'Angus? Oh, Lord, it is you.'
He knew the voice before he turned to face its owner.
'Eli.' he said automatically, astounded. There were a few seconds of incredulous silence, and then he grinned elatedly. Eli did the same.
'Look at you!' Angus gushed. 'Your own mother wouldn't know you!'
'Perhaps if I didn't see her every other day,' Eli laughed, 'I almost didn't recognise you, either.'
'I'm no different save for the effects,' Angus quickly waved a hand to indicate his attire and the piercings in his ears.
'You got new glasses.' Eli said astutely, pointing.
'Yes,' Angus conceded, 'and you got bearded and built.'
Eli laughed again, and the smallest trace of bashfulness crept through the jovial sound. Upon hearing it Angus knew beyond his aesthetics he was unchanged.
Never-the-less, Eli's physical appearance was confronting when compared to how he'd looked four years prior. Hardly a freckle remained of the troop of them that had once peppered his nose and cheeks, they had melded together to form a light tan worlds away from the peaches-and-cream complexion Angus remembered him having. His hair had been tamed, the dark, loose curls finally sitting where they were told, framing his face and blending smoothly into a black, cropped beard across his jaw. Although the soft bulk he'd carried from his pre-pubescent years had already begun disappearing during his adolescence, it was entirely gone now, and Angus could hardly believe the difference it made to his level of virility.
He'd become conventionally handsome; his gentle brow, plump lips and strong nose starkly beautiful now there was no hint of puppy-fat to distract from them.
Only his eyes remained exactly as they had been, inquisitive, tender and doleful, the brown of them so deep and clear that in certain lights they almost seemed blue.
Angus couldn't think what else to say to him, he felt with those few sentences they'd exhausted their conversation, but then he noticed Eli wasn't alone. A man and a woman hung behind him, similarly dark-haired and brown-eyed.
'Ah,' Eli followed Angus' gaze, 'sorry, Lesha, Maria, this is Angus Waffen, we were at school together. Angus this is Aleksey Grinberg, my wife's brother, and his wife Maria.'
'Hello,' Maria greeted him politely, and upon hearing how thick her Russian accent was Angus wondered if that was the reason Aleksey only nodded. Or perhaps it had something to do with the way Aleksey's eyes were hovering on Angus' tight, clinging jeans and small black t-shirt emblazoned with a lurid yellow banana.
'I must apologise for the shirt,' Angus directed at Aleksey, and in his peripheral he saw Eli dip his head to hide a tiny smile. 'I take it the Velvet Underground, Nico and Warhol didn't strike you as they did me?' Aleksey didn't respond, and so Angus continued, smiling in the way that showed his teeth, 'I promise had I known this meeting would occur I would've dug out my Tchaikovsky shirt. I honestly do have one, you know. No musical greatness is lost on me.'
'I'm sure that would have been very thoughtful of you,' Aleksey spoke, and Angus' smile widened when his accent emerged as entirely British and clipped with curtness. 'But as it were, we stopped in here to ask for directions to Pascal's electronics store.'
'Yes, I didn't figure you for a Tesco's man. Pascal's is a block away from Brixton station, you go left at the head of the street.'
'I knew it was near the station.' Maria wove her arm through her husband's while he visibly seethed over Angus' insubordinate quip.
'You go on ahead, Lesha, I'll catch you up.' Eli said placatingly, but Aleksey's glower only darkened.
'I owe him money,' Angus said promptly, 'it's been nearly five years and he's not forgotten. Amazing how certain minds work, isn't it?'
This time Eli very nearly laughed aloud. Aleksey stared at Angus with disgusted indignation before rounding bewilderedly on his brother-in-law, 'I'm not waiting, Elia, when we're finished with George I intend to head home.'
'By all means,' Eli said without a hint of travesty, 'I can catch the tube.'
Aleksey shot him a haughty look that clearly said, 'Suit yourself,' and nodded once more to Angus before leading his wife away.
'Nice to be meeting you,' Maria called, turning back to them.
'Nice to meet you.' Angus heard Aleksey correct her in an undertone.
'Stiff gentleman.' Angus tipped his head at the couple as they retreated from the store. Eli said nothing, eyeing Angus with diffident amusement, his eyebrows raised expectantly. 'Don't look at me like that, I've got nothing about his race or religion to follow that remark with.'
Eli gave a soft laugh.
'So how are you?' he asked, and like his laugh his voice was quiet.
'I'm alive.' Angus replied, hardly surprised to find his own voice had lowered as well. 'How are you?'
'Much the same.'
They watched each other, both of them very aware of the Tesco customers doing their grocery shopping around them.
'You haven't moved here, then, have you?' Angus asked, having searched for a better question, but he was still curious as to the answer.
'Yes. We're in South Kensington.' Eli's reply was laced with sheepishness.
Angus crossed his arms over his chest. 'Of course you are,' he said teasingly. 'Married well, did you?'
Eli's eyes grew poignant, betraying. 'A desirable union between two great families, to use my mother's conjecture.'
'And how much family resemblance is there between your wife and her brother?' Angus enquired dryly. He was only vaguely aware he'd chosen sarcasm to coax Eli away from the memories his eyes had held.
'Nataliya and Aleksey are like chalk and cheese.' Eli chuckled.
'Well, thank God for that.'
'Yes, He must've been listening at some point. So whereabouts are you living?' Eli pushed on from his forced positivity, straightening and tucking his hands in the pockets of his coat.
'Just around the corner.' Angus snickered at Eli's attempt to suppress his grimace. 'I trust this area's reputation precedes it?'
'It does,' Eli admitted, 'and is it justified?'
'Justified and then some.'
'I did ask John where you'd gone. He said he didn't know.' Eli's voice was little more than whisper now, and the look in his eyes made it clear no amount of sarcasm was going to brighten them. Not that Angus would have been able to summon anything more than the distant blankness now etched as his expression. 'I thought perhaps he was lying, given his history. I was very rude to him, but he was adamant.'
'He wasn't lying, I never told him where I was going. But I'm glad you hounded him. Vile creature.' Angus finished in a mutter, attempting to be flippant and not quite managing it.
'The last time I saw him he said something about moving to Wales. He'd just gotten married, actually.' Eli put forward dimly.
'Good riddance and poor woman.'
There was a brief silence, and Angus stared unseeingly at something just beyond Eli's face, sure he knew what was coming next.
'I'm so sorry about your dad.' Eli shifted a little, moving to meet Angus' gaze. The grief in his voice and face was so deep Angus thought it might even match his own should he choose to respond on the matter, but he did not.
He adjusted his glasses, bringing Eli into sharper focus, and gave him the smile Eli had once said he liked best.
'You've ditched the in-laws, at the very least I should invite you into my home and give you some tea.' he offered bracingly.
Eli hesitated, his mournful eyes searching Angus' for a moment, finding nothing he knew he didn't want.
'Alright,' he said, smiling a little himself.
The walk was considerably further than "just around the corner", but their conversation came to them with increasing ease and enthusiasm. As they both discovered, in four years a lot more had happened to them than they'd cared to acknowledge at the time, and so the task of constructing a simple facade of polite banter was easy.
'He came over from Leningrad with his wife before the war,' Eli was saying of his father-in-law as they mounted the stairs in Angus' building. 'Boris says it was his pre-emptive prowess that led him to make the decision, but then he'll tell you truth is he already had a brother over here who'd said the food was better.'
Angus gave a loud laugh as he dug around his jacket pocket for the key to his apartment.
'You and your Chosen People,' he chortled, having recalled before he said it as what he'd always used to say when Eli told such stories.
'Some are more chosen than others.' Eli's soft-spoken usual reply came to Angus as an echo of their past.
'You know what?' Angus mumbled, unlocking his door. 'We weren't any more carefree when we were young than we are now, really.'
'No,' Eli agreed, 'that would be the wrongful impression we both had of adult life at work there. We were smart enough to know it wasn't going to be easier, but I think we did hope it would be...' he trailed off, unable to find the right word.
'Better? More exciting? Fulfilling?' Angus listed thinly.
'All three. And worthwhile.'
'Hah, worthwhile. A wonderful summation, Elia, well done.' Angus stepped over the threshold, talking as he went. 'Come in, I'm sure you'll find it every bit as awful as you'd imagined, but I do what I can with it.'
'It's fine, Angus. I'd have you over myself if I didn't know you better, my wife's family is a little too beat up about the war and steeped in Russian Jewish pride to handle your particular sense of humour, as you probably realised earlier.'
'Oh, bother, I'd so wanted to go inside one of those South Kensington townhouses. It would've made my year.'
Eli gave one last affectionate laugh, and then he shut the front door behind them. They exchanged a glance, knowing the veneer of propriety they'd created had been left in the hall outside.
Angus took off his jacket and hung it on the rusting hook beside the door, watching as Eli copied. His eyes lingered with fresh alarm on the way Eli's dark collared shirt revealed his change in physique. Upon closer inspection Angus thought he looked almost gaunt. The meagre, waxen light of the apartment cast shadow into the hollows of his cheeks and eyes, making his face seem like a mask, hiding the rounder, paler one Angus had once known.
Angus crossed the linoleum floor to the small kitchen and retrieved a tin from a cupboard above the stove.
'What sort of tea would you like? I've got English Breakfast or...' he leafed through the packets heaped inside the tin, 'or English Breakfast. I thought I had Earl Grey but evidently not, bollocks, I could've bought some while I was'
He'd been listening to Eli's quiet steps as they neared him, and when Eli's hand appeared at his side, drifting and coming to rest over his own hand on the tin, he fell quiet and still. Eli used his free hand to steady himself, placing it on the bench at the Angus' other side. Angus waited, listening to Eli's breathing, feeling its gentle warmth on the back of his neck. He drew his hand slowly out from under Eli's and turned between his outstretched arms to face him.
Eli's hands rose to Angus' face, cupping his cheeks, and Angus saw the pain in his smile and the hinting tears in his eyes. Eli bent to him, tipping his jaw with his hands and bringing their mouths together. Angus had expected Eli to deepen the kiss out of panic and need, but all he did was take a step closer so their bodies met, his mouth remaining chaste and closed. The soft, supple fullness of his lips was exactly as Angus remembered it, the only difference being the short beard that surrounded them, bristling Angus' chin.
Eli drew away, still cradling Angus' face in his hands. His dark eyes seemed brighter than the low light of the kitchen could allow.
'I missed you every day.' he whispered, and when Angus heard the lost, suffering tragedy in his voice he breathed out with decisiveness and wrapped his arms around him; he felt Eli mirror him, claiming the small of his back and moulding them against each other.
'I see you're still completely wretched.' Angus said quietly. Eli uttered a weak, contented chuckle.
'And you're still just as scathing. Leaving Birmingham didn't brighten the world for you at all?'
'Don't be silly, of course it didn't.' Angus muttered dismissively, pulling back and leaning up to kiss him.
Angus delighted in the near-clumsiness of the way their old rhythms resurfaced after so long; Eli spared a hand from Angus' back and sent it under his shirt, raking it over his chest and drinking in Angus' resulting gasp, while Angus spread his own hands on Eli's neck, forcing Eli's mouth hard down on his, a frank request for their tongues to quicken. When their mouths could work no deeper Angus pulled away, intending to speak, but he understood when Eli followed and kissed him again.
'I'll go get showered,' Angus said when he could, and Eli nodded mutely, his eyes wide and desperate. 'How long have we got?'
'Two hours or so, I'd say.' Eli's voice was steady, at odds with his expression.
'Come through to the bedroom, get undressed, I won't be long.'
Angus led the way and Eli trailed him, holding his hand.
He set the shower as hot as it would go, filling his lungs with steam.
Morality nagged at him, very persistent considering the life he'd led since moving to London. It only took a few minutes of being in his own company for him to find resolve. He'd had every intention of leaving the bathroom and telling Eli to go home, but then the bathroom door had opened and Eli joined him, murmuring his apology for being unable to wait.
'Come here, then,' was all Angus had said, his hands open and accepting.
They kissed for a long while under the weak stream of water, until Angus drew away, turning to face the tiled wall and pressing his back to Eli's chest.
'Here.' Angus reached for Eli's hands, draping them over his stomach. 'Ready when you are.'
'You don't need me to get anything?' Eli raised his mouth from Angus' neck, speaking softly into his ear.
'No, I trust you, and besides, I haven't got anything. What would you have me do? Spoil the mood and go back to Tesco's?'
'No,' Eli chuckled, and Angus wondered if Eli could still tell when he was lying. He had ample amounts of both protection and assisting substances in the cabinet beside his bed, but as this was a reunion he wanted everything as it had been.
'You remember the first time?' Eli returned his lips to Angus' neck, suckling gently.
'I wish I didn't,' Angus muttered. 'I don't think I ever told you, after I'd crawled home and dragged my sorry self into bed I was in too much agony to even get up for dinner.'
'But you were fine at school the next day, I remember,' Eli said with alarm.
'I only limped when nobody was looking. But I'm well practiced now, so why are we talking about it? It's like riding a bicycle, Eli, I doubt you've lost the skill.' Angus half turned to him with mock impatience, and Eli spread a hand on his jaw, keeping him at that angle so as to kiss him once more. With their mouths fixed together, Eli's hand on Angus' stomach dropped lower, easing back Angus' hips.
'I didn't think I'd forget what this felt like,' Eli whispered, his voice thick with awe, 'but apparently I have.'
'Good?' Angus slid his fingers over his cheek, growing accustomed to the feel of his beard and his weight as it eased inside him.
'I haven't forgotten what this feels like, I've been reminded quite consistently,' Angus admitted softly, 'but you stood out, and you know I don't believe in unfounded flattery.'
'I know. Thank you.'
'You're welcome.' Angus leaned backwards, completing Eli's entry for him, glad to hear him moan.
It didn't take long for things to escalate. Eli's hands sluiced roughly around Angus' hips, pulling them to meet his own with a resounding slap; Angus groaned, his wrists numb from the force with which he'd pressed his hands to the wall.
'You're a little less forgiving, I see,' he breathed.
'I'm sorry.' Eli murmured, loosening his grip.
'Don't be.' Angus reached for him, tugging him forwards. 'Do your worst, I'll hold together. Although,' he added when a particular memory occurred to him, 'humour me, will you? That thing you used to do with your palm, do you remember?'
Eli laughed, slipping his hand obligingly over Angus' erection and hollowing his hand around its head, working it in a way Angus had never mastered himself, let alone locating another man who could.
After that Angus couldn't find his voice; a terrible sadness had gripped him as tightly as the pleasure that sparked it. Their humour was lost with the first volley of semen, swirled away down the drain, dissolved and dissipated.
'Oh, God,' Eli panted, his words a heartbroken whimper, 'I missed you.'
'I know,' Angus reached for the taps, turning off the water, fighting to keep his hands steady. 'I missed you, too.'
A streetlight must be dying, Angus thought. There was a sliver of light ghosting through a crack in the drawn curtains, flickering and fading, maddening now that Angus was focused on it. He tried to look away and found he could not, transfixed by the erratic rhythm the light beat soundlessly against his pale wallpaper.
He felt content with his misery, at ease with the familiar sensation of being empty, void of intent.
Lazily he pulled his hand from the damp bedcovers, smoothing a few strands of hair from his forehead before he fumbled for his glasses on the bedside cabinet. He had no real ends for putting them on, he just thought he might as well.
A chill stole through the air as dusk bled into night, and even though his windows were closed a constant draft slowly dried the sweat on his face, chest and hands. As the rest of him was strewn haphazardly under the bedcovers, the accommodating fabric had taken care of the remaining varied liquids he and Eli had subjected them to. Admittedly, while he was perfectly comfortable with the sweat and the water from their shower, the semen bothered him.
If he was being honest, and he did have a weakness for honesty at the most inconvenient times, the whole thing bothered him.
His insides felt restless, as though they wanted him to move, to rise and shake away the pangs they crawled with; but he stayed still, completely listless. He watched as the stuttering streetlight finally extinguished, the absence of its light leaving his room dark and yellowed.
God, he hated this place.
It was better than moving, though, he conceded. Either from this building entirely or out from under the bedcovers. Stillness was inviting, at least for the moment, so he chose to ignore how his nerves pulsed and his thoughts droned.
'Poor Eli,' he mumbled. He ran his tongue around his mouth, tasting him, and let out a sigh.
He knew full well this was a beginning. Eli would be back, and he would not refuse him. There was always the off chance he might feel like he used to after they'd been together when they were younger; he hadn't felt at peace, he'd never known peace, but he'd felt...
'Satisfaction,' he said with a soft chuckle, thinking of Mick Jagger's curling, sumptuous mouth sounding out the word as he said it, even though "satisfaction" was not the word he'd been after.
It had felt more like accomplishment, he decided. He'd affected something, within himself and within the world, at the very least prodding the unintelligible mass he envisioned as his life. That probably wasn't healthy, picturing everything in his past, present and future as an encumbered grey shape sliding amidst hordes of shapes just like it. Squeezing and surviving, much like his innards seemed to be doing at the moment. Thankfully his whole body ached terribly, a welcome distraction, courtesy of Eli venting what must have been four years of lacking sex upon him.
And he'd been glad to help. But what to do now? There was only so long he could lie here and suppress the flinching and shaking, and there would be plenty of possibilities to welcome him when he finally did sit up. It was late enough to go to the old cinema at Charing Cross, a favoured haunt, but he felt a tad too sore to be thrust down against the threadbare seats in the back row and had by some needless stranger. Unless, of course, he did the thrusting. Always an option. He could simply stay in, too, help himself to tea and cocaine, the best way to watch another midnight tick by.
Perhaps he would go for a walk with the hope he'd be rained on or knifed, each as likely as the other in the underbelly of dearest, dirty London.
He'd been halfway through singing The Streets of London to himself in a wry, gentle murmur when he thought of his father and stopped.
His father would have considered his son very different from the pitiful characters described in that song, but Angus was sure he'd fit amongst them, provided they weren't opposed to faggots. And what if they were? He laughed at the image of himself robbing the ragged woman of her bags and the old veteran of his medals as penance for insulting him, but he thought of his father again and his laughter quickly waned. His father would have considered him different from those people, yes, but not superior. No supposed position of cruelty was ever justified, regardless of whether those he'd been cruel to were even real.
And then in much the same fashion as bile rises in the throat, a memory surfaced in his head, blackening out his surroundings, feeding a lost history over his eyes
His tears were dry.
'I once knew a boy named James,' Andrew began with consideration.
His inflection and tone had always been so proper, courtesy of his youth, and Angus had known from the moment he understood speech he wanted to speak the same. He grew to hate the round, languid accent of Birmingham, preferring the crisp, cool Cambridge he learned from his father, not caring one ounce about the mockery his accent earned him at school. It only added insult to injury.
'He was a little older than me, he grew up on a farm outside town. I remember even when we were very little he wanted nothing more than to work cattle like his father. Come our teenaged years nothing had changed, he lived and breathed those animals, they were everything to him.' Andrew paused, looking at Angus with a quizzical smile, and Angus knew he was expecting him to ask why he was being told this story. Angus kept his mouth shut, still worried his voice might shake should he attempt to speak.
'And James used to fight with his parents continuously; he didn't want to go school, see, he downright refused to enjoy it. Obviously he came anyway, that's how I knew him,' Andrew chortled, his right hand worrying automatically with the thin metal links of his watch. 'He didn't want to come because he knew, even then, that if he finished school he'd never be a farmer.'
Now Andrew was waiting for Angus to respond, so Angus raised his eyes. 'And is that what happened?'
'Of course.' Andrew sighed. 'Everyone said to him: you're so smart, be a doctor, a businessman, a politician. Don't waste your lot as a farmer.'
'What did he end up doing instead?'
'He's a prosecutor in the High Court, he's drunk himself a hole in his liver and he's been divorced three times.'
'Christ, Dad,' Angus mumbled. He gave in to the question: 'Why are you telling me this?'
'Because I don't want you to take rubbish from anyone, particularly not from me. Your life is your own, and if something feels right to you, that's because it is.' There was little strength to his tone, it was kind and quiet, but Angus felt the weight of his words as though his father had just embraced him.
'You haven't given me any rubbish,' he said weakly.
'I have. Made you take piano lessons, didn't I? Entirely with the hope you'd have the life I missed out on.' Andrew reminded him lightly. 'The most stereotypical folly a father can make.'
'That was short lived because you gave me your hands,' Angus held up his undersized, pale palms with amusement. 'Though if what you've said is true, the life of a classical musician would've suited me,' he finished in a slightly rueful tone.
'Yes,' Andrew agreed with mock appraisal, 'half the men at the Academy were queer. They used to slink off to their pubs, line their eyes with kohl and pretend the real libertines weren't dead.'
'You went with them?' Angus asked dubiously.
'Oh, once or twice.' Andrew shrugged wistfully. 'We were all friends.'
Silence set in, and Angus realised that for the first time in months the blinding tension within him was finally easing.
'I hope you've realised the utter stupidity of your former rationale,' Andrew said in a low voice, his smile edging further into his cheeks. Angus couldn't help a small, reproachful frown, and Andrew appeared glad to see it. 'Provided you're happy, I'm not going to disapprove. So do me a favour, won't you? Don't ever think I'd forfeit you because of your choices again. You'd be doing me a disservice otherwise.'
'I'm sorry.' Angus whispered.
'Apology accepted. And Angus?' Andrew's voice grew stern, loving and assured, 'that is all you need be sorry for.'
The ailing streetlamp came back to life, jittering light across the wall.
Angus doubted greatly his father had meant for him never to apologise to anyone again. He wondered how long it would be before he was swallowing back an apology to Eli for eliciting his affair and cleaving open his caring loyalties, all because he'd hoped for that accomplished gratification he'd known was never coming.
He also doubted his father would approve of his choice to enter into such a futile, destructive relationship, and he knew this disapproval would extend to every "relationship" he'd had over the past years.
In fact, given that he was sure he was entirely unhappy and had been for quite some time, Angus thought perhaps it was best his father had died before being presented with the adequate provocation to announce his son dead to him instead. After all, it would have broken his heart.
Angus sat up, gritting his teeth until his temples burned and working his fingers mercilessly against his eyes. The tears stang in spite of his efforts, locking up his throat like a constricting, welcome wire.
In the seconds before he dismissed himself as briefly falling victim to feeble, sycophantic masochism, he yearned to have his father with him, if only to apologise for every choice he'd made in his absence.
But there was nobody left to hear it.
He hummed the tune as it came back to him once again, singing aloud the most cynically appealing lines, 'So how can you tell me you're lonely? And say for you that the sun don't shine?'
He would have been able to inform Ralph McTell with absolute certainty the sun did indeed not shine for him, and he'd felt lonely ever since he'd come to the "winter city" those lyrics proclaimed.
But although he was unconvinced about the loneliness, he rather enjoyed the sun's neglect. He'd always preferred the rain, knowing McTell to be grievously incorrect on that front:
The rain did not cry with pity, only indifference.