“That clock, Mr Matthews, says three twenty-nine,” Mike snapped, “so don’t even think about it.”
Yes, Mike was one of those teachers. And the baleful stare of thirty fifteen-year-olds told him perfectly clearly what they thought of his attitude. Still, if he didn’t get to leave until after the bell, why should this herd of wildebeest masquerading as human beings?
Henry Matthews—nicknamed, shockingly, Hooray by his classmates—fidgeted in his seat. “But Sir—”
“Don’t fidget, boy,” Mike drawled. “You look like you have piles.”
The class sniggered in a great wave. Mike kept a straight face. He liked this group—hell, he liked this school—but his power as a teacher was in coming off as a right miserable git. They all thought he was from the Dark Ages, and kept real skeletons in his specimen cupboard.
Alright, so he did. But not human ones.
“If I see one more book going into a bag,” Mike warned, “then you’ll all be here for another hour, going over a new dissection lesson.”
Half the class—predominantly the girls, with the exception of Carly Hennessey, who was going to make either an excellent surgeon or an excellent serial killer one day—blanched. Mike liked to dissect eyes. Pigs’ eyes. Mostly because it disgusted them the most. His record was three faints and one vomiting in the same class. He’d even beaten Amy Burke and her ‘chemical properties of a body dissolving in acid’ class this year.
“With,” Mike added, just to rub salt in the collective wound, “a pop quiz.”
They groaned as one. Someone said, “You wouldn’t.”
“I would, Miss James.”
What did he care? This summer wasn’t going to be the usual blissful break. Mike would honestly rather stay here.
The clock hands inched round. Sixty individual eyeballs, human ones, were trained on the progress. And then—
The bell screeched. The chairs screeched louder. Feet stampeded for the door, and his tiny orderly universe was destroyed in one fell swoop by a terrible plague of teenagers.
“Quietly!” Mike bellowed after them, merely because it was expected of him, and then he heaved himself off his lab stool and began to gather his things.
Mike liked this school. It was just an academy on the north side of Sheffield, filled to the brim with kids who would end up in shops and driving white vans, but they were a nice enough bunch. They liked him. They thought he was funny and old-fashioned, just this fat, fusty biology teacher with the stereotypical tweed jacket and elbow patches. And it helped, teenagers being rather disgusting creatures, that Mike had a good line in dissection lessons. They liked chopping up lungs and livers, the spotty little psychopaths, even if they did draw the line at eyes.
A cough caught his ear, and Mike glanced up.
“Forgotten something, Emma?”
Emma Mayhew, one of the few in that particular herd with a decent personality between her ears, smiled shyly, and stuck out a hand. An envelope. Mike took it, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
“It’s—thanks,” she said, and tucked a thick chunk of hair behind her ear. It was growing out. “For…everything you did, this year.”
Mike softened. All right, so he wasn’t that much of a miserable git.
“Any time,” he said, and tucked the envelope into his briefcase. “I mean it, though. Summer’s started. Get out of my lab.”
The smile widened into a grin.
She disappeared out of the door, and Mike hefted the case off the table. His phone beeped in his pocket, just once, and he knew it was time to get going.
It was a baking hot summer. The moment he pushed through the double doors to the science block his jacket started sticking to him. The sky was a tropical blue, entirely unnatural in this part of the world, in Mike’s eyes, and the sun blazed high above the glass and concrete in which Mike spent every term. Not even three thirty-five, and the grounds were devoid of underage life.
He lifted a sweaty paw to wave to Hannah Campbell as he staggered out of the courtyard and into the teachers’ car park. There was no hanging about on the final day. The usual seat of last-minute gossip and invites for pints was being abandoned as hastily as the rest of the school. Someone bellowed, “Have a good summer!” and Mike waved without even pausing. He had managed to score the shady spot that morning, and so his car—a Volkswagen Passat in silver that had a hundred and ten thousand miles on the clock, and a single door all in yellow from the day Mike’s mam had opened it and a passing taxi had promptly removed it from her grasp—was blessedly cool. Mike sat in the driver’s seat, gasping like a landed fish, for a good minute before he could bring himself to start the engine.
Naturally, the air conditioning was on the blink again, so he cranked down the window, peeled out of the shady spot, and set off into the sun.
Mike was born and bred in Sheffield. He’d grown up in the shadows of the old factories, and listening to his granddad refusing to drink Thatcher’s anymore because of the Prime Minister by the same name. He’d beaten his accent into shape when he went to Edinburgh to study, only to get it back the minute he’d walked in through the doors at his first teaching placement back in his home city. And he could barely pay attention as he swung his boat of a car through the winding, hilly roads and nonsensical junctions, past the sea of folks who couldn’t operate an indicator if their lives depended on it, and out the other side into the coolness of trees, the shade of narrow streets, and sounds of birds and bees beginning to cry above the city sounds.
There, nestled the house.
It was just a little house. A tiny kitchen. A hall not four feet across. The front door could hit the bottom of the stairs if it was opened too quickly. Mike had to perform on average—he’d counted—thirteen micro-manoeuvres to park the car outside. All the windows needed replacing, and there was an owl that lived in next door’s tree that liked to crap on his bonnet every night. It was constantly too cold, and it was only a two-bedroomed house by virtue of the attic room. To say it had a back garden was being exceptionally generous to the three paving slabs behind their kitchen window.
But it was their kitchen window.
The moment he shuffled his bulk into the coolness of home, Mike could see a pair of running shorts draped over a radiator. There was a cactus in a pink pot on the living room windowsill that gave a whole new meaning to the word ugly. Molly, their fat old tortoiseshell inherited from next door, was sunbathing on the kitchen tiles. A brightly patterned quilt was living on the back of the sofa, and a pair of trainers about five sizes too small for Mike had been abandoned, one on the doormat and one halfway up the stairs.
They’d only bought it last year. It was their first house. They’d been saving for seven years, and now they finally had it. Theirs. It was only the first step on the housing ladder—Mike certainly wasn’t putting up with that damned bathroom for the rest of his days—but the shine of the first home hadn’t worn off yet.
Nobody was in, despite the shoes. Mike puttered about amiably. He showered, changed into some long shorts and a T-shirt, and rustled up his favourite pair of offensively bright trainers, mostly because it would earn him a good groan in the pub later. He sorted through the post—bills, bills, a lost postcard from Fuerteventura for someone called Jade, more bills—and then settled down on the sofa to sort through his briefcase.
Emma’s envelope was still sitting on top, and Mike hesitated.
He wasn’t a romantic. He’d gone into teaching because it was steady work, and a steady wage. A good wage, too, given Mike’s mam was a dinner lady, his dad had driven lorries, and his stepdad was a binman. A teacher’s five-figure salary was like riches in Mike’s world. It hadn’t been about educating young minds, or investing in the future, or any of that. It had been about his biology degrees and the government offering a load of tax-free cash for him to do a teacher training course.
But Mike couldn’t lie. Kids like Emma made it different.
He opened the envelope. It was just a card. A glittery pink card, with a thank you written in party balloons across the front. And inside, a simple message. Nothing fancy. Just a few words…and yet they brought a lump to Mike’s throat anyway.
Dr Parry. Thanks for everything. You made me brave enough to be me. Love Emma.
Mike swallowed thickly, and put the card up on the window next to the ugly cactus.
Emma wasn’t a bright girl. She wasn’t interested in science, and it showed in her work. She’d always just been one of the quiet ones at the back of the class—no hassle, no trouble, but no real promise either. Then Mike had given them a lesson featuring clownfish, who changed sex depending on their environment, and Emma had come to him afterwards and asked if people could change sex. When Mike had said that sex wasn’t as easy as two Xs made a girl and an X and a Y made a boy, Emma had burst into tears and told him she was scared there was something wrong with her.
Of course Emma had been Ryan Mayhew back then.
Christ, maybe Emma was the kid his mentor had been talking about when Mike had started training.
“There’ll be kids you remember in forty years when you’re done,” she’d said. “Some kids will be shit kids who end up in the papers and prison. Others will be the kids who went off and played for England or whatever. But you won’t remember those kids. You’ll remember the kids nobody else will have ever heard of.”
Maybe he’d remember Emma.
Keys rattled. The front door popped open. Mike hastily tore his gaze away from the card and pulled his most aloof, disinterested, Alan-Rickman-worthy expression into place, just as a head poked around the living room door.
“And where,” he asked severely, “have you been?”
That in itself was enough to melt Mike’s resistance. Stephen wasn’t much of a smiler—never had been, never would be—and it was a beautiful smile already without its rarity adding to its allure. But added to the ruffled dark hair, the shades propped on his head, the five o’clock shadow around his jaw, and the white-tank-top-and-black-jeans look he’d decided to go for, the smile became deadly.
Then Stephen sealed the deal by saying, “Shop!” and holding up a plastic bag, clinking promisingly.
“Forgiven,” Mike said instantly.
The front door was left open. They exchanged a kiss at the kitchen counter. Mike smacked that delicious backside in its unfairly tight jeans before retreating to the doorstep. Stephen yowled like an affronted cat, called him a fat git, then joined him, handing over a cool bottle of craft ale and raising his own for the customary clanks and cheers.
“Good day?” Mike asked.
“Yeah. Gave them a film to watch for the final period and had them shouting out all the inaccuracies.”
Stephen taught history. Most of Mike’s marriage was based on ribbing Stephen on history being a useless subject, and being ribbed in return about getting a doctorate only to wind up telling fourteen-year-old boys not to giggle during sex education lessons.
But it was too hot for ribbing, or sex, so Mike simply nodded.
“Master and Commander.”
“No cheers, love, bit much in this weather.”
“Tit. The film. Based on the very not kinky books.”
“Don’t remember it.”
“Paul Bettany being sexy as hell.”
“Paul Bettany is never sexy, as hell or otherwise,” Mike said loftily.
“Russell Crowe on a boat.”
“What, that Biblical one?”
“Russell Crowe in a big hat on a boat.”
“Oh, that one.”
Stephen rolled his eyes.
“What do you say,” Mike suggested, “to drinking these as we walk over to The Hammer and Pincers, getting in a pub dinner and doing the quiz with the other recently-released souls, then staggering back once it’s dark and cooled down a bit, and having some crap sex on the stairs?”
Stephen hummed, and tipped up his bottle. His throat worked. Mike watched peaceably.
“Or some decent sex in bed?”
Stephen smirked and nodded.
“Deal.” Mike slapped Stephen’s knee, then hauled himself to his feet. “Come on then. Not going to be making fast progress in this weather.”
That was really how their relationship had rolled out for the last nine years. Mike ambling along at whatever pace suited him, and Stephen wandering about and occasionally loping back into line. Stephen was athletic, and not the type of athletic people put on dating profiles when they were hoping for a bit of extra attention. He was seriously athletic. He ran marathons. For fun. Mike got exhausted just watching Stephen some days.
And so it was that they made their way to the Hammer and Pincers, with Mike plodding and Stephen wandering along beside, behind, ahead, even walking backwards for nearly a mile as they debated the fine art of pretending to care about uniform regulations.
“I don’t care how much it makes the head like you,” Stephen said as they pushed through the pub door. “I am not wearing a tweed jacket.”
“Try not wearing anything in your eyebrow piercing for a change.”
“You can swivel on that,” Stephen said dryly, dropping to sit at their usual table.
“Steak and kidney?”
“I’m going to push the boat out and try their full English pie.”
“That’s revolting,” Mike said seriously, but went to the bar anyway. The pub did a mean line of pies, including a monstrosity with sausage, beans, and egg inside, but Mike was a pie purist. Steak and kidney was acceptable. Chicken and mushroom was inferior, but admissible. Beef and ale was fine. Anything else? Witchcraft.
Talk stayed on work. They ribbed each other’s subjects—history had no practical application, biology was glorified sex education—and debated how they were supposed to get all their marking and lesson planning done with six weddings to attend. Briefly they strayed off-topic, Mike hoping to get out of going to see Stephen’s family, but then were jerked back onto the rails when the first of the pub quiz team showed up, Jo announcing herself by shamelessly stealing a forkful of Stephen’s pie and sliding into the seat next to him.
Stephen could have levelled a small country with the glare he gave her, but Jo—a maths teacher—was perfectly immune to such things. She simply beamed, asked after their days, and got a round in.
“Forgiven,” Mike said when her fiancée, Jez, returned with the aforementioned round.
“Maybe,” Stephen warned.
“I’ll get you an extra half of cider later, sweetheart.”
Stephen grumbled, but was suitably pacified. He and Jez talked fell running, while Mike and Jo exchanged last-lesson horror stories, and then the others turned up.
The Teachers’ Union, as was their team name, sucked at pub quizzes. Their respective sections were fine—even if Mike maintained that anything to do with NASA was trivia, not science—but there were no teachers of pop music or entertainment, even in the current farce of an education system. Stephen was reasonable at TV after his spell stuck in front of it after his broken leg last year, but nobody knew the first thing about showbiz, they didn’t have a geography teacher on the team, and they were all hopeless at the picture round.
But that wasn’t exactly the point.
The point, to Mike, was the camaraderie. They were teachers, and bound by their shared simultaneous hatred and love of the job, their loyalties and frustrations with the Department of Education, and their ambitious and ridiculous plans to get out—everything from winning the lottery to kidnapping a minor royal and getting a ransom—but here, they were also just people. They didn’t have to mind their language in corridors. They didn’t have to worry if they were putting bad ideas in precious little minds. They didn’t even have to pretend to care about the precious little minds. They could draw knobs on other teams’ answer sheets, admit no bugger cared when Isaac Newton died, and cheer louder than any football hooligans when they came third and won the equivalent of about seventy pence each.
And afterwards, at ten past eleven and three sheets to the wind, Mike could put his hand in the back pocket of Stephen’s jeans, and use his own bulk to steer the drunken lush home.
“Oh, I see,” Stephen said when Mike squeezed one pert arse-cheek. “Still after your stair sex are you?”
“‘Course,” Mike said breezily. “Only sort of bloody sex I ever get these days.”
“You sodding liar!”
Mike laughed, and caught the clumsy kiss that came his way. It tasted of cider and pork scratchings.
“Sod it,” said Stephen. “Let’s stop at the chippie.”
This was what life was all about.
* * * *
Life was not about getting up at six o’clock in the morning on the first day of the summer holidays to drive to the bloody arse end of nowhere in buggering Scotland.
It was also not about getting landed with driving the first leg, because your nutter of a husband had gotten up at four to go for a run.
“It was nice weather!” Stephen said defensively as Mike hooked the suit bags up in the back seat, beside the just-in-case camping gear. Never knew when he’d have to flee into the Scottish wilderness to escape the in-laws after all. “And I couldn’t sleep with you snoring in my ear anyway.”
“Could’ve woken me up for a shag if you felt antsy.”
Stephen snorted. “Please. You’d have bitched and moaned then, too.”
“Only until you got your kit off.”
“It was already off,” Stephen said, folding his long limbs into the passenger seat. “You left it all on the stairs.”
Mike cracked a grin, swapping his glasses for his shades before getting behind the wheel. Stephen looked a picture, stretched out in his board shorts and T-shirt, sunglasses hiding hungover eyes, and suddenly Mike didn’t mind driving so much.
Couldn’t let that show, though. Berk might get ideas.
“You take over at the border.”
“Then it’s your fault if we get lost.”
“We won’t get lost.”
“Shame. Then we’d be late.”
“How lost do you think we’re going to get?”
“Twenty years in the wilderness lost?”
“You wish,” Stephen said sourly.
Mike did wish. Stephen came from money. Old money. His old man owned half the Highlands and three international law firms to boot. His old lady wasn’t exactly working-class stock herself. And money didn’t like its precocious eldest child chucking away a fully-funded PhD scholarship at Oxford to shack up in a grubby flat in a run-down city with an obese biology teacher. Stephen’s mother hadn’t spoken to them at all for a blissful six months after Stephen had started his own teacher training. Mike had hoped it would last.
But no, Dame Black—or Damn Black, as Mike called her—was like a mosquito. Immortal, and kept coming back to bite. The minute Stephen’s sisters had gotten engaged, Damn Black was on the blower, and insisting Stephen not only attend both weddings, but wear a kilt.
“Least I’ll get a good look at those legs,” Mike said jovially as they joined the Saturday morning traffic heading into town.
“Mm. Jury’s still out on that.”
The sun was blazing. They drove with the windows down to the motorway, then wound them up and blasted the air conditioning as Mike barrelled down the slip road and into the northbound traffic. The route was semi-familiar, and semi-not. They didn’t visit the Black family at all if anybody involved could help it, but Stephen was so in love with the Scottish mud and mountains that Mike usually ended up being dragged to some cabin in the woods at least once a year. He would find a pub, Stephen would find a mountain, and there was always a lot of genuine Scottish tablet involved afterwards. Bit of genuine Scottish shagging, too, if Mike was lucky.
Those weekends away, Mike could tolerate. Midges and bogs aside. But a six and a half hour drive to have Damn Black turn up her nose again? He’d rather roll around in honey and walk naked through the midge-ridden countryside than visit that old witch.
Still, he’d tried. Stephen had been raised with a proper old-fashioned idea of family, and it was only critical moments—like their own wedding—when he turned aside from them entirely. And his sister getting married wasn’t such a moment. “She’s my bloody twin,” he’d said. “I have to go.” And Stephen had given him the option of not coming, but Mike hadn’t wanted to make Stephen go into that wasps’ nest on his own.
So here they were.
Despite the destination, it was a nice drive. Stephen dozed until they passed Leeds, then woke up a bit and they played road rage for the next fifty miles or so, critiquing other drivers and shouting abuse at BMWs that flashed past in the fast lane. As the landscape grew darker and heavier, hills beginning to swell around them, Stephen’s soft accent—so gentle it was nearly gone most days—began to swell as well.
And if there was one thing Mike missed about their damp-ridden flat in Edinburgh, it was the way Stephen’s voice had carried in soft lilts and lows when he talked.
They stopped in Carlisle for lunch, had a brief but vicious argument over shortbread—Stephen utterly refused to touch anything made south of the border—and then had to jog back to the car when Cumbria performed its usual trick of turning a nice day wetter than a whore’s drawers in under thirty seconds.
Then Mike started laughing at Stephen’s hair, flattened into a slab by the sudden downpour, Stephen dried it obnoxiously on Mike’s sleeve, and they ended up necking in the front seat like a couple of ruddy teenagers.
“Better than the back seat,” Stephen opined loftily, when Mike voiced the thought.
“Definitely. We’d not fit, not with all that crap back there.”
“We fit on your graduation day.”
Stephen raised his eyebrows. “That was a taxi, not your Passat.”
“Still a back seat.”
“And you were about fifty pounds lighter then.”
“True, but you weren’t doing yoga back then either.”
Stephen snorted. “I keep telling you, that’s not what it’s for.”
“Bloody ought to be, places you can put your ankles these days…”
Stephen mimicked him in a high whine. Mike hit his knee, and turned the key in the ignition.
“Twat,” he said, just to get the last word in before they set off.
Stephen just smirked at the rain and said nothing.
They swapped duties at the border, Mike having never actually been to the Black estate, much less whatever arse-end-of-nowhere manor Beth had undoubtedly chosen to flash her new diamond ring. He took over the radio, trying to find a station without a Glaswegian murdering a cat and calling it music, and eventually gave up and rummaged in the glove box for a CD. And yes, the car was too old for the iPhone adaptor.
And the further they crept from the border, the grimmer the set of Stephen’s mouth became, and the slower he drove.
Dusk was falling by the time they arrived.
And they arrived quite out of nowhere. One moment they were following a winding, narrow road bracketed by dark trees, glimpses of a great shadow in the distance hinting at the Cairngorms close by, and the next, Stephen had jerked the car off into a hidden turning, and the tyres were squishing and crashing through muddy puddles.
And then the trees opened up, and the manor appeared.
“So,” Mike said conversationally, “Beth’s going for the quiet, low-key sort of affair is she?”
The manor stuck out on the landscape like a boil. It was the typical sort of thing for a fancy, cash-flashing wedding: a hundred-room mansion, two hundred years old with spotty WiFi, and oozing money and opulence from every crevice like a flabby granddad sweating in a sauna. It was a brown blob in the midst of a green and grey classical painting, the setting sun bathing the distant mountains in pink and gold, and overlaying the grim wilderness with a touch of almost ethereal beauty.
Bit like Stephen in a grump then.
The car bounced onto gravel, crunched loudly enough that they might have run over a wild haggis, and slid into place between a freakishly clean Jaguar, and an obscenely large Land Rover that was too spotless for its owner to actually need a Land Rover.
It was the latest model, too, but the personalised number plate was familiar.
“Damn—I mean Dame—Black is here.”
Stephen didn’t rise to the barb.
Not two feet inside the architect’s-wet-dream of a lobby, Mike could hear the braying laugh of Dame Mary Ann Black. Or DAM3 MAB, as her number plate insisted. Stephen’s jaw tightened, and he made for the desk like he’d caught fire and the stuck-up looking receptionist had the only bucket of water for the next thousand miles.
“Parry,” he snapped. “We have a double suite.”
A perfectly plucked eyebrow rose. Lips pursed. A hand perused the register all too slowly, as that bored gaze slipped past Stephen to narrow on Mike.
“For the both of you?”
“If you have an issue with that, you ought to have checked the names on the booking,” Stephen said tartly.
“Oh. Oh no. No…problem.”
Stephen near-jerked the offered key away when it was held out to him, and it ended up being Mike who signed for the room, seeing as how Stephen had already disappeared towards the stairs. He offered the receptionist an apologetic shrug. She simply stared back, like a lobotomised lab rat. The droned, “Enjoy your stay,” could have come from a supermarket tannoy announcement.
Mike took the stairs slowly. He didn’t bother to catch up. Stephen in a snit wasn’t worth catching up to. Especially not when his mother was involved. Thankfully, their room was at the top of the flight, far away from the hyena in the hotel bar, and Stephen had relaxed against the wall by the door. Mike offered a kiss and a rude name, got a middle finger and a smirk, and decided it was probably safe again.
“Still waiting for the day you say sod it, and send the invite back unopened.”
“It’s Beth’s wedding.”
“She’s my sister,” Stephen said, the same thing he’d been saying since Mike had first met him, and followed Mike into the room.
“We-ell. I guess this is the up side.”
It wasn’t a room, it was a small flat. In fact, Mike was reasonably sure it was bigger than the flat they’d shared in Edinburgh. It was definitely bigger than the one they’d shared in Sheffield, before Stephen had gotten his first teaching post. The bed was big enough to fit a rugby team in, and hide them thanks to the four-poster frame and the thick, heavy curtains. The bay window had a sofa built in underneath it. The mini-bar was an actual damn bar, and the port selection wasn’t to be sniffed at. The bathroom, when Mike peeked, had a bath that could have drowned an elephant, and a shower cubicle that could have been ripped out of the wall and used as a horse stall.
“Right,” Mike said, pointing a finger at the cubicle. “I reckon this is going to be our one and only chance at shower sex. Get your clothes off.”
Stephen raised both eyebrows. “Bloody hell. Reign in the romance there, lover-boy. I might swoon.”
“Do you want a blowjob or not?”
“Yeah, all right then.”
So they had shower sex. It was interesting enough but not as good as Mike would have thought. He was oddly distracted from having Stephen’s legs wrapped around his waist by the lack of a slip mat on the shower floor, and was too busy trying not to fall and kill them both to really enjoy Stephen soaking wet and covered in soap.
Stephen was a bit less moody afterwards, though, so they broke open one of the bottles of port and sprawled out to dry naked in the cavernous bed. Then Stephen got a bit pissed, cuddled up, and who was Mike to intervene if Stephen fancied giving him a handjob?
And so it was that they had arrived on Saturday evening, having promised to go to dinner with the hyena and Stephen’s useless sperm donor of a father, and…woke up at six o’clock on Sunday morning with raging hangovers instead.
“Bugger,” said Mike.
“You could sound like you mean it,” Stephen groused.
Mike thought about it.
“Ah, bugger it?”
* * * *
They didn’t emerge—no, scratch that. They did emerge, but not for dinner and company. Stephen went for his usual ten mile hangover cure, because he was apparently a mutant who could outrun a raging headache. Mike shuffled down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, which was revoltingly fancy and continental, without a glimpse of a bacon butty anywhere.
“This is Scotland,” he moaned to Stephen later. “Where’s the bloody bacon!”
“This is posh Scotland,” came the shouted reply over the shower water.
“No such bloody thing.”
“It’s not all deep fried Mars Bars and haggis, you know.”
“Those are the only good bits,” Mike protested.
The bathroom door opened and Stephen wandered out from his second shower of the morning, completely naked, and Mike paused in his raid of the tea supplies.
“Alright,” he conceded. “Two of the three good bits.”
Stephen gave him a look so unimpressed it could have come from their cat, and rummaged in his bags for underwear.
“So who’s this lad Beth’s marrying, anyway?”
“Bob,” Mike immediately decided.
“Doubt it. Great Aunt Alicia said he worked at Mother’s firm.”
“Shagging the boss’ daughter. Nice one, Bob.”
Stephen snorted, wriggling the briefs up over his hips. “All I know is he’s the head of the corporate law team, and he went to Oxford. And you can imagine why Mother decided to tell me that.”
Mike rolled his eyes. “Can’t get a pint for less than a fiver in Oxford.”
“Exactly.” Jeans followed. Well-cut black jeans, but still jeans. At least Stephen wasn’t entirely playing along, and going for the suit-and-tie look for the vultures. “Dinner’s at six. We’ve got a few hours. What do you want to do?”
“You, up the arse, in the Maldives, round about November when the little shits are just getting lippy at school.”
Stephen rolled his eyes. “Uh-huh. And more realistically?”
“Find a bloody bacon butty.”
Mike was still hungover as hell. Stephen drove. The air was blessedly cooler this far north, and Mike had to grudgingly admit that the winding route to the nearest town was pretty. The town itself was quite pretty, too, but the café with the red-and-white plastic tablecloths and the biggest fry-up Mike had ever seen was downright beautiful.
“I want a divorce,” he said through a mouthful of mushrooms. “I’m going to propose to the cook.”
“Okay,” Stephen said, “but I’m keeping Molly.”
Stephen looked tired, and was on strong coffee. He rarely drank it, especially with extra espresso, and once Mike had taken the edge off his hunger, he tapped the mug with his fork.
Stephen shrugged. “Didn’t sleep well.”
“Penny for ‘em.”
“Your thoughts. Penny for ‘em.”
“Oh.” He sighed through his nose. “I don’t know. Just don’t like being back here I guess.”
“Bollocks to ‘em,” Mike said firmly, and earned himself a wan smile. “You’ve got a good job, a—”
“That’s not it.”
Stephen hunched his shoulders. “Couldn’t be me here. Feels like I never was me here. If that makes sense.”
“Ah,” Mike said, and tapped the mug again. “Well, welcome to the arse-end of nowhere, Stephen. Doesn’t even have bloody bacon for ten miles in any direction. It’s shit. I’m weighing up not drinking at this sodding wedding, just so we can start going home the minute it’s over.”
As he ranted, the wan smile turned into a snort, and then Stephen smirked into his coffee as he finished it.
“Better,” Mike said. “You’re already a Scottish git, don’t be a miserable one, too.”
“Don’t need to be, given you take your trousers off whenever I ask.”
“You bloody wish,” came the tart reply.
Stephen seemed to cheer up a bit at any rate, and Mike let the topic alone. Nine years, Mike knew when Stephen needed to brood and when he needed to blow his lid. Snorting into his mug wasn’t either. He might be a bit quiet, but he was alright.
“So what’s the plan?” Mike asked as he cleared his plate.
“Get back for five, dinner with the family at six.”
“Which bits? Can’t imagine your future brother-in-law is allowed.”
“I don’t know,” Stephen admitted. “I don’t even know how many people are coming to the ceremony.”
“Hundreds, surely? Got to be event of the century, with your mother involved.”
“Yeah, but Beth’s shy.”
“Really don’t reckon the bride got to plan this one, Stephen…”
Stephen made a face. “Point. Mother’s still mad at us for getting married on the sly. Or at all.”
Mike grinned. “Best wedding ever.”
It had been a registry office do, in a town they’d never been to before, with only their mate Jo with them. They’d had to borrow the other witness off the street. It had been in the middle of a raging storm, and they’d been wearing overflowing wellies and ugly waterproofs. Mike still remembered the icy cold feel of Stephen’s smile against his mouth when they’d kissed. And then Jo had thrown a handful of plastic petals she’d ripped off a fake bouquet in a petrol station over their heads, and said she’d get the first round in at the pub.
Mike’s mam hadn’t talked to him for a month, furious at her only child running off to get married in secret instead of having the big wedding she’d hoped for. Stephen’s mother had turned her nose up and said it was just one of those silly things that students did, he was acting out against his father after the argument, and he’d be divorced again in a year.
“What, our wedding?”
“Your mam. Saying we’d be divorced again within the year.”
Stephen wrinkled his nose. “Jesus, yeah. She went mental.”
“Can’t blame her. Cream of the Black crop, eloping with some fat biology teacher.”
“We ran off to Lincoln!”
“We were living in the same flat,” Stephen said sceptically.
Stephen rolled his eyes, picking at a stray napkin on the table.
“Want to play the wedding game?”
A slow smirk spread across Stephen’s usually impassive features.
The wedding game was something Mike’s stepsister Vikki had invented, when a slew of fusty cousins had got married a few summers ago. Before attending, they’d pick an option for the newly-weds: the scenic route to Happyeverafterville, or on the express service to West Divorcingshire. At the end of the wedding, they revisited it and came to a joint conclusion. Whoever had picked the losing option bought dinner—because weddings inevitably had shit food, and not enough of it.
“Shit,” Mike said conversationally. “Right, got a coin? We’ll toss for it.”
Stephen rummaged and produced a penny from somewhere. Mike tossed it, and Stephen called heads.
And won. “Damn.”
“There’s a good curry house not far from here,” said Stephen smugly. “We can nip off at nine or so, once Mother’s too pissed to notice we’re gone.”
“If her drunkenness is all that’ll keep us, then I’ll get her rounds in myself.”
* * * *
Mike got to skip the family dinner. Turned out it was blood—or bloody—family only. So Stephen skulked off at six, alone and in his best suit, and Mike satisfied himself with the hotel room telly, frantic texts from his mam about her own upcoming wedding, and—when the evening programming began—finding a decent porn channel and having a quick wank.
He woke up in the dark some time later, when a warm body slid into bed next to him. Didn’t matter. He hugged it close, and drifted off again.
So the next thing Mike was really aware of was the alarm on Stephen’s phone ringing, and—judging by the sounds in the bathroom—the man himself having a shave.
“Traitor!” Mike sounded, who was a beard fan.
“It looked scruffy!”
“It’s supposed to look bloody scruffy!”
He hadn’t done too much damage, though, when Mike got up to get ready. The shadow remained. Mike rubbed his cheek against the raspy jaw, and licked his way into a spearmint-flavoured mouth for a kiss.
“Urgh, Jesus, what crawled into your gob and died?” Stephen complained, shoving him away.
“Couple of pints of fuck-knows-what,” Mike said. “Oi, I don’t think so, c’mere.”
Stephen was just in his underwear—and his sodding sexy underwear at that. Jersey briefs were God’s gift to bums. Mike had a cheeky grope, pun intended, then got smacked away so Stephen could finish getting ready. Mike still eyed him up when showering, though. Inspecting the merchandise and all that.
It was just as well neither of them had a thing for suits, given how many sodding weddings they were in store for this summer. Stephen had been raised by people in suits, so never saw the fuss. Mike thought Stephen always looked too cold and stiff dressed up. Still, he gave another quick grope on their way down to the car, just for mood-boosting purposes.
“Behave,” Stephen scolded.
Mike drove, under Stephen’s directions, but he didn’t really need them. The narrow dirt roads, the overgrown hedges, and the rugged wilderness around them said that life, here, was something evidenced by tracks in the mud and the occasional abandoned cigarette butt. But today, there were other cars, and all grumbling through the greenery in one direction. Even at a slow crawl, caught between a Mercedes that was going to be distinctly worse for wear after this trek through brambles and trees, and a Skoda that was aggressively in love with Mike’s bumper, it only took a matter of five or six minutes from the gravel driveway of the opulent manor to the convergence of three dirt roads.
In the middle of the junction stood a church. It was a tiny old thing, and nothing like what Mike had imagined for a lavish Black wedding. Crumbling rock, headstones lying down amongst long, dry grass, and a roofless dovecote. Magpies lined the roof, eyeing the wedding party with beady eyes. Mist swirled gently about them, the sun too weak to burn it away.
“This is it?”
“Obviously,” said Stephen.
Which was a fair point. The church was on the outskirts of a clutch of four old cottages and a farm track. Mike was surprised it existed at all. Yet the field entrances were crowded with cars, and chubby middle-aged women in too-tight velvet pantsuits milled about the entrance in garish hats. It looked, Mike reflected, like parents’ evening.
An old man stooped to pick up his wife’s fallen handbag, and his kilt rose uncomfortably. Mike amended the thought.
It looked like Scottish parents’ evening.
Mike had to tuck the car between a savage, brambly hedge, and a Toyota Yaris. Stephen had to climb out over the driver’s seat after him, then his posture stiffened and his expression cooled. His typical response to his family’s presence. Mike liked to think of it as Stephen Parry being swept away, and Stephen Black resurrected. Because Stephen was a grumpy sod and next-to-never smiled, yes, but this Stephen wasn’t Mike’s Stephen.
Mike snorted. Well, he wasn’t playing at being Mike Black all day either. Sod that for the ace of spades. He tucked an arm low around Stephen’s hips instead, the hand perfectly indecent, and steered him towards the drystone wall that surrounded the churchyard. Butterflies were rising gently out of the grass. He could smell summer.
“I take it they chose this little old place for a reason?”
“Family church,” Stephen said, still eyeing someone who was—going by the nose and the fact he could have been cast as Gandalf the Grey—a great-uncle. “Blacks have been here since the church was built.”
Mike twisted around to squint at it. “Shitting hell.”
“Sixteenth century. The first preacher was a Black.”
“Christ almighty,” Mike said. “You never said you were a god-botherer. I demand a divorce.”
“Nice try, smartarse.”
“So your lot have been marrying here ever since?”
“More or less.”
Mike felt a tiny twinge of guilt. “So that’s why your mam weren’t too happy about the registry office.”
“No, that was definitely you,” Stephen said, relaxing a little. Mike laughed. “It’s more about tradition than religion. This is where we’ve always been married. This is the way we do things.”
And he didn’t need to say, because Mike knew it perfectly well, that the way the Blacks did things was the way they were always supposed to do things. And Stephen had never been too good at toeing the line.
“Bugger the way you do things.”
“You like the way I bugger.”
Mike cackled. An elderly woman in a floral tribute to Kew Gardens gave him a sour look. Well, if Stephen was going to retain his sense of humour throughout this snoozefest, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, nobody came to talk to Stephen, and he seemed disinclined to move. The relationship between Stephen and the rest of the Blacks hadn’t been good by the time he’d gone to university, had collapsed with all but the immediate family shortly afterwards, and the marriage to Mike had been the last straw even for them. Mike had been surprised they’d been invited to this thing at all. Stephen had offered the explanation that it would be obvious if he didn’t attend, given it were Beth, and they wouldn’t want people to gossip about why.
“Anyway,” he’d said, that day the invitation had arrived in the post, “Mother might be hoping I meet someone suitable and she can finally get rid of you.”
Mike tightened his grip in a hug. Good luck with that one, mother-in-hell.
“Bloody dangerous, that.” Ushers were filing out of the church. “Come on. Let’s get a seat near the back, before Mother turns up.”
Or worse, Mike thought, his father. Mary Black was one thing. David Black was quite another.
The inside of the church was quaint and pretty. The stained glass windows were dark and brooding from the outside, but soaked the close interior in bright rainbow light. The pews were ancient and narrow. Mike grumbled as he squeezed himself into one, and complained he wasn’t kneeling for any prayers as he’d never fit.
“Half the family’s ancient and can’t kneel anyway,” Stephen said. “Ow!”
“You mind your tone,” creaked a crabby voice.
Stephen’s face lit up like the sun. “Aunt Alicia!”
A tiny little old lady shuffled into the seat beside him, a great fox fur flung about her bony shoulders and a cane gripped in one clawed hand. Her smile was a crack in a great, wizened walnut of a face. She must have been two hundred years old, but traces of the woman she’d been were still there. Laughter lines about the near-buried eyes. Diamond jewellery, but Primark shoes. The fact that, if one looked closely, an earring gleaming in only one ear, not both, and there was a suspicious gap, not dissimilar to Stephen’s, in her eyebrow.
She promptly smacked her cane into Stephen’s shin, demanded a kiss for his old auntie, and called him a useless little sod who didn’t write often enough.
“I’m not blind, boy! I can read a postcard!”
Mike’s shoulders were shaking with the effort not to laugh.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Alicia. We’ve been busy.”
“Busy with what, eh, busy with what?”
“I told you,” Stephen said patiently. “Busy with the hospital.”
“Hospital, pah! What do you need a hospital for? Him, he needs a hospital, walking bloody heart attack, but that’s what you get for marrying a southern nancy.”
Mike grinned. He’d never been called a southern nancy before.
“I told you—”
“That’s the trouble with you young things, think you run the world while you’re playing at life. You need to slow down, you’re too thin. You! Michael, wasn’t it? Why are you eating all the pies, eh, and my nephew’s resembling a garden rake!”
Mike choked, cackling, but she didn’t seem to really want an answer, banging her stick on the stone floor and peering around the church.
“Look at this lot,” she grumbled. “Lot of wheezing, useless old fools. And his family! Pah. I wouldn’t have let my daughter marry such a sot, if I’d had one.”
Even Stephen was starting to smirk.
“I don’t know why I bothered,” Aunt Alicia continued. “Thirty pounds for the taxi. Thirty pounds! Well, I wasn’t going to pay, I said to them, I said—”
She wittered on, the miserly old bat, and Mike fiercely loved her. She was an ancient and avowed lesbian, Stephen’s grandmother’s sister, who had refused to go away and be quiet like the family wanted. Stephen would be like that, in a thousand years, and Mike was firmly looking forward to it. Alicia MacLeod, the proof that sometimes apples did fall far from the family tree.
The only person who shared Stephen’s blood that Mike privately regarded as belonging to their family, their tiny Parry family, at all.
The church settled down and quieted, as though by some unseen signal. The groom was some insipid-looking man with features so lacking in depth, they belonged in a postmodernist art gallery, and he rose at the front. A kilted old gent with a set of bagpipes shuffled up to the front, and lifted the ungainly instrument, ready. A baby, as was the grand tradition of weddings the world over, began to cry.
The bagpipes squealed, the church doors opened, and they rose as one.
A clutch of tiny flower girls, in puffy dresses of pale pink, came first. They were followed by an enormously angry seven-year-old pageboy. Then a dress shoe squeaked on the threshold of the church, where carpet met stone, and Mike was flung quite abruptly into the past.
Looking at Beth Black was like going back in time nine years.
Oh, she wore a veil and Mike hadn’t seen her in about seven of those nine years, but he knew every inch of her features all the same. For they were all Stephen’s, too. The thick brown hair, so dark it was often mistaken for being as black as her name. The deep blue eyes, like a still sea on a clear day. The way her eyebrows crinkled in the middle before she frowned. The smooth texture of her skin that made her look so aloof and expressionless, no matter her mood. He knew the soft curls of her fingers about the bouquet, and the long, steady strides she took. He remembered how her feet would look in those shoes he’d never seen. He recalled the long column of her neck and the soft slopes of her shoulders as though he’d seen them only yesterday.
In a way, Mike supposed he had.
He shook off the stunned reverie, and dragged himself back into the present. That git of a father-in-law had her by the arm, and Beth was a bit of a cow, going by what Stephen said about her. And a bird Mike barely knew was walking into a church to marry a bloke he didn’t know. No need for the waxing poetic malarkey.
Still, it was an odd experience. After all, Stephen and Beth were twins. It was just a bit like…well, watching his husband marry someone else. A long time ago.
Mike leaned back in the pew, grateful for his extra padding, and slipped an arm around Stephen’s waist as Beth was handed from father to future husband at the front.
Nah. Their registry office do had been better.
* * * *
Dinner had been eight courses of something tiny and unpronounceable. No bacon, no haggis, definitely no fried Mars Bars. There wasn’t a funny speech in sight. Stephen’s old man had droned on for a thousand years about expectations and pride, and had thrown more than one dirty look their way. The entertainment appeared to be that bagpipe-playing geezer, and some traditional Scottish dancing.
“If they were going for traditionally Scottish,” Mike said to Stephen over the sixth course—a globe of paste on an insipid bit of fish—in a confidential whisper, “then why not the dwarf-tossing?”
“Caber tossing, you bellend.”
“I dunno, dwarf-tossing, we could chuck the father of the groom.”
Stephen snorted into his sleeve, but it was the first smile he’d cracked since the ceremony, and it smoothed away quickly.
He was very stiff and cold, and Mike hated it. Stephen could sulk for Scotland, no competition there, and it radiated outwards so that he didn’t sulk at a particular someone, he sulked at everyone. Mike’s instincts said he was in trouble, and ought to be putting in orders to the best curry house in town and cleaning the kitchen as penance, even as his brain pointed out he hadn’t done anything to pay penance for.
The free bar helped a little, after dinner. Mike volunteered to drive, and pressed a pint into Stephen’s hand firmly. “Get it down you,” he said. “You’ll feel better for it.” The pint, plus Aunt Alicia criticising everything from the chandelier to the croutons, brought a tiny ease to the set of those slim shoulders. They lounged together against the wall for some time, Mike’s fingers caught in the back of Stephen’s belt, and Aunt Alicia chirping brightly about the hideous nature of the doorknobs.
And as Mike cast an eye around the room, he realised nothing had really changed.
People were staring, but steering clear. A bridesmaid was whispering to a friend, glancing at them every few seconds. The bride had done a full circuit of all her friends and relations, then skipped over Stephen like he were a ghost. Even Jane, the one member of the family to send a card when they’d got married, simply nodded and drifted away again. They were unwelcome…but too close to not be invited.
This was what the Black family did, in Mike’s experience. He couldn’t say he’d ever heard his in-laws, with the exception of Bastard Black, say anything outright vile to either of them. But they took passive-aggressive to a whole new level. Frosty silences. Postcards from extravagant locations, offering to pay for their air-fare ‘next time.’ Invitations to family functions pointedly made out to Stephen, and Stephen alone.
Hell, Mike technically hadn’t been invited to this wedding at all.
“Alicia, come and—oh. Stephen.”
And there she was. Right on time—and on the flimsiest of pretences, as Stephen would have been blocking Aunt Alicia from her eyeline. But there she was, all the same. Damn Black, in all her glory.
Dame Mary Black was a tall, thin woman with a face like a slapped arse. Or a horse. A slapped horse’s arse, perhaps. She had the same colouring as her progeny, but none of the attractiveness. Her skin was sagging and thin from years of excessive yo-yo dieting, and her nose too prim and perfect on her loose face, the surgery too obvious. She’d either had Botox, or a stroke, since Mike had last seen her. Her nails were claws on Stephen’s arm, and her smile could have been—and with the amount of makeup, almost was—painted on.
Mike’s hackles were rising, and she’d barely even spoken.
Stephen clearly felt the same. He almost clicked his heels like a soldier. “Mother.”
“You’re not wearing your kilt, dear.”
A sharp pause. Alicia was watching with a pursed mouth and gleaming eyes.
“I’m glad you came.”
The Damn turned to Mike with an even falser smile. “Michael.”
“Mike,” said Mike.
“Lovely to see you again. Not drinking? I see you’re still having weight issues.”
“Driving. I see you’re still having charm issues.”
“Now, now, dear, I didn’t mean—”
“Eh, think you did.” He sipped his lemonade leisurely.
“What do you want, Mother.” Stephen’s voice was so flat, it wasn’t really a question.
She pursed her lips. “To see how you are, dear.”
“You could have called.”
“I did call.”
“When Beth got engaged.”
“We’ve been busy. Two weddings in a month, it’s a busy time!”
Mike mentally filed the excuse away for the inevitable outburst the next time they had big news and failed to tell her.
“So,” she pressed. “How are things at home? Between you and—” She lowered her voice, as if Mike wasn’t literally standing right there with an arm around Stephen’s waist. “—Michael.”
“Mike,” said Mike.
“Great,” Stephen said stiffly.
“Are you still teaching?”
“Don’t you find it a little constricting? You were always so clever…”
Once he would have argued with her. Now he just seemed to be grinding his teeth. Mike wasn’t sure if it was progress or not.
“I’m sure you could reapply to Oxford, you know.”
“I’m sure I don’t want to.”
“You would have done so well.”
“I’m doing well now.”
It was unusually blunt. Mike eyed the wine glass in her hand, and wondered how many had preceded it.
“Yes.” Stephen’s posture was straighter than an American football player. “We bought a house. Mike got promoted to head of his department. We’re talking about starting a family.”
Doing a lot more than talking about it.
“Yes. You know. Kids.”
“Kids,” she echoed faintly, as though he’d said ‘cunts.’ Her hand actually drifted up to her necklace in a vague, pearl-clutching motion.
Another pause. Mike counted in his head. Three. Two. One.
There it was.
“Mike,” said Mike.
“Of course with Mike,” Stephen said in a voice tighter than a nun’s twat. “Who else?”
“Well.” She paused. Then she said, “Well,” again.
“Shouldn’t be doing that,” Alicia interjected peaceably. “Children. Messy, dirty, expensive things. Get a cat.”
“We have a cat, Aunt Alicia.”
“Get another cat.”
“No chance, bloody thing nearly killed me on the stairs last week,” Mike grumbled.
Aunt Alicia laughed. Damn Black looked like she’d swallowed a lemon coated in razor blades and salt. Stephen smiled beatifically at Mike, holding out the empty pint glass, and asked for a bucket of wine. Mike sensed the imminent bitching that was about to happen between mother and son, and gratefully escaped. He couldn’t manage a bucket—free bar or no free bar, the guy wasn’t willing to put it in a vase—but he got two glasses and tipped one into the other to top it off before turning back, red almost brimming over. Stephen took it with a smile and a kiss on the cheek, rather obviously intended to wind his mother up, and Mike merrily helped the war effort along by rather obviously palming his arse. Shame he’d skipped out on the kilt, really.
“I don’t understand,” the Dame was saying. “How could you possibly—”
“Plenty of ways to have a child, Mother.”
Her lips thinned. “I meant, in your situation.”
Stephen sipped his wine and blandly repeated: “Plenty of ways to have a child.” Paused. “Mother.”
Christ, Mike wanted to shag him when that dickhead mode was turned on somebody else for a change.
“Ah, there you are, Mary.”
The fun was over. The temperature in the room dropped five degrees. Mike could have sworn the wine didn’t have ice cubes in it when he’d got it.
Bloody did now.
David Black—or Bastard Black, as Mike had rechristened him on the morning of their wedding—was the spitting image of his son. He had the wrong colouring, but it was as if someone had simply taken a photograph of Stephen and changed the light settings. The jaw, the nose, the shape of the eyes, even the slight ears and the way their eyebrows quirked up at the corners when annoyed or feeling particularly sarcastic, were all the same. Mike had to grudgingly admit that his git of a father-in-law was good-looking.
Far cry from good, though.
“Stephen was just telling me that he and Michael—”
“Mike,” said Mike.
“—are thinking of starting a family.”
Damn Black was too proper to cause a scene. Her speciality was in backhanded compliments, gossiping behind one’s back, and sending passive-aggressive text messages.
Her husband was a different kettle of kippers.
Stephen’s eyebrow rose. “Excuse me?”
“I said no,” Bastard Black repeated. “Raise a child in that run-down little hovel of yours, with that?”
His gesture at Mike was like being slapped with a wet salmon. Mike’s jaw sagged.
“With no money and a useless—”
“—great lump for a father? They won’t be any grandchildren of m—”
He never finished the word.
Because Mike decked him.
Someone shrieked. The crunch of a nose popping wetly under his knuckles was like being nine again and scrapping in the schoolyard. Satisfying. Rewarding. And let some old bastard who hadn’t had the balls to have a decent fight a day in his life get up after being punched by almost twenty stone of a steel city lad.
Mike stepped back, and shook out his fist.
“How dare you!” Mary spluttered, flying to her felled husband’s side. “How dare you!”
Mike turned on his heel, and marched out.
Sod them. Sod the absolute bloody lot of them. Calling their house, his house, a hovel. Trying to tell him who he could and couldn’t have a baby with. Calling him useless—him! The first in his family to ever go to university. Hell, the first to ever go to sixth form, never mind university. And he’d got a doctorate out of it! He had a card in his living room from a teenager who he’d helped, who’d been distraught and he’d helped make things better. And he’d be a bloody brilliant father and everybody knew it, better than that stuck-up, money-grubbing, tight-fisted piece of—
Cold air hit his face, and fingers caught at his arm.
Stephen’s voice was gentle, and Mike shook the hand off, only to take it in his own and squeeze.
“Come on,” he said. “I lost the coin toss. Direct me to that curry house of your’n.”
“I need more wine.”
“Yeah. Spilled mine on Father.”
“I accidentally threw it out of my hand and into his face.”
“It runs in the family.”
“It does not.”
“Bloody does, Aunt Alicia did it, too.”
Mike laughed properly then, and caught Stephen at the car to shove him against the bodywork and kiss him.
“Bugger the lot of them,” he said fiercely. “They don’t want to be a part of our new family, they can shove it.”
Stephen grinned. “Can I bugger you instead?”