Primary school was tough.
A five AM start. Coffee, toast, a blurry, half-hour commute. More coffee in the staffroom, the smell of regret and burnt toast from their shitty, decades-old-but-still-technically-legal toaster. Yawning all the way up to his classroom. Yawning through writing the day’s timetable in red whiteboard pen. Attempting not to look like death as the first few parents dropped their kids off for class.
By nine, kids registered and read to, Ratty was already shattered.
Thankfully, the kids had P.E. first. Ratty got the kids changed, kits left on tables, and waved them off, sent to join the always-fucking-bright Mr. King on the field for a brisk run-around.
Usually Ratty would use the free time to set up for his next lesson, mostly using the opportunity to set out art supplies his seven-year-olds could coat themselves with, but today was just not going to be one of those days. He’d make it a quiet reading hour and have the kids entertain themselves.
So, he had two hours to kill before break time. A quick smoke wouldn’t hurt.
There was a place, just beyond the school fence, where rogue teachers congregated to quietly kill themselves around a shared pack of malboro, pooled from the biscuit fund in the teacher’s room. With most teachers at their classes, Ratty was looking forward to having the place to his own. He had his private stash, he wouldn’t be the guy to nick from the staff.
He put a brick in the fire exit door to the classroom so he could sneak back in through the back when he’d done, instead of going through the front of the building, on the complete opposite side.
The alley at the back passed the windows of the other year three classrooms; Ratty paused in the window of Miss Swallow’s room and charaded the plot of Hamlet at her while she attempted to keep a straight face.
Miss Swallow took out her whiteboard pen and, as if it had been a planned part of her maths lesson, wrote ‘HAMLET’ in big letters across the board. Ratty shot her a thumbs up, and left her to make the word into a maths-themed acrostic puzzle.
As with most traditions, it had begun as an accident, until it became an almost daily attempt at ruining the other’s lesson. She was winning, because she kept picking obscure French films and Ratty’s cultural knowledge sort of started at Disney and ended at cult classic sc-fi films.
The next room was empty. Mr. Mole had probably packed his students off to Badger for a music lesson, or had taken them down to do food tech in the kitchens.
Mole was one of the few who’d never come out for a smoke with them, which meant Ratty had almost no dirt on him, but God did Ratty harbour a crush a mile wide.
There was just something so inherently charming about a blundering mess attempting to handle thirty young children. Sometimes, Ratty could hear Mr. Mole’s strangled, hiccuping giggle of a laugh during play time, and it could sometimes take Ratty upwards of ten minutes to recover from the ordeal.
Thankfully, seven year olds don’t mind too much when their lesson is interrupted to do art.
So, slightly disappointing that Mole wasn’t in his room for a quick peek. Ratty told himself that that hadn’t been the entire reason for taking the scenic route outside, but he didn’t even fool himself, so. Disappointment.
And then, he heard it. The laugh.
Don’t be a creep, Ratty. Don’t follow the laugh.
Mr. Mole and his kids were out at the school pond, nets and plastic tubs in hand, sifting through samples to count bugs and tadpoles and bits-of-plant-that-kinda-look-like-a-bug.
Tadpole season was wild this year; some kid in a school somewhere had drowned in a school pond, so now no kid in the country could go in one, teachers having to wade in with buckets for the kids to sift through, safely away from becoming part of the foodchain.
And, for whatever reason, Mr. Mole was dressed up in full fisherman gear: waders, long trench coat, bright yellow waterproof hat. He was stood to the side, gently overseeing, watching for any of the kids daring one another to eat a tadpole.
Ratty found he’d already made it to Mole’s side before he could convince himself otherwise.
“What’s with the costume?”
“I don’t like getting wet,” Mole said, a touch defensively. It was the tone of voice a teacher uses when he’s endured a wholehearted ribbing by his students with the same question.
Ratty raised his arms in a ‘I’m not judging’ sort of way, completely judging him. “It’s just a bit of pond water.”
“Oh yes, until someone tries to push you in, and you’re covered in slime.”
Ratty’s face flickered into a grin, remembering that happening last year. “Forgot about that.”
Mole made a small, grumpy ‘humph’ of a sound, definitely not having forgotten. After a pause to reminisce on that trauma, Mole’s eyes flicked to the year three classrooms next door, then to the field at the end of the alley, a kid passing by every so often as the ball flew their way. “Yours?”
“Yep.” Ratty tapped his top pocket, tabacco packet safely stowed. “I’d ask you to join, but I think Timmy’s just eaten frogspawn.”
Mole rolled his eyes and turned to see Timmy, the definite baby of the class, who had definitely not eaten frogspawn, twirling a dead leaf he’d found between his fingers, enraptured.
Mole turned back, betrayal clear on his face.
“Just a lighthearted joke, dear.” Ratty patted Mole’s shoulder. “You don’t smoke. I’ll see you at break?”
“I’ve got break duty,” Mole said with genuine, wholehearted regret. “Lunch?”
“Meeting with the head,” Ratty apologised.
“Oh,” Mole said, frowning so completely. “That’s a shame.”
“Such is the way,” Ratty said with a shrug, affecting nonchalance. “Tomorrow?”
Mole did a small mental calculation before lighting up. “Free all day!”
How a smile can make one giddy , Ratty thought, before thinking Fuck, I’m gay. “I’ve got duty before school and at lunch, but you could keep me company?”
“I’d love that!” Mole said, taking out his phone and creating two little memos in his calendar. ‘Morning duty with Mr. Ratty’,‘Lunch with Mr. Ratty’. He laughed, catching Mole’s attention. “What?”
“A phone reminder?”
“Oh,” Mole said, looking embarrassed, hastily shoving his phone into his pocket.
“No, sorry, I don’t mean no harm. It’s just…” Ratty scratched his chin, already hating his future self, “cute.” He waved a hand in a way he hoped would look cool, then left, attempting some sort of swagger that didn’t look like he was burning up inside.
It was just damp enough to be a coat-day for the kids, but not enough to be a wet play day. Ratty leaned against the metal rail of the ramp up to the school, hands warmed through his fingerless gloves by his milky, sugary coffee. Sometimes a parent would swim close enough to give a light greeting, some only a small wave as he called out ‘good morning’s to the kids.
It was definitely Autumn, now, the crispness of October in the air, the orange leaves plastered to the cement.
“Morning,” Ratty called to Mole as he walked through the front gates, apparently still asleep, going by his shut eyes and zombie-like amble.
Mole replied in a monosyllabic grunt, standing so close beside Ratty to be almost supported by him. Ratty, not daring to move lest Mole lean away, pushed his cup of coffee into Mole’s hands with as little movement as possible, getting another, thankful noise in return as Mole begun sipping.
It took another ten minutes for Mole to reboot, rubbing at his eyes and yawning like he was attempting to catch krill.
It was only when Mole went to sip from the empty mug for the fifth time that Ratty decided to confiscate it, resting it on the edge of the ramp, safe from being dropped by sleepy teachers.
Mole yawned again, this one seeming to pull every muscle and lasting long seconds. Ratty watched, unabashed, half-impressed by the length and strength of the thing, and half, well, wishing he could see Mole wake up every morning.
“Sorry,” Mole said, mid-yawn, tailing off into a sleepy moan, though now awake enough at least to be able to contribute words to the conversation. Well, partially anyway. He made a series of slurred noises that Ratty interpreted to mean: “The flat next to mine has building works. I’m a heavy sleeper, but even I have a hard time sleeping through it!” Mole laughed, self-consciously, which transitioned into another yawn and a small “oh, my.”
“Come to mine.” What?
Sleepy Mole’s expression had already lifted.
“At least for while you’ve got building works.”
“Really? You mean it?”
“Yeah, ‘course. I live alone, so…” Ratty trailed off, not really knowing what he’d been about to say. Apparently Mole didn’t either, because he waited, expectantly. “Well, you know. You’ve got the kids to think of. Can’t teach ‘em if you’re… yawning all the time.”
Mole’s looked hopeful, but carefully dampened. “But Ratty, that would inconvenience you! I can ask one of the other teachers - they’ve offered me a bed before!”
A spike of jealousy rose in Ratty, until he remembered that he was the only single, age-appropriate contender for Mole’s affections in the school. Hey, now that was a good point. “Others’ve got their kids and the like, husbands and wives and partners and all. Don’t want to bother them with another… er, mouth.”
“Oh Ratty, thank you so much! I wouldn’t have even thought of that! And here I was, about to burden Mrs. O or Mr. Sadowska with my request! How selfish I’d have seemed to them.”
Ratty let out a surprised laugh, having been unknowingly called out by this small man. “Hardly, Mr. Mole, just, er, being a friend.” Ratty rubbed his neck, coming to an awkward standstill. He felt like the conversation needed to end, but also he didn’t really want it to. “Can you cook?”
“Oh! Yes!” Mole seemed excited by the prospect, “I hadn’t thought of that! Yes, in payment for the room, I can cook for us!” Mole was practically bouncing on his heels with excitement.
“I don’t want to force-”
“Do you have any allergies?” Mole continued, without heed. “Dislikes? How hot do you like your food?”
“No, no, a hot at Nando’s?”
Mole wiggled his nose as he thought. “Lentils?”
“Good, ‘cos I’m really only good at curries and student-level pasta.”
“I’ll make up for it in coconut dishes.”
“My mum’s dhal recipe will change your view of lentils forever, Ratty.”
“Have you ever had adobo sa gatâ? Because it will change your life.”
Ratty and Mole nodded, and went for a serious, pact-maker handshake.
“You think he’s cute.”
Ratty avoided looking at Mrs. Otter as they smoked, taking turns on the same cigarette. “I think lots of people are cute. You’re pretty cute. Miss Swallow is cute.”
“Miss Swallow is a lesbian in a polyamorous relationship. You’re allowed to think she’s cute because she’s unobtainable.”
“But Mole isn’t?”
“You invited him to your one-bed apartment, Mr. Santos.”
“Because I’m a good friend and colleague.”
Mrs. O took a longer drag on the cigarette as she raised an eyebrow, then rubbed out the butt on the wall, stashing it in a tissue she’d throw out later. She sprayed perfume over herself, re-applied her lippy and fluffed her hair while she allowed him to stew in his own mistake. “Well,” she said as she left, “don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
“You have ten children!” Ratty called after her, before he could quite think through the implications of what he’d just said.
“You just missed ‘em, Sir.”
Mole turned from where he was in the doorway, perplexed to be staring into an empty classroom. He found a kid, arms crossed against her chest as she looked around Mole into the room to find her claim true.
Mole glanced at his watch, then, worried, tapped it a couple of times before taking out his little pocket diary, where ‘9AM, R3, year 3’ was written in his own writing. He looked back at the door number; definitely R3.
“Sir’s playing a trick on you, Sir.” The kid grabbed Mole’s book and nodded as she read it. “This is R3, by the way.”
Great, he was already lost on his first day. He felt like crying. “Has the class been cancelled?”
“Oh no,” she said, “Ratty just likes to make his classes ‘interesting’. Here,” she said, tossing his book back at him, “I’ll show you.”
The kid’s name was Portia, she said, and she was nine and she was in her free period. Portia led Mole through the corridors, talking about her lessons in her loud voice until Mole hushed her, aware that any of the teachers teaching could look out the windows of their classroom doors and find the new hire encouraging her disruption.
At the end of the year six classrooms was a fire exit that led outside to the fields, which Portia backed into without hesitation, leaving Mole to catch the doors before they could slam shut.
“Er, Portia, are we meant to be out here?”
“We’re not leaving the grounds, Sir, trust me.” She had somehow managed to spirit a pack of strawberry laces from her person and offered him one as they walked across the field.
The first thought across Mole’s head was in his mother’s voice: that he shouldn’t take sweets from strangers. His second was that he was technically supposed to be an adult now, and this was more like taking sweets from a baby. His next thought was just that he really liked strawberry laces, so he unknotted one from the pack and sucked it up into his mouth.
“You can tell a lot about a man from the way they eat their strawberry laces,” Portia said, adopting a sagely voice. She then took a handful of the rest of the laces, crammed them up and took a bite.
Mole was left horrified.
At the end of the playing field was a sharp slope that led to a second, less-used field. The grass was less tamed and the white paint less crisp, the trees planted around the edges casting shade over a lot of the outer edges.
Then, past that, the trees got thicker, covering brambly hedges in bright, spring greens. Mole had been aware that there was a river beside the school, having had to cross the bridge on his bike on the ride over, but to see it glisten, so bright and cool and close to the school!
The river seemed to act as the school’s border, though the path looked to be fenced on either side to avoid a trail being made through the school.
And, there on the banks, sat upon a mismatch of picnic blankets and rugs was the missing class, their teacher perched on a short tree trunk before them.
The students listened attentively to the man as he unpacked a picnic basket; bringing out an assortment of watercolour paint kits and paintbrushes and handing them to the nearest students to hand out.
Mole and Portia were just too distant to hear his exact words, but the sound of him, his content tone and jokey instructions merged with the babble of the river until it reached Mole, striking him dumb.
It was picturesque.
“Here he is!”
Mr. Ratty was looking back at him now, grin cheeky as he waved the pair over, not starting his introduction until Mole was stood beside him in front of the class.
“Year three, meet Mr. Mole, our new TA. Mr. Mole, this is 3R, our artists in residence.”
“Nice to meet you,” Mole said with a slight dip of a bow and a small wave.
“Now, be nice,” Ratty said, looking directly at a pair of snickering six-year olds near the back, “or you’ll be cleaning the sinks in your breaks for as long as you’re in my class.”
Mole remembered that particular punishment from his own time at school: having to pick acrylic paint from the clogged sink, washing dried-up brushes, and attempting to pick an assortment of glues from the bottom of mixing cups. It was sort of comforting to know that that was a universal punishment. Made him feel less of a stranger, here, on this bank.
The snickering didn’t stop, but at least the kids had the sense to pretend to agree with a chanted ‘yes sir!’
“Good. Now, scram.” Ratty made a shoo-ing motion and the kids jumped up, teams of three or four picking up their rugs, their watercolours and their art books and wandering off to find places away from one-another.
“Portia Otter,” Ratty said, looking past Mole to the girl still on the outskirts of the group, squatting by the river and dangling a strawberry lace over the water as if attempting to fish.
“I know for a fact you’re supposed to be in P.E. right now.”
“Just doing my civic duty, Sir,” Portia said, not looking up as she dipped the end of the lace into the water and wafted it up and down a little. “Helping a lost child.”
Mole felt his face go all hot to be compared like that, but all he could manage in his own defence was a wordless splutter. He had so wanted to impress his first co-worker at his first job, and he had botched it before they’d exchanged more than niceties.
“Oh you’ll learn to ignore her, Mr. Mole, don’t you worry.” Ratty gave Mole a hearty clap on the lower back, still sat on his tree stump. “Portia, you’ve done your duty. I’m sure Mr. King’s broken up that you’re not there.”
Portia rubbed her nose, considering her options. Then, she grinned, retracted her soggy fish bait and stood, popping it in her mouth. With a crisp salute to Ratty, she was off.
“Well, I’m sure ‘Fisher enjoyed his quarter hour of quiet.” With students out of earshot, Ratty’s posture relaxed noticeably, slouching back on his stump and stretching his arms behind his head. A sliver of sun managed to break through the canopy above them, lighting up his face almost perfectly.
“I do hope she won’t get into any trouble because of me,” Mole said, feeling terrible that Portia had missed a good portion of her class because of him. “She told me she was in her free, or I’d never have let her be so distracted.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Ratty chuckled, closing his eyes and, Mole realised, sunbathing in the spring warmth. “She does the same to all new staff. I lasted nearly the whole hour before I remembered I’d seen her face on the wanted posters in the staff room.”
“Wanted posters?” Mole asked, feeling somewhat relieved that he wasn’t the only one.
“Corridor’s lined with warnings. I’d suggest taking a gander at coffee - highlights include print-outs of Portia’s schedule, write-ups about all our favourite ‘wooders, a couple warnings ‘bout kids that’ll steal anything not nailed down…” Ratty opened one eye and glanced around before patting his trouser pockets. “Smoke?”
“Do you smoke?”
“Oh, er, no.”
Ratty shrugged, hands stilling in his pockets. “Last year a couple of year tens from the school next door were caught stealing that chemical from Breaking Bad? Had big plans on becoming Meth dealers.”
Mole, instantly enthralled by the drama of it gasped, sitting before Ratty like a child in nursery waiting to be read a story. “No!”
“Yeah, actually would have got away with it too if they hadn’t’d told their blabbermouth mate. Imagine that, probably would’ve made a mint and all.”
“Certainly more dramatic than being caught smoking behind the bike shed,” Mole said. “That was as bad as it ever got at my school.”
Ratty grinned, leaning forward towards Mole. “Or, you just didn’t hear the grisly bits.”
Mole shuddered, letting the sound of the river return him to the present.
“Well, thank fuck we’re teaching pre-pubescents, is all I say.” Ratty glanced at the children, still milling about, painting and chatting and laughing.
Mole was mesmerised by his smile; happy, mostly, but proud, too. Proud of his kids.
When Mole got home that evening, he took out paints he’d not touched in years, dusted off an unused canvas and done what he’d not done since finishing his degree in it years ago.
Brown skin, dark hair, clever, glinting eyes, and a cheeky grin.
A middle-aged couple on the tube caught Ratty’s eye. American tourists. He couldn’t hear them, but their caps gave them away. The tube was too hot to wear them, but couple gripped them as they analysed the map. The Northern line, confusing to most. You had to check what branch you were or you’d end up backtracking a half-dozen stations to get on the right one. The husband looked like a Rod, the wife a Judy.
Ratty wondered if they’d matched their aesthetics; if middle-aged couples did that. The husband in a blue polo, cut through with thin white stripes. Beige trousers and sensible brown shoes. His wife in a chunky blue-and-white striped t-shirt and three-quarter length pale blue shorts. Sensible black and pink trainers. The blues were all different, but worked nicely together.
Ratty supposed that if you were to sit next to someone every day for a half century, you might as well make it look like you wanted to be together.
Cynic , he heard himself say.
Rod put his hand on Judy’s knee, then grinned and poked it. Kept jabbing at her knee while she whacked his hand like teasing kids. He lay his hand on her leg and wiggled his fingers until she squirmed with laughter, mouth moving in a ‘stop, stop!’ that Ratty’ music drowned out.
Ratty smiled to himself. It was cute. They still loved each other, still had fun together.
His heart skipped a beat as the couple across from him were replaced by an image of a different couple. A couple of old, retired teachers, still having fun and still madly in love even with their white hair and their wrinkled hands. Mole would still have young eyes, glinting with cheek. Ratty’ laughter lines would make him look older, but he’d still have touches of dark hair into his sixties.
Mole would’ve grown into his clothes by then, looking dashing in his moleskin trousers and smoking jacket. He’d still be his chubby, dumpy, adorable self and they’d be going to visit their grandchildren, or taking them to the beach on a summer’s day.
Ratty was grinning. He felt a sharp shoot of guilt shoot through him, which left him a mortified, tomato-red, grinning idiot stuck on a too-hot tube.
Embarrassing fucking sap.
Mole came to school the next day with a decent-sized suitcase, tucking it into the corner of his classroom’s storage cupboard. His kids asked him if he was going on holiday, to which he replied, “kind of!” They asked if he was excited. “Very!”
Ratty spent the entire time on the edge of an adrenaline rush. His leg bounced, his heart thumped, his brain raced. He’d seen Mole drag his suitcase into his classroom earlier, which had really cemented the idea that he would be living with Mole for however long. Ratty had panic-ordered new sheets to replace the tatty ones he’d had since before university, and had spent most of the evening fluffing pillows, dusting shelves and hiding shit in out-of-reach cupboards.
They made it to Ratty’s in quick time, despite the tube’s penchant for delays. He spent most of the journey too anxious to talk, wondering what he should talk about, wondering what Mole would want to say. Conversation would probably have been useless anyway, considering the racket and the screech of the tracks, but he wondered if Mole thought Ratty was being rude.
Ratty had never had someone to give his spare keys to, so it felt like kind of a big deal, taking them from the hanger they’d always rested in and handing them to Mole. Mole instantly clipped them to his huge ball of keys: it was a wonder the man ever found what he was looking for.
Ratty hadn’t wanted to presume what ingredients Mole would want, so they went on a grocery run after Mole had stowed his case in Ratty’s room. There was a Sainsbury’s next door that usually had great reduced-price deals around this time.
How easily they slipped into domesticity, Ratty carrying the basket as Mole picked off things from shelves.
They fought over who’d pay, but eventually Mole won with a brusque ‘pretend this is rent money’ and an offer to let Ratty pay for snack foods when they next went shopping.
Mole was right about the dhal changing Ratty’s life. Smooth, spicy, and fragrant, Moly had even done his own chapatis; swatting away Ratty’s attempts to help after he’d failed to make perfect circles after three attempts. Again, another promise to make them ‘next time’ that made Ratty’s stomach flip.
For a small, awkward man, Mole was brazen, and unashamed of himself.
After dinner, they sat in front of Ratty’s laptop, watching Pacific Rim , which Mole had never seen (blasphemy) while they digested more food than was really good for them and while Mole begun to unpack. He put small piles of shirts in different piles, unfolding and refolding t-shirts that had rumpled in the journey.
When he reached the bottom of the suitcase, he picked out a pair of pyjamas; cozy flannel trousers and a shirt with two sleepy owls printed on it. Then, without blinking, Mole dragged off his jumper, his shirt and glasses coming off with it, leaving the man in nothing but his binder.
Ratty, who had been paying more attention to this than to the film, switched his attention immediately, feeling hot under the collar at this voyeurism. Though, his brain argued, was it really peeking a glimpse if the man was doing it so obviously before him?
Ratty snuck a sideways glance, enjoying the view of Mole struggling to put on his t-shirt just a little too much. A pudgy, slightly hairy tummy, beautiful, smooth brown skin…
Ratty looked away again, attempting to engross himself back into Mako Mori’s beating white boy Raleigh to the ground.
“Ratty,” came a pitiful voice from across the table.
Ratty made a big fucking effort to avoid looking and responded with a hopefully disinterested “uhuh?”
“Help me!” This time, Ratty did turn, and saw that Mole had somehow tangled himself in his t-shirt.
They didn’t make it to the bed, that evening. They’d had an argument over who deserved it, and who’d end up on the couch.
Ratty had dragged a blanket from a cupboard, and they’d been snuggled under it, watching original Star Trek because Netflix suggested it, and they both liked it.
Mole was asleep before the credits of their third episode were rolling. Ratty didn’t last too long after that.
They’d slipped, in the night, and ended up lying on the cramped couch. Mole was still dead to the world when Ratty’s alarm blared in his bedroom like some distant fire alarm. Mole’s hair was soft on his face, which was how Ratty realised, with some panic, that he had been snuggling his face into Mole’s neck, arm around Mole’s middle. Mole’s hand clutched his, fingers twitching slightly in response to whatever dream he was having.
“Mole,” he whispered, attempting to back himself up as far as he could into the back of the couch so that he wasn’t literally touching every part of the man. “Mole, my alarm.”
Mole’s sleeping body moved backwards, seeking Ratty’s warmth, then, for reasons Ratty could not comprehend, the sleeping Mole turned so that he was face to face with Ratty, and snuggling his face to Ratty’s chest.
Yeah , Ratty thought, this was definitely a mistake.