© Clare London
Eddy twisted the key in the lock and pushed open the front door of his flat. Everything was dark inside, the looming shadows of everyday household objects transformed into something potentially sinister at night. He grit his teeth and nudged an elbow against the light switch on the wall. So much for timer settings. But still nothing happened: the hallway stayed pitch black.
He frowned. Had the lights been out all week while he was away? He’d complained to the landlord that they were unreliable all across this floor, flickering on and off, driving everyone mad. Just like the central heating had wheezed to a halt weeks ago, just like the drains blocked every couple of months, and just like that dead pigeon had rotted away behind the panelling in the stairwell last summer. He’d complained about it all. And it’d been as much use as pissing in the wind. The lazy fat pig had just laughed at Eddy, picked the remains of his lunch out of his teeth, and told him it’d be fixed when he had time.
Eddy sighed. He’d get Allan to talk to him, instead. That always seemed to work better.
He kicked his bag ahead of him into the flat and fumbled to shut the door. His shin knocked against a table leg and he grunted with surprise. Okay, so he was pretty damned tired, but he should know his way around his own place. Hadn’t that table been in the living room before? Allan had discovered it on one of his visits to an antiques auction and insisted Eddy should have it. Small but useful, he’d said. That evening, he’d brought it around and helped Eddy move other stuff about to fit. Then they’d eaten some takeaway and drunk a really good wine, balancing everything on the top of the table. “Like a christening,” Allan had said, grinning and clinking his glass against Eddy’s.
Eddy had just stared back at him, watching the muted light of the table lamp glint against Allan’s glass, the sparkling threads winking in his pupils. Allan had fabulous eyes. Well, if guys had the nerve to say that kind of thing to each other, you know? It had been a great night, just eating and chatting and laughing. They always laughed a lot when they got together. Yeah, well…lots. Allan hadn’t gone home until the small hours of the morning, and that was only because the cab driver next door knocked in at Eddy’s. He was on his way out to collect a late fare, back in the direction of Allan’s flat, did he want a lift home? Funny, how both of them had hesitated before they replied. But it was stupid to waste the free trip, right?
Eddy smiled to himself, rather ruefully. Then rubbed his shin.
He shuffled further along the hallway, brushing against one of the prints on the wall. Allan had picked out most of them too, because he said the place looked like a damned motel. He’d also recommended the best make of ‘fridge because Eddy never had the time for anything but frozen meals, and he’d even pushed Eddy into buying a better quality mattress for Eddy’s bed, because…
Well. Eddy grimaced, even though no-one was watching. I wish. That was one damned romantic straw didn’t bear clutching, unless he wanted yet another weekend to finish in a flurry of one-handed frustration. Allan was one hell of a good friend, but that was as far as Eddy’s libido dared go. Allan put up with Eddy’s weird shift work, helped out with the repairs, looked after the plants, always brought beer and was just generally…there. Whenever Eddy seemed to need him most. But they’d never discussed…well. Guys didn’t. Eddy didn’t, he supposed. But it’d be just like Allan to worry about Eddy getting some of the bedroom-action-business, without them needing to swap embarrassing details. Or not having any to swap, in Eddy’s case. He frowned again. Frustration City was looming ahead as usual. Allan better be getting some, somewhere, else they’d be disgruntled old men in bathchairs one day, stuck with each other, reminiscing about blowjobs that had almost-been.
Stuck with each other. Eddy realised he was still smiling.
Then something creaked from along the corridor. Shit. Last month, the landlord’s dog had got in while he was away. And then there’d been that problem with the pigeons… Eddy started to inch along the corridor, nerves alert. His fingers trailed along the wall and some of the old wallpaper flaked off.
Yeah, he probably ought to look for a new flat, but what was the point when he only spent a day or so here a month? Anyway, there was always Allan’s apartment to crash at if he needed a touch more luxury. Allan was always pleased to see him, and let Eddy leave his stuff over there. Eddy often took advantage of that. He felt as much at home there as here, sometimes. Maybe more so. In fact… No. He shook his head. What a wuss! He ought to find out what was going on before he went running to his friend’s place like some scared, lonely kid.
He stumbled forward, hand outstretched towards the first handle, the door to the living room. It was slightly ajar. He heard a faint squeak, and a breath of air brushed softly past his cheek. The pigeons? There were certainly strange smells in the flat – something like pungent fruit; something like baked bread, though he couldn’t remember the last time he cooked here; something like sulphur…
His heart hammered. He pushed the door open with a bold flourish and sprang in, his hand already grabbing for the baseball bat he kept behind the couch. It wasn’t there. In fact, the couch wasn’t there either.
And then all the lights came back on.
There was sudden shock as his eyes tried to re-focus quickly. The couch had been switched around to the opposite side of the room and instead of his usual table – obviously now out in the hallway – there was a larger dining table that he was pretty sure hadn’t been in his inventory before today. A fan wheezed out on the table, with fluttering paper streamers waving from its whirring spokes. Balloons hung from the light fitting in the centre of the room, swinging in the breeze, squeaking against each other.
And Allan was standing just a foot away from him.
Eddy whirled around to face him. “What the hell is going on?” he yelled, way too loud for the small room. Allan flinched and grimaced. “You nearly scared the crap out of me! And my God, you don’t want to do that after I’ve spent seven hours in a plane with over-spiced bean casserole as the only vegetarian meal choice and the lack of any comfortable facilities -”
“Surprise party,” said Allan, swiftly. “For your return. I didn’t think you’d have had time to arrange any events while you were on site, so I did it for you.”
“You…? Surprise…?” Eddy found speech momentarily difficult, which was always a novelty to him. “What the hell for?”
A light flush of colour lit up Allan’s cheeks. “Anniversary.”
Eddy just stared.
Allan made a small growl in the back of his throat, but he stood his ground. “It’s a year since we met. And yes, I know. You don’t do the sentimental thing.” His eyes darkened. “So I assume I have to do it for us both.”
Eddy glanced around, taking in the large bowl of brightly coloured fruit punch, the plates piled with salad and plenty of cheeses, warm-smelling bread and plump, glistening olives. When he twisted back to face Allan, his friend pulled the string of a party popper. Coloured strips flew out into the air and sparkles sprayed over the tablecloth. The loud ‘pop’ was followed by the gentle smell of sulphur.
“Jeez,” sighed Eddy, but he couldn’t help grinning. Dammit, party poppers summed up everything that was silly and startling and outrageously tacky. He loved ‘em. “Never saw you as a party planner, Allan. But you know I don’t really celebrate things nowadays. Not birthdays, not really Christmas, and definitely not random things like…”
“Anniversaries. Sure,” said Allan. He was peering at Eddy’s face, and – rather more surprisingly – smiling.
Eddy wondered if he had dirt on his nose or something. He felt suddenly tired, strangely flushed. Way too warm, considering the lack of heating in the flat. “Anyway, I don’t really feel up to a party, you know what hours I’ve been working. I don’t know what possessed you.” Eddy noticed that Allan’s face was flushed, too. Maybe it was the party popper, too close to his ear. “All that noise,” he continued, frowning. “Music and stuff. Chattering. The landlord’s dog barking and the lazy fat pig hammering on the floor from upstairs with some kind of bat -”
Allan shrugged, gently.
“- or maybe hammering on the floor with the dog, for all I know,” Eddy went on, relentlessly. “Damned heating’s still out too, and you know what the damp’s like in here in autumn, everyone getting all cold and clammy…”
Allan nodded, amiably.
Eddy looked over at the fan behind them both, blowing a fresh, gentle breeze. The silence from Allan seemed to inspire him to gabble on like some lunatic. “Well, whatever. And I can’t be worrying about party food or anything when my diet’s been on some kind of culinary rollercoaster for the last few days, it’s not good for me…”
Allan nodded again. “I know.”
“Yeah?” Eddy glanced over at the table again, and the plates of plain, fresh food – all his favourites. If taste buds had a voice, his had just whimpered. “Yeah, I guess you do. But look, I need to do my washing, check the mail, turn my mattress. And I’m dehydrated from the flight, you know…” His voice petered out.
Allan reached across him and started to pour out some of the punch for them. Ice chinked gently against the sides of the glasses. Eddy felt his mouth start to water, and he took his glass from Allan. But he didn’t seem to have the energy to do anything else.
“- I mean, in all honesty,” He drew a breath and decided truth was, as always, the best policy, “I was kind of looking forward to crashing out. Maybe watching a movie and falling asleep half way through, maybe calling you over to watch it with me, that’d be good -” very good, he admitted to himself – “I just don’t think I can face loads of people cramming into my living room, trying to pretend they don’t have cramp just from wriggling around the couch, sitting on balloons and giving themselves hernias with the shock. Going on at me about getting a more decent job, and somewhere local for God’s sake, bemoaning my lack of sex life, don’t I know I need to get out more, because cute, gay men won’t come knocking at my door in a block of flats full of night shift workers and lazy fat pigs with illegally-kept pets who won’t fix the drains. And then they’ll eat all the best olives, the ones you know I like the best…”
“Just us,” said Allan, loud enough to halt Eddy’s tirade.
“No-one else is invited,” Allan said. He sipped at his glass of punch, looking at Eddy over the rim of the glass. His eyes were dark and amused. A speck of fruit had caught on his upper lip and he licked it away. Slowly.
Eddy felt goose bumps run down his spine. He had another moment of that speechless thing. He lifted his own glass but then lowered again without a sip. His mouth was still watering but it didn’t seem to be for his drink. Of course, jetlag was the pits. That’s what the dizziness must be. The fan whirred soothingly over on the table and the punch smelled sharp and rich.
“You know me well, don’t you?” he said, quietly.
Allan shrugged yet again, but his eyes sparkled. Eddy’s gut lurched, and he tightened his grip on his glass. Fabulous eyes. They gazed at Eddy as if every word of nonsense was a gem. As if Eddy’s tired, crumpled appearance was a treat. As if it hadn’t just been the piece of fruit Allan wanted to lick away…
“You’re always there,” Eddy continued. His stomach grumbled a bit with hunger, but the treats on the table could wait, couldn’t they? “You know what I need; how I’m feeling. When to help – when to back off. You bother with me, don’t you? Care for me.” God, what sap. But a pleasant sense of release, too. How astonishing. “You listen.”
Allan put his glass down on the table, carefully. “You’re always worth listening to, Eddy. Worth caring for.”
Eddy stared at him. Funny how it didn’t sound sappy from Allan. Not like some joke. In fact, he didn’t feel in the least like laughing. This was something different. This was something… exciting.
“I can call the other guys up if you like,” said Allan. There was a slight flicker in his eyes that looked suspiciously like disappointment. “There’s space on the couch, and some fold-up chairs under the stairs. I put beer in the fridge, for when and if you get tired of punch. I know the girls from my office are free tonight, and the gang from the club called earlier to see what your plans were. The cabbie next door gave me a hand when I brought the table around, and he asked after you, too. You still have those CDs of mine you borrowed so you’re okay for music, and I also got a selection of DVDs, there might be one or two that’d please even the lazy fat pigs of this world.” A smile teased the edges of his mouth. “I made some popcorn for later on which probably won’t stretch to more than two portions, but I can easily make some more…”
“No.” Eddy hadn’t meant it to sound so sharp.
Allan raised an eyebrow and took a step nearer. “You did say you didn’t want company tonight. I listened, right?”
“Right.” Eddy felt like grinning, and so he did. That was the joy of a friend like Allan, he realised. He could relax. Should have done it more often, of course. “Not other people’s company, anyway. Just yours.” Allan’s eyebrow went higher, but he didn’t interrupt. “Allan, I bet you sorted my mail and put my laundry out already, didn’t you?”
“Just to help you out.” Allan grinned back. Funny, but his eyes seemed to be talking far more than his words. And Eddy thought he could see the same effect from his own, reflecting in Allan’s. He certainly felt like there was a light between them: something firing up. Spooky. Nice.
“Probably turned the mattress, too,” he laughed. “Always caring for my comfort.”
“Not just yours,” Allan replied, rather quickly, and blushed.
Eddy’s eyes widened. I wish? “I wish,” he said aloud, slowly. Wondered why his voice didn’t shake at such nerve.
But Allan’s gaze didn’t falter. “Wish away, then,” he said. “It works for me.” He sounded hoarse. “Just you and me. At last.”
Eddy wanted to move even closer but he realised the toes of their boots were already nudging. He suspected – hoped? – that the anniversary treats weren’t going to be restricted to food and drink. “Just you and me,” he repeated. “There’s a surprise.”
Allan smiled and opened his mouth to reply. Fabulous lips, too.
Eddy‘s hand darted out before he even thought about it, his fingertips settling on Allan’s mouth, silencing him. “No, you’re right,” he murmured, and slid his other arm around Allan’s waist. “I guess not.”