EXCERPT – Slap and Tickle

Outside With A Kick, the wind suddenly lifted with a fierce gust. Bryan paused in the doorway, waiting for it to pass. The pavement glittered with rain from earlier in the day, and clumps of litter gathered in the street gutters. People stumbled past with their raincoats clutched around their bodies, and hair whipping around their faces. Fine day for ice cream? Bryan thought not, and was further depressed on Patrick’s behalf. He was momentarily distracted by a group of dark-suited businessmen hurrying past, all carrying briefcases and messenger bags. A packed commuter Tube had probably just disgorged its passengers. He fastened his coat, watched for a break in the flow, then stepped out from the shop front…

… and barrelled straight into an obstruction, a person crouched on the pavement. For a second, arms flailing to keep his balance, he was perilously close to falling. How humiliating, to take a tumble as an adult! He knew he’d go down like a felled tree, with none of the innate relaxation that children had to protect themselves from the worst. But the flailing helped him regain his balance and, just in time, the world righted itself. He leant back against the shop window, pushed his glasses back up his nose to their usual safe position, and waited for his breath to steady.

“Fuck! I mean, are you okay? I’m really sorry. I never saw you!” The crouched creature rose upright from the pavement to take a real shape. A young, skinny, male shape, with wide, grey-green eyes and shaggily cut, dark auburn hair. It was blowing in and out of his eyes because of the wind, and he pushed it aside every couple of seconds with a frustrated tsk. He didn’t wait for Bryan to reply before continuing in a high, slightly panicked voice. “It’s been one of those fucking mornings, you know? The wind caught me unawares and the whole bloody lot went flying. I was just trying to scoop up what I could, not that most of them haven’t been ruined by the puddles, I knew I should have brought the waterproof backpack but my flatmate borrowed it for a festival and anyway, what can you do when the morning looks fine, then the weather ranges through tsunami and hurricane in one fucking day?”

Bryan just stared, stunned by at the veritable torrent of words coming out. Glancing down in the direction of the man’s expansive gestures, he saw a wide arc of spilled leaflets over the pavement around him, a sea of yellow and orange neon paper with bold black print. Bryan only caught a couple of the words, but he understood at once what they were advertising. HOT MASTERS and PRIVATE PARTIES were a real giveaway, this near to Soho.

“I’d nearly finished, you know?” The man gabbled on, his panic unabated. “Just had four more streets to visit, I was hoping to get it all done before the tourists really descend, late morning’s always the worst after they’ve finished their hotel breakfast and got their maps and cameras ready, and then I’d be home by lunch time. But just past Gerrard Street the fucking wind picked up and by the time I got here, it was following me like some kind of tornado. All I did was open my bag, honest, I was just going to drop in a few leaflets at the ice cream place, then the whole bloody lot blew over the street like confetti, not that anyone would choose a promo for a local leather club at any kind of a wedding, but you know what I mean, right?” The young man’s face screwed up as if he was about to cry. “Oh my God, my fucking God, they’ll never recruit me again if I don’t deliver them all properly, you can’t just dump them in a bin, or,” He waved his hands about again, nearly smacking Bryan in the eye, “in fucking puddles!”

 “Please stop!” Bryan said sharply. Rather to his surprise, the man did. His mouth clamped shut like a ridiculous cartoon character, and he stared at Bryan more closely. Slowly, his pale cheeks began to colour.

“Please stop rambling,” Bryan said, more slowly. Maybe the poor man had difficulty communicating. “Stop swearing.” Stop talking altogether, he wanted to say, but it wasn’t really the other man’s fault that Bryan couldn’t abide pointless chatter. He had attractive, full lips that Bryan couldn’t help noticing. It was the speech spewing out that disturbed him. “Just stop.”

Bryan didn’t think he’d spoken too loudly, but the brusque tone startled him. Across the road, a couple of shop workers were staring over. Their arms were full of souvenir goods, restocking the display units on the pavement, pinning them more securely in case the wind gusted up again. “Get out of everyone’s way. Come over here.” Bryan took the young man’s arm and drew him back into the shelter of With A Kick’s awning. The edges flapped listlessly in the aftermath of the wind.

The man offered no resistance, even when Bryan kept hold of his arm, except to protest, “I have to clear the leaflets.”

“In a minute.” Bryan took a deep breath, trying to keep a threatening headache at bay. It was just stress, he was sure. He could operate through the pain: he just needed to get away from public curiosity. “I’ll help you pick it all up.”

The young man let out a small, nervous laugh. “Um. Thanks.”

“Your name?” Bryan said. Dammit, and that came out as more of a bark than a question. He couldn’t seem to control his voice in this situation. The tone was nothing like his sales pitch to new businesses, or his reporting of financial statements to client management, or even his frustrated growl at younger accountants he came into contact with. Instead, it was an instinctive, new, and rather startling snap.

“Phiz. My name’s Phiz.” Phiz gaped at him, his eyes still wide, his cheeks pink from the cold morning air, and probably the lingering after effect of Bryan’s rudeness. But…he didn’t look as if he thought Bryan was being rude. In fact, the flicker in his eyes was almost one of relief.

Can’t be. The wind was playing tricks with Bryan’s vision.

“Is that a first name or surname? Fizz? It’s a nonsense.”

“Like I don’t know that myself.” Phiz rolled his eyes. “My real name is Philip, but they call me Phiz. With a PH and a Z. It’s because of my surname, you know? Bussman, Philip Bussman. We played the game one night, a drinking game. Fizz Buzz, you know? The name kind of stuck.”

Bryan couldn’t help himself—he was irritated by the number of times Phiz asked him if he knew something. Would he be asking if he did? He glanced around to find the street currently cleared of the commuter rush. “You can get these leaflets picked up now.”

Phiz blinked at him. Nodded. Bent obediently to start collecting the scattered papers.

“Wait.” Bryan couldn’t understand what was wrong with him this morning. Had the meeting with Patrick really been so disturbing that he, Bryan, had lost every shred of civility? “Sorry. I said I’d help. Let’s do this together.”

He hunkered down beside Phiz and together they scooped up the leaflets. Some were completely sodden and would never dry out successfully, but most had just blown up against the walls of the shops and could be salvaged. The wind had dropped for the time being, making it easier to gather all the stock together again. Bryan found himself watching closely as Phiz half-ran, half-crouched across the street to pick up a few that had spun away like tumbleweed. The guys in the souvenir shop laughed aloud, but they good-naturedly helped Phiz pick up leaflets outside their shop. They even kept a couple of them, sniggering over the messages, but obviously considering displaying them in the shop.

Bryan couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from the lean stretch of Phiz’s back and arse, as the young man darted up and down in his task. When Phiz straightened up and ran back to meet Bryan with two fistfuls of wayward paper, his grin seemed to bring an unusual warmth to the day.

“Do you want a coffee?” Bryan asked abruptly.

“Hey. Um. Sorry?”

“I didn’t mean to startle you.” Bryan was afraid he was blushing. “I’m only talking about a coffee.” That seemed to be another sophistication he’d lost touch with–talking to men. Had he sounded harsh again, too defensive? He tilted his head towards the door of With A Kick. “Maybe an adults only ice cream?”

“Yeah. Well, that’d really be good. I mean…sure.” Phiz smiled at Bryan. “I really want to try the Rum Barbarella, you know?”

“Bryan Harrison.” Bryan stuck out his hand rather awkwardly. “I didn’t introduce myself.”

“Yeah. Hi.” Phiz’s eyes sparkled for the first time with something like amusement. He shook Bryan’s hand in response. He bit his lip too, which was how Bryan knew he’d given his too-fierce professional handshake rather than his personal one. But in that instant, as they grasped each other’s hand, Phiz’s eyes seemed to calm, his whole body relax. Aware of this strange effect, Bryan took far too long to release Phiz’s hand.

This day was turning out to be odd. Very odd indeed.

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