“Ow, piss off!” Strike exclaimed as Nick kicked him sideways in the leg from where he was sitting beside him on the couch.
“That was the last one, you’ve already had half the packet!” Nick complained. Strike had pounced on the box of Coconut Creams Nick had taken from his mum’s ‘good biscuit’ supply.
“So? I’m a guest.”
“No you’re not, you’re here all the time.” Nick said as he made a grab for the biscuit but Strike managed to shove it in his mouth. He gave Nick a wide smile, coconut crumbs and all.
“Think of it as a going away present.” Strike mumbled as he tried not to spit crumbs at Nick.
“Going away?” Nick’s face fell as he said it, his brows furrowed.
“Mum’s new boyfriend-“
“-the weirdo that kept asking me about my spirituality last week?”
“Yeah, and that’s why I told you to wait outside by the way.”
“You say that like your flat is some sort of drugs den.” Nick said and then caught the shadow of something cross his best mate’s face. Nick knew his life was fairly sheltered compared to the snatches of stories he heard from Strike, but there were occasions when an offhand comment would cause Strike’s face to darken and he’d wonder just what kind of life his friend returned home to when he left Nick’s house.
“Anyway, he’s got some friends that told him about a... well, a commune that they’re living in now and-“
“A commune?!” Nick almost shouted.
“Shut up!” Strike said, a glance thrown towards the hallway that led to the kitchen where Nick’s mum was making dinner.
“You can’t go and live in a commune!” Nick said, his voice lower but his statement no less intense.
“Well mum’s going and she’s bringing Lucy with her, I can hardly leave them alone can I? Anyway the lease is up on the flat next week so we have to go somewhere.”
“Can’t you just renew the lease?” Nick asked hopefully.
“The landlord’s putting up the rent. Doesn’t matter anyway, Mum’s decided.”
“Well you still can’t go! You’ll end up in a cult Oggy!”
“I’m not gonna end up in a cult.” Strike said rolling his eyes.
“Yes you will!”
“Would you relax, Christ.” Strike reached across and grabbed the tv remote from the arm of the couch beside Nick.
“What about school?”
“We’ve only got a few weeks left, I can just read through the stuff myself.” Strike said and Nick noticed an increasing uncertainty in his voice.
They sat for a bit, Strike flicking through tv channels and Nick looking glumly at his mother’s perfectly polished coffee table.
“What about the Cup Final!”
“What about it?”
“Dad got us tickets.”
“What?” About this Strike looked genuinely alarmed.
“It was part of my birthday present, he got three, said he’d take you and me and make a day of it.”
“Bollox.” Strike gave him a look full of disappointment and Nick sat back into the couch with a heavy sigh. He then sat up again with a ‘eureka’ smile plastered across his face and grabbed Strike’s arm.
“You could stay here!”
“Yeah, Mum would love having you and Lucy and dad wouldn’t mind.”
“I can’t stay here.”
“Yes you could. It’ll be like when you stay over and sleep on the bottom bunk-“
“-and where would Lucy sleep?” Strike asked and watched as the clogs turned in Nick’s head.
“In the spare room upstairs.”
“There’s no bed in that room you numpty.”
“Well we can get one.”
Nick was stumped. He got a small amount of pocket money from his parents but it wasn’t enough to buy new Tottenham jersey at the minute, never mind a bed. Strike was working weekends at a corner shop near their school but it paid the minimum wage and he gave it all to Leda each fortnight, only getting back a little if she managed not to spend it all before his next payday.
“Mum hasn’t got enough money to give your mum and dad to pay for us anyway.” Strike said.
“She wouldn’t need to give us money.”
“What, you’d gladly share your food with me? You complain when I steal one chip off your plate.”
“Well if it meant you not disappearing again...” Nick’s voice trailed off as he seriously considered Strike going to live in a commune. When he went back to Cornwall he at least knew he’d be back, either because Leda was still in London or because she went with them but would inevitably be drawn back to the city.
“What if you stay there?” He asked.
“In the commune?”
“Nah, mum will get bored of the hippy life sooner or later. Not dramatic enough for her.” Strike said with a knowing look.
“What if she doesn’t though Oggy. What if you just stay there forever and...” Nick looked sideways at him and saw a shadow of worry cross Strike’s face before the mask slipped back into place.
“Cheer the fuck up, you sound like I’m breaking up with you.”
A creek from the door had both of them looking up.
“Excuse me?” Nick’s mum was standing in the doorway, an eyebrow arched in Strike’s direction.
“Sorry Mrs Herbert.” Cormoran said sheepishly.
“So you should be, eating my Sunday roast with that mouth.” She finished the admonishment with a smile and then looked at her son, who was looking glumly at his feet.
“What’s this about you two breaking up?” She asked.
Cormoran looked from Nick to his mum and then back to Nick.
“We’re not,” he said and knocked his knee against Nick’s, “just going away for a bit with mum and Lucy.”
“Oh? Back to Cornwall?”
“No, uh, Norfolk.” He said, leaving the commune part out on purpose, he knew Nick’s mum didn’t approve of Leda’s ways so he tried to filter out the more unconventional parts of his childhood.
“Oh.” She said, glancing between the two of them and instantly knowing why her son looked so glum.
“Just for the summer?” She asked.
“Yeah, yeah, probably.” Cormoran said, looking at Nick’s slumped shoulders.
“Well,” she said, walking towards Nick and putting a hand on his back, “until then there’s food to be eaten. Will you set table in there for me Cormoran?”
Mrs Herbert smiled and Cormoran stood knowing he was being dismissed so she could deal with her son.
“Sure.” Strike said and left them to it.
A clod of something heavy and cold crept into his chest as he glanced back at Nick and his mum and then walked through the hall with its paisley wallpaper to the kitchen that smelled of a delicious Sunday roast. Nick’s dad would be back soon, they’d eat the dessert he’d bring home with him after dinner and then Cormoran and Nick would do the washing up. They’d watch TV with his mum and dad or sit in Nick’s room going through the football stickers he’d bought on Friday. Then Cormoran would walk the 40 minutes it took to get to the half empty flat that he would soon vacate for a commune in Norfolk.
He set the handful of cutlery down on the table with a heavy clunk and sat down on the creaky chair usually reserved for Nick’s dad. He found himself worrying that Nick would turn out to be right and one of Leda’s fancies would finally stick.
“Come on lad the table won’t set itself, I’m starving.” Nick’s dad jolted Strike from his thoughts with a hand planted on either shoulder.
Mr Herbert threw his jacket across one of the chairs and then grabbed some of the knives and forks and began helping to set the table. Nick and his mum soon emerged into the kitchen and Strike laughed when Nick shoved him into the wall and away from the chair, Nick’s chair, that he was heading towards.
“Boys.” Mrs Herbert warned when she heard the thump, her back turned and oblivious to Cormoran stealing Nick’s fork and taunting him with it from across the table. Mr Herbert shook his head as he watched Cormoran grab his own cutlery and hold it close to his chest as Nick attempted to get even.
“Something smells delicious love.” He said, causing his wife to turn around and cast a spell across the table, producing two well behaved, and hungry, teenage boys.