Dudley Moore was back in London. Had been for six weeks, in fact. Two years ago, he’d left the British Isles behind for the bright lights of Broadway with Beyond the Fringe. Incidentally, also leaving behind the Cornelian dilemma he had found himself in, having to choose between music and comedy.
Two years he’d told himself. Two years in America to figure it out. Make a choice. For God’s sake decide what he was going to do for the rest of his life. Music. Or comedy. And now Beyond the Fringe had finished its run. Finite.
He had thought the most nerve-wracking aspect of doing Fringe was embarking on the show in the first place, knowing that Alan had his lecturing to go back to, and Jonathan had his medicine. He had no legitimate safety net. Now, coming through the other end of it, both of them had respectable writing gigs and performing credits awaiting them, and he was exactly nowhere.
Unlike Peter, he didn’t have a huge portfolio of comedy scripts behind him. He had his music, but that was only going to take him so far, and having spent the best part of the last five years doing musical gags and comedy, he would never be taken seriously as a musician again. Everyone would be always be waiting for the punchline.
His contemporaries were hardly jumping at the bit to ingratiate themselves with him either. That was fair enough when he’d been a less than reliable presence in his early twenties, but now he was turning thirty for God’s sake.
He’d managed to find a couple of musicians; a competent jazz drummer and a double bass player to form a trio and play in the evenings at Peter Cook’s Establishment Club. If not for Peter, he doubted he’d have had enough money to cover rent and basic expenses.
And that was scary enough, being indebted to someone as volatile as Peter. For the last six weeks, he’d been incredibly lenient, letting Dudley take the spotlight with his band. He would stay at the piano and play until all hours of the morning, flanked either side by beautiful women he would charm his way through with flawless playing and a few well timed, knowing smiles.
For the most part, Peter seemed to leave Dudley alone when he was at the piano. There was always a drink or two sat on top of the lid for him, and on the occasions he actually made it to the bar, Peter always seemed to make his way over within a couple of minutes. They’d end up chatting together for hours, riffing on a topic with characters they had made up on the spot. Sometimes, Dudley was sure they had actually forgotten how to talk to each other when not in character.
Occasionally, Peter would snub him directly when the door to the club opened and some new starlet, musician or film producer walked through. Dudley would simply finish his drink and make his way back to the piano.
That was the thing about Peter, you either had one hundred percent of his attention, or you had none at all. You could always tell if he didn’t want you there. It was a fact, an inescapable consequence of keeping company with Peter, and a truth by which a lot of the people closest to him were hurt. Dudley could see it on the faces of his friends, family and lovers.
Whether it was the latent masochistic streak that he knew was there, or just a lack of self-assurance, Dudley felt that the feeling of loss when Peter didn’t want him there just heightened the sense of euphoria when he did. Far better than half-hearted conversation and a lukewarm welcome. Dudley always knew when Peter wanted him.
The weeks went by quickly. Happy days, but unsettling as Dudley could feel his future encroaching on his present. One day in autumn, he got the call that the new controller of BBC2 was set on commissioning a new variety comedy series and was he interested in being involved with the programme. A six part series. Sketches, musical numbers, guest appearances.
It was everything he’d been waiting for. His stomach was in knots. How on earth was he going to pull this off? He couldn’t orchestrate his way through a six part series.
He had to bring in Peter. Truth be told, he was in abject terror at the thought of doing it without him. Without Peter, Dudley couldn’t imagine doing any comedy at all.
He’d never felt so anxious. Well, that was a lie. You don’t write a composition called Anxiety aged eleven unless it’s a relatively common feeling.
But this was different.
His first step was to talk to Peter.
While he’d spent the better part of the last 26 hours alternately curling up in a ball on his bed, and dry retching over the toilet bowl, most of his thoughts had centred around how this might come across to Peter.
Considering things from Peter’s perspective, he started second guessing himself. Could there maybe be feelings of jealousy that he had got the call and not Peter. Might Peter be worried that the very cheap, very reliable cabaret act for his club was getting a new job. Would he be upset…
Lost in his excitement over the new show and nervous at the prospect of broaching the topic with Peter, Dudley rounded the corner of Green Street at speed and walked straight into someone.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He said quickly, not looking up into the face of the person he’d nearly bowled over.
“Oh. It’s you,” Only one person he knew could imbue such mundane words with that much distain and bitterness.
He’d underestimated. Peter wasn’t upset. He was furious.
“So, you’ve heard -?” Dudley began. His voice was quiet, not wanting to make a scene in the middle of a street in Soho.
“So, you’ve heard - ?” Peter mocked him, in an irritatingly high-pitched, sing-song voice. “Of course I’ve fucking heard, you midget poof! Half of bloody London’s heard. Only heard David fucking Attenborough on the radio announcing it! When were you going to tell me, you cunting turncoat?”
Dudley was speechless, his nerves and excitement quickly turning to indignant rage. Rage as it seemed only Peter could tease out of him. He clenched his fists at his sides a couple of times in a vain attempt at keeping his temper under control.
Peter continued, “So, how many of the BBC high-ups did you have to suck off to get this gig?”
“Come on, Peter!” Dudley began, still attempting to keep his volume down and his rising blood pressure in check.
“No, you come on, Dud! How many of them did you have to bend over for? Come on, I’m not prudish. Did they take turns? Did you have to do them all at once? Acted the soggy biscuit? What’s your process?” At this Peter clasped his hands together and bent down to match Dudley’s height and look at him face to face.
The corner of Dudley’s mouth twitched up in a pained mockery of a smile.
“Fuck off, Peter.” He said quietly, steeling himself to turn around and walk back to the station.
“No, you fuck off Dudley. How did you manage – “ Peter straightened again to make the most of his height advantage over Dudley.
Dudley had reached his breaking point. Raising his voice over Peter’s he started, “You fucking self-aggrandising cunt!”
Peter smiled at having so easily gotten a rise out of him. Raising his voice to a level above Dudley’s he countered, “No. You -”
But Dudley was on a roll. ”Honestly, Peter. You are so fucking self-centred. Did you ever for one second think about this from my point of view?”
The pitch of their voices was rising with the volume. They had attracted a few glances from people making their way down the street, but so far, all had quickly looked away and moved on.
“YOUR point?” Peter shouted, his face a caricature of bewilderment. “Your point of view? You fucking cunt! What about from MY point of view?”
There was a vein throbbing in Dudley’s temple. “Can you even hear yourself right now? So fucking - “
Peter cut Dudley off, shouting, “No! No I can’t hear myself! Because all I can hear, is your fucking gob going off in my face. Again.”
“Excuse me?” A passer-by had stopped on the pavement a safe distance away and addressed them. Their presence had shocked Peter and Dudley into momentary silence. “Would you mind toning – “
“Fuck Off!” they both shouted at the man in unison and he scurried away.
When he was out of earshot, they looked at each other. Still fuelled with rage, the interruption had taken some of the fire out of their argument.
“Well, fuck you Dudley Moore.” Peter said finally. Then adding, in that smarmy way only he could manage that absolutely got under Dudley’s skin, “Enjoy stardom.”
Bristling with annoyance, and a foreign energy he couldn’t quite place, Dudley replied, “I will, fuck you very much.” He then turned and headed back to the main street.
It was a rare sunny autumn day. Brisk and cold. Dudley stuffed his hands into his warm lined pockets and began walking to the underground. He took a deep breath and started the process of unpacking what had just happened with Peter.
Everything had been going so well between them. Without the pressures of touring or writing to deadlines like there had been with Fringe, they hadn’t really had any arguments. Of course, there had been the odd jealous spat when they inevitably started going after the same bird in the club, but to be honest, most were quite keen to try both Cook and Moore.
In fact, the last argument he could remember that came anywhere near close in intensity as to what had just transpired between them was in the final weeks of Fringe. It wasn’t over anything serious either, some stupid argument about costuming that inevitably broke down into a shouting match with puerile name-calling.
But this time, Peter hadn’t been wrong – not about the means by which he had ingratiated himself with the BBC elite, but his real questions were valid. How had he managed it?
He hadn’t really thought about it from Peter’s point of view. If he was being honest, he’d only thought about it from Peter’s perspective in as much as how he’d wanted Peter to feel. Jealous of Dudley getting in first; worried that he was going to lose him. But Peter had felt… betrayed. Overlooked.
Of course he had felt that way! And of course he had been overlooked. Peter had written 80% of a review that went to the West End and Broadway, countless sketches and pieces for existing television comedies and yet it was Peter’s club-footed musical midget sidekick, capable of writing exactly zero non-musical sketches that got the green light from the BBC.
That, coupled with the fact that Peter’s insecurity was something Dudley had known about and seen up close for the best part of five years.
When Dudley got home, he unlocked the door with still slightly-shaking fingers. He told himself it was the after-effects of the cold. Slamming the door behind himself, he sunk to rest against it.
Cradling his head in his hands, he tried to go over the details of the conversation he’d had with Peter, if it could be called a conversation. However, with every passing minute, more details slipped away, until he was unable to recall anything but an angry shouting blur and the definite sense that they weren’t about to be working together anytime soon.
He hated fighting with Peter like that. All of the yelling gave him an adrenaline rush that had nowhere to go. He was never sure if it was going to make him punch a hole in the wall or burst into tears. This time he was determined it was going to make him do neither.
He called the club, and the receptionist informed him that Peter had booked a replacement cabaret act to play out the week. He could hear someone in the background shouting and what sounded like expensive items of furniture being thrown around.
Taking a few deep breaths, he made his way to the kitchen, and with trembling hands, poured half a bottle of red wine into a generous glass and turned on the radio. He hated being alone. And he couldn’t think of anything worse than being alone with his thoughts right now.
About four hours later, there was an insistent knocking at the door. Dudley had fallen asleep one and a half bottles into the wine and half of him was draped unceremoniously across his couch. The other half of him was on the floor.
The knocking continued for the thirty seconds it took him to pick himself up and get over to said door.
Irritable at having just been woken up, and with the beginnings of a mighty hangover pressing insistently at his temples, he shouted, “I’m COMING!”
The knocking ceased awkwardly.
He opened the door and Peter stood there.
Peter looked an absolute wreck. Tie askew, jacket buttoned unevenly, one shirttail untucked, and his hair looked like it had been brushed through backwards.
“Can I… come in?” Peter asked hesitantly.
He was looking everywhere except at Dudley.
Dudley heaved a sigh and opened the door fully to let him pass.
No sooner had he shut the door, that Peter grabbed him from behind by the shoulders, turning him and pushing him into the door.
Dudley brought his hands up immediately to prepare to fight and found his eyes arrested by Peter’s right in front of him.
His eyes were red-rimmed and his nose looked like it had been running.
Peter’s face descended on his slowly, and Dudley had no idea what was happening until dry, chapped lips met his own.
Dudley wanted to sag in relief, but Peter was still holding him by the shoulders, pinned against the door, so he just returned the soft pressure against his lips.
At that, he felt Peter’s hands loosen their death grip on his shoulders.
After a few precious seconds, Peter broke the kiss and took a step backwards.
They stood looking at each other, eyes wide, breathing heavily.
Peter was the first to break the silence, “So.”
“You fucking cunt.” Dudley whispered, brokenly.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
The adrenaline had raced back into Dudley’s system. His lips were tingling and his fists had grasped the front of Peter’s shirt, keeping his body held close.
Peter took another step backwards, keeping his eyes fixed on Dudley.
Then it was a race to the bedroom. Items of clothing were tossed and strewn across furniture and the floor. They moved quickly through the kitchen, living room and hallway. At one point Peter got his long legs caught up in his slacks as he tried to kick them off over his Oxfords, and Dudley fell over his own feet to disentangle him.
Dudley managed to get his foot caught in the belt of Peter’s discarded slacks and he grabbed hold of Peter in the hopes of steadying himself, accidentally tackling him to the floor.
Soon they made it to the bed, naked, aroused, hearts beating wildly.
For the first time since their kiss, Dudley faltered. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing, Peter?” he whispered.
Peter chuckled nervously, “Not exactly, You?”
Dudley flashed him a delighted grin, “Not a fucking clue.”
From then on, they were a mass of sweating, grinding, hair-pulling, kissing, biting and sucking until, utterly satisfied, they both passed out into sleep.
Peter was the first to wake up.
Dudley awoke to the feeling of his hair being played with. Smiling to himself, he opened his eyes to see Peter looking right at him, his face almost disconcertingly close.
He’d never really seen Peter’s face up close. Certainly not without a significant application of stage makeup. It still held the last remnants of youth, but was scattered with freckles and creased by emerging laugh lines. Before Dudley could say anything, Peter leant forward and, with a gentleness Dudley would never have thought possible, kissed him softly on the lips.
“Morning, Darling.” Peter said softly.
Dudley had never seen this side of Peter directed at him before. “Morning,” he responded, somewhat nervously. While he wanted nothing more than to stay like this with Peter forever, he knew at some point they had to address what had happened. “So about last night,” he began.
“Yeah?” replied Peter, still smiling, carding his hands gently through Dudley’s hair. Dudley closed his eyes reflexively at the touch.
They remained in companionable silence, their breathing the only sound in the room, while Dudley thought of the best way to phrase his question.
“What made you come over here?” he asked eventually. Having just woken up, his Dagenham accent was thicker than usual, natural and unselfconscious.
Peter pulled Dudley closer to him, wrapping his arms around the smaller man, and Dudley nuzzled into his chest.
After a few moments, he heard one of the familiar voices Peter had been developing during their improvisational riffing at the Establishment Club. “Well I’d been having a couple of drinks down at the pub, you know, and I was feeling a bit tired, so I thought, you know, I’d better go to bed, and take all my clothes off…”
Dudley grinned into Peter’s chest, sneaking an arm around his waist. “Shouldn’t you have taken all your clothes off before you went to bed?” he mumbled against Peter’s skin.
Dudley felt Peter’s arms wrap themselves tighter around him, and relaxed.