had been chosen for comfort not style, the cosy tan sectional settee with a place for two to lie next to each other while watching the television, giant cream cushions that could be used on the shag pile carpet, to sit upon. Once the authorities had lifted restrictions, he couldn’t wait to get friends over for dinner and drinks. In the days leading up to the New Year, when Marshall wasn’t rushing into the studio to put the finishing touches to their Kryszytonia documentary, they had moved in together, with Spencer informing his landlord that he could have the flat back early to begin refurbishing. “When you’re finished, your ladyship,” said Marshall, tilting his head down at Tiger. “I have some new gourmet canned food for you to try out.” Almost on cue, Tiger blinked up at Marshall, and Spencer could almost believe she smiled at him before she moved over and sat between her new master’s slippers. “You’re spoiling her.” Marshall crouched down and scratched her head, a manoeuvre he knew she would love. The two of them had bonded well, Tiger loving having the run of the apartment and, of course, the terrace. “It’s a New Year’s treat. Anyway, I have to make sure she’s on my side, if I want to keep her owner happy.” “You really don’t need to worry, you know. Both of us couldn’t be happier. I absolutely love this place. Apart from the sex-on-demand, it’s much bigger than my old gaff, has amazing views, modern kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, and, to top it all, is incredibly convenient. I can’t believe we did the journey to my new office in less than thirty minutes yesterday.” “Over the weekend, too,” added Marshall. “When the service is probably limited. How are you feeling about tomorrow? Nervous at all?” Having sorted the apartment out during the week—Spencer had brought mainly clothes and Tiger’s things—they had Saturday free, so Marshall suggested they do a trial run using public transport ready for Monday, Spencer’s first day on the new job. On their way back, they had shopped in a supermarket together, a simple domestic chore that had Spencer’s heart bursting with pride. They were officially a couple. “Not so much nervous, more excited.” “You’re going to be just fine. And, by the way, I’ve got an online meeting with the publisher tomorrow. Are you going to need to clear your involvement with Ed?” “I’ll talk to him tomorrow. But I can’t see it being an issue.” Rather than ghostwrite Marshall’s autobiography, Spencer had suggested they write the book together, as co-authors. Marshall had taken some persuading, citing his busy work schedule, but Spencer had convinced him with the image of them both holding the finished hardback in their hands with both named as authors. In the end, Marshall agreed that this did indeed feel like the right solution. “Have you thought any more about the elements you want in the book? Key events that shaped your life and career? It’s important to focus on exceptional things and anecdotes that are going to grab the attention of the reader, but in your line of work I’d expect there to be lots.” “What sort of things did you have in mind?” “Oh, you know? Special moments. Like having a drug lord put out a hit on you because they didn’t like the interview you’d done with them.” Peripherally, Spencer noticed Marshall turn to him. “You know about that?” “Is it true, then? Joey said something that day I bumped into him at the bar, but I wrote the comment off as his usual brand of bullshit.” “No. I interviewed Roberto Fiorelli back in 2018 and backed him into a corner. Not the smartest man on the planet, and not the first person I ever pissed off on screen. He did indeed threaten to end me himself. We had a roomful of witnesses, but I took it all as bluster.” “You weren’t worried?” “Not unduly. Wouldn’t be the first time somebody got pissed off at me because I made them out to be some kind of pond dweller. Besides, six months after the interview aired, they had a family disagreement. Fiorelli’s brother-in-law decided he could run the outfit better, went into a restaurant in downtown Boston with his gang of three for a confrontation. Only the restaurant staff walked out alive.” “That is definitely going into the book.” Marshall chuckled, and they fell into a comfortable silence for a few moments. “By the way, have you read the paper this morning?” asked Marshall. “Only the front cover. But we’ve got all day.” Even in the coldness of the morning, just saying the words aloud filled Spencer with warmth. After a leisurely breakfast, he planned on taking Marshall back to bed. Maybe later, he would finish the Sunday newspapers, or perhaps he could persuade Marshall to read aloud to him, a new and surprisingly effective form of foreplay. “Thought you might be interested to see this.” Marshall pulled the newspaper out of his pocket and handed Spencer what looked to be a full-page advert. “I don’t have my glasses—” “Here they are.” Marshall pulled them out of the same pocket and placed them on Spencer’s nose. When he focused on the top of the page, he screwed up his nose. “Positions Vacant? Why would I be interested in— Oh, I see.” The full-page advertisement was for the award-winning Blackmore Magazine Group and contained no fewer than eight positions vacant. Spencer skimmed them briefly, seeing his and Bev’s former roles advertised, before noting the contact person listed at the bottom of the page. Madeleine Morrison from The Peerpoint Consultancy. “I meant to tell you,” said Spencer, handing the paper back. “Blake sent me an email overnight. Probably from his hospital bed. Asked if I would consider coming back to Blackmore, to officially take over Clarissa’s role, if the pay and incentives were right. I declined immediately. I want nothing more to do with their family.” “I would have been unhappy if you’d even considered the idea. You’ve made a good career move, Spence.” “Yes, I know. But I kind of feel sorry for Blake. I think he can see the writing on the wall, and he’s getting desperate. I’d bet you money he contacted Bev and Prince, too.” “Who would also have said no, if they have any sense. Don’t waste your time feeling sorry for bad management, Spence. From everything you’ve told me, Muriel Moresby knew exactly what she was doing but has the emotional quotient of a grinch. I’ve seen the same thing time and time again, bad business owners treating good staff appallingly, and then blaming everyone but themselves when things go belly up.” “Wow. Harsh, Marsh.” “That’s because I know what you’ve been through, Spence. I love what you told her about burning bridges. But now is not the time for looking back. My mother has a mantra for whenever she’s been brave enough to get herself out of something bad. Accept. Expel. Move on. Accept what has happened. Expel any negative emotions the memory still evokes. And finally, move on with your life.” “Accept. Expel. Move on.” “Exactly.” Spencer ran the words over and over in his head. After a while, he turned to Marshall. “You know, I’m surprised Blake didn’t get Muriel to phone you, get you to try and sway me. Now she knows you and I are an item. And after you agreed to the client event interview.” “That’s never going to happen, I’m afraid.” “You’ve spoken to her?” “I don’t need to. But once you see the final cut of my interview with her and Lord Moresby, you’ll understand why. A number of my additional questions made her extremely uncomfortable—although his lordship was a good sport. Anyway, I know for a fact she contacted my producer to demand that some of them not be used. Fortunately, she signed a waiver, meaning we can air whatever we want. And we’re using everything. So, no, she won’t be calling me anytime soon.” Spencer slipped his arm around Marshall’s waist. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.” Marshall draped his arm back across Spencer’s shoulders and kissed his temple. “Never going to happen.” “You know, I do have Muriel to thank for something,” said Spencer, after a few moments. “Whatever could that be?” “You. Unknowingly, she brought us together. At that charity event in her penthouse flat back in October. If it hadn’t been for that, we might never have met.” “Was it only October?” “I know, right?” Right then, Spencer’s tummy rumbled, and they both laughed. “Come on, let’s get you some breakfast. And then we need to shower and I need to have a conference call with Darcy. I know it’s Sunday, but she’s insisting. So I’d like you to join, if that’s okay? If you’re there, she might keep it short and snappy.” “Of course. What’s it about?” “It’s Darcy, Spence. Who the hell knows?” Marshall and Spencer had already talked about divvying up chores around the place, with Spencer opting for the general household tasks of vacuuming, cleaning and making the bed. At the same time, Marshall confined himself to the run of the kitchen. The arrangement suited Spencer completely, and he only baulked a little at Marshall’s insistence at continuing to have a cleaning person to come in one day a week. While they were both at work, somebody reliable his mother had used for more than six years would go in, someone who was also a cat lover. They had only just finished their breakfast of hot oatmeal, fresh fruit and honey—with the obligatory mugs of fresh coffee—when Darcy’s call came through. Marshall had already rigged up the large flatscreen on the kitchen wall so they could take the meeting without getting up from the kitchen island. The moment Marshall accepted the call, a fullscreen version of Darcy appeared, her hair pinned up hastily on her head, no makeup, and wearing what appeared to be a Chinese silk dressing gown in scarlet with small golden dragons around the mandarin collar. “Good morning, lovebirds,” she said grinning and then sipping from a mug. “Morning Darcy,” they spoke in unison. “Is this going to take long? We’ve got some urgent things needing taken care of this morning.” asked Marshall, as Spencer felt a warm hand land on his upper thigh beneath the table. “Don’t worry, I won’t keep you long. Got some interesting updates for you.” First, Darcy talked about the book, their online meeting with the publisher and what to expect. He loved the way she worked, telling Marshall she would kick off proceedings, and instructing him to steer away from any hint of money topics; advances or percentage royalties. She would take care of all that. Eventually, she got onto the Kryszytonia documentary and the post-production progress. Spencer knew President Karimov had called Marshall the week before mainly as a social call. But Marshall had used the opportunity to ask him some follow-up questions about what had happened since the assassination attempt, his presidency plans, and get permission from his advisors to use his answers in his documentary. “They’ve come up with the working title. Kryszytonia: Rise of the Squirrel and the Phoenix. The squirrel relates to President Tobias Karimov and the phoenix represents the country, rising from the ashes of the past. As I say, it’s a working title, so if you have any other suggestions, let Kerry-Anne, know.” They went on to talk about the difficulty of getting everything into the forty-minute time slot. Colm had shot a wealth of extra material when he searched the rubble for Marshall, and while this was unique footage, they needed to provide a balance to add weight to the documentary. “Now the big news. Although the producers still want a couple of tweaks made next week, the documentary will have a special screening at the end of January. There’s a lot of excited buzz in the industry, Marshall, because your team was the only one there to record the historic event as a documentary. Please don’t get your hopes up yet, but it’s likely your little gem will be picked up for a number of best documentary award nominations, including the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary and the Academy Award Best Documentary Feature. We’re not sure what format each of the ceremonies will take, but they’ll expect us all to be available. Hope you’ve got a tuxedo, Spence. I want you looking your scrubbed-up best that night. And if Marshall wins anything, I expect no less than you planting a full on kiss on his lips. Are we all on the same page?” “We are, Darcy,” said Spencer, laughing along with Marshall. “And you don’t have to worry. If he wins anything, I’ll be all over him like a lap dancer.” “Okay, I’ll love you and leave you,” said Darcy. “I’m sure you’ve got better things to do. It’s going to be a good year, boys. I can feel it in my blood.” Darcy ended the call, and Spencer sighed before turning to Marshall. “It already is a good year,” he said, moving Marshall’s hand further up his thigh. “Oh yeah?” said Marshall, his voice becoming deep and gruff. “Oh yeah. Want me to show you how good?” “Lead the way.” >>>>>> THE END ~ OF THE BEGINNING <<<<<<
  10. lomax61

    Chapter 24

    Having lived together since Marshall’s return, creating their own support bubble, Spencer’s mother made a few phone calls and confirmed that Spencer and the friend he now lived with—together with Tiger who was now installed in South Kensington—could join them for Christmas. Once again, Spencer was grateful that his mother had been an NHS nurse, someone who knew the right people to contact to clarify the complex and ever-changing rules. On Christmas Eve, they drove to Bournemouth, relieved to be out of the confines of the London flat, speeding south down the almost empty motorway. Marshall appeared in his element driving, and Spencer didn’t even offer to share the burden, because he knew Marshall would refuse. Spencer used the GPS on his phone in the passenger seat to guide Marshall to his parents’ road. “You cannot be serious?” said Marshall, leaning forward, mouth dropping open. Marshall slowed his BMW to a crawl as they approached the spectacle. Next to him, Spencer had been pointing out his parent’s bungalow. Not that he needed to bother. “In all fairness, my brother did warn me,” said Spencer. “I just didn’t imagine…” Who could have? Garrett—bored to tears at home—had phoned him the day before about their father, usually the more conservative of his parents where the festive season was concerned, going all-out this year to brighten up the interior and especially the exterior of their pink-fronted bungalow. In a fit of seasonal madness, according to Garrett, their father had decided to ‘put a bit more effort in this year’ as a trial run before the arrival of his grandchild. Nobody could have expected the result. Giant red and white striped candy canes decorating the pink facade, fake snow covering the whole front roof. In the front garden, a full-sized smiling snowman and laughing Father Christmas stood side-by-side next to a sledge and a fifteen-plus foot decorated Christmas tree, with huge colourful foil-wrapped presents beneath. Every surface and window frame had been illuminated in various arrangements of Christmas lights, banishing any hope of a good night’s sleep. And those were only the big-ticket items. Little touches here and there came to life as they approached. Snow White on the roof, directing the seven dwarfs, all in colourful outfits with sacks on their backs climbing the drainpipes. A row of miniature reindeers standing next to the chimney stack, one with its nose replaced by an illuminated red bulb. Mickey and Minnie sitting together on the guttering, arms around each other. Too much, Spencer thought, when he initially saw the display. Except the end effect did not come across as tacky at all but perfectly befitted the fairytale aura of the bungalow facade. Context, thought Spencer, everything in context. Even as they parked up outside, a young family of four had stopped by the front gate, pointing with delight, as they spotted one detail after another. “That’s one way to get the neighbours’ attention,” chuckled Marshall, and Spencer stilled. Maybe Marshall had been joking, but this kind of stunt was bound to get people nearby talking and, at some point in time, coming over to meet the neighbours they had previously snubbed. Was that his father’s intent? Spencer wouldn’t put it past him, probably with the idea of vetting potential babysitters. He got out first and collected his luggage and the cat carrier from the back seat, before waiting by the front gate for Marshall to lock up, manage his carryall and the large bag of gifts. They wound their way up the garden path where a giant Christmas wreath the size of a ship’s wheel hung on the front door. Spencer had keys, but he wanted to surprise his mother, so pushed the doorbell a couple of times, and stood to one side. Except his mother wasn’t the one to answer. “Fuck me!” said Garrett, on crutches, gaping like a guppy at seeing Marshall on his doorstep. “From what Spencer tells me, I’m not sure I’m your type,” said Marshall, smirking and going to hold out his hand but stopping. “And I would shake your hand, if you didn’t already have them full. You must be Garrett.” Garrett leaned a shoulder against the door frame to steady his balance and took Marshall’s hand while looking over Marshall’s shoulder and pulling a face at Spencer. “You sneaky little bastard. You could have said something.” “And spoil the fun? Don’t worry, I’ve warned him about mum’s cooking.” “Then he’s going to be disappointed. Peony’s giving mum a hand this year. And by a hand, I mean she’s taken over cooking, using mum as her sous-chef. You should see the two of them. I didn’t tell you this, but Peony trained as a chef straight from school. So she knows her way around a kitchen.” “Bang goes another Wyrrell family tradition. Sorry Marsh, looks like we’re not going to need that wholesale family bumper pack of Tums after all.” “Mum,” Garrett shouted out at the top of his voice, and for a moment, Spencer thought his brother was going to snitch on him. “Your presence is required. For the arrival of your second favourite son. With his plus one.” “Don’t shout, Garrett, dear,” said Spencer’s mother, already entering the hallway, wiping her hands on a tea towel. Before noticing anyone else, she pulled Spencer into a customary hug. “Hello, love. My soon-to-be-famous reporter for the Daily Herald. Oh, and you brought the cat for Garrett. Good boy. Glad you could make it. And who else did you bring us? Oh, hello, dear— My goodness. Has anyone ever told you, you are the absolute spitting image of— “Tom Holland?” said Marshall, making Spencer burst into laughter. “Yes, I get that all the time.” “Who’s Tom Holland?” said his mother, puzzled. “I was going to say—” “Mum, this is Marshall. Marshall Highlander. My boyfriend.” “He’s Marshall? The Marshall? Marshall Highlander?” said his poor mother, completely confused. And then to Marshall. “And you’re dating my son?” “As long as I have your approval, Mrs Wyrrell.” “Please. Call me Coleen. And believe me, if you knew anything about my sons, you’d know neither of them ever seek my approval to do anything. Welcome to the family home. Come and meet the rest of inmates.” Spencer felt a distinct sense of pleasure watching the surprised looks on the faces of his father and Peony, but even more at how quickly everything returned to normal. His mother had already let Tiger out. She had gone straight to Marshall, brushed herself up against his leg, before heading over and swiping a paw at the bottom of one of Garret’s crutches. While his mother went to prepare hot drinks for everyone, his father dragged out a newspaper and was asking Marshall about the bombing in Kryszytonia. Spencer took the opportunity to catch up with Peony. Only as he walked around the counter to hug her, did he notice her very noticeable bump. Instead of the usual heavy-duty Wyrrell hug, he kissed her politely and gently on each cheek—until she pulled him into a fierce hug that squeezed the breath out of him. “See?” she whispered into his ear. “I told you one day you’d surprise the lot of us. Just didn’t realise it would be so soon. He is an absolute dreamboat.” “He is,” said Spencer, looking around and grinning at Marshall talking seriously to Garrett and his father. “I really lucked out there.” “I bet he says the same thing about you.” He turned back and smiled happily at her before his gaze dropped to her belly again. “Enough about me. How are you doing? Tell me all about the joys of pregnancy.” “Don’t. Twenty-three weeks and I look like a sumo, with huge boobs to match and swollen ankles, and I’m tired all the time. Insult to injury, I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Marmite and sugar sandwiches. Usually I hate the stuff, but for some reason it’s become my go-to craving. On the plus side, your mother has been an absolute saint. She seems to know how I’m feeling almost before I do.” “Do we know the gender yet? Or are you going to be modern and opt for a non-gender-specific baby?” While he was talking, the oven beeped. She opened to door and was about to bring out a tray of what looked like biscuits, but Spencer stepped in to help, placing them on the counter next to another two trays. “Very funny. We had the ultrasound a couple of weeks ago, but Garrett wanted to tell you all tonight. So I’ll save the news for the proud dad-to-be.” “And can I assume his motorcycling days are over?” “You know, Spence, I am not going to tell him what to do. But I get a sense the accident woke him up a bit, especially with the little one on the way. Maybe he’ll start up again in a few years, who knows? But did you notice your dad’s bike is no longer there? He sold it to a friend for cash a few days after the accident. She won’t tell you directly, but your mum’s beyond relieved.” “And can I say for the record, I’m a little relieved myself to hear you’re helping with the cooking this year.” Peony rolled her eyes. “Let me guess? Garrett told you I was a trained chef?” “Aren’t you?” “I worked in a gastro pub straight from college while I pondered what I wanted to do with my life. They sent me on a couple of cooking courses where I learnt the basics. The way he tells it, I was the top chef at the Ritz. And you men are totally unfair about your mum’s cooking.” “Well, the way I see it, with the two of you on the case, things will be brilliant. What’s with all the biscuits?” “Cookies. Better ask your mum.” At that moment, Spencer’s mum brought him a cup of coffee and a mug of something smelling of mint for Peony. Once she checked everyone had a drink, she clapped her hands together, to get their attention. “Right everyone. Peony and I have been making Christmas cookies all afternoon, so you’re going to be helping decorate them before we sit down for dinner. You too, Marshall.” “Christmas cookies? Is this some kind of cultural exchange programme you’re involved in that I know nothing about? Since when did we become American?” asked Spencer. “Since Dad constructed a mini replica of Christmas Disneyland in our front garden,” said Garrett. “What did you think, son?” asked his father, looking over at Spencer. “He thinks you have too much time on your hands,” said Garrett. “Let your brother speak, Garrett,” said their father. Spencer laughed and shook his head at Marshall, who was also laughing. “I think it looks amazing.” “Anyway, eyes back to me. There are tubes of icing in lots of different colours, sugar sprinkles, and hundreds and thousands—even little slices of dried fruit. A few of the neighbours are coming over on Boxing Day, only to the front gate. I already have the schedule. I’m going to give them a gift bag of cookies and hot chocolate.” “Recruiting babysitters, Mum?” asked Spencer after raising his eyebrows to Marshall. “I don’t know what you mean. We’re just being neighbourly. And as we can’t attend midnight mass because of all the restrictions, I though this might be a nice diversion.” By the time they had finished decorating—a pretty good job, if Spencer did say so himself—Peony and his mother had laid the table for a simple dinner of fish pie with a crunchy mash topping and steamed veggies. His mother had even set aside a small bowl for Tiger, who had made a new friend in Peony. While they served up the food, Spencer’s father opened a couple of bottles of wine he had been saving up, discussing grapes and different types of wine with Marshall. Spencer had no idea whether Marshall knew about wine, but whenever he looked over, his man seemed to be doing just fine. “Are you sure you won’t have a glass, Peony?” asked Spencer’s mother. “Just one can’t do any harm. I had red wine every now and then when I was carrying Spencer.” “That explains a lot,” said Garrett, which made Marshall laugh. “I’m fine, Mum,” said Peony. “Thanks, anyway.” “Mum?” Spencer mouthed to his mother. “Yes, dear. I asked Peony to call me Mum. She’s the daughter I was never blessed with. But if you do decide to marry my son, Marshall, I’d prefer you to keep calling me Coleen. Are you going to be here on Boxing Day?” Either Marshall didn’t hear or recovered quickly from the marriage remark, Spencer couldn’t tell. “We’ll be here,” said Marshall. “But we’ll need to leave the day after. I have a couple of conference calls I need to take from home. But we’ll be here all day Boxing Day, if that’s okay?” “Excellent. The neighbours are coming over after lunch. I’ll need you front and centre, Marshall. Can’t wait to see their faces when they realise we have a celebrity in the family, when they see what they’ve been missing all this time.” “If Peony’s calling our mother, Mum,” asked Spencer to Garrett, in an attempt to save Marshall any more embarrassment. “Does that mean you two are getting hitched? To make the endearment official?” “That’s always been the plan. But with the way things are at the moment, it might be a simple affair,” said Garrett. “Before our daughter arrives.” “Quite right, too—” began Spencer’s mum, before her gaze swung to Garrett. “Wait. What?” “You’re going to have a granddaughter, Mum and Dad,” said Garrett beaming. “You’re having a little girl?” said Spencer’s mother, to Peony, her eyes starting to well up. “I was sworn to secrecy,” said Peony, smiling fondly at Spencer’s mum while stroking her tummy. “Garrett wanted to be the one to tell you when we were all together.” The rest of the evening was spent chatting and drinking, with the television left switched off. Even after Spencer loaded their presents beneath the Christmas tree, and after Tiger had a good rummage around, they agreed to stick to the British tradition of opening gifts on Christmas morning. Well before midnight, Spencer and Marshall snuggled together in the double bed in his bedroom. Both were a little drunk and, because of the restricted space in the bed and the noisy old bed frame, had decided against fooling around. “Nice place. Although the walls are a bit thin. I think I can hear your father snoring.” “That’s Mum.” Marshall’s rumbled laughter vibrated along Spencer’s spine. “Your family’s lovely.” “We’re all mad. The lot of us. You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into.” “Whatever it is, I’m more than happy to be here.” Spencer melted inside to hear Marshall’s words. Turning his head, he kissed Marshall gently on the lips. “And I’m happy to have you here,” he said softly. “They absolutely love you, Marsh. And I’m not just saying that. Dad gave me a hug across the shoulders earlier when we were picking out wine, which he never does unless he’s really impressed with me about something.” “My father used to throw money at me so he didn’t have to hug me or verbalise his approval. I’m not sure we even shared a joke. Christmas wasn’t a fun time in our house, so it’s not a tradition I ever looked forward to.” “Well, you have a new family now, and a new tradition.” Marshall sighed deeply and squeezed his arms around Spencer. “I know it’s been a dreadful year for a lot of people, but I consider myself one of the lucky ones—” “If you’re about to say you’re lucky because you met me, then you need to change that to ‘we’. We’re the lucky ones, because we found each other. And I know we’re not out of the woods yet, Marsh, but I can’t help this amazing feeling of optimism as we head to the new year.” “No wonder. New job, new apartment. New members joining the family—” “Oh, you heard that, did you? About us getting married. I do apologise. Sometimes my mother jumps the gun and speaks before she thinks—” “Actually, I was talking about Peony and your little niece who’s about to arrive. Although, yes, I did catch your mother’s mention of us marrying. And just so you know, Spence, I would love nothing more. But how about we live together first, and then see how things go? I would hate to disappoint you.” “Marsh, you could never disappoint me. I love you, remember?” “I—yes, I remember. God, now I feel like an ungrateful prick and a complete moron.” “Hey, don’t call my boyfriend a moron. He’s a pragmatist.” “Pragmatist? Yes, I suppose I am. Not particularly romantic, though, is it?” Spencer turned over and faced Marshall. “Marsh. I’m absolutely fine waiting. You’re in my life now, and I’m in yours. We’re going to be living together next year, which is an enormous step by anyone’s standards. My parents paint a really rosey picture of marriage, but I know things weren’t so wonderful for yours. So let’s take our time. I’m in no hurry, because I know I’ll win you over in the end. After all, I’ve got Darcy on my side.” “I see. In which case, I might as well surrender now.” *** Throughout Christmas Day, Spencer kept checking to see if Marshall needed saving from any of his family, but he seemed to wallow in the attention. As the men—except Garrett, who sat with his leg up, directing from the sofa—laid the table for lunch, Spencer noticed how Marshall had started to adopt his clever questioning. Layer by layer, he found out more about Garrett’s company and his future plans, while inquiring about his father’s lengthy experience in the force, and what he thought about recent developments. Neither of them cottoned on, but Peony and his mother caught Spencer’s eye a couple of time and both of them smiled. One of his mother’s many generalisations was about men and their love of talking about themselves. Understandable, in her case, because Garrett and her husband appeared to prove the rule. As he stood back from the table, waiting for his mother to give her final approval, Spencer’s phone rang. They had already done a round of calls in the morning over breakfast, straight after opening presents, but this particular person—never an early riser—hadn’t answered. Immediately, he put Bev on speaker. “Merry Christmas, Squirrel. To you, Colin, Coleen and Garrett. Oh, and Tiger,” she said, and the family all echoed her greeting. “Prince and his family are here with me. Sorry we missed your call this morning, but we had a bit of a late night. Is Marshall there?” “He is,” said Marshall. “And are you behaving yourself?” “So far.” “And what did you buy my bestie?” “I owed him a two-foot-tall soft toy Squirrel,” said Marshall. “So I managed to get one sent over in time. It’s back in London.” Marshall had surprised him with the present before they had set off, rather than lugging the toy all the way to Bournemouth. Christmas morning, because the family had no idea who he was bringing, they had arranged plain, generic presents for Marshall of men’s toiletries and festive socks. The simple gesture had genuinely moved Marshall. Spencer had bought him a fitness watch—because they had both vowed to get fit in the New Year—and a card with a voucher that had the words ‘good for one autobiography ghostwriter, should the recipient ever need one.’ The latter had been a joke, until Marshall looked up shocked and asked how Spencer knew a publisher had only just approached him. “And he also bought me a new phone,” added Spencer. “Because just after the New Year, we’re moving into his Bermondsey pad which is supposed to have twenty-four-seven WiFi.” “You’re doing what?” asked his mother, frozen over a pot of something steaming. “Uh—something I’ve yet to tell my parents,” said Spencer, causing Prince’s family to laugh out loud. “What with starting the new job,” said Marshall. “And having to hand back his flat, and noting his not-so-healthy eating habits, I thought it might be for the best.” Marshall spoke aloud but made sure he meant the words for Spencer’s mother, who smiled and nodded. “Well,” said Bev. “I’m looking forward to my invite to the house warming. In the meantime, I suppose you’ve heard about Blake?” Spencer looked to Marshall, who shrugged. “No. What’s happened now?” “He tested positive for COVID-19 this Christmas. Apparently, they admitted him to the Royal London Hospital on Christmas Eve. From what I hear, though, his symptoms are mild, but they have to be cautious and monitor him for at least a fortnight. Muriel’s furious. Blake was supposed to be stepping in to look after the office over the Christmas holidays, while she took a few days to recover. She’s been running around the office like a headless chicken since the recent spate of resignations.” “Who else has resigned?” “Apart from you, me, and Prince, you mean?” “You’ve both resigned?” “The virtual events company offered us a job. Appears they were really impressed with how we managed our end of the Blackmore event, and asked if we’d consider coming on board. Sweet deal, too, and we’re going to be working with a great bunch of young people.” “Muriel must be pulling her hair out.” “Alice said when she heard, she threatened to throw herself out of her office window.” “I wouldn’t worry, Bev,” said Spencer, winking at Marshall. “As usual with Muriel, it’s an empty threat. Yes, Blackmore is on the eighteenth floor, but not only are the windows of her office made from reinforced glass, none of them open.” This time the laughter came from both ends of the call. “Anyway, Wyrrells and guests. We just wanted to phone and wish you all a wonderful Christmas.” “Same to you all. And a very Happy New Year.”
  11. lomax61

    Chapter 23

    Spencer sat stiffly next to the entrance on the very last polished bench of the Chapel of Rest. Coming from where, he could not tell, but a distinctive almost cloying scent of lilies filled the air, outmatching the various expensively perfumed bodies seated around him. Numb inside, he stared unseeing at the backs of vaguely famous people either perched in front or moving slowly down the aisle towards the front. Life would go on. Christmas with his family would still go ahead. Once again, he would turn up alone. Garret would be on crutches, and the women would be fussing over him, to make sure he was happy and comfortable. Nothing had really changed. Except everything had. Joey slouched on the first pew next to an older man and woman, and a slightly older version of himself—probably Alex and their parents. Even seeing Blake seated next to Joey, laughing together at a shared joke, had not sparked even a flicker of emotion in him. He almost wished it had. Darcy sat upright and poised on the adjacent bench, next to a woman crying into a black handkerchief, her long red hair spilling down from beneath a black veil. Unable to see her face, he assumed her to be Marshall's mother. Darcy had insisted Spencer sit with them, but he told her he would have felt conspicuous, in the spotlight, and preferred to mourn privately from the back without being stared at or singled out. Even having Muriel and her husband in attendance had irked but not fazed him. On entering the chapel, she had looked over but purposely avoided his stern gaze. People needed others beside them during this challenging rite of passage, but Spencer wanted to get through alone. The important thing was to give friends and family some form of closure. And with that thought, he had to admit to feeling a little mystified and—if he was going to be honest—disappointed, not to see Bev and Prince somewhere in the crowd. On an easel set atop a raised dais near the coffin, stood an enormous portrait of Marshall. Spencer recognised the beautiful photograph from a men's fashion magazine cover, his face so familiar, so full of life and love and possibilities. Soft strains of George Michaels' Waiting For That Day played from the speakers, the irony of the lyrics almost undoing his barely held together composure. And a thought kept coming back to him, that he should have told Marshall not to go, should have insisted he stay home and be with Spencer, even though he knew Marshall would never have agreed. Despite sunlight spilling in through the frosted windows, and the chapel doors standing wide open, he found he could barely breathe. How could he have come so close to perfect happiness only to have everything ripped away from him? When the gentle hum of subdued chatter subsided, replaced by nervous giggles and a few soft gasps of astonishment, he looked up to see a lone bird, a chaffinch, had flown into the hall and performed a couple of circuitous routes before flying back out the main doors. Once again, murmured conversations started up, and Spencer squeezed his eyes shut. From somewhere outside, somebody oblivious to the sacred ceremony going on in the chapel, drilled and then hammered on wood—bzzzz, thump, thump, thump, bzzz, bzzz, thump thump. At first, although stoking his irritation, Spencer had tried to ignore the intrusion, had tried to calm his mind. Eventually, his temper rose, and he readied himself to slip outside and give the workmen a piece of his mind. Except he found he could not move, his body pinned to the pew, his head and shoulders weighed down by an invisible force. Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz. Through a sheer effort of will, he managed to wrench his eyes open and found himself gazing up at the ceiling of a darkened room. His bedroom. He gasped aloud. Fully clothed still, he lay on the top of his bed. This time he could have sworn the buzzing sound came from nearby, from somewhere in the room. Finally, he managed to raise his head, slip on his glasses, and squint at the clock next to the bed. Five past four in the morning. Gasping for breath, he sat up as his senses kicked in. Had someone been ringing his intercom, because the persistence seemed reminiscent of something Darcy would do? Clambering out of bed, he rushed to the intercom and pressed the button, but on the video display, the space directly outside his front door was empty. Had he missed the person? Or had the buzzing and banging been in his head or his dream? Either way, he needed to know. Quickly shrugging on his padded coat and carpet slippers, he clambered down the stairs and yanked open the front door. Turning a full one-eighty, he scanned the road. Empty and deserted. Four in the morning and not a creature stirred. He had been about to turn around and head back indoors when a sound caught his attention. "Spencer! Spence!" Was he dreaming still? Because the voice calling out sounded a lot like Marshall's. And then there he was, that familiar figure, tall and impossibly composed, unfolding beneath the streetlight from the driver's seat of a parked car that Spencer hadn't noticed. Wrapped warmly against the frosty morning, he strode towards Spencer while yanking off the black woollen hat and mask he wore. No crutches, both arms and legs working, no visible bandaging—all the terrible things Spencer had imagined, the worst being losing him forever—had not happened. Marshall was alive and well and whole and unharmed. Halfway there, the concerned expression on Marshall's face morphed into a broad smile. And by that one simple act, smiling that beautiful smile, Spencer came unglued. Stood inside the entrance, his legs gave way from under him, and he collapsed to his knees, his eyes flooding. He wanted to pray to any and every god that would hear him, to thank them for being there, for listening and answering. Only peripherally, through blurred vision, did he notice the figure begin hurrying towards him, to scoop him up and pull him into a fierce embrace he never wanted to end. Without conscious thought, he clung on for dear life, arms and legs wrapping around his lover, a death grip that nothing could ever shake. "I'm sorry, baby. I'm so sorry," came the warm voice. "My phone got wrecked and then it got too late—" From deep inside of Spencer, a sobbing started up, his body shaking uncontrollably. In response, Marshall tightened his grip around him. "I thought—thought I'd lost you. I had a nightmare—that I'd never see you again." "Hey, hey. I'm here now, baby." Spencer was crying unashamedly now, all the pent up emotions of the past day finding release. "And I never got the chance to tell you I love you. I love you so much, Marshall." Marshall chuckled at that and nuzzled his nose into Spencer's ear. "I know you do, Spence. I love you, too. Come on, let's get you upstairs. I think we both need a hot drink. And I have some explaining to do." Unsurprisingly, Tiger sat regally in the doorway at the top of the stairs, blocking the way. Marshall stepped carefully over her and carried Spencer into the flat. Once he had ushered Tiger in and used Spencer's back to close the door behind them, he kissed Spencer deeply, a long lingering kiss that finally soothed away the undercurrent of terror filling Spencer this whole time. On finding his feet, he led Marshall over to the couch and made him remove his jacket and sit, before heading to his kitchenette. Keeping himself busy felt necessary, and he started by filling and switching on the kettle. "Have you slept at all?" When he looked around, Tiger had already burrowed herself into Marshall's lap, pushing her head into his hand, purring loudly, demanding to be petted. Spencer could hardly blame her. Everyone missed him. "A little. On the plane. Someone laid on a private jet to fly us home." Spencer pulled out two mugs and measured out teaspoons of instant coffee. No fancy coffee machines in his flat, but Marshall knew that. "You must be exhausted." "Funnily enough I was, but not now. After I gave up ringing your buzzer, I was about to sleep in the car and wait until later when you might be awake. Darcy told me you were home. We really need to do something about this offline status of yours, Spence." "I know, I know. Totally agree. I'm so sorry—" "I'm only kidding. Being offline has its advantages. It wasn't that long ago your flat felt like the safest place on the planet. Just you and me and nobody to touch us." "With me being the perfect gentleman." "Exactly. Although you no longer need be a perfect gentleman around me. I hope you know that?" Marshall's voice had lowered, and Spencer felt the words reverberate in his groin. For a second, he almost abandoned the drinks, but then restrained himself, knowing he had Marshall back in his life now. "Tell me what happened." Marshall sighed, but then, in the flawless, effortless way he had of talking, relayed the story of them landing in Kryszytonia and his exclusive interview with Chairman Tobias Karimov the afternoon before his inauguration. He clarified how they were there to shoot a documentary about the event, not to provide a live feed of the day, which is why other news channels had broadcast the incident and not his own. If anything, his crew had viewed the day of the inauguration as routine—they knew they could always get archive footage for the official ceremony from other media outlets. Marshall noted on the day that many countries hadn't bothered sending anyone to cover the event, citing the coronavirus as the cause. Marshall suspected the real reason was that another former Soviet republic changing heads of state was not particularly newsworthy. Sadly, he mused, it took a suicide bomber's assassination attempt on the president's life to prove them wrong, and grab the world's attention. Finally, the kettle boiled and Spencer brought over mugs of steaming coffee. After watching Marshall make a big deal of sniffing the steaming drink and then sipping with a frankly filthy moan, Spencer asked about his crew, especially about his cameraman. "No, no. Colm is alive and well. In the chaos, there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. But a Polish cameraman, the same build as Colm, died in the explosion. I've been in wars zones, Spence, seen some horrific things, but the carnage will stay with me forever." "Darcy called me and I watched the news coverage, heard the report. Honestly, Marsh, although I didn't want to believe it, I didn't see how you couldn't have been affected. They showed the press people all lined up at the front of the stage, apparently where this person detonated the device." "Okay, so that's another story altogether. Come and join me." Marshall settled back and waited for Spencer to sit, an arm clamping around his shoulders, before beginning to tell Spencer about the day of the inauguration. "In the morning, we were offered a choice of setting up at the front of the square with everyone else, or next to the national network, on a gantry above the back of the stand. Kerry-Anne and I chose to set up at the back. As I said, we were there to film a documentary, and we knew we'd get better shots of the whole crowd and not have identical coverage to others. When the president made his speech, we left Colm filming. Kerry-Anne and I took a camera with the aim of perhaps getting some live, candid footage from the front, but also to see if we could speak to any dignitaries or other notable persons. I'm not even sure what made me look, but as we were passing behind the right stand on our way to the front, there was this row of kiosks and wooden stands selling fast food, drinks, and souvenirs. I only slowed to look for a second then carried on walking, but something caught my eye. Did you know Tobias Karimov's presidential mascot is a squirrel wearing a national flag waistcoat and bowtie? On this one particular stall, they sold these two-foot-tall stuffed mascot toys. I had to stop and laugh, and told an impatient and frankly unamused Kerry-Anne that if I didn't buy one, I would never be forgiven and probably never get laid again. And then, as I was paying, the bomb went off. I was thrown against the stall which came crashing down. Me and the stall owner were knocked off our feet, with a few scratches and bruises, but otherwise unharmed." "Thank goodness. Saved by the squirrel. And what happened to my souvenir?" "Still there, I'm afraid. All hell broke loose after that, Spence. Kerry-Anne had been less lucky, knocked against a concrete post and was out cold, so I stayed with her until I could find a medic. She'd come around by then, and seemed okay, but they insisted on taking her away to a medical unit, to get her checked over. I remained behind to help out the medical staff as best I could. Honestly, those guys deserve medals, the way they worked tirelessly to help the injured. A couple of times I wondered if I was just in the way, but they seemed to appreciate my help. After treatment and being let go, Kerry-Anne was able to find her way back to Colm and our guys—they were all safely out of range—and then they all came searching for me. In the meantime, not only had I lost my phone, but I'd offered to ride in an ambulance to hospital with two young French kids whose mother had been hurt and who lay unconscious. The ambulance men understood some English but not French, and although my spoken French isn't brilliant, at least I managed to translate for them and get them settled at the hospital, even finding a French speaking carer. By the time we got news that their mother was fine, night had fallen. I tried to return to the team, but by then, of course, the city was in lockdown, with roads cordoned off anywhere near the square. Eventually, I got the taxi to drop me at a police station, and after a couple of hours wait, they reunited me with the team who had been picked up by the president's security people. Kerry-Anne gave me an update on casualties. She also told me about some of the British teams being flown home." "We saw the breaking news. I so wanted you to be on that plane." "Almost as much as me. But by the time Kerry-Anne told us, those people would have landed and were probably already home. It was well after midnight in Kryszytonia. They never told us why, but the security team confiscated all of our phones and computers, so we couldn't let people know we were fine. And then we spent two to three hours being questioned by one officer or another, as well as going through the small amount of footage we'd shot. I'm guessing my friendship with Tobias paid off because they treated us well enough. They were the ones who informed us that he'd survived the blast with minor injuries, thank the heavens. And then, before we knew it, we were being bundled off to the airport, to a waiting jet. I still have no idea who laid that on for us. This would have been almost six in the morning local time, midnight here. After checking our documents, we were taken to a private lounge in the airport, given back our luggage and told to freshen up before the flight. None of us had changed our clothes since the morning. Both Kerry-Anne and I were filthy, still covered in dust and debris and blood, so the shower and new clothes felt wonderful. As soon as we joined the others in the lounge, we were being ushered off to the waiting plane, taking off as a new day was dawning over Kryszytonia." "And you came straight here?" "We landed just before three this morning. Zipped through immigration in absolutely no time—the wonders of private air travel. I called Darcy first of all, because I figured you'd either be there or at home. She suggested I come straight here, said you'd been worried sick and probably hadn't slept a wink. Somewhat cryptically, she also told me I owed her a home-cooked dinner." "Ah. I might have mentioned to her that you cooked for me." "Did you now? And what else did the pair of you say about me?" "How much we both love you," said Spencer, pecking Marshall on the lips. "Me more, naturally." Marshall took Spencer's almost empty mug and placed it with his own on the table, before gathering Spencer into his arms. Spencer melted into the kiss, savouring Marshall's unique smell and warmth. When Marshall pulled his head away to yawn, Spencer let out a soft chuckle. "I hope you don't mind, Spence, but I'm so tired I can barely keep my eyes open. Don't think I don't want you—you're all I could think about this past week—but if I don't get some shut eye soon, I'll be good for nothing." "Of course, you poor thing. Go on into the bedroom." "Um, I was thinking you'd join me. Keep me company." "It would be my honour." Spencer helped Marshall out of his clothes, undressing him as a parent would undress a child. Marshall simply stood there grinning, not moving unless Spencer guided him to do so. Eventually, wearing only his briefs, Spencer pulled back the covers and directed Marshall beneath. "I could get used to this," said Marshall, getting comfortable, as Spencer climbed in beside him, lining their bodies up, facing each other. "That's my masterplan," said Spencer. He closed the small gap and kissed Marshall, a long, measured kiss. He could afford long kisses now that his man was back safely. Something moved at the bottom of the bed, and Spencer saw Tiger making herself comfortable at their feet. Marshall's eyes had closed, and he appeared to be drifting off, but suddenly opened them. "Hey, before I forget. Something else happened while I was away," he said. "There's more?" said Spencer horrified. "Don't worry, this is something good. At least, I hope so. My mother sent me an email. She has this apartment overlooking the Thames—got the place in the divorce settlement—with a large terrace on the first floor, above the river footpath. It's in Rotherhithe and she usually rent it out to overseas professionals. But the last tenants were European and moved back home in June because of all the upheaval right now. So she had the place refurbished and it's been sitting empty since. Anyway, she wrote and asked if I would like to take the place over. Seems silly for me to be paying rent on a South Ken apartment when my mother's offering me one for nothing. And then I got to thinking that Rotherhithe is barely twenty minutes by train into London Bridge, where you'll be working next year. So I guess, what I'm trying to say is—" "Yes!" said Spencer, rolling on top of Marshall, kissing him playfully. "If you're asking if I want to come and live with you, then the answer is, yes. Of course, yes." Marshall's laughter rumbled through his chest. "Do you think her royal highness will be okay with just a terrace?" "Just a terrace? Are you kidding me? She's a house cat right now. But the number of times I've observed her sitting by the window, staring through the glass, pining to be outside. If you think she likes you now, wait until we move in together. She'll never leave you alone." Marshall's sigh came out deep and contented, and he shifted Spencer around to spoon him, an arm wrapped around his waist. "Can I ask you one question?" asked Spencer. "And then I promise to let you sleep." "Anything." "What colour is your mother's hair?" "Interesting question. White. Pure white. Naturally, too. It's always been her trademark. Even in her seventies now, her hair is amazing. She says it's her best feature, although I think she underestimates her many other qualities. I got dad's gene there. My hair is the same colour as father's." "I see. So her hair's never been red?" "Good lord, no. She'd never dream of dying her hair, and besides, she's never been a fan of redheads," said Marshall, and gently elbowed Spencer. "Where is all this coming from?" "Nothing. But I'd really like to meet her one day." Marshall kissed Spencer beneath the ear, then settled back into the pillow. "I would love nothing more than to introduce you. And the weird thing is, I already know she'll warm to you. I bet you two become the best of friends." "In the meantime, you'll need to survive my mother's cooking on Christmas Day." Marshall chuckled, his body vibrating along Spencer's spine. "Okay, Spence. Enough dramas for one day. Now go to sleep." "Good night, Marshall." "Good morning, Spence."
  12. lomax61

    Chapter 22

    Spencer lost count of how many times he had paced the length of his flat. Even Tiger, who followed him up and down weaving between his legs, seemed to sense his distress. Before putting his key in the lock, he had tried to phone Marshall’s mobile number, but not unexpectedly, the call had gone straight to messaging. Darcy had been right. As soon as he switched on the television, every news channel replayed the breaking news footage of the incident. One minute, the president stood making a speech behind a transparent screen of what appeared to be glass or perspex—probably a teleprompter—the next, an orange and red explosion followed by a vast cloud of grey smoke engulfed the stage and the front rows where camera crews and photographers had been stationed. Somewhat ghoulishly, cameras in the upper stand at the back of the make-do stadium kept rolling, silhouetting figures running out of the smoke, screams of the injured and dying punctuating the general shouts and confusion. From somewhere beyond the cordoned-off area, a reporter’s voice talked as the scenes of chaos played out once again. “All we know right now is that the new president, Tobias Karimov, was injured, but survived an assassination attempt on his life during his first presidential address and has been rushed to the main municipal hospital here in the capital of Kryszytonia. We have also been told that at least ten members of his cabinet were injured, as of course, are many of the world’s press, including members of our own British media. Sources are speculating that this was an act of terrorism. An anonymous caller professing to be a member of the radical Traditional Nationalist Party, outspoken critics of the new president’s proposed reforms, claimed responsibility for the bombing although this has yet to be substantiated. As we speak, armed security teams together with emergency services are scouring the area, checking for any further threats but also recovering bodies and tending to the wounded. We will bring you more as the story unfolds. Back to the studio now, where we revisit the rise to power of Tobias Karimov.” Eventually, Spencer muted the television while he strode up and down the room. When his doorbell finally buzzed, he took a moment to compose himself, told himself to haul in his emotions in front of Darcy. But as soon as he opened the door and saw the concern in her eyes, he lost his composure. Two steps into the entryway, she ripped off her mask and pulled him into her arms. “Come on, Spencer,” she said, holding him awkwardly and patting him on the back. She smelled of expensive flowery perfume and fabric softener. “Don’t make me fucking cry. I’ve only just slapped on this very expensive designer makeup. And remember the old saying? No news is good news? Well, I’ve heard nothing more, and I have friends all over the press. As soon as they hear anything, they’ll let me know. Right now, I need you to go up and grab a coat. You’re coming to my place. Your ball of fluff can take care of itself for now, but we need to be somewhere more practical than this man cave.” Within minutes, they sat quietly in the back of her car, while Spencer stared out at the bright morning. In his pocket, his silenced phone suddenly came to life, buzzing urgently with messages. Holding his breath, he pulled out the device but immediately saw that none came from Marshall. They were mainly from Bev, Nile and Prince—friends who knew about him and Marshall and he decided to answer them later. Sat next to him, Darcy tapped a long fingernail on her screen before turning to him. “What’s this Beverley told me about you not working out your notice?” “Muriel released me early. On full pay.” “What the fuck did you do? Drop your pants and flash your junk at her?” Despite himself, Spencer giggled. Maybe that’s what Darcy had in mind, but he found telling her about his final meeting with Muriel helped to ground him. Except, similar to Bev but more vocal, his retelling of the tale had her spitting expletives. “That fucking bitch needs hauling in.” Before she could continue, Spencer went on to tell Darcy about his brief history with Blake, stories about their short time together, and then about his friend hooking Blake and Joey up at the gay bar. Finally, Darcy tipped her head back and laughed like a fish wife. “Karma truly is a bitch. Has Marshall met this friend of yours?” “Not yet. I was hoping to—” Spencer turned his head away, unsure of how to continue. Only a couple of days ago, he had mused about that very scenario, wondering how his old and new friends would get along with Marshall. They had also made plans to spend Christmas together and meet his family in Bournemouth. Now, he had no idea if he would ever get the chance. “Listen, Spencer,” said Darcy, correctly interpreting his silence, reaching across and squeezing his hand. “Of all the people I’ve known in my life, Marshall is one of the most resilient and resourceful. He’s been in a lot of sticky situations the world over, and managed to pull through. You need to stay strong for him, need to stay positive.” Spencer knew what she meant, but he had never been one for inaction in times of crisis. “Isn’t there something more we can do? Call someone at the British Consulate in Kryszytonia. Surely being on the ground they’re going to know more than anyone in the press is saying? Or maybe we could look into getting onto a scheduled flight or, with Marshall’s contacts, hire a private jet—” “Okay, Spencer. Enough. You are going to have to learn to be patient. Are you religious?” “Not particularly.” “Well, now might be a good time to reconsider. In the meantime, you’re coming to my place where I have high-speed internet, working phones, and televisions in every room including the bathrooms. And I know you probably feel the last thing you need is food, but I’m going to stand over you if I have to and force you to eat something when lunch is delivered. You’re no good to Marshall or anyone starving yourself. I’m also going to open a couple of bottles of wine I’ve been saving up for Christmas and tell you stories about your man that he has only ever told me.” Darcy’s Chelsea apartment could not have been more different to Marshall’s. Set in a pretty tree-lined square in the heart of the exclusive area, her residence felt like an extension of her personality—clean and sleek modernist artwork with a distinctive Japanese theme, perfectly complemented, but subdued colours for her stylish but comfortable couches, Asian-themed sculptures in silver or limestone, and what appeared to be items of metallic junk, all staged beneath artfully placed spotlights. Spencer had been to Darcy’s apartment in happier times, for the post-interview party. In all fairness, he hadn’t seen much of the place, had spent most of the time waiting for Marshall to join him. Darcy’s friends included mostly names from the entertainment industry, and some Spencer had met who had been involved in something to do with the Blackmore magazines at one time or another. Not one for polite conversation, he had been grateful to have Bev and Prince there, although neither had been on particularly good form, both burnt out after the stress of the day and the days leading up to the event, both wanting to climb into bed and sleep for a week. Being good friends, they had kept him company until Spencer got the call from Marshall that he was on his way. After his arrival and a quick hello to everyone, they had barely stayed another half hour, before also excusing themselves. Once inside the door, Darcy led him into the main living area. She took great pains to make sure Spencer got comfortable, seating him on the sectional couch in front of the enormous flatscreen with the remote control within easy reach, and, without even asking, fetching him a large mug of freshly made latte. Once satisfied, and with the television volume on low, she set about completing other chores while Spencer made a call. “Squirrel, I am so sorry,” said Bev, as soon as she answered. “Do you have any more news?” “No, but I’m at Darcy’s place, and if anyone’s going to hear, it’s her. Are you at work?” “I am. Oh, and Squirrel. Your conspicuous absence is the talk of the office this morning. I know you probably don’t want to hear, but I was in the kitchen getting a drink when Blake wandered in with a couple of his people. Before I had a chance to speak, Kimberley stood up in front of everyone, and asked him what his mother was thinking, just dismissing you. Said that you were one of the nicest employees in the place, and at least deserved the opportunity to say goodbye to your colleagues. She asked if that was the way people were going to be treated in future and said she didn’t want to work in a place, with a family, who treated people like shit. She said the word ’shit’, Squirrel. And about four or five people chipped in and agreed with her. Blake just stood there speechless. You should have seen his face, as white as a sheet. Priceless. He’s probably gone to mummy dearest to report Kimberley. The way Muriel’s going, by Christmas there’ll be nobody left working for her.” At any other time, Squirrel might have been pleased to hear the story. All he could think about was what was happening across the world. He signed off with Beverley, promising to bring her any news. After that, he went through his phone and answered messages from Garrett and his family, and another from Nile. Eventually, Darcy stopped rushing about, doing things like checking messages and making calls, and then brought her post and joined him on the sofa. Spencer enjoyed watching her efficiency, the way she ripped open letters, read quickly and then either ripped the thing up or placed pages in a pile for action. She settled back and took a sip from her bone china mug. “How are you feeling?” “Pretty useless.” “Yeah, I know. Okay, I think we need a diversion. I’m going to tell you some things about Marshall that he may not want you to know. But, Spencer, I honestly believe you’re the closest he has ever gotten to a genuine relationship, so I’m going to trust you with this knowledge. I’m not sure how much he’s told you about his childhood already, but he was a lonely kid. Having a famous mother and father didn’t help, especially when they were usually in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Making long lasting friends at school was almost impossible, with the family moving back and forth between London and LA for his father’s business, and Marshall being shipped off to boarding school in Scotland and then Eton. Eventually the family settled back in London, but almost straight afterwards they divorced and his father moved to San Diego with his new girlfriend. Poor Marshall might have wanted for nothing, and some might even argue that his father’s connections gave him a head start in the media business, but he knew very little about close relationships and friendship.” “What about Alex, Joey’s brother?” “He told you about him, did he? University was the closest he came to making any lasting friends. I still find it unbelievable that Alex and Joey are brothers. I know you’ve met Joey, and I’m sure you’ll get to meet Alex one day. But the two couldn’t be more different.” “Alex is straight. And a male slut, according to Marshall.” Darcy laughed. “Used to be. He a doting father and husband now. You’d like him.” “One day, maybe,” said Spencer, and hoped he would be at Marshall’s side when that eventuality arose. “I know Marshall’s close to his mother, but he didn’t say much about his father.” “They clashed. Still do. Almost came to blows one holiday, when Marshall was a teenager, and the old man tried to pick a fight with his mum. Highlander senior is in his eighties now and has kids from his second and third marriages. He’s still worth a small fortune and has threatened to leave Marshall nothing when he passes. Which is fine by Marshall, because he’s independently wealthy, money bequeathed to him by his grandparents. But, you know, even with all of that, he is a very humble, a very private person— “I know—“ “—and terribly lonely most of the time. And he gives back so much to charities, not just in terms of his money, but also with his personal time and getting his hands dirty. And he’s doing so because he genuinely cares, not for any kind of publicity like some celebrities—” “The day of my interview, he was going to help out at a homeless charity, in the freezing cold morning, to load boxes into vans.” “Maybe I should have started by asking how much you already know. Sounds like he’s opened up to you. Let’s play a game of things you know about him, and we can tell each other whether it’s something we knew. I’m not a prude, exactly, but can you keep the bedroom shenanigans to yourself.” Spencer enjoyed the diversion. Most of what Spencer knew, Darcy knew, too. Darcy knew lots of things he had no idea about, and the knowledge made Marshall more human. As they talked, he kept one eye on the flatscreen on Darcy’s living room wall. “Most of his clothes are chosen for him by his mother, or me,” said Darcy. “He’s pretty hopeless when it comes to putting an ensemble together, even though he looks amazing in the right outfit.” “And out,” said Spencer, grinning. “But I totally agree. Okay, my turn. He cooks a mean steak dinner—” “Wait, what? He cooked for you? In all the years I’ve known him, he has never cooked for me. I didn’t even know he could cook. Steak dinner, huh? Did he make dessert, too?” “Um, he kind of was dessert.” “Okay, time out. Too much information.” At midday, a delivery of an eclectic array of hot and cold food arrived. Everything looked fresh and healthy; assorted sushi, vegetarian moussaka, chicken wraps, wholemeal noodle concoctions—enough to feed a family of four. Darcy quickly explained that she would keep any leftovers for her dinner, but Spencer wondered if she kept some back in the event Marshall came back. When she opened a bottle of Chablis, at first Spencer declined. But after some gentle nudging, he relented. And he felt happy to have done so, the combination of food and wine taking the edge off, helping to relax him so much that later in the afternoon he managed to doze off on the couch. He was awoken at four-thirty, with Darcy’s phone ringing. In her usual curt way, she answered the call. After placing her hand over the receiver, she hissed out a command. “Spencer. Some of the British media crews have just landed back in the UK. It’s on channel six right now. The remote is on the sofa. Push three-two-four.” On the television, the news showed a KriztoAir A320 landing at one of London’s airports and coming painfully slowly to the gate. Crowded around the arrivals gate, reporters shouted as the very few travellers, some dazed at the attention and probably on different flights, exited into the arrivals terminal. Spencer stood close to the screen, studying each of the faces, to see if one of those might be Marshall. After the first few came out, people began to cluster around the cameras, emerging media people interviewed by reporters on the ground, and Spencer could not tell who else appeared. “Don’t worry,” said Darcy, still on the phone. “My contact is getting a copy of the passenger manifest. As soon as he does, he’ll contact me to let me know if Marshall was on board.” By nine o’clock, with Darcy always on the phone, they had still not heard anything. Eventually, after returning from the kitchen, Darcy parked herself at the end of the couch. He could tell by her face that she had some news and braced himself for the worst. “Marshall wasn’t on the plane. And nobody’s heard any news about him. But one of the survivors who landed earlier said they believe Colm O’Donnell, Marshall’s cameraman, was killed in the blast. That's all they know.” Spencer’s heart sank. He had met Colm in the studio and seen him in the van when Marshall’s team had picked him up. A big bear of a man, he had seemed happy working alongside Marshall, happy to be a part of the team. Now Spencer wondered what loved ones Colm had at home—maybe his own family—and guessed they too were anxiously sitting by the phone, waiting for news from Kryszytonia. Not only that, he thought, but wouldn’t Marshall have had the cameraman with him at all times, recording footage and providing his own commentary? As always, Darcy seemed to sense his dread. “Look, I have three bedrooms here. You’re more than welcome to stay the night. Do you want me to make up a bed for you?” “No, it’s okay, Darcy. You’ve been really kind today, but I think I need to go home.” Spencer needed his cave. Maybe he really ought to be around other people, but his nerves felt frazzled with each report coming in, and he wanted to be home. As always, Darcy sensed his resolve because she didn’t try to argue. “Are you sure?” “I am.” “In which case, I’ll call you an Uber.”
  13. lomax61

    Chapter 21

    On Thursday morning, Spencer sat at his desk, staring at his email, picking at small jobs to keep himself occupied and psyching himself up for his meeting with Muriel. He knew he ought to be feeling something akin to relief, but anxiousness weighed on the pit of his stomach like too much pizza. The night before, he signed and posted the employment contract back to The Herald recruitment team. That very morning, he had brought a copy of the agreement into work with him, along with the covering offer letter. As soon as he had logged on, he had written, printed, and signed a resignation letter ready to hand to Muriel. The good luck soundbite he had picked up from Marshall—Spencer had naturally texted him about his upcoming meeting with Muriel—telling him to be brave, and then going into lurid detail about how he planned to reward him on his return, had Spencer smiling all the way to the station. By nine o'clock, he had everything ready to go but had to hang around until he heard from the woman herself. Clicking through some news channels to pass the time, he came upon some sites showing preparations for the presidential inauguration in Kryszytonia. Arrangements appeared impressive, with the whole square in front of the parliament building sectioned off to house three banks of empty seats around rows of seating on the ground, all facing the stage where the new president would be sworn in. Regimented rows of the national flag in blue, gold and ochre hung at regular intervals. Another site showed an ornate hall in the presidential palace where the formal dinner would be held, with an impressively long table of silverware, crystal glasses and elaborate flower arrangement in the national colours, the event catering for at least a sixty. Absently, Spencer wondered what Marshall was doing right at that moment. Right at that moment, Spencer's desk phone rang. "Morning Spencer," came Alice's voice. "Muriel asked me to call you about the ten o'clock appointment you made with her. She wants to know if it's really important. Says she's extremely busy today. Between you and me, Spencer, I think she thinks you want to see her about the staff Christmas party." "It's not about that, Alice. It's about me?" "I see. And—um—anything you can share?" "Not really. It's personal and a little delicate, if you know what I mean?" "Of course. Yes. No, I see. Sorry, you know what she's like. Asked me to try and find out before you got here. And she's in one of those moods this morning, I'm afraid. Okay, sorry, I'll let her know. Come over just before ten." Almost exactly a month to the day, Spencer found himself once again seated opposite Muriel, in the chair that sank so that his eyes drew level with the tabletop. On the last occasion, he had been hoodwinked into taking on Clarissa's responsibilities. Digging his fingernails into the fleshy part of his thighs above each knee, he made sure he would stay focused this time. "Can we make this quick, Spencer?" said Muriel, snapping down the lid of her laptop. "I've a lot to do today and I need to get cracking." Spencer smiled, settled back and decided to relax. "The client party went rather well, don't you think? I know it was only last Friday, but I've already heard a lot of positive things from clients. Particularly the interview with you and Lord Moresby." Muriel appeared to soften. No doubt she had heard many good things, but Spencer figured that dishing out a few more compliments couldn't do any harm and might even soften the news of his resignation. "Have you?" she replied, looking out of the window. "That's good to hear. Yes, I was extremely pleased with the outcome considering everything. Ms Salvatore did a sterling job. As did Prince, given the amount of time he had to bring everything together." Spencer didn't expect to get any credit from Muriel but thought someone else ought to. "Marshall Highlander recommended the company, you know? VIP? Don't you think his whole involvement took the whole event to a whole new level?" Muriel's gaze swung back then. In true Muriel style, she pursed her lips and folded her arms. "Mr Highlander did a good job. Apart from asking a few unscheduled and frankly impertinent questions. Now what is it you wanted, Spencer?" The moment of truth. He pulled the offer sheet from his inside jacket pocket and passed the paper across the desk. Muriel hesitated a moment, before taking the letter and reading the contents. "I'm here to hand in my resignation, Muriel. The National Herald has offered me a position at their newspaper. Starting as an assistant reporter." "I see," she said in her usual haughty, waspish way. Without looking at him, she continued to read the letter. "And you consider this a good career move, do you? Why on earth would you want to jump into the lion's den with all these despicable people?" "Because it's where my passion lies. And where I feel my talents might be better appreciated." "They will eat you alive," she said, tossing the letter across the desk at him. "Well, if that's your decision, so be it. But I'm afraid we can't let you go any earlier. You're going to have to work out the full three months' notice—" "One month." Finally, she met his gaze and glowered at him, as though he had just slapped her across the face. "I beg your pardon?" "My notice period is one month." "I think you'll find you're mistaken. The senior editing manager role carries a notice period of—" "That may well be the case. But, contractually, I don't have that role. I am acting senior editing manager. You never elevated me officially or got me to sign anything, although you did offer a small compensation for—what is it you called it—oh yes, care-taking the role. I agreed to take on the duties out of a sense of loyalty. Anyway, I've already checked with the human resources department and, contractually, I am still a junior editor. My notice period is one month from today. With the twelve days annual leave I have outstanding, that allows me to leave here at the end of the year and take up my new position at The Herald on the fourth of January. I've done my homework, Muriel, and if nothing else, you must know by now how thorough I am." Now the blood had positively drained from her face. Bev had suggested bringing in his mobile phone to record the meeting covertly, and he was beginning to regret not having done so. "That's going to put me and the rest of the staff here in a very difficult position at one of our busiest times of the year. Do you think that's fair, Spencer, after everything we've done for you?" Had she simply accepted his resignation and left things there, he might have gone quietly. But to play a sympathy card pushed him well and truly over the edge. "Fair? Don't you dare preach to me about fairness. And what the hell have you done for me? Lumbered me with crap jobs, left me to clean up other people's messes, given me an insult of a financial incentive to assume a managerial role, and worse still, given me no credit for doing a damn good job since I did take over. And where is the promised bonus for me landing the final interview in Collective? Don't even think about lecturing me about fairness, when you have never been fair to me." "I see. Well, if that's the way you feel—" "It is. And for the remaining days, I will be reverting to my junior editor duties. Don't worry. I don't expect you to pay me the one percent bonus incentive you promised at the beginning of November when I took on the supervisor duties. But I do recommend you get someone to step into the manager role as a matter of urgency. Have you considered calling Madeleine Morrison from Peerpoint?" "I think I know more than enough about this business to manage without a third rate recruitment agency. Thank you, anyway. If that's all, Spencer, may I suggest you get back to work and allow me to return to mine." But Spencer didn't move. "And that's it?" "That's what?" asked Muriel. "I thought you'd made your position perfectly clear?" "Two years, I've worked here, worked for you. Can I ask you something, Muriel?" "I can hardly stop you, can I?" "Why have you never liked me?" Muriel leant back in her chair and put her hands together beneath her chin, appraising him. "Until you came along, my son was completely focused and driven. And then somehow or other, not a few weeks after you joined, you seemed to be all he could talk about, the new junior recruit, openly flaunting his sexuality around the office. And then you foisted yourself upon him—" "Is that what he told you? "He didn't need to. I know my son. He changed a few weeks after we took you on—" "If you had bothered to ask him—and if he'd been in the rare mood to tell the truth—he would have told you that he propositioned me. Not the other way around—" "My son would never waste his time and energies on—" Muriel had come the closest Spencer had ever seen to losing her temper. Instead, she caught herself, and drew in a breath, before continuing. "I knew you would be trouble from the outset. I should have listen to my instincts and gotten rid of you before you infected those around you. Had I not been vetoed by the managers you worked alongside, and been strongly advised against it by an employment law specialist—yes, I did consult one—I would have terminated you during your three month probationary period." Spencer had heard enough. He pushed away from the table and stood up. "I cannot believe I've wasted my life in this toxic place. You were never going to give me a chance, were you? My mother said as much. You were never going to acknowledge my worth, instead keeping me dangling on with empty promises. What an absolute waste of my time, you dreadful woman." "Be careful what you're saying, Spencer. Have you never heard the expression about burning bridges. I've no doubt you will be expecting a favourable reference from the magazine." "Muriel, if I received a favourable reference from you, Ed Coleman would probably withdraw my employment offer. And a good friend once told me that every now and again one has to burn a few bridges in order to stop the crazy people from following. I think that applies perfectly in this case.” "And I think you should tidy your desk and leave." "You want me to leave right now?" "If you're not prepared to help with the transition of a senior editor, I see no reason for you to keep coming into the office. We'll pay you until your official leaving date, but I think it would be for the best all around, if you leave today, don't you?" "Suits me fine." Muriel lifted the lid of her laptop and began typing, her attention back on the screen. Her voice came across annoyingly calm. "Human Resources will be in touch with you regarding your final salary and other details. I trust I don't need to call security, trust you know how to find your way out of the building.” After staring in disbelief for a moment, Spencer turned and stormed out of Muriel's office. On the way back to his desk, he snatched up an empty packing box from the floor. Hardly anyone was around to witness him, most working from home. Before anything, he stood over his desk and replied to a couple of emails, before shutting down the computer. Fuming still, he began throwing things into the box; a bulky Thesaurus paperback his father had bought him that he rarely used, photos of his family, a couple more textbooks, pens and paperweights—barely enough to fill half the box. Two year's worth of his life. "I'm guessing things didn't go so well?" came Bev's voice. She had appeared at the end of his desk without him noticing. "Depends," said Spencer, still seething. "If you mean did she kick me out of the office, then the answer is yes." "She can't do that," said Bev quietly. "Well, guess what?" said Spencer. "She just did." "Without pay?" "Well, no. I'll still get paid until my official leaving date." "You're on garden leave, then? You lucky sod. Any chance we could swap places?" Spencer stopped what he was doing and peered quizzically at Bev, processing what she had just said. Of course, she was right. Despite what Muriel had said, he would have been prepared to come in and work until his last day, to help train up the new person and hand over tasks. But now he had been given a couple of weeks' extra leave on full pay. With a sigh, he collapsed into his seat and swivelled towards her. "You're right. I'm just pissed off at not getting any credit for everything I've done." "Which is perfectly natural, Squirrel," said Bev. "Come on. Let me take you to my local coffee shop and get you a coffee and a muffin. I want to hear everything and I'm guessing you need to let off some steam." Spencer stood back up, pulling his coat from the back of the chair and struggling into it. He lifted the lanyard holding his access card from around his neck and slung his bag over his shoulder. "I'll need to hand my security pass to Kim on the way out." After putting the lid on top, he lifted the cardboard box and turned back to Bev. This time, she stared at the container, then at him, shocked. "You have to go straight away? You can't leave at the end of the day?" "I asked her if she wanted me to go now and she said yes. Honestly, Bev, I need to get out of this place. Before I do something I regret." "You don't even get to say goodbye to people? How is that fair?" "For a start, there aren't many people around. But don't worry, we'll sort something out. Come on, let's get out of here." *** Forty-five minutes, a large mug of coffee, and a chocolate chip muffin later, and Spencer felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Bev had sat patiently listening to the retelling of his meeting with Muriel. Like a good friend, she didn't interrupt, just nodded or shook her head in all the right places, frowning most of the time. That was until Spencer told him what Muriel had said about him foisting himself upon Blake and about trying to get rid of him during his probationary period. Right then Bev had lost her cool, said if Spencer did not talk to the Human Resources department about their boss' appalling behaviour, then she would. Eventually, though, he had calmed her down, said there was no record of the meeting and, in the end, it would come down to Spencer's word against Muriel's—and it was a foregone conclusion who people would believe. Most of all, he wanted to put the whole dreadful episode behind him and concentrate on the future. "Besides," he said, hoping to put her fears to rest. "I don't want you to blot your copybook. Not after finally getting a well-deserved promotion." "Are you going to call Marshall?" asked Bev. As though on cue, his ringtone sounded from somewhere inside his jacket. He pulled the phone from the inside pocket, stared at the display and then chuckled. "Not Marshall," said Spencer, showing Bev the name on the display. "My mother. I swear she's psychic." He pushed the accept button and thrust the phone to his ear, rolling his eyes at Bev. "Hello, Mum. Let me guess? You're checking up to see if I'm still coming for Christmas?" Naturally, Garrett had been unable to keep a simple secret about Spencer bringing a friend—Marshall—and had spilt the beans to their mother. "Spencer. It's Garrett," said his mother, her voice strained. "He's been in a road accident. Came off that blasted motorcycle of his. I told him he shouldn't go out in this weather, but he never did listen to me. The policeman your father spoke to said he hit a patch of black ice on a bend in the road, somewhere outside Branksome—" "Oh, my God, Mum. Slow down. Is he okay?" Bev, noticing his anxious tone, reached across and held onto his free hand. "No, no. Yes, I mean, he's fine. Well, he's not fine, he's in the hospital. His right leg is broken in two places and he managed to fracture his wrist. When they got to him, he was unconscious, but he's awake now, and seems alert. I spoke to him over the phone an hour ago. It all happened early this morning." "Was Dad with him when it happened? Or was he riding alone?" "He was on his own. Thankfully, a police car was coming the other way and saw everything happen. Called an ambulance and everything. They said he was lucky to get off so lightly." "I'll come back this weekend." Bev, who was trying to pick up the gist of the conversation, nodded her agreement. Spencer knew Marshall would understand. "No, you don't need to come home, Spencer. I'm just calling to let you know. There's little point coming back. He's at Bournemouth General but we're not allowed to go and see him at the moment. They're keeping him in for observation for at least three days. Your father and Peony are at the hospital and getting updates from the doctors. But the ward is closed to visitors, to guard against the possibility of anyone infecting patients with the virus. So you wouldn't be able to see him, anyway." "Is there anything I can do?" "Not really, love. I'm sorry, I didn't want to worry you, but I just thought you ought to know. No doubt when you're back in a couple of weeks, he'll still be on crutches." "Soaking up the sympathy, playing it for all it's worth. Can't wait to see that." "I know. He's going to be a handful. Hopefully, he'll rethink the bike now, especially after Peony gives him a piece of her mind. Anyway, son. How are you? How are things? Garrett says you're bringing someone home for Christmas, is that right?" Spencer considered telling her his news—all of it—but decided to let her get back to worrying about the son who needed her more. "I'm fine, Mum. And yes, I'm hoping to bring someone back. But I'll let you know more later. I think you've got enough on your plate right now. Love you." After signing off, they headed back towards the office, and Spencer gave Bev the full download. They stopped outside the main doors, Spencer still lugging his box. He felt strange, knowing the place that had been his second home for the past two years, no longer welcomed him. "Well, I'd better get back to my desk," said Bev. "And you'd better go home and put your feet up. Have you got anything to keep you busy?" "Not really. Although maybe I should start my online search for a new flat." "There you go. Give yourself a project. You've got all the time in the world now." "Feels really weird, having no work. Don't think it's really sunk in yet." "Enjoy it while you can, Squirrel. You'll soon be rushed off your feet at The Herald." Uncharacteristically, she stepped forward and pulled him into a tight hug. "I'm going to miss having you around," she said, squeezing hard before letting him go. "It's not going to be the same. Promise me we'll keep in touch?" "Promise." *** Spencer woke at the usual hour on Friday morning, and only after he had showered, picked out his daily outfit, slipped on his shoes and jacket, and had already hurried down the stairs to brave the cold morning, did he realise he had no office to go to. Outside on the street, with the front door closed behind him, he giggled into his mask, into the sunny but frosty morning air and checked his watch—eight o'clock. Fortunately, a couple of pings on his phone alerted him to messages that had arrived overnight, so he decided to head to the boutique coffee shop along the arcade. After getting a morning takeaway fix—a large leisurely coffee in a cardboard cup and a cream cheese bagel—he pulled out his earplugs, and listened to Marshall's message as he made his way to the local park. "Hello sexy," came Marshall's hushed, but warmly familiar voice. "Just thinking about you. You're probably still asleep, so I won't call and wake you. I've had to sneak away to record this, because the ceremony is about to start. Probably means I'm going to be tied up until after the dinner. So I hope you're listening to this privately, and not where anyone else can hear, because I had this amazing sex dream about you last night. Baby, you were on fire, taking charge and riding me cowboy style, wearing only your pink and black polkadot bowtie. Hot doesn't even begin to describe it. Fuck, Spence, when I woke up I'd messed my pyjama bottoms, if you know what I mean? I kid you not. Don't think I've had a nocturnal emission like that since the age of fifteen. Look what you do to me? We're definitely going to have to act that particular fantasy out, baby. Ooh, and by the way, I managed to get the red eye out of here tonight at midnight. There'll be a short layover in Amsterdam, so I won't land in London until midnight local time. I'll text you first to see if you're still awake. If not, I'll bring over breakfast at seven. Hope that sounds okay. Take care, Spencer. I hope you realise how much I love you. See you Saturday." Between finishing the bagel and checking other messages—one containing a photo of his toothy smiling brother with his arm in a sling and his leg in plaster, probably taken by a nurse—Spencer played the recording back repeatedly. Each time, his heart tugged a little more, at how wonderful it was to hear that Marshall felt the same way. Coffee in hand, he strolled along the pavement, taking the detour into the public gardens, and plonking himself down on an empty bench. Despite the chill and residual frost, the air felt wonderfully clean. Commuters, on their way to the station, hurried by, their heads down. Relaxed and feeling an extraordinary lightness, he stretched out his legs and tilted his face to the sun. Warmth bathed his skin, and a smile crept onto his face. Of all the things that had happened to him in the past month, having Marshall in his life was the best. Deciding to keep moving, he got to his feet and began strolling across the park, enjoying letting people hurry past. Interrupting his thoughts, the phone in his hand started ringing and, for a second, he wondered if Marshall might be calling from abroad, even though the caller ID came up as unknown. "Spencer Wyrrell." "Spencer. Thank fuck you're answering. Where are you?" Darcy's usually confident voice sounded on edge. "I'm in the park around the corner from my flat. Why? What's happen—?" "Listen. You mustn't freak out, okay?" Why would Darcy tell him not to freak out? It had to be about Marshall. For some ridiculous reason, his thoughts went straight to Joey having done something stupid again. "Okay, let's have it. What's happened this time?” "Look, I'm calling you now because this is going to be all over the news in the next hour or so. During the inauguration ceremony in Kryszytonia, someone made an attempt on the president's life. A suicide bomber managed to get past security and infiltrate the section in front of the presidential stage. A large bomb went off. Horrific, by all accounts. The president's been rushed to hospital and it's thought he survived, although we don't yet know the extent of his injuries. The point is, Spence, those adjacent stands housed the press corps and—" Spencer heard no more. He stopped walking, unable to breathe. Somewhere inside his head, a silent scream froze unvoiced. Marshall had made a big deal about being honoured to be in the new president's presence, about being near him during the ceremony. A sudden coldness swept through him. For a crazy moment, he wanted Darcy to say that everything was fine. But instinctively, he knew. By a sheer effort of will, he managed to croak out one word. "Marshall?" "That's why I'm calling. They don't know much yet, Spencer. Except to say the explosion caused significant damage. Communication is flaky at best while the emergency services do what they can. Reports are that some of the president's entourage were killed and many injured, but we don't yet know the full extent. As I say, the real damage occurred within the press enclosure in front of the stage, which was apparently packed. Someone described the scene as nothing short of carnage. The bomber detonated in the very heart of the crowded area. Spencer, I think we need to prepare ourselves for the worst—" Spencer had stopped by a lamppost in the park. Just in time, too, because the ground beneath him suddenly shifted and became unstable, the motion making him nauseous. With the phone still clutched to his ear, he ripped away his mask, bent over and threw up his breakfast. As he remained there, one cold hand clutching the solid metal post as though stopping him from being swept away, a masked couple passing him on the pavement, looked on in disgust. The woman said something he could not discern, the tone one of contempt. He barely acknowledged them. "Spencer, are you there?" A single thought kept running through his brain, over and over, as though on a loop. "Spencer!" He had never told Marshall how much he loved him. "Go back home. I'll call Beverley and tell her what's happened, tell her to let them know you're not coming to work today. And then I'm coming over." And now he had lost the chance.
  14. lomax61

    Chapter 20

    Wednesday afternoon, Bev perched her bottom on the side of Spencer's desk, an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile on her face. As usual, she dressed to perfection in a warm burgundy and beige pants suit. She had good reason to be happy, and Spencer could never resist her good vibrations. Still riding the virtual Blackmore client event's success, nothing could shake her upbeat mood, one that seemed as infectious as the virus ravaging the country. Friday's edited forty-five-minute online interview, which focused mainly on more entertaining aspects of the couple, with a clear emphasis on the magazine's achievements, had been a resounding success. An extended version—something agreed with the Moresby's as a part of the arrangement—was being put together under the title "Celebrity Say What You Mean", a hybrid of Marshall's usual show, and would air between Christmas and New Year. The magazine interview had been written weeks before and would be published during the week. All in all, Muriel had been so delighted with the results and the positive responses, that she had promoted Beverley to Senior Events Manager on the spot, especially in the light of yet another member of her staff, Evelyn, having resigned. Muriel had said nothing about Spencer getting a bonus for suggesting the arrangement and, quite frankly, Spencer had given up caring. Everything else in his life had begun to shine, a new optimism filling him every waking morning. By stark contrast, the rest of the country appeared to be in perpetual confusion about how seriously they should be taking the threat of the virus, with a government torn between keeping the economy from flat-lining and protecting its citizens' health. "Have you spoken to Muriel yet?" asked Bev, playing with his crystal paperweight. "About the new job?" The formal offer had been waiting for him on his doormat as he had arrived home from work the night before. That very morning he had phoned precisely two people. Six hours ahead of UTC—one thirty in the afternoon in his time zone—Marshall had been having lunch with his crew in their hotel. He had answered after only two rings, and they had chatted for the whole of Spencer's fifteen minute's walk to the station. Once settled at work, and as promised, he'd phoned Madeleine to tell her the good news. Almost immediately afterwards, he had tossed up calling his parents but wanted to speak to Muriel first, wanted to make sure he had tied down every end before making the big announcement. Simultaneously, to save his mother's poor heart, he would also tell them about bringing someone home for Christmas lunch. "You must be clairvoyant. I only received the offer last night and the old bat isn't in today. Alice says she's likely to be in tomorrow or Friday, so I've asked her to book me a meeting both days." "And what's the offer like? Good package?" "From what I can tell." "What did Marshall say?" "I haven't really had a chance to talk him through the detail. Just the basics. But we're both sure it's fine." "Do you want me to take a look, Squirrel? Make sure there are no glaring omissions? You know contracts are my thing, don't you?" "Would you do that for me?" "Of course I would. You're my bestie. And I need something to do right now. So talking of Marshall, how is lover boy?" "Could ask you the same question about Prince," said Spencer grinning. "And just for your information, Marshall is most definitely not a boy. Not in any sense of the meaning." "I'll take your word for that. Have you heard from him?" "Every day. He kept me company over the phone on my way to the station this morning. But he'll be busy for the rest of today attending a private function. And Friday's the day of the ceremony. But he's back Saturday." "Bet you can't wait." He really couldn't. Since the client party, they had spent every night together—either in Marshall's bed or in Spencer's—until Marshall's flight out of Gatwick early Monday morning. The official event was taking place at midday on Friday, followed straight afterwards by a grand state dinner to which Marshall had been honoured with an invitation. He vowed to fly back Saturday morning, or late Friday night if he could snag a late standby flight. Strings of voice messages—Marshall had defaulted to quick and sexy voice snippets from his text app—had kept Spencer smiling and optimistic, as well as confirming their plans for Marshall to stay at Spencer's flat over the weekend. They had said goodbye to each other properly in Marshall's apartment as a van waited downstairs to whisk him and his crew off to the airport, and Spencer had almost spoken the words he had been aching to say to him all weekend. Once again, though, he relented, deciding he needed Marshall's full attention if things didn't go as expected. Ignoring objections, he had accompanied Marshall, carrying his bag downstairs and outside into the cold, dark morning, to the waiting van. He had made a point of greeting Kerry-Anne and Colm by name, as well as saying hello to two others. Everyone seemed in good spirits, and treated Marshall as just another one of the team, something he guessed was part of the attraction for Marshall. Their evident camaraderie made Spencer smile, and an odd mix of emptiness and envy filled him as he watched the van pull away, with Marshall waving from the back seat. "Join us for drinks today, Spence," said Bev, bringing him out of his reverie. "Where? Everywhere's closed." "Prince drove his Saab to work today. Nile phoned him at lunchtime and said he'd found a gay pub in St Albans called The Smugglers. They're doing this midweek special on house cocktails until ten. St Albans is still in tier one for now and on medium alert. Nobody's around today, so we're going to leave at three and meet him there around four for an hour or three. Prince will only have non-alcoholic mocktails, and he's already agreed to drop you back at Tooting Broadway Tube Station on our way home, if you want to come." "Our way home?" Bev beamed, pleased with herself. "You don't miss a trick, do you? I'm staying at Prince's place tonight. You're not the only one loved up at the moment. So are you in or not?" Spencer stared at his desk. He had completed most of the work, and any outstanding pieces awaited colleagues' attention before he could finalise them. With Marshall away for the week, what else did he have to do? Head home and feed the cat? Big whoop. Moreover, if Prince had already offered to drop him off, he had no real excuse. "What the hell. Yes, count me in." *** Nile met them deep in The Smugglers' interior, a long room at the back of the main pub. Unlike the few gay clubs that Spencer had visited at college and since being in South London, the pub in St Albans came across as oak-beamed and traditional, and Spencer rightly guessed that on most days, when the government allowed, the establishment served anyone who happened to pass through the doors. Only the back hall, with a bouncer on the door collecting a nominal fee and stamping the back of each entrant's hand with a red ink skull and crossbones, separated the main bar from the well-ordered gay gathering. Nile had found a round table for six near the bar. Togged out in his combination of stylish silk shirt in black and gold, tight-fitting skinny jeans which stopped short showing off his bare ankles, and expensive-looking brown leather loafers, he looked entirely at ease, despite being ogled at by a couple of men nearby propping up the bar. "A friend put me onto this place," he said, his grin wide when he saw and greeted each of them, as each removed his or her mask and took a seat. "Good to get out of the house." "Don't hold your breath," said Prince. "They're already talking about bringing in tighter restrictions nearer Christmas." Spencer moved to the seat beside Nile and tried to get the attention of a waiter. As he had been included in the little adventure, he felt it only right that he should buy them all a couple of rounds. Prince needed the restroom, so Bev gave Spencer their orders and then volunteered to accompany Prince, most likely to make sure some random guy didn't try and accost him. "Have you spoken to Tommy?" asked Spencer as yet another waiter blanked him. Nile began to grin, and he lowered his head. When he turned back, his whole face had lit up. "Saturday. We talked for two hours. He's missing me so badly, and truth is, I'm missing him, too. Even sent me dick pics. I tell you, once all this shit is over and he comes back home, we're going to give things another try." "Finally, Nile comes to his senses." "Shut up and get me a drink." "I'm trying, but I'm feeling a little invisible right now." Spencer noticed Nile flash a smile at one of the servers and nod towards Spencer, which appeared to do the trick. "What are you doing out at a gay bar, anyway, Nile? Shouldn't you be at home sitting by the phone?" "First of all, my phone is in my back pocket. Secondly, I'm going bat-shit crazy stuck indoors all day. And there's no harm in window shopping. Don't worry, none of these barflies are getting a look-in. Hey, don't panic, but I think your scumbag ex is here." "What?" said Spencer. "Blake. I think I saw him getting messy drunk down the end of the bar." "Oh," said Spencer with a shrug. "Whatever." "Okay," said Nile, leaning back. "So not the reaction I'd have expected. What's going on with you?" "Nothing." "Liar." Finally, the waiter came over to Spencer, who fired off an order of drinks and hot snacks. "Did Prince say anything?" asked Spencer once the man had left. "About you? No. Like what?" Spencer considered the improbability of Bev saying nothing to Prince about Marshall, so maybe Prince had been sworn to secrecy. He knew very well that when you made Bev a promise, you broke it on pain of death. But actually, he realised he didn't mind people knowing about them. Hell, even Muriel and Ambika had caught the pair of them kissing. "Remember asking me if I'd ever kissed someone who had made my insides turn to jelly? Like what happened with you and Tommy?" "You said yes, but that it was complicated." "Yes, well. Not so much, anymore. We're seeing each other now." "Fuck, Spence. Where is he then? Why didn't you bring him with you?" "He's out of the country right now, on location in Kryszytonia in Eastern Europe," said Spencer, as a couple of drinks appeared in front of them. "Not sure you'd know him, he works as a news reporter. Marshall High—" "Fuck off!" said Nile, his mouth dropping open. "Marshall Highlander is your bloke?" "Oh," said Spencer, pushing a bright blue coloured drink towards Nile. "You know who he is, then?" "Marshall fucking Highlander? Hottest daddy in the northern hemisphere? Do I know who he is?" said Nile, before slapping a palm on the tabletop. "Whoah, Spence, man, you are one dark horse. So what's he like? I bet he's really sexy, isn't he? Have you two done the deed—? Wait, what am I saying? Of course you have. It's written all over your face." "Yes, we're intimate and, yes, he's bloody amazing," said Spencer, who couldn't do anything about the grin that had steadfastly fixed itself onto his face. "If that's what you're asking." Spencer paid for the drinks and then took a swig from his bottle of Pilsner. Openly talking about Marshall with Nile had left him feeling light and giddy. "You know what?" said Nile, smirking curiously. "I'm beyond impressed, but strangely not surprised. Hmm, good on you, mate. Bet your ex, that brother-sucker Blake, is beside himself knowing you've moved on." "I'm not sure he knows. And honestly, I don't really care." Nile lifted his glass in the air in a toast with Spencer, who clinked his bottle against the cocktail glass. "Here's to us both, Spence," said Nile. "Next year is already looking promising." Spencer couldn't agree more. Not only would he see in the new year looking forward to starting a new job, but he would have Marshall in his life. When Prince and Bev returned from the toilet, Bev had a downright pissy look on her face. Spencer handed over her pint of cider, and while she downed a good half, a smirking Prince explained what had happened. "While she waited outside the loo for me—they're really modern and clean, by the way—some bloke came up and asked her if she was my fag hag." "I almost slapped the man," said Bev, glaring at Prince. "If I was going to offer to be anyone's fag hag—which I am not—then Squirrel would have first refusal." After laughing together, they sat around chatting and drinking, and Spencer only regretted not having Marshall with him. He wondered if his friends would be relaxed around Marshall, but then remembered Bev meeting him and being completely fine. At some point, he wanted them all to meet up. Eventually, as they decided on their last couple of rounds, Spencer excused himself to use the restroom. Prince had been right. Unlike other gay bars he had been to in the past, the toilets were mercifully plush, clean and well-tended. He noted that one upside to the virus was that many public places had increased the thoroughness and regularity of cleaning and disinfecting communal areas. Washing up and pushing his way out of the toilet, he found Blake leaning against a wall outside, the remains of a pint of something amber cradled against his chest. Unusual for him, he appeared a little dishevelled, his gaze as dark as ever but very slightly unhinged. "There you are," he said, as Spencer approached. "Here I am. Have you been waiting for me?" "Maybe." Blake's shoulder slipped slightly on the smooth wall surface. "Are you drunk?" "On the contrary. I'm perfectly fine. Better than ever." If he had been drinking, Blake's speech betrayed no hint of slurring. However, at odds with his words, his usually immaculate hair appeared ruffled, and somehow he had left a collar tip of his blue cotton shirt turned up. "You look a mess, Blake. I hope someone's taking you home." "You offering?" "No, I am not. We've been there and done that, remember? Why don't you call Ambika?" Blake's face screwed up into a scowl. "Bitch dumped me." Spencer nodded and turned his gaze away, not particularly surprised. But he did wonder if anything he had said to Ambika had been the reason, or if she had come to a decision on her own. With hindsight, he wanted to believe the latter. "Have you ever wondered why I stopped seeing you, Spencer?" Spencer looked back, surprised by the question. "Not really." "Sure you have. Come on, let me have it. I'm a big boy." Spencer didn't want to have this conversation with Blake. When he had talked about water under the bridge, he had meant the words. And of the two of them, Spencer had truly moved on. "I suppose because you got bored." "You see? Wrong. You have things entirely the wrong way around. The real reason is because I knew you would eventually get bored with me. Even in our short time together, you kept dropping small hints about going out for meals or meeting up with your friends or family. Eventually you would have started suggesting we move in together, to build a home together. Maybe even start a family. In that way, you're not unlike Ambika." "And what's so wrong with that?" "Nothing!" said Blake, angry and miserable. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, not if that's what you want, and something you're confident and unashamed about. And you, Spencer, seem sure about everything. You hide nothing. But I can't live like that. I don't want to be known as some other half of a gay couple—or any couple, come to that. In three years' time, my mother's going to retire and I will become the face of the Blackmore group. I'll be the one in demand, getting interviewed on television and having people kowtow to me. I won't just be Muriel Moresby's son anymore, as I am right now. And when that happens, Spencer, I'll be able to have anything or anyone I want. So if I do decide to choose someone to stand beside me, it will be a real somebody—well-known, a good-looking face, an equal. Everything that happens up until that moment is just time passing." "You can't be serious?" "Why not? That's when I'll finally get to call the shots." Spencer lowered his head in disbelief. In all the time they had spent together, those had been the most insightful words Blake had ever spoken. But then, in their time together, Blake had rarely opened up. To hear that he only cared about himself and the power trip he would inherit from his mother, fitted perfectly with the image Spencer had built up of the man. But the truth made Spencer feel sad for him, sorry that even with somebody by his side, Blake would probably live his life with nobody he cared about, and nobody who cared about him. "Not that you need to worry. Now that you're finally moving on from Blackmore," said Blake, grabbing Spencer's attention. "Who told you?" asked Spencer, wondering who had betrayed his trust. The last thing he needed was to have Blake bleating to his mother before he'd had a chance to speak to her. "I have my sources. And don't worry, I've not breathed a word to my mother, or Ms Salvatore over there. Or anyone else, come to that. Your secret's safe. Killian's husband, who is a good friend of mine, told me. I'm the one who got Killian onboard to write the column for Collective. Not sure how much you know about him, but although he's a naturally gifted, eloquent vlogger, he is not only mildly dyslexic, but his eyesight's failing. So Cameron, his better half, who works as an editor for Tandem House publishers, helps ghost write his column. Cameron is the one who reads aloud your comments and suggested edits to Killian. They both adore you, by the way, and, without my approval, Cameron went behind my back and recommended you to Ed Coleman at The Herald, told me after the deed that you were wasted at Blackmore." Spencer nodded slowly. Killian's partner, someone Spencer had never met, had seen enough in his work to recommend him to Ed. The thought left him feeling grateful for good people. "In the meantime," continued Blake, pursing away from the wall. "I need a refill. I won't offer you one, because I imagine you need to get back to your troop of nut jobs." "Are we going to see you in the office tomorrow?" "Mother asked the same thing. She'll be in. Offered me a lift. " "And you?" "Maybe," said Blake, his back to Spencer. "Maybe not." Perhaps he should detest Blake, but all he could feel at that moment, watching him stumble unsteadily away, was pity. Spencer returned to his group with a sigh, where he noted Nile several feet away ordering drinks and chatting to a bartender at the bar. Prince sat almost sullenly by Bev's side, while she spoke to someone standing over them, a stranger who had his back to Spencer. Only as he got closer, did he recognise the profile of Joey Hollingbroke. Prince's eyes landed on Spencer and widened, and he shook his head slightly. Joey, who had clearly noticed, turned around at that moment, a smirk on his face. "Here he is," said Joey, looking Spencer up and down. "The man of the moment. Your ears must be burning." "Joey," said Spencer, deciding he would not be intimidated. "To what do we owe the pleasure?" "Saw you over here earlier. Thought you'd like me to come over and say hello." "Hollingbroke's been telling us about himself," said Prince, the disdain in his voice not lost on Spencer. "Even though we didn't ask. He seems to have a very high opinion of himself." Of course, thought Spencer. Bev would have told Prince all about Joey's stunt at the Bangladeshi restaurant and shown him the freebie newspaper's news article about him. Prince was firmly in Spencer's corner. "Prince," said Bev, nudging him. "Sorry. My boyfriend never watched your show." Joey appeared happy to dismiss Bev and Prince and turned his full attention to Spencer. "So how are things going with my Marshall?" Spencer wanted to tell him it was none of his business and that Marshall was not his. Prince would have probably told him to do precisely that. Bev even rolled her eyes. "Things are going extremely well." "In which case why is he not here?" "He has an overseas assignment. Gets back Saturday morning." Joey gaze hardened on Spencer. Something in his last statement had ruffled his feathers, maybe because he was no longer in the know about Marshall's life and whereabouts. "I'd watch your back if I were you, mate. Associating with someone like him." A little voice in Spencer wanted to tell Joey not to call him his mate. "This should be good," said Prince, folding his arms. "Why does he need to watch his back?" "I bet Marshall never told you," said Joey, his attention still on Spencer. "That he has a price on his head?" "What?" laughed Prince sarcastically. "Of course he told me, Joe," said Spencer, straight-faced and severe, deciding not to let Joey get to him. "Along with the traumatising story about his alien abduction, and the time he was almost run over by the ghost of John Wayne on a Harley-Davidson." Prince tilted his head back and guffawed raucously, making Bev and those sitting at nearby tables laugh too, and irritating Joey. "Yeah, I didn't think so. Why don't you ask that bitch Darcy if you don't believe me? Marshall has interviewed a number of dubious personalities during his career, including businessman, Roberto Fiorelli, back in 2018, who was alleged to be associated with the Mafia and supplying drugs to various European nations. Marshall did his usual hardline job of putting the man on the spot, and stupidly backed him into a corner on live television. Afterwards, Fiorelli went berserk and, if rumours are true, threatened to put a hit out on Marshall. You should be careful getting into any cars with him, or being seen out anywhere in public. Otherwise you might end up being caught in the crossfire." "Fine by me." "Really? You don't come across as a toughie. The bow tie and specs don't exactly scream street smarts." "Like you, you mean?" said Prince. "Someone who's spent his whole life pretending to be other people. You wouldn't know true street smarts if they bit you on the arse." Bev had the decency to pull the glass to her mouth, trying to suppress a laugh, which irritated Joey even more. Once again, Joey attempted to ignore them and kept his attention on Spencer. "Don't say you haven't been warned—" Joey had been about to step into Spencer's space, but Prince sprang up from the table in between them and almost snarled. "Why don't you fuck off and play with the traffic, has-been." "Prince!" said Bev, grabbing Prince's arm, shocked but grinning. The words had been enough, though. Joey stepped back, his gaze measuring Prince and probably realising he would come off worse, before turning on his heel and heading off into the crowd. Spencer had noticed Nile remaining a few feet away from them, eyes glued on them, eavesdropping the conversation. As soon as Joey left, he moved back, handed out drinks and took his seat. "That guy is such an asshole. Just ruined a perfectly good drinking session," said Prince. "Sorry, team, this has to be the last one. Enough excitement for one afternoon. I'm ready to drive back to civilisation." "So that was Joey Hollingbroke? Aka Donkey?" said Nile, still watching him go. "False advertising, by all accounts. Rumour has it he's hung like a squirrel. No offence, Spence." Bev burst into fits of giggles. No doubt the alcohol helped, but she was genuinely enjoying the show. "None taken," said Spencer. "How did that nickname come about, anyway? I never watched the series." "Waterloo Lane?" said Bev, getting herself under control. "They had him kitted out in a donkey jacket no matter the weather. In the beginning, they wrote him as a simpleminded lad, shouted at by his dad, pushed around by his brothers. Audiences really sympathised and grew to love him—well, the character. And eventually he got to shine with his own monologues. I almost hate to say it, but he wasn't half bad back in the day." "Now let me get this right, honey," said Nile, his hand on Spencer's shoulder. "Because this is just too delicious not to pass comment on. In one afternoon, you've faced off with the entitled prick, Blake—yes, I saw you outside the loo. And now, you've been confronted by Donkey, who is your new man's ex?" "Spot on." "And, technically speaking, they're both dickheads?" "An accurate enough assessment, I would say." "Honey, you do know some interesting people, don't you?" "Strictly speaking, I don't really know Joey," said Spencer, grinning at the gentle ribbing. "But, I know what you mean. In my defence, though, I think I'm doing a lot better lately, don't you? In my choice of friends?" "If you mean us, then hell yes," said Prince. "Fuck, yeah," said Nile, at the same time. "Come on," said Prince, finishing his cola. "If you want the designated driver to give you a lift home, you'll have to drink up while I head to the john." "In which case, we'll both meet you all out front," said Nile. "I also need to use the designer washroom one last time before we go." Outside in the car park, Bev and Spencer stood huddled together, waiting for the boys. Initially, the chill evening air provided a refreshing contrast to the bar's muggy warmth, the wind whipping around their legs and promising a night of frost. But in very little time, coldness began to seep into the bones. Even after meeting Blake then Joey, Spencer felt in an upbeat mood, the drinks and aimless chatter having relaxed and warmed him through. Before entering the bar, he had texted Marshall to let him know what he was doing. When he checked, he had received a simple soundbite in response, requesting he enjoy himself and behave. Somewhat cryptically, Marshall had also quipped about them needing to sit down once he got back, and have a chat about a brilliant idea he'd had. His tone sounded fun and endearing, nothing to worry him. Spencer thought about calling him when Prince dropped him off at the station, but realised with the timezone difference, that Marshall would be fast asleep by then. "Thanks for the invite," said Spencer, nudging Bev's shoulder. "I was going to head home for a night in with the cat. Even with the unscheduled entertainment, I'm so pleased I came out with you guys." "That Joey Hollingbroke truly is a piece of work, isn't he? Thinks he's god's gift. I honestly thought Prince was going to deck him at one point. What on earth did Marshall see in him?" "It's a long story best told by Marshall. But let's just say he's a friend of the family." "Okay, I'll take your word for that. At least Marshall's come to his senses now." "I think we both lucked out there, Bev. Like you and Prince." "Yes, he's amazing, you know. We're both going to miss having you around at work." Spencer suddenly thought about something that had been said. "Blake said that Muriel's coming into the office tomorrow. Looks like Thursday might be D-Day." "Well, if you need a coffee afterwards, you know where to find me," said Bev, before staring past Spencer and looking relieved. "Oh, here they are." Spencer turned to see Nile and Prince shuffling towards them together, a conspiratorial grin on each of their faces. Funnily enough, the way they moved and grinned, Spencer could see the family resemblance as clear as day. "Where on earth have you two been?" said Bev, stamping her feet in the tarmac of the car park. "We were about to send out a search party." "Sorry, boys and girls," said Nile. "My fault. Your Auntie Nile has just been doing a little bit of troublemaking, otherwise known as matchmaking. Don't know about you, but I noticed Blake looked a little lonely, and thought that he and Joey would make the perfect match. So I went over and hooked them up." "You did not!" said Spencer, his mouth falling open. "He bloody did," said Prince, impressed and chuckling. "As we left, I peered down the bar and saw the two of them chatting together." "A match made in hell," said Nile. "Nile, darling," said Bev, kissing him on the cheek. "You are officially a legend." "And don't you forget it. Today's lesson, people, is that you do not ever mess with my friends. Let's go."
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