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‘I’m sorry. It doesn’t feel right. But with the kids and everything else going on, it’s all I can offer right now.’

‘It’s fine, Jimmy. It’s a caravan. At least there are no bars on the windows.’

‘No, but do keep them locked when you’re not in it. You’d be amazed what people are like, opportunists. You can’t trust anyone these days. But then you’d probably know that better than me with where you’ve come from.’

‘And you’ll keep it quiet for now, that I’m here, like we talked about?’

He raised a hand to ease the black beanie snugly down over his ears, and for a moment they just stood looking over the sweep of the valley, past Wylie’s, occupied now by some tenant farmers, following the curve of the road back to the village. In the fields below they could see horse riders, impossible to make out who they were, probably tourists. He could see the outbuildings where the HOP was located, the tributary leading to the place where the river widened - where the accident had happened. He’d watched it on the news, shouting at his cell mate to shut up so he could listen, even after he’d seen repeats on every channel.

It was a fine windy day. A good day to be free. But freedom, he was realizing, was more to do with what you carry on the inside, and for now the stench of prison still seeped through him.

‘Nothing stays quiet here for long, Robert, you know that.’

‘Yeah, but I just want it on my own terms.’

Something else that stuck after being inside, that sense of powerlessness. All he wanted was a moment of dignity. He’d hold out for it.

‘Come on, I’ll give you the grand tour and then I’ll be off. The kids will want their taxi service, though Elliot has just started driving lessons so hypothetically at least this phase too shall pass.’

‘You have custody, don’t you? Was that difficult, the legal side I mean?’

‘Initially. Until Nico agreed. Always easiest to settle these things amicably.’

They climbed the step. Inside two people made the space seem crowded, and Jimmy felt too close. In prison, personal space was sacred, one of those unspoken rules. Robert arched away fear pricking at his spine. There were some lines you only crossed once. Jimmy, oblivious, opened a low cupboard to show Robert the gas bottle.

‘It should be full I only used it a couple of times.’

‘I think I can take it from here.’

Robert drew his chin back as Jimmy turned and passed him, taking two steps to the door.

‘Oh, and here.’

He fished in his pocket and produced a roll of what Robert could see were tens.

‘Just to see you through until the bank opens on Tuesday.’ (Trust him to be released on a bank holiday weekend.) ‘And here’s a prepaid sim just until you’re up and running. You got your phone back, I take it?’

Robert nodded.

‘I owe you,’ he said in thanks to Jimmy. He didn’t want charity, but he had to be pragmatic, and he needed to get to Liverpool. He planned to thumb a ride on the M62. He’d buy a gift. What did six-year-olds like? What could he afford? He didn’t know.

‘Settle in, then, and we’ll have another chat when you’ve had some thoughts about what you want to do. The haulage company still needs you.’

It was almost as if there was a silent even if… following on from what Jimmy said – even if no one else needs you… even if you’re irrelevant now to everyone who ever once cared about you…

‘Don’t worry, Vic will come round soon enough, you know she will,’ was Jimmy’s parting shot and then Robert was watching him from the door of the caravan as he climbed in his car and drove away retracing the road down to Emmerdale.

What he knew was that Vic was a Sugden, like his dad, and he’d never come round.

He shut the door and locked it, then pulled down the upholstered bench to make it into a bed, found the bedding in a storage space underneath. He sniffed at it, decided it could have been worse, and anyway he was too tired right now to care.

After four years, his name was cleared, and for the first time he would sleep outside a prison cell.

As he unfolded the sheet and spread it out, he scrunched up his eyes looking out of the high window. His eyesight had deteriorated in prison from too much reading, but he imagined he could just make it out, far away, the black chimney of The Mill.

Was he at home? Four whole years; did he even look the same?

He was breathing in slow motion.

If only he’d known, back then, that he’d be out so soon. If only: he’d be there now, in some alternate universe where he’d never let go ever again.

He lay down and closed his eyes, listening to the liquid call of birds outside and the thrum of a tractor somewhere. He felt the frisson of fear again, being alone, exposed, anyone could just break in, get to him. He thought he’d never sleep, and then the next thing he was waking in the dark, limbs heavy and mouth thick, aware that time must have passed, that he’d woken to a new world, a new beginning.

 

 

 

‘You? I knew there was something dodgy about that Banksy mural, it was you scarpering down that wall;’ he craned his neck looking behind him. ‘Are the police looking for you? Should I give them a call?’

‘No, it’s legit. I’ve been cleared except for GBH and I’ve done my time for that. Let me in. Where’s Rebecca?’

Ross blocked the door as Robert pushed against it.

‘OH, you wouldn’t want to be done for trespassing, now would you?’

‘You haven’t changed! Becks! Call your thug off.’

Will you settle down, mate. The neighbours don’t like it rough. It’s not all about you. Anyway, you’re out of touch. Rebecca’s in a care home. She has been for a whole year now.’

‘What?’

Ross’s expression reflected the shock on Robert’s face.

‘She started to deteriorate and then it reached a point where even basic stuff was too difficult, we had a carer come in for a while.’

‘But what about Seb? My son? Why didn’t someone let me know?’

Your son? Not after you abandoned him. Don’t think so, mate.’

‘That’s not how it was at all, and you know it. Don’t rewrite the past. Where is he? Is he here?’

He’d seen Ross glance behind him into the dark of the house, and it was enough to encourage him.

‘Let me in. Let me see him.’

‘She didn’t want it.’

‘What?’

‘Rebecca; she specifically said she didn’t want him to have anything to do with you, or Aaron.’

‘But that’s not her call, I’m his father.’

‘I think you’ll find you’re wro…’

He’d waited for the exact moment when he saw Ross’s grip on the door relax, used the flat of his foot to slam it open following up with his shoulder and he was in.

‘Seb! Seb!’

There was a smell of charred toast and the noise of cartoons on a television. He strode forwards fast, opened a door that led into a kitchen with a large table in the middle of it. He was sitting with a plate in front of him. Still his son, still recognizably him, pale with blue eyes, every long lock of red hair, every beautiful freckle on his little face.

But now those eyes grew wide. He jumped off his chair, held his arms up to Ross, clearly frightened by Robert’s clumsy entrance.

‘Daddy!’

Ross swept him up in his arms.

‘It’s alright. Daddy will protect you from the naughty man.’

Robert blinked. It was all too much to take in. Seb was hiding his face. And then he remembered, he’d gone to a new retail park in Hotten, braved the sensory overload of shopping aisles and found something: A toy tractor with a driver who was a giraffe in overalls. He had no idea if it was right or not. He’d read the suitable for age thing on the side, six to eight, seemed about right.

‘Seb, it’s me, your Dad, and I’m sorry I’ve not been around to take care of you. I bought you something.’

He placed it on the table. He saw Seb twist his neck to look then quickly hide again.

‘Time to leave, now.’

Ross had taken out his mobile phone; Robert shook his head - as if he would really call the police.

‘I want access to my son.’

He looked one last time at Seb, committing the size and shape of him to memory. He could see from how his shoulders were shaking that he was genuinely scared, He couldn’t do this to him.

‘Don’t cross me,’ he barred his teeth. ’I’m warning you Ross.’

He turned and left.

Outside on the wide street again he leant his back against a sandstone wall and closed his eyes, fighting off a feeling of vertigo and nausea. For now, he had no choice, he would go back to Emmerdale and then work out his next move.

 

 

He was picked up by a lorry carrying goods from Liverpool, took the bus from Hotten and then walked up the hill.

 

A quick search revealed some tea bags and a stale packet of cream crackers. He ate one and washed it down with black hot tea with sugar. Felt only slightly better. So, it was hunger that drove him back into the village in the end.

Whatever anyone thought of him he wasn’t a coward, well maybe slightly a physical one, but not when it came to what people might say about him. Once he might have been, but coming out all those years ago, he’d made peace with himself, and now people could say or do their damnedest he trusted who he was.

He opened the door to the pub.

 

Inside there was the warm glow of lights reflected from glasses onto people’s cheery faces, and the sharp scent of hops and wine and bistro cooking, the roll of voices in conversation. He looked around, saw strangers’ faces, even the person serving behind the bar was a stranger. He raised a hand and pulled off his beanie, ordered a pint of beer.

He watched it being pulled in slow motion, enjoyed the weight in his hand when it was passed across the bar to him, let the amber liquid rest over the surface of his tongue and overflow against his teeth. He could hear himself breathing. Whatever happened next, he was a free person again and as long as he was free, he could change his world. He’d lost everything but he had to believe, somehow, he’d take back what was his.

He drank deeply, reading the menu on the wall, overwhelmed by the choices, while at the same time he heard but tried to ignore the voices growing louder, sharp and self- righteous. He heard the words.

‘The nerve! Coming back here after what he’s done.’

He blinked and looked over, saw Wendy, shoulders huddled in outrage. He’d known she was in the village but hadn’t really registered what it might mean. He really didn’t care. Raised his glass in a cavalier greeting and downed another mouthful grinning.

What could she do? It wasn’t his problem.

He leaned over the bar and ordered some food. And that’s when he saw them. Chas first, entering the bar from the back room, shaking out her hair as she unfastened her coat, and behind her Paddy; the same old Paddy, following and calling after her.

‘So, why am I always the last to know? What was the good news? What did Aaron say? Is it supposed to be a secret or something?’

And then she swept round, grinning like the cat that got the cream, waving out her scarf.

‘It was a secret, but not anymore, they’ve passed the three month mark.’

‘You what?’

‘Aaron’s news. Aaron and Ben:They’re pregnant.’

Chapter Text

 

 

Fuck, who hadn’t reminded him that whiskey was evil? The morning sun danced over his face. He waited before he opened his eyes, knowing pain would follow.

He tried to separate his tongue from the roof of his mouth.

Water would be useful.

Water - Hadn’t Jimmy said something about filling the aqua barrel?

His knees hurt going down the step. The pale-yellow daffodils raised their shoulders disapprovingly as he padded on bare feet across the wet grass. The Yorkshire air whipped his freckled legs.

Someone twitched a curtain in a neighbouring caravan that had a trailer with a couple of dirt bikes inside next to it as he connected up to the tap.

He tugged the hem of his t-shirt down over white prison issue y-fronts.

The hangover and everything about his life was supposed to make him depressed, and soon it would, but not yet; his husband (because that was how he still thought of him ) was going to have a baby. He drew in a deep breath of air and gave a celebratory whoop. He saw the curtain flutter again.

He turned back towards the caravan, a thumb dropping his waistband behind for a cheeky half-moon.

Water! Inside he drank down a pint, poured another.

 

 

 

 

 

‘You find money to pay my fees, and I’ll pursue custody for you.’

He stood in front of the fan heater, phone on speaker as he towelled himself dry after a shower in what he’d discovered was a very tight space.

‘I mean he’s not even married to her, surely I have more rights than him?’

‘If you want my legal advice, you’ll have to pay me.’

Robert untangled the damp front of his hair with his fingers.

‘Come on Imran: You know I’ll be good for it eventually.’

‘I like you, Robert, but much as I’d prefer to avoid talking in clichés; I’m not running a charity. And you still owe me a considerable sum for arguing your appeal.’

‘So, keep working with me. Keep me close and you’re more likely to get it back one day. You know it makes sense.’

‘How can I put this bluntly, oh I know: you-have-no-money.’

‘Alright.’

He sat down heavily.

‘Just tell me this. He’s my son. What’s to stop me from just going there and taking him?’

‘Apart from potentially being arrested for kidnapping? Look, I know none of the details, try talking to citizen’s advice, and also for family matters you may be eligible for legal aid, especially if social services are involved.’

‘Why would they be?’

‘Just maybe, with the mother in care he might be on a register. But I honestly don’t know. Now if you don’t mind, I have clients who are waiting to pay me by the hour.’

 

He pulled a jumper on over his head, straightened the sleeves, the cuffs were worn. Vic had brought it to him one of her visits that first year.

She’d brought in Harry, too. He’d been so small, so perfect and peaceful.

‘Uncle Aaron’s brilliant with him,’ she’d said. ’Like a baby whisperer.’

 

It was almost like a curse this early release, he didn’t want to feel bitter about what he’d lost, but it was hard not to, like a seeping wound somewhere in his middle.

He stepped into clean underpants, warmed his jeans in front of the fan heater, then pulled them up. He hadn’t worn a belt for years and they sat low on his hips. He would get one, when he had money again.

Or maybe Jimmy had left some clothes here, he remembered he’d seen some. He lifted the bed and rifled through some spare blankets, there was a hi viz jacket, and what was that? a nurse’s uniform, a stethoscope, an old-style glass thermometer. He grimaced: - Jimmy, Jimmy, he really didn’t want to think about where that might have been. There was a belt after all; he lifted it gingerly with his thumb and forefinger, and then something else attracted his attention, a pair of field glasses – Nikon, small and apparently in very good condition.

He picked them up and went to the window. He looked through them, saw a group of people carrying colourful kayaks down towards a channel of water leading to the river.

He put the binoculars down, and wiped his hands feeling stealthy and slightly ashamed. That way lay madness.

And he had more important things to do.

 

 

 

 

‘Someone left flowers on Diane Sugden’s grave.’

‘Is it Victoria? Is she here?’ Moira asked Brenda as she passed over some change and a coffee to go.

‘Oh no, dear. I heard from Bob who heard it from Wendy that she won’t leave Luke’s side. They’re waiting for the sentencing, and if they move him from Wakefield to another prison, she’ll up sticks and move too so she can keep visiting. It’s Wendy though who I feel sorry for, not just what’s happened, but little Harry is her comfort and joy and now she’s got ties here too…’

‘Thank you, Brenda.’

‘And I heard something upset her in the Woolpack last…’

‘Thank you, Brenda.’

‘Erm, I’m going to be gone for an hour or so, it’s quite quiet so I don’t think you’ll need me,’ Nicola said.

‘No, I won’t need you,’ Brenda replied.

‘Fine, well call me if you do.’

 

 

 

‘Let’s go to the HOP.’

He’d thought about it.

‘Time to do the stomp bah-bah-bah-bah.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Never mind. I’ll meet you there.’

He’d arrived a little bit early. He sat at a table keeping his beanie on. He had this feeling that someone who’d maybe only seen him in photographs wouldn’t recognize him if they didn’t see his blonde hair to alert them to look for other points of resemblance.

‘Robert? Is that you?’

He looked up, startled, blinked at the young bloke in front of him.

‘Ellis! Wow, you look… different somehow?’

‘Maybe it’s working indoors. I’m in the office here now. And you; Gosh. You’re here!’

‘Indeed. So, you left the scrapyard?’

‘Ages ago. You do know Aaron’s husband works here, by the way?’

He looked over his shoulder, as if expecting to see him. Robert followed the direction of his eyes but there was no one around. It was the first time he’d heard anyone refer to him as that; Aaron’s husband, it was like a sudden pressure on that wound; that was his title, wasn’t it? It was burnt into his identity, inalienable. He didn’t need a piece of paper to prove it, they’d been married before without one.

‘What’s he like?’

‘Like?’

‘It’s not a trick question.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Nice.’

‘Nice means nothing. Didn’t your teacher have one of those charts when you were at school; ‘words to use instead of nice?’

‘Well maybe, but that’s what he is. Everyone says so.’

‘Except that dead bloke.’

He saw the frown on Ellis’s face, but then Nicola was there. He excused himself. Hoped he hadn’t behaved badly, but, when didn’t he? He ran a tongue over his lower lip, he really needed to work on that.

 

 

 

‘What? No work with the haulage company? Jimmy seemed to imply he’d find me something.’

‘You know what Jimmy’s like: He will never tell you bad news, he hasn’t got it in him. He’s like a chocolate cream egg that’s been left out in the sun, not just soft on the inside even his shell’s gone all gooey.’

‘You still love him, though.’

‘Course I still love him. Like I’m sure you still love Aaron. He wouldn’t take me back though. I have enough sense to know that. Just like you. We’ve hit the iceberg like the Titanic and now we’re slowly sinking.’

‘I thought we were haulage, not shipping.’

We, as in me and Jimmy, not including you, can’t even afford our insurance on the trailers right now, let alone add you in. Sorry Robert.’

‘How much do you think someone earns working at a place like this?’

Nicola twisted round, someone had come in to the café but he had his back to them, but Robert was watching him.

‘What catering staff?’

‘Or outdoors,’ he shrugged.

‘Peanuts, probably. More in summer, nothing at all in winter, mostly seasonal income I would think. You’re not thinking about it?’

‘God no. I need money. I’m not lowering myself to that level though, not yet. I was just thinking how tough it must be to support a family, unless your partner is earning.’

There was a burst of cheerful laughter. Someone had appeared from the kitchen with a cake with one of those candles with a streaming gold flame, and there was a limp round of applause and a voice saying congratulations.

‘…never imagined…life changing… used to sleepless nights… ‘

‘…Where’s the husband?’

‘… the scrapy…’

Nicola leaned forward.

‘Are you alright? Robert? Are you worried about Seb?’

‘Yes. No. I mean I think he’s being looked after. But I miss him. I need to go though.’

‘Go where exactly? Robert? Just, one more thing…’

‘What’s that?’

‘People are starting to talk. I know you wanted to keep a low profile, but it’s going to be common knowledge soon that you’re here. He’s going to find out soon.’

 

 

 

 

 

It was a now or never moment. Nicola had driven him back up to the caravan, and he stood with his hands in his pockets and the wind blowing in his blonde hair, that hangover finally making itself felt after all, and with it the inevitable freefall of his spirits.

The moment had come, he couldn’t put it off any longer. It scared him, because as long as everything stayed in his head, he could imagine it as different.

But it was time to face reality.

He looked over at the neighbouring caravan. One of the dirt bikes he’d noticed that morning had gone from the trailer. The other was still there, but the retaining strap was unfastened and the ramp was still in position. He walked around the vehicle, called out a couple of times. Then climbed up and steered the bike down.

Maybe he’d spent too much time around criminals, but he wasn’t stealing it, he was just borrowing it for a little while. But he also needed something else. He put down the kickstand and ran into his own caravan, picked up the binoculars and put them in his inside pocket.

Outside, he sat astride the bike, turned on the gas and opened the choke, then turned the throttle. The noise was ridiculous.

He turned off road; he would take the green lanes, he knew the way from his childhood, and also Aaron used to run the whole route, first the bridal path and then over the aqueduct and through the bluebell wood and then out at Wishing Well, and he would be there, at the scrapyard. And that’s where he’d find him.

 

He was on Wishing Well land, he’d killed the engine and left the bike under a tree in Zach’s orchard near the back boundary wall of his land, and then circled down and round along the fence until he could see the yard.

He could see movement inside the portacabin. He was being weird and stalkerish, but that wasn’t why he was there. He just needed to know he was alright.

He took out his phone, took a deep breath and pressed call.

He could see him reach out and lift up his phone.

 

 

‘It’s me.’

Silence.

‘I’m out of prison.’

More silence. He could see him look up, then raise his hand and hold it over the back of his head.

‘God.’

‘Sorry, you probably didn’t expect this.’

The hand was still there, He was walking a couple of steps forward and back as he spoke, eyes down now.

‘No, it’s just, erm, god…erm, I heard that you were out. I didn’t know if you’d be in touch or not.’

‘Yeah, I thought it would be best if I called, not to ... just, we might bump into each other and I didn’t want to take you by surprise in case it was awkward.’

His eyes flew to the window. He was frowning. Instinctively Robert also took a step back.

‘You’re here, you mean?’

‘Yep. I’m staying in Jimmy’s caravan for now, you know, above Wylie’s.’

‘But why?’

‘I don’t know, it’s home, I suppose.’

He turned his back on the window and now Robert couldn’t see his face anymore.

‘I’ve moved on.’

‘I know. I don’t want to make trouble. I promise.’

‘Right.’

His back was still to the window. He just wanted him to turn again. To see him more clearly. After four years.

‘So, listen I heard your news so, amazing... congratulations.’

‘Yeah? Well, it’s nothing to do with you. We can’t have anything to do with each other. I get why you called but don’t call again; thanks.’

He saw him throw his phone down. Raise both hands, and cover his face.

‘Course.’

What he wanted was to go to him, to hold him, to make it all okay: To make the past four years vanish.

 

 

 

 

 

Moira found him sitting in long grass, ankles crossed, looking up at the clouds.

‘You? Well, that explains Diane’s flowers. What are you doing, deciding if the earth’s warm enough for planting? It’s what they used to say you know, only I think you’re supposed to take your trousers down to get a proper idea.’

‘I remember my Dad joking about it.’

‘Aye. Well, there’s not many of us farming folk around who’d remember now. What are you doing here though? You know technically you’re trespassing?’

He stood up slowly, stroking the dirt off his hands.

‘Not on your land, though is it. This area here is Vic’s now.’

He drew a square with his hand, eyes on the horizon. He knew exactly the length and size of it, the boundaries, it was in his veins, he’d been weened on it.

‘Charming. I pay the rent, I’ll have you know. I did ask her if she wanted to sell, but maybe she’s still a bit nostalgic about it. I kind of get it. Land, it does that to you.’

Robert nodded slowly. Maybe she saw the hurt race across his eyes before he buried it, she touched his arm.

‘I’m sorry. It must have been hard that your grandmother Annie didn’t leave any to you. She must have thought you were guilty.’

She kept her hand holding his sleeve, a gesture of solidarity that was unexpected but not unwelcome.

‘She did leave me something actually.’

‘A piece of furniture, or an old family painting? That’s usually the way, isn’t it? Salt in the wound.’

Robert laughed.

‘Something like that.’

‘You know what is here; Victoria’s Diddy Diner. It’s taking up space in one of my barns.’

‘And you’re telling me this, why?’

‘I don’t know, maybe you could use it?’

‘I’m not her favourite person right now.’

‘Aye well, she has her reasons. But does she need to know? As long as you don’t get a parking ticket.’

 

 

 

 

‘Robert, we’re not going over this again.’

‘No wait. Don’t hang up. Can I reopen my divorce settlement?’

‘What?’

‘I regret that I got nothing.’

‘It’s extremely rare.’ He could almost hear Imran think. ‘There was the case of Tatchell vs Tatchell in 2007. And that set a precedent. So since then, a court may allow a financial settlement to be reopened if something later happens that alters the principle on which the original court order was made. If you can satisfy a court that a new event occurred that invalidates the original consent order.’

‘Well, a new event has occurred. I’m free when I expected life in prison.’

‘Robert, you can’t invalidate the divorce,’ Imran said softly.

‘I know, but our wedding vows… I’m going to ask for my share. Of everything.’

 

 

 

 

He loved Royal Mail; first class, next working day delivery.

He’d been waiting.

He leaned back against the bonnet of the Diddy Diner, ankles crossed, arms folded, as the brakes squealed and the car tyres rolled over the gravel.

‘What the hell do you think you’re playing at?’

He didn’t want to hurt him, but they needed this, they needed this anger.

‘All that I have I share with you… A solemn and binding contract…’

He was quoting their wedding vows - there, on a hilltop, Aaron’s blue eyes blazing, looking right back into his own; the first time they were in each other’s presence for four whole years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Four years inside; had it made him immune to loneliness? Toughened him up?

Probably. Somewhat.

He’d found Jimmy’s old faux fur coat, a bit manky, but he’d put it on over his t-shirt and underpants against the chill while he boiled a pan of water to make a brew.

Now, he sat at the table in the cramped caravan, turning the pages of a newspaper, waiting for the rain to pass.

The irony of being locked up with so many others in overcrowded conditions is that you’re alone, but also not. You’re side by side, cell after cell with other inmates; so close you can hear each other cough, or piss, or cry in the night. People who aren’t your mates.

He wiped the condensation on the window. A solitary seagull was riding the buffeting wind, so far inland. He wondered what had driven it so far from home. On a whim he picked up the binoculars to take a closer look.

 

 

 

‘Oh, it’s you.’

‘The one and only!’

Vanessa opened the door, while he smiled back trying to look friendly, and then she looked over her shoulder as if debating whether to let him in, or whether he was too dangerous, maybe tainted by his stint in stir, which would be a bit hypocritical considering who she was married to. She called out into the room behind the entrance hall.

‘It’s Robert?’ As if she was asking what to do about it, and next thing Charity was at the door.

‘Well, hello, you. You’d better come in,’ she said. ‘You survived it, then?’

Robert spread his hands presenting his corporeal presence as evidence.

‘Like spending Christmas with the Dingles except no eggnog or party hats.’

‘As bad as that? But plenty of party poppers, yeah?’

‘For those who are into that sort of thing.’

‘So, you’re still Mr Squeaky clean, are you? More squeaky than clean in there though I’m guessing.’

She looked at him like she was trying to locate the scars. They were there, but well-hidden and that’s how he’d keep them, ta.

‘I just need to send those emails,’ Vanessa said to Charity, and then kissed her. It was the first kiss he’d seen in years except on tv, and it shocked him. He pressed his lips tight; the memory of it - that intimacy, that feeling. How did he ever let himself lose that?

‘Anyway, speaking of Dingles, what do you think you’re playing at with our Aaron?’

So, it was out then. For a fleeting second, he allowed himself a sense of injury - that Aaron had talked about it. There was a time when loyalty would have made some things stay between them.

But Aaron owed him nothing, well except half of everything.

He thought about Aaron and Ben, imagined their private arguments, already felt emboldened to embellish them in his head; to weaponize them.

‘I was just a bit hasty with the original divorce settlement.’

She looked at him like she was working him out. This was Charity so she’d get there. Better change the subject fast.

‘How’s Moses. Does he see Ross?

‘Ah! That’s why you’re here. Because of Seb.’

There was a pause. Maybe she was allowing herself to feel some sympathy before she relented. ‘So, this wasn’t a social call?’

‘I need more background on what’s been going on.’

She looked at Vanessa who was tapping vigorously at the keys on her computer at the table.

‘Hows about you buy me a drink in the pub, and we can chat about Ross then? Lunchtime?’

Lunchtime? She may as well have offered to throw him into the mines of Moria with a horde of bloodthirsty orcs. Even worse, the Dingles now.

‘Look forward to it,’ he said bombastically.

 

 

Outside he looked around, wondering where to go.

The road took him past the garage. He stopped and let his eyes travel up to the signage; Barton & Dingle. He looked down again; saw someone he didn’t know working on a car.

‘Cain around?’ he asked casually.

The stranger shrugged.

‘Mind if I just go in and leave him a message?’

 

 

 

 

 

'They were out on those dirt bikes up at the caravan park. It’s bloody disrespectful to the countryside. People come here to escape all that urban noise and to enjoy the natural environment, right? There’s all sorts of unsavoury characters stay there. To be honest someone should report them to the council. I might just do it one of these days.’

Aaron nodded emphatically in agreement as he emptied a grocery bag into the fridge.

He’d noticed the bikes when he went up there; a vintage neon red and green Honda 250, and a wasp yellow Suzuki, fierce wheels and customized rear sets. He opened his mouth; what he was going to say was that the bikes were quite rare, and probably worth quite a lot of money, and fun maybe…but he thought better of it.

First of all, he hadn’t said anything about his little trip up there, yet.

And also, conversations that revolved around money weren’t going so well right now.

But it was worth it. It had to be.

He allowed himself to feel the rush of joy that flooded through him every time he thought about it; the way he imagined it; a room in a hospital, those fondant cakes with little storks made of icing sugar, and balloons; there would be balloons, those massive helium ones, right? And holding his baby for the first time.

Their baby.

He blinked. He reached up, stacking some cans of beans in the cupboard. - their baby - course.

Trying to ignore the pricking of guilt.

It was just they’d gone into it so fast and sometimes he couldn’t be sure whether he’d railroaded Ben into it.

 

‘Shall we have lunch at the pub? Your mum said she wants to open some fizz to celebrate our news.’

‘Did you talk to her?’

‘Yeah yesterday, she wanted to know what time the scan was tomorrow. And I told her about the solicitor’s letter from your ex.’

Aaron straightened up.

‘Wh…Why d’ya do that?’

‘Because you were upset, and I was upset too, and I thought maybe she could give us some advice, or just emotional support, you know, Aaron, like families do?’

‘This is my mum, though. Before you know it, we’ll be the ones giving her emotional support. She’ll just go off on one, and then tell everyone, and everyone will know.’

He could feel himself being hit by a surge of anxiety like a train crashing into his chest. He’d been dealing with this (his fists around Robert’s collar – telling him to back off!) but now he’d been wrong footed, it was spiralling into something else.

‘So, what if everyone knows? I don’t get why you always have this compulsion to be secretive about everything. Maybe it’s a gay thing, is it? A sort of hangover from hiding who we are before coming out or feeling safe, but I reject it. I think we should be able to embrace being open, not keep stuff hidden all the time, or what’s the point?’

‘It’s not a secret, it’s just private.’

‘I don’t get why you seem so upset about it? I spoke to Ethan…’

‘Ethan?’  Aaron took another step back. He wanted to ask who hadn’t he spoken to, as maybe that list would be shorter.

‘And he said in his opinion there’s almost no way your ex would be able to reopen the settlement, he said that we have to consider he’s most likely calling our bluff so that we offer something informally, without it going through official channels.’

(Robert sitting there like he didn’t have a care in the world on the bonnet of the Diddy diner; it had all been so much, but now in his mind he was noticing the things he hadn’t noticed. Like he’d been wearing prison issue jogging pants and scuffed trainers, and the coat Aaron had taken to him that first visit four years ago when you were allowed to bring a single delivery of personal clothes. He recalled how he’d chucked all his clothes, stuffing them in bin bags – he’d been so angry. He was still angry; Robert still pushing his buttons!)

‘So, Ethan reckoned the best thing would be to just ignore him, love, what do you say?’

Aaron sighed, nodded, he knew deep down he should have stayed away. Now was the moment he needed to come clean and tell Ben what he’d done.

‘Look, shall we just forget about all that for now. Let’s go and have that drink with Mum and just…be happy again, like we were a couple of days ago?’

He’d gone upstairs to change his clothes, and he’d heard Ben’s phone ringing, and then his voice and he knew something was up. He cantered down the spiral stairs.

‘What is it? What happened?’ he asked seeing Ben’s white face.

‘It was the police; they want me to go back to the station, now, to talk about the accident.’

 

 

 

 

 

Sam was there, they used to get on alright him and Sam, back in the day. Obviously, Sam remembered it that way too because he raised his eyebrows in friendly surprise and took a step towards him saying, ‘Robert!’

And then his brain cell caught up with him, Robert noticed, and he took a step back again.

‘You’ll catch flies if you leave it open is what my mum used to say.’

‘You woz supposed ta get life but now yer out. Vic reckoned you fabricated evidence, nobbled that jury at her Luke’s trial.’

‘Yeah, thanks for that Sam, and how was I expected to perform that miracle from inside, might I point out, and with no cash? Vic’s lashing out. And no one is sadder about that than me,’ he said, meaning it.

‘That’s right, and now you’re trying to get your filthy paws on Aaron’s money.’

‘Is there anyone who doesn’t know?’

Sam frowned as if processing a genuine answer.

‘Why don’t I buy you a drink?’ Robert added.

‘Alright.’

‘Last of the big spenders,’ Charity said, arriving and taking off her coat, ‘Mine’s a large white wine. Not the house white. I’ll have one of those vintage Chardonnays.’

It was one of those moments; Marlon serving, looking back over his shoulder.

‘I’m not sure,’ he said.

‘You had it tough in prison that time,’ Robert said lightly. ’Imagine four whole years.’

‘But I was innocent.’

Robert gestured at himself and spread his hands.

‘Oh, I suppose I’ll serve you.’

 

He sat with Charity.

‘Aaron’s married again,’ she said somewhat gleefully.

‘Yeah and to who? An outdoor activity instructor? That’s even sadder than a PE teacher if you think about it, at least they can claim to have a qualification of a sort.’

‘Oh I expect he’s taken some course or other.’

‘First aid, probably, not that it did him much good. Probably didn’t sink in, until someone actually did sink in...,’ he cocked his pint.

‘Well yes, he’s got a hearing in a month’s time. He’ll be fine. He’s got one of those honest open faces, you know what I mean? Or maybe you don’t.’

‘Let me guess, he’s a vegan, makes his own yoghurt and cultivates sourdough starter.’

‘Yeah but he’s good looking, or Aaron wouldn’t have married him, would he? It’s not just being a smart aleck criminal that makes someone attractive you know. Keeps himself in good shape with all that rowing, plenty of stamina, yeh?’ 

She was goading him. He took another swill of his pint. What she didn’t know was how he’d already spent the past year and half there; he’d learned to switch it off when he needed to, he’d had to. Anyway, now it was time to talk about the real reason they were there.

‘Tell me about Ross,‘ he said.

‘He had a relapse.’

‘What sort of relapse?’ he asked alarmed.

‘The addiction sort, what else would there be? There’s a complicated history here, but to cut a long and frankly unnecessarily tedious story short, me and Vanessa sorted ourselves out, and so we went and took Moses back.’

‘And what about Seb, did nobody think about my son?’

‘Robert, wait, listen, let me tell you everything,’ she gripped his forearm. ‘We did, believe me we would have taken him in, poor little sod, but we had no rights. So, we spoke to social services. And they took him into fostering for a few weeks, and then Ross cleaned himself up again and took him back.’

He could feel the smart of tears. The thought of not being there for him.

‘I’ll kill him.’

‘No, he’s sorted out, Really, we even take Moses down to see him now and then.’

‘Someone should have told me.’

‘And what good would that have done? And Rebecca said very clearly, she didn’t want you to have any parental authority, and Aaron, he tried to get involved, asked social to let Seb stay with him and Ben, but they wouldn’t have it on the say of the mother, and of course by that time she was beyond well, making any kind of logical decision.’

‘So, Seb will be registered with social services. Still.’

‘He will, they’ll be keeping an eye on him.’

 

 

He was so wrapped up in the conversation he hadn’t really noticed the noise, and then the next thing, Manpreet was standing, leaning over him.

‘All things considered it would probably be for the best if you left now,’ she said calmly.

He blinked, looking round. The usual culprits; Wendy crying into her lunchtime half of Speckled Hen, Bob white around the gills looking sharply across at him. But it was Chas arriving that actually upset him, not that he’d show it. Maybe she’d even loved him once, just a little, those three minutes of life when he’d been happy, and made Aaron happy.

She actually walked out with him. What she told him was to think about leaving the village – for good!

‘Go to Liverpool and be with Seb, there’s nothing here for you now,’ she said.

 

 

 

 

 

It was dark when he heard the knock at the door of the caravan, he’d been lying on the pulled-out bed in Jimmy’s fur, half watching an international match on the 32” portable tv, frowning as the reception came and went thinking about how he might get the antenna fixed.

Prison was never dark at night like this, but he’d grown up in the countryside, so it wasn’t that; it was the isolation that made him jumpy.

He called out through the door before he opened it.

‘Sorry to disturb you, I’m a neighbour,’ he heard someone say.

‘That’s alright,’ he said. He came out onto the step.

‘Someone siphoned petrol from our car over there. I just wanted to let people staying at the caravan park know that there’s a thief about, probably kids, so you can keep an eye out yourself.’

‘Petrol? That’s terrible!’ Robert wet his lip, glanced sideways at his neighbour’s face. ‘I didn’t even know that was possible these days, don’t they design the tanks with a mesh or something?’

‘These tea leaves can do anything with the right equipment.’

‘Do you think my food van’s safe? If you need some petrol just to get down to a garage, I’ve got a few litres going spare, you have to in the mobile food industry.’

‘You’re alright. I’ll take one of the bikes and pick some up. But thanks. Just be vigilant is all I can say.’

‘I will, that’s very kind, thanks mate.’

 

 

 

It was stupidly late. And he’d talked to Ben who said they were still interviewing him and that they’d said he’d probably need to stay that night. He’d talked to his mum, and Paddy, and Liv in London, and Ben’s mum.

And then it was silent, and he’d paced the Mill back and forth and sat and made a hallow fist and held it to his forehead, thinking, clearly perhaps for the first time since this whole stupid mess had started.

He made a decision. Outside there was a frost and behind the patches of indigo cloud he could see the stars.

His car swept up the hill past florescent sheep in the dark fields, and when he arrived, he saw him right away caught in the headlights, bare legged in trainers wearing a massive fur coat, and waving a cheerful goodbye to someone’s shadowy figure walking off to the right.

He pulled on the brake, swallowed, told himself to pull himself together, and then took a deep breath for courage, and got out.

 

‘Who was that?’

‘A mate, we’d been watching the football,’ Robert said.

He could hear the sound of the match from a TV inside the caravan. He frowned, wanted to ask why he was dressed like that? Had it been some sort of liaison, what with Robert just coming out of prison? He faltered, feeling confused, just like always with Robert forgetting why he was there.

‘This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come.’

He turned back towards the car. He shouldn’t have come. Ben at the police station, what was he thinking even?

‘No. wait!’ Robert called after him in the dark. ‘I, erm, I found something out today. Seb; when he went into care; you tried to do something, and I wanted to say thanks.’

He could hear the emotion in his voice, that he meant it. He turned back again.

‘Look, I was out of order yesterday. I was angry about the letter.’

‘I know, I get it.’

He could see how Robert’s lips were chapped from the cold, the freckles on the side of his cheek bone caught in the light from the caravan window. He could see the white cotton of his t-shirt in the gap at the front of the fur coat. He could so easily just walk nearer and reach his arms out, warm him up.

‘You know, when you first went down, I sent you money into your account for you to use inside, to make it easier, and your lawyer just sent it back, and I kept trying to send you more money, but it just bounced, I wanted to be there for you, to help but you wouldn’t let me.’

‘I know.’

‘But you need it now. And I want to help, so I can transfer something into your account.’

‘And does your husband agree with helping me?’

‘Wh… well he will when we’ve talked it through.’

‘Well, you’re wrong about it all, Aaron. You see me here and what? You’re pitying me? You’re thinking poor Robert, he hasn’t got anything now? But you’re wrong. Tomorrow the banks are open and I’m going to sort my affairs out, right? I have more than you can imagine. And the divorce settlement? It isn’t about money, it’s the principle, right?’

‘You divorced me, mate!’

 

Finally, there it was, the rage, Robert thought. Yesterday hadn’t been enough, but this was. He saw the blow coming out of the dark, the fist making contact with his face, the weight of the punch, the sting as his skin split and jarring of his jaw as it buckled, and then before he’d had time to draw breath the second blow following in its wake, this one spinning him on the gravel as he lost his sense of gravity and fell, swallowing back a grunt, his one fear not the pain, but that the neighbours would be back out. Then Aaron had straddled him, and he raised his arms in front of his face in self-defence, another blow rattling the side of his head.

‘You divorced me!’ Aaron repeated.

But this time he could hear the tremble in his voice, feel the strength and anger evaporate as quickly as it had come. He cautiously lowered his arms from where they’d been shielding his face. Aaron was heavy, defeated, sitting astride him where he lay with his fur coat surrounding him exposing his flesh and t-shirt and underpants to the cold night. He raised his hands tentatively to Aaron’s elbows.

‘I thought I had a life sentence, Aaron,’ he said. ‘Life! I never expected this.’

And then Aaron was falling forward over him until his head was resting against his throat. He raised a hand and held the back of his hair, tasting blood from his lip as he swallowed.

‘But you know,’ he said.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

It’s stupid o’clock the room is dark and cosy you are lying next to me. Your thighs are flush against mine from behind as if I’m on your lap, your fingers are splayed against my diaphragm riding every breath. Asleep awake I am yours and you are mine. Today is our wedding day. I want time to hurry up I want time to stop. This is already the best day of my life. It’s stupid o’clock. You are lying next to me.

 

He opened his eyes; the memory that had got him through prison slipping away. Sunlight - Ouch! -

flashing through of a blanket of white cloud hanging over the caravan park. He turned on his front.

An almost empty whiskey bottle rested where it had rolled on the lino before he slept.

His face hurt against the mattress.

He reared up from the heavy bedding, stared ahead unseeing into the Yorkshire misty morning.

Aaron!

Aaron had come round to see him again. That was progress, then, wasn’t it? So why had he hit the bottle?

 

 

 

 

Jimmy’s first aid box was empty except for a packet of blackcurrant gummy bear vitamins and a few dead moths.

Aaron chucked the vitamins in the waste bin in disgust. Robert opened his mouth to protest, then closed it again.

He sat silently in his underwear while Aaron wrestled the caravan door open, mumbled something about fetching the box from his car, delivered a parting shot of – 'Don’t move!' over his shoulder.

Robert wondered if shuffling sideways counted as moving: Just a couple of inches. That way he could watch him through the caravan window.

He blinked, following the shape of him as he crunched over the gravel under the moonlight towards his car, looking like an angry ninja. The thing was that, now he’d got him where he could lay his eyes on him, he didn’t want to miss a moment.

 

Before Aaron had helped him back inside, they’d lain together on the ground in the dark; a mess of bruises and tears, breathing in and out, riding a tide of hope and futility.

They’d lain there long enough for the sounds of the night to encroach on them, for Robert to wonder if they’d just calcify into layered rock, part of the landscape, so that millions of years from now ramblers would use them as a parapet, trying to get a better view of the valley below.

They’d lain there because they’d both known that once they stopped lying there, being physically close like that would be against all the rules all over again.

 

He watched with narrowed eyes as Aaron switched on the torch on his phone to light his route; a jedi now rather than a ninja. 

He saw him pop the boot. So many important episodes of their life had started with a car boot, right? Deeds of derring-do. It had to be an omen. He saw Aaron reach in and lift out a small glow-in-the-dark first aid box. A new chapter, a new crusade. 'Me and you,' he thought with a lump in his throat, '- us - against the world...'

'Just sit still,' Aaron growled a moment later, dabbing his cheek with cotton wool moist with anti-septic. He bent and peered in the pocket-sized freezer for something for the swelling. “Why haven’t you got any ice?”

'Sorry to disappoint but Thursday’s my regular shopping day.’

Aaron ignored the sarcasm, waved the antiseptic bottle so that the scent travelled through Robert’s sinuses. 'And why’s it so cold in here?' Aaron asked.

It was cold; he just hadn’t noticed with so much to distract him. He’d had to abandon Jimmy’s fur coat which was damp from the ground, now he was just in his white underpants and t-shirt. Goose pimples had broken out on his bare thighs where he sat on the bench come bed.

'You’re the one that kept opening and closing the door.' He could feel how swollen his face was when he spoke. 'Hang on. Shift a bit,' he reached round a startled Aaron to flick the switch that turned the fan heater on.

'Is that safe?'

'I hope it’s safe.'

'Just be careful, don’t fall asleep with it left on.'

'Why, are you offering to keep me warm instead?'

Four years apart, was he seriously flirting? Hell, yes-he-was!

He heard Aaron huff, anxiety pouring off him and mingling with the flapping of the fan heater as he dabbed at his face.

The caravan was so cramped he could almost pull him onto his lap. His eyes skated up over his body; the black jeans with industrial stitching around the fly, the swell of his chest under the black jumper. He raised his eyes further. Found his mouth. The slight chapping on cherry lips. The air felt thick suddenly. Like the inside of a night bus. Or like that time in the cricket pavilion, with his hand wedged against the hot glass. His patterned shirt hanging on a nail by the entrance.

Aaron turned away to rifle through the first aid box, picked out a roll of waterproof band aid, a pair of shiny scissors. The back of his legs grazed against Robert’s knees as he turned back. Sit! Robert mouthed silently.

'Anyway at least you saw Seb; that’s one good thing,' Aaron said, as if they’d been in the middle of a conversation. Like he’d been searching for a silver lining. 'He needs to be with you once you’re sorted.'

The validation! Four years melting away because they still had each other’s backs.

'Ross doesn’t seem too keen.'

'You’ll work something out.' Aaron brushed any obstacles away with a shrug. 'Here,' he added, handing over the box of plasters.

'And your baby?' he asked gently, just able to catch the softening of his eyes as they slid quickly away.

'It’s only three months yet, got the first scan tomorrow.'

'That’s amazing. And Liv, she must be made up?'

'Yeah, she is. She’s in Manchester, at college. Maths; accounting or summat, - I know – I still can’t quite believe it, either.'

A family tableau; sitting at the kitchen table pointing down a long list of numbers to calculate an average, Liv’s frown of concentration on her forehead, Aaron on the carpet stacking cups with Seb, who laughs with delight when they all fall down.

Aaron snapped the fastenings of the first aid box closed. Robert noticed the gold band on his wedding finger for the first time, felt the dissonance; this couldn’t be reality. It couldn’t!

His heart lurched. Then he realized he was going.

'So, we’re alright now?' He wet his lips, ‘You and me?’

Aaron looked down when he spoke: -

‘Please don’t make me hate myself, don’t hang around me, don’t even talk to me again. If you do, you’ll smash everything.’

When he went to the car to drive away, he’d heard him come back and leave something on the steps to the caravan.

He opened the door to find his black leather jacket.

He held it rolled in his arms, lowered his nose to the scent of it.

Soulmates. The whole idea that out there, there’s someone meant just for you, your perfect match. And with a world population of 7.9 billion, what were the odds of finding them even if they do exist? He remembered in school reading Don Quixote and the old saying about a needle in a haystack. And how much he’d liked it at the time, because of the farm.  Because he could visualize it. And he’d searched because he’d believed he could do what so many couldn’t, he could defy those odds, he had the power - and then just when he’d forgotten to search any longer, he’d found him.

He put the jacket down and leaned forward.

He could see the packet of gummy vitamins in the wastebin. He fished them out and checked the use by date; only four years. No time at all. And everyone knows use-by-dates are just a con.

He opened the packet and popped one in his mouth letting the sweet blackcurrant dissolve slowly over his tongue.

Aaron was mistaken. How could he smash something that was already broken? But he was back now and he was going to fix it, piece by piece.

 

It’s stupid o’clock the room is dark and cosy you are lying next to me. Your thighs are flush against mine from behind almost like I’m on your lap, the weight of your arm around my waist is everything. I am yours and you are mine. Today is our wedding day. It’s stupid o’clock. You are lying next to me.

 

 

 

 

 

The sun was no longer playing dodge with the mist, instead it was rudely climbing in through the window. He tentatively stretched his swollen lips, got up and went to pee.  On the way he picked up his phone. He knew if you didn’t want to be put in a queue, you had to call at 8.59.59 and someone would pick up.

Child social care and health support. We are currently operating with staff shortages with an average call waiting time of forty minutes. Most enquiries can be answered more quickly by visiting our website at www – dot – Liverpool – dot – gov - dot – uk - forward slash - child social services. If you still wish to speak to somebody, press any key now…’

He pressed one. Looked in the mirror behind the tiny toilet door. His cheek was swollen and he had a cut on his mouth. He took hold of his bottom lip and pulled to get a better look.

‘If you are calling about the changes to child maintenance please visit our website at www – dot - Liverpool…

Come on, come on! He left the toilet, nearly tripped over the whiskey bottle, stooped to pick it up and was about to put it in the bin when he relented, there was probably a shot or two left and why waste Jimmy’s money?

If you are calling about the recent Sure Start closures, please visit our web …

He picked up his leather jacket from the bed, looked through the pockets. An old cinema ticket stub. He remembered the film flickering blue on the screen; they’d held hands in the dark, and then argued all the way home about who the supporting actor was, snogged fiercely outside the front door before going in.

If you are calling to report a concern about a child’s safety or wellbeing … We can only respond to … please enter your official CSC number now.”

He doesn’t have a bloody CSC number, does he! He presses listen to everything again as an option, presses numbers randomly. Miraculously the line picks up.

‘Hello, Liverpool child social care.’

He’s got this.

‘Hello! My name’s Robert Sugden. I’m calling because I want to file for custody of my son, he’s on the social services register. I’d like you to talk me through the steps I need to follow?’

The woman he spoke to had obviously had training in listening; they played a mutual game of silence chicken as the conversation progressed.

‘So, you’re worried about Sebastian? That must be hard for you. I’m afraid I can’t share any information over the phone without permission from his legal guardians. I understand you’re his birth father but that doesn’t…oh… so you are named on the birth certificate? But you’ve been out of the picture?’

It was one way of putting it, he supposed.

 

Later he sat, white fingers curled around the binoculars.

She’d offered him a meeting with the safeguarding team to talk about access. In three weeks’ time. Not good enough.

He raised the lenses to his eyes, bringing everything far away suddenly up close. He could almost be tricked into believing that a stretch of his hand and he could touch all that he’d lost.

There were youths hanging around near the riverbank. He adjusted the focus on the lens - One of them looked like Noah.

 

 

 

 

‘You go, it’s important not to be late.’

‘But you’ll come?’ Aaron looked at his watch where he sat in his car, caught sight of his shiny knuckles holding the steering wheel, looked swiftly away.

‘As soon as I can get there.’ Ben said. ‘Ethan’s just talking to the sergeant, winding up some legal stuff or something. I’ll get the bus.’

The bus? You can’t do that!’

‘Don’t sound so horrified. People do use public transport, you know. It is a thing. And like I said, what’s most important right now is one of us at least getting there on time.’

‘I don’t like leaving ya. And what did the police say? I’m worried.’

‘Take some deep breaths. I’ll tell you everything later. Right now, the sproglet is all you should be thinking about.’

He started the engine. There was a piece of cotton wool by the handbrake when he released it, the smell of antiseptic.

 

 

He met Jo in the waiting room, she stood up and they exchanged smiles a little awkwardly. Aaron stole a look down at what he imagined to be the very first signs of a bump; his breath caught in his throat – his baby - already a firework.

She looked past his shoulder.

‘Where’s Ben?’

‘We’re so, so, sorry but something urgent came up, but he’ll be here.’

‘Baby Dingle?’ A nurse called out down the corridor.

‘Should we wait?’ Jo was asking. Aaron didn’t know what to answer.

‘Baby Dingle?’ She was looking right at them.

‘No. right, I think we should go in.’

His heart was beating so fast it was actually aching in his chest, his clasped hands were clammy. There she, or he, was, in black and white on the screen, so longed for, so wanted, so loved. Six months; he wasn’t sure he could wait that long. He turned his head and brushed his chin against his shoulder. In his mind, he was there like an invisible presence, big cheesy grin, eyes glowing with delight. He could even hear his voice. ‘We’ll wait and it’ll be worth it, because she’ll be coming home to us.’  He wanted to melt into his chest; he wanted to punch him all over again.

‘We can have a print out for Ben?’ he asked the midwife loudly, trying to drown him out.

‘Of course!’ she said.

 

 

After he gave Jo the envelope of cash he and Ben had put aside, and she left with thanks.

‘You missed it. Where are you?’

‘The bus was cancelled, no driver, I waited and then decided to walk. I’m on Vicar Lane right now.’

‘Why didn’t you get a cab? Just wait and I’ll pick you up.’

‘Why are you crying? The baby? Is something wrong?’

‘No, no, it’s, I mean, he or she, is prefect, I got you a photo of the scan,’ he looked down at it in his hand, swallowed to calm his breathing. ‘Everything’s going to be perfect.’

 

 

 

 

 

‘Haulage drivers are paid a lot more than they used to be. I know we can’t offer you a contract, but there might be a few one- off driving jobs.’ 

Nicola glanced back over her shoulder as she counted sandwich loaves into the freezer from a crate in the back room of the café, while the delivery man went to fetch more from the van.

Robert sighed theatrically.

‘That would just take me further from Seb. I need to be around, so he can get used to me.’

‘There’s not just the trips to Europe, though. There’s a regular flow of goods from Belfast to Birkenhead. Isn’t that near where Seb lives?’

Robert followed her back outside as she spoke.

‘The other side of the Mersey, but yes I suppose.’

‘I mean it’s slower than it used to be and there’s a lot more paper work, but you love that stuff, you’d be in your element.’

Nicola stopped as she noticed him looking wistfully into a crate of bread buns, then he turned and scanned the inside of the refrigerated lorry.

‘He’s come Tuesday this week because of the bank holiday,’ she explained. ‘Usually he comes Monday.’ She followed his gaze to a box of cream cakes.

‘Robert, you haven't even had breakfast, have you?’

He nodded, crestfallen.

She presented him with a crate.

‘Right, get that inside, and I'll make you a toasted sandwich and a coffee on the house. How does that grab you? And if you’re really strapped for cash, do like I said: Have a word with Jimmy, or Charity, about the odd driving job.’

‘Charity?’

‘Well yeah. She’s back in partnership in the haulage company. I just assumed you knew.’

 

 

 

‘Look there’s a food van. Global food in your street.’ Ben read out as they drove past the parked vehicle. ‘Do you think they do Thai? Call Victoria … Is that our Victoria? She never told me she had a food truck. Festivals, Weddings, Parties. Did I miss something? Is she back?’

Aaron’s eyes flickered over to where the Diddy Diner was parked. Robert hadn’t said anything about it, but it was there last night, a looming presence in the dark. He hadn’t asked how Robert came to have his hands on it. Typical of him though to choose the most conspicuous vehicle on the planet. He scanned the pavements, accelerated past.

‘Erm, no, she’s not back. It was hers a while back, maybe she’s sold it.’ He grimaced at the half lie. He should tell Ben that he went up to the caravan park, he knew he should.

He glanced down at where Ben was holding the card framed picture of Baby Dingle loosely in his fingers on his lap in the passenger seat.

‘You’re sure this is something you want? I mean, we can wait, another few months or a year,’ he’d said at the beginning.

‘Don’t do that thing.’

‘What thing?’

‘Treat me like I haven’t got a spine. I know what I want just as clearly as you do.’

‘Sorry.’

‘Rather than saying sorry, how about not doing it in the first place? I want a baby too, a family just as much as you do. Imagine if that lot at school could see us now, everything we have, how far we’ve come.’

His emotions felt like tides, dragging him this way and that, surges of joy followed by waves of anxiety strong enough to knock him flat.

He chewed his lip.

‘So, you’ll tell me what happened at the police station when we get in?’

‘Yes. Please - stop worrying.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Hey Noah!’

Noah looked at him sideways. He could tell he was looking at the bruises on his face, making a judgement about it, but his eyes skidded quickly away when he realized Robert was watching him back. He’d never quite got over his cautiousness with Robert after the way he’d pulled him up for the bullying episode when he was a kid.

But then, he was cautious with everyone, particularly older males, and who could blame him, Robert thought; they’d all let him down. Young men everywhere struggling against shabby circumstances and dodgy starts. Prison was full of them.

The insecurity, the criminal family background, living on tenterhooks all the time. He didn’t want that for Seb, not while there was still time.

‘What do you want?’ Noah asked ungraciously.

‘I don’t want anything. I’m here to see your Mum.’

He rolled his shoulders and slipped his hands in the front pockets of his jeans.

‘She’s up at the scrapyard,’ Noah gestured with his chin over his shoulder.

‘Left you to fend for yourself, did she?’

‘What? I’m not a kid, I’m twenty.’

‘Twenty? Really?’

Twenty was still young though. He remembered Katie, Max, his first year alone. How it had all come round again in a never-ending cycle. ‘Saw you hanging around outside the Hide the other day,’ he added.

Boom! The startled look. That’s what he’d been fishing for, and then the defensiveness: -

‘It’s not a crime, is it?’

Robert shook his head and looked off into the distance, feigning disinterest.

‘Well, it’s a recreation centre. So, I suppose not.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Earth to Aaron! Oi! You! Your Mum’s just asked you the same question three times in a row. Is this baby brain already?’

Of course his Mum was at the Mill when they got back, wanting to hear about the scan; of course she was! Which meant they couldn’t have a private chat.

She’d held on to the scan photo with outstretched hands.

‘Ah! Will ya look at that! You can see her little feet  …or his - ‘cos we don’t know yet, do we?’

‘Sorry what did you say?’ he said after Ben pulled him up. ‘I think I hardly slept and I’m hungry.’

‘He’s like one of those Tamagotchis,’ Ben said, winking at Chas.

‘I asked about Jo, love; did she feel well? The first three months can be tiring for a mum.’

Aaron drew in his chin and shrugged; as if he would have any idea about that?

‘She seemed alright.’

‘You didn’t ask?’

‘No, that’s why I needed you there,’ he nodded towards Ben.

‘So what did happen at the police station, love? I’m assuming it’s all settled. I mean, you’re home,’ Chas added.

‘Yes, it was weird: They basically identified the man who died as someone who knows my Dad. And there’d been some altercation between them a while back,’ Ben frowned.

‘So this bloke had a problem too, like your Dad, I mean with drink?’ Chas asked.

‘I really don’t know. I didn’t know him. But someone had apparently come forward and said they’d seen us in a pub down near Canal street in Manchester of all places.’ He looked at Aaron. ‘And you know that’s not right, we haven’t even been anywhere near Manchester for months now, have we? They asked so many questions, and then repeated the same questions over and over, and then they said they would have to wait for surveillance footage from cctv in the area.’

Aaron stood up and gently touched Ben’s back.

‘Well it’s over now,’ he said comfortingly.

‘I know, but, it was really unpleasant, being treated like a suspect or something. I mean, I feel terrible that someone died on my watch, that I couldn’t save him.’

‘You did your best love, that’s all anyone can do,’ Chas said.

‘Anyway, God it feels good to be back home! And Aaron Dingle, we’re gonna be Dads!’

He swept Aaron into a shuffling noisy hug, grinning over his shoulder.

Aaron saw Chas frown. Ben excused himself to finally go and change his clothes and freshen up.

When Chas spoke it was with a low voice.

‘Your Ben’s pinging off the walls with excitement. What’s up with you?’ She walked round the table and looked down at the solicitor’s letter about reopening the divorce settlement still in the fruit bowl. ‘Or can I guess?’

Aaron closed his eyes, shook his head.

‘I was just worried about Ben being at the police station all night, like any husband would, right? Look, please let’s not argue about him.’ He gestured at the envelope. ‘I’ve got my family to think about. My real family; my husband, and my .. our.. new baby.’

‘Glad to hear it. Seems everybody wants him gone, so hopefully he’ll get the message.’

 

 

 

 

 

It was a risk going to the scrapyard. It wasn’t like he’d promised Aaron anything, but they both knew that he’d do what Aaron had asked and keep his distance. He remembered Aaron had the baby scan and even though it wouldn’t take that long surely after all the excitement he’d sack off work to celebrate.

And Charity was the only person he could trust to share his plan.

‘You’re not seriously suggesting robbing from the only people who are actually still willing to help you? Your ex business partners? Your friends? – no actually scratch that you don’t actually have any friends. And have you thought - maybe this is why?’

‘Well it’s not exactly robbing from them. It’ll be the delivery van that picks up the loss, and they’ll be insured. The café might lose a little custom. Nicola can always stock up from a supermarket until the delivery order’s replaced.’

‘You are unbelievable, do you know that?’

‘I just need a leg up to get started, that’s all I’m asking. I need to have a regular source of income so I can prove I deserve to have a role in my son’s life. The food van will do that temporarily. If I can just get enough stock to begin, I can manage the rest. I will do it alone if you don’t want to help me, but it would be easier with two.’

‘I’d like to say I’ve missed you, but I really haven’t missed you, Robert.’

‘But you’ll do it.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘We’ll need balaclavas. I expect you’ve got those at home for role play with Vanessa?’

‘Alright, I know four years inside and you'd love to get between us.’

‘You'd love it too.’

‘You reckon, do you? Well enough of your fantasies. We need a proper plan.’

‘You're in?’

‘Wouldn’t want to miss out on the fun, now. Would I? But if anything goes wrong this is all on you. You got that? My wife is not the forgiving type.’

‘Should have married another Dingle, then, a distant cousin.’

‘Yeah well, you should have stayed married to one, you great Muppet, and you wouldn't have been in this mess now.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

All evening he had a semi. He kept slipping his fingers inside his trackie bottoms while he watched tellie. Ben did the washing up, then came to sit down again, carrying mugs of coffee. He slipped his trousers down under his balls, already pulsing. ‘Fancy a drink of that?’  He held the back of Ben’s head when he leant over, rubbing thumbs against his scalp as he thrust upwards into his wet throat until spit mingled with cum sticky between his thighs.

They cleaned up with a couple of baby wipes.

‘You’ve been antsy all day,’ Ben searched his face, putting an arm around his shoulder. ‘So I hope that helped.’

‘I’ll probably just go to bed, I’ll be fine by morning.’

‘Just like I said – Tamagotchi!’ Ben called after him as he went upstairs.

He went into the bedroom without turning on the light, lay on the bed in the dark.

 

 

 

 

Grief gets stuck inside you. It sometimes felt like it had always been there; as a child, as a man. Robert thought he knew where it was located; below the larynx - and then when he reached his fingers there to touch it, he was no longer sure.

In the shower he traced his hand down his sternum then moved it sideways; breathing in and holding his breath as he explored between ribs. Maybe it was under the scar from his gunshot wound; somewhere near there. Or further in. Wasn’t that where his heart was?

He moved his hand quickly away.

His heart was a mess; best not go there. Not yet anyway. He’d waited before; he would wait again. However long it took.

The bruises were turning an attractive shade of purple. After he dried himself, he reached for Jimmy’s fur coat and pulled it on, then lay down on the caravan bed in the dark. He had nothing and no one. For now.

 

You are lying next to me. This is our wedding day. This is already the best day of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

'I thought you had it up at the farm in one of the barns. So, what - did Victoria decide to give it to him? Did they make up?'

Aaron shrugged as he spoke, trying to give off the impression he didn’t care either way. He held his pint close, the plastic cup squeezing out of shape against his middle.

Moira followed the direction of his eyes across the bright field festooned with ribbons.

'Ach, you mean the Diddy Diner? I have no idea about Victoria, she hasn't called me in a while. But it was me who told Robert to take it. It was just sitting there after all.’

A live band had appeared on the temporary stage to the right of them. She raised her voice against the whistle of microphones which mingled with the general murmur of the crowd, some seated in deck chairs, others standing with cardboard trays of food waving wooden forks silhouetted by a crisp blue sky.

‘It doesn’t bother you, does it? Robert being around? You’ve moved on,’ she said confidently, then chuckled: ‘Looks like I made a good call – poor wee van. He’s doing fine, isn’t he?’

They both squinted across to where the van was parked. There was a chalk sign in fancy swirly handwriting saying Spanish Tapas with a list of dishes and prices underneath. Robert was wearing a black and white checked chef's skull cap over his blond hair. He was serving customers, leaning forwards inside the van to listen while the person at the front of a long line presumably gave an order. Aaron watched as he adjusted the strings on his apron retying them round his middle with both hands.

Even from this distance he could see his eyes creased in the corner; flirting. Typical Robert around money. Four years in prison hadn’t changed him, then.

He turned away.

Ben walking towards him, collided with him. Aaron’s hand lost its already fragile grip on his beer and it fell to the grass splashing in a wide arc.

‘Wow, thanks for that, Aaron. Butter fingers!’ Moira half-laughed, dabbing at her wellies, before spotting Matty and walking away.

'Sorry!' Aaron said to Ben who’d also got a bit wet. 'I'm so sorry!'

'Don't be daft. What are you sorry about? It’s fine.’

Aaron glanced back over his shoulder. For a moment Robert seemed to have disappeared, then there he was again, the sunshine bouncing off the metal sides of the van and reflecting against his jawline. He turned and took Ben’s hand.

‘Come on, we both need another pint. I’m buying.’

Ben was right. What was he even apologizing about? It was alright. The past was in the past where it belonged. He had his future right next to him.

 

 

 

 

‘The meatballs in sauce that she had.’

The young woman pointed to a departing customer heading in the direction of a white tent where a cookery demonstration was about to start.

On the stage a rock band had started up with a cacophony of drums and guitars.

‘Come again?’

Four hours and counting with no break. And now he’d caught sight of them in the distance; Aaron with Ben. Aaron obviously hadn’t lost his inexplicable attraction for the festival vibe. He’d known he’d be here when he’d taken the pitch so close to the village, but he couldn’t turn it down. For now, he had to play the role expected of him.

‘The BALLS.’

‘Ah! You mean the smoky albondigas! Coming right up.’

‘Are they hot?’ She put a finger against her chin weighing up the possibility.

‘As in spicy? Just a touch. Maybe piquant is a better word?’

‘I thought they were lamb?’

Robert rolled his eyes.

‘Do you always struggle with simple tasks?’ he asked.

‘Sorry?’

‘What I mean is: - make your mind up, or try another van!’

‘Aw! Can’t sell your hot balls? That must be worrying for you. Didn’t they use to be your gravy train at one time?’

Charity inclined her head in the direction of Home Farm hidden behind the trees. Another lifetime, now. Robert sighed.

‘Are you another time waster or are you actually here to order food?’

‘Charming! What I don’t understand is how you can turn a jar of hotdogs and those cheese triangles into tapas.’

‘Which is why I’m the chef.’

‘Chef? Don’t big yourself up. You’re just an ex-con turned burger flipper.’

‘Thanks.’ He’d walked into that one. He raised his voice. ‘Back in half an hour, folks!’

He reached sideways and slid the van window closed, then walked down the steps onto the field.

‘C’mon, let’s try one of those grey coloured instant drinks that in defiance of all trading standards they’re daring to call coffee over there,’ Charity suggested.

Robert breathed in the air and shook his head.

‘Alright a cappuccino, a spiced pumpkin chai latte, whatever.’

‘I’m fine right here, thanks.’

The food trailer next to his had left a couple of folded chairs outside. He opened one and sank down onto it, shuffling his knees, grateful for the chance to give his feet a rest.

‘Ah! I get it - you don’t want to leave your earnings! How much have you made so far? A thousand?’ She watched his face. ‘A bit more? Half of which is mine by rights. I helped you rob that van and get your stock.’

‘Keep your voice down.’

‘Oh, come on Robert, as if I’d care? It’s peanuts anyway. Like I told you before - You could be earning so much more! The border right now between the UK and Northern Ireland: I’m sitting on a gold mine with haulage - and all I need is a qualified miner.’

‘Well, this miner is on strike. I told you I can’t risk going back inside. And yes, it might not be what I’d choose, but I need this for Seb.’

‘You’ll come round.’

‘I won’t.’

 

 

Robert knew Nicola was also there with a stall. She was selling high teas. Resourceful as ever in the face of adversity, she’d roped Laurel in, making scones. Did he feel guilty? Yes, to a degree. But she’s a survivor, and life was giving nothing away for free. Sometimes you had to take.

‘I can buy jam at the supermarket and whip up some cream,’ she’d been in full flow when he'd visited the cafe a couple of days earlier.

‘She’s good at whipping,’ Jimmy had confirmed. He’d gone round to offer moral support when he’d heard about the delivery van being robbed. Robert aspired to be divorced like them, he’d told Nicola quietly.

‘You are divorced.’

‘No, I mean, to be able to be there for each other in times of need.’

Ew,’ Nicola had replied.

 

‘She said if she ever caught the person who’d stolen her delivery, she’d cut their balls off,’ Robert shared with Charity now.

‘That’s a bit sexist,’ Charity snorted.

‘Women can have balls.’

‘And that I can confirm.’  

 

Across the field, they saw Noah, alone, kicking his heels near the exit of the beer tent.

‘He’s not exactly, you know, turned out as you’d have expected, has he?’ Robert said lightly, with an almost imperceptible twist of the upper lip.

‘Oi. Careful: You do not wish to get on the wrong side of me. Just for that, how about you provide him with a generous free Spanish meal? That’s the least you owe me.’

‘Alright, send him over with an Americano, and I’ll feed him up.’

He squinted after her as she left.  So, she wanted him to be a smuggler, did she? He shook his head.

Noah was as bolshy as the last time they met. Some of the coffee spilled from the badly fitted lid as he thrust it up roughly into Robert’s unprepared hand.

‘Steady! You’ll burn me you Muppet! – What do you fancy? Paella? Tortilla? Chips?’

Noah curled his lips.

‘I don’t want anything from you,’ he said.

 

 

 

 

‘A gender reveal party? What even is one of them?’ Aaron blushed: Of course, he knew what a gender reveal party was; there was nothing about becoming a parent he hadn’t read up about over the years, lingering over webpages in the portacabin on slow afternoons; the slow aching wait for fatherhood.

‘When is it?’ he added.

‘Tomorrow at the Woolie,’ Ben squeezed his fingers over the table. ‘Me and your Mum, we’ve organized it all.’

Aaron brushed away a tear. He was overwhelmed. Ever since they’d got there he’d been alert with adrenaline. They’d watched a couple of bands and he felt like he’d been swallowing air the whole time but with Ben’s favourite still to come on, he couldn’t think of a reason to suggest they go home. They’d found a space in the beer tent where the quality of sound was different and sat down. He’d breathed out at last, knowing from here there was no risk of looking up and catching sight of the row of food vans. And now Ben had chosen to spring this news on him. Which was wonderful. But also, the thought of a party always triggered anxiety, whatever the occasion.

‘Do you know?’ he asked Ben.

Ben nodded. He drew a circle around his face with a finger. ‘Not only pretty, but also very resourceful. And very determined when it comes to making you happy!’

‘Who’s coming?’

They were interrupted by Charity leaning between them.

‘Alright there, lads? Shouldn’t drink too much on empty stomach. There’s some amazing international food out there, though. I’ve heard the Spanish is by far the best. Everyone’s taking about his balls. You should try them, unless you already have.’

Aaron paled.

Ben frowned after her.

‘What was that about? She’s weird. Are you okay?’

Here was his opportunity. He could say he wasn’t feeling good. It wouldn’t be untrue. In under fifteen minutes they could be home, far away from … but they could never be far away. The tent had that musty canvas smell. He stood suddenly.

‘Let’s get some air,’ he said.

 

 

 

 

‘Nicola sent me to give you a break, if you just explain everything?’

It was Laurel. She was so kind; it was easy to forget how kind people could be. He’d got to know her best when they both grappled with parenting Liv and Gabby as teens. She’d been kind then, too, and sensible. She belonged in that select group of people he actually admired.

It was good of Nicola as well, of course, especially after what he’d done.

‘You are insured for the lost goods though,’ he’d checked.

‘Well yes, but it’s the trade. It won’t bring the customers back,’ she’d railed.

Robert had swallowed.

‘You know those paper food boxes you’ve got in the back for takeaways? I wondered if you might let me have them for the Diddy Diner at the festival? It’s not like you’ll need them now with your stock temporarily gone.’

‘Robert Sugden! Are you trying to take advantage of our misfortune? Opportunist much!’

He’d hung his head.

‘I can pay you after from the takings.’

‘Oh, for god’s sake just have them. We’re all in the same flaming boat now I suppose.’

 

He passed his apron over to Laurel, offered her his hat which made her laugh.

He combed his fingers through his hair shaking out the locks, then strode over the springy grass pushing his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. A breeze had picked up as the late afternoon approached.

There was one of those Owl Encounter Mobile zoos in a corner, still too near to the stage where there was a pause before the next band started performing. Poor little raptors of various sizes were tied onto wooden perches screwed into the ground. His heart went out to them. He could just about remember having a pet owl himself when he was a child. Their feathers ruffled in the air.

One of the larger falcons was wearing a leather hood, the long straps flapping. Hoodwinked – wasn’t that the term for it? Having something hidden from you, being tricked into not seeing what was really going on.

But who was doing the hiding?

It was Ben he saw first.

And then Aaron appeared behind the side of an aquarium.

And all at once he felt his strength ebb away. Aaron had asked him; no begged him, to keep his distance. He turned weakly, looking for a route out of the petting zoo without having to push past them.

‘Are you feeling a bit better now, love?’  Ben was asking.

He heard Aaron speak.

‘Yes, I’m …,’ and then his voice changed. ‘Liv! What are you doing here?’

Startled, Robert faced around again. Aaron’s back was towards him.

‘I had no idea you were coming! Why didn’t you tell us!’

‘Blame this one,’ she grinned, gesturing with an elbow towards Ben with her hands in her jacket pocket. ‘I’m here for this party tomorrow, aren’t I? Oops! He does know, doesn’t he?’ she added.

‘Yes, he knows,’ Ben laughed. ‘Look at that face. Told you I could make you happy!’ he went on.

They were real people. Here. In front of him. Living their real lives: Their feet on the firm well-trodden grass, their cheeks flushed and their eyes shining from the fresh Yorkshire air.

In contrast his own existence felt flimsy and meaningless. He was a spectre, but he wasn’t invisible.

‘Look at the amazing birds!’ Liv said, and then she saw him.

‘Robert!’

She said his name and her jaw hung slack for a moment as she grappled with the sheer incongruousness of his being there. She looked at Aaron bemused, then looked back at him searching all the features of his face. A red sheen crept over her cheek.

‘You’re out?’ She shook her head. ‘Are you alright? You lost weight. Are you well?’  

She spread her hands, looked again at Aaron whose mouth had tightened into a line. Ben looked startled like he’d only just clocked who he was.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Liv called out to her brother.

She addressed Robert again.

‘What about Seb? Where are you staying?’

And then the spark of anger that he’d known had to come.

‘You left us!’

And after that the inferno.

‘You left us!’ she said again. ‘Did you care at all what you did to us? It was like someone dropped a missile. Boom! We were all blown apart: You gone. Seb gone. Aaron gone off into some space in his head. Me, lost, wondering around in the debris, with no one to turn to! You just dropped us, like our family meant nothing.’

Our family! - she’d said. He swallowed, shook his head.

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.

There were people staring at them. Some of the birds were flapping uselessly trying to escape their ties to their perches.

‘Liv, shut up, come on,’ Aaron was saying. He gripped the sleeve of her jacket, steered her around. With Ben following they marched out onto the field. After a day of sunshine, the afternoon clouds were gathering casting a shadow over the festival grounds. He could see Ben ask a question with a frown, and Aaron spread his hands. Then Ben turned and looked back.

From the distance, for the first time their eyes locked.

Robert nodded an acknowledgement.

If that was a gauntlet thrown down, he accepted it.

He turned. He needed to get back to the van.

 

 

 

 

 

Like with everything the real pain comes in the stillness after.

Back at the caravan site, he’d spent an hour in the dark wiping down the van, with the rain lashing outside, his chef’s training too hard-wired to leave it to the morning.

In the caravan, he’d turned on the fan heater and tugged a roll neck sweater on over his head. Then he’d counted his takings, his jaw clenching and unclenching.

Seeing Liv like that; hearing what she said, it made everything feel raw again. And she wasn’t his only sister.

He called Victoria, let the phone ring on until it dropped of its own accord. He left a voice message instead.

‘I’m going to keep trying, if you could stop being so stubborn and just bring yourself to speak to me. I’m still your brother, I still love you and -,’ he wet his lips trying not to let his voice break and risk sounding pathetic, ‘- I need you, too.’

He was aware of his body filling the space of the caravan. Flesh and bones. He ran a hand up under his jumper over his skin. It was so long since anyone had actually held him. That’s why he’d felt so hollow for a while back there. It wasn’t that he saw Ben as a rival. He sneered inwardly.

It wasn’t the idea of them having sex; even the sweetness of an orgasm can be empty of pleasure, it’s what the sex can symbolize.

He’d slept with someone else in prison. After he’d heard from his solicitor that Aaron has signed the divorce documents. He’d had to draw a line, cut some invisible thread of hope that wouldn’t break. He’d thought he was there for life.

Technically sex is illegal in prison but inevitably it happens. A lot depends on your warden’s policy towards turning a blind eye. He’d gone to the doctor’s and asked for condoms. He’d given him one.

He’d set it up during the day, an extended break time while the others on his balcony were still in classes or working.

‘I’m guessing you’ve done this before a few times?’ he’d said to the young bloke.

He’d seen a flicker of something that looked like impatience or irritation in his eyes. He’d felt his chest tighten, grief battling indecision inside him.

‘You may as well just go, this is pointless.’

But the young bloke had walked towards him, a hand raised to his bicep, just a touch.

‘Why don’t you give it a chance.’

He’d nodded, the panic still bubbling but now they were standing closer he’d caught his body scent, and he liked it.

‘Let’s sit,’ the bloke had inclined his head to the bunk. ‘Or whatever you want.’

He’d sat suddenly, resting both hands against the mattress either side of him. The young bloke pulled off his sweatshirt.

He’d chosen him for his size. He had pecs like slabs and a long wide stomach. His skin glowed red under a dusting of charcoal fuzz except for his nips which were dark pink. He’d chosen him because he was big all over. He would have needed a third hand to circle his thighs, planted apart on the cell floor. When he moved, he was light on his feet, but it was like watching the slow motion of a landslide. He was about to get buried under the rock and rubble.

He had brown eyes; Robert had thought as he’d slammed down on his back looking up. He'd felt his cock rub against his hole, heard himself groan. Brown eyes: maybe that was why he’d chosen him after all.

Blue eyes hurt too much.

 

That was the only time.

Had it worked? Obviously not.

 

He knew that for Aaron it was something else. It was partnership, family, safety, security: - What Ben had said - Told you I could make you happy!

Wasn’t that exactly why Robert had divorced him? To give him a chance to have all that?

And now here he was on the outside. In more ways than one.

He knew what he wanted: He drew them with a finger in the condensation on the window; two stick figures of a man and a boy. They both belonged with him. He raised his fingers to smudge them out, then superstitiously left them where they were. Outside the rain pummelled against the glass. He drew them an umbrella.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Pizza for breakfast?’

‘Get in!’ Liv gave Ben the thumbs up. She sat down cross-legged on the sofa in her fleece hoodie that she’d pulled on over pj’s before coming down. ‘Is Aaron still abed? Thought so - lazy get!’ She grinned and rolled her eyes, then leaned forwards and picked up the photo of the scan from the coffee table.

‘So how many weeks is he or she or they, now, then?’

‘Erm, let me think – six plus fourteen, that’s twenty, twenty weeks. That’s from the first scan at fourteen weeks. I have the photos from the second scan last week. You’ll see those at the party.’

He came and perched on the arm of the other sofa holding a tea towel.

‘So how does a gender reveal party work? Isn’t it a bit… well perpetuating social norms, pink for girls, blue for boys and so on? You could pop a balloon and it could just say, whoo-hoo it’s a baby! I suppose.’

Ben looked crestfallen.

‘You don’t think it’s a good idea?’

‘Oh no. I’m not saying that. Don’t mind me I just question stuff, you know. I know you’re doing it for Aaron. And he pretends he doesn’t, but he loves get togethers that are about family. You’re so nice, putting him first. You’re really good for him!’

‘As good as you thought Robert was?’

Liv flushed.

‘I’m sorry about yesterday. If you’d told me he was out of prison and around. But you need to know that he really loved Aaron back then.’

‘Well, they were married. But he ended it.’

‘No, you don’t understand. He really loved Aaron. Don’t underestimate him, Ben. Watch your back.’

 

 

 

Sunday brought the sunshine back.

Robert showered and shaved and wore his Sunday best: meaning a brand-new white shirt that Jimmy had passed on to him because he’d bought it two sizes too small and then forgot to return it, and jeans and a black wool sweater that Imran had donated their last handshake meeting in prison, just before he had the official news of the overruling of his conviction. And of course, his watch, and leather jacket.

He hurtled down the M62 in the Diddy Diner feeling like the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The virtual meeting with social services the week before had been only half conclusive. He’d talked about custody. They’d talked about visitation protocol. It was difficult establishing his actual rights.

He’d spoken again to Imran.

‘Ah! My pro bono client!’

‘Ha ha. Can I talk to you about Seb?’

Imran had helped, and after he’d called Ross. He’d lied. He’d told him that social services had said he had rights to access. That he could apply for custody, but he wouldn’t do that if Ross was reasonable about setting up some visits. He knew Charity had already put in a word for him, too.

‘One hour,’ Ross had said.

‘Four hours, I want to take him somewhere we can share some quality time.’

‘Two hours.’

‘Three.’

‘Alright, but a minute more and I call the filth.’

 

 

He greeted him at the door to the house. He was pulling on a warm parka jacket over a brushed cotton check shirt and joggers. Ross had wet a comb and parted his still long red hair around his pale face. To Robert he looked like a film star. He hunkered down on the path and reached for a limp hand, holding it gently and stroking his fingers with his thumb.

‘You might have forgotten me,’ he said. ‘I’m Daddy Robert. I had to go away so that’s why you haven’t seen me in a while. But from now on I’m going to be around again, alright?’

He waited while Seb stared back at him, blinking at his face. Then Seb turned and looked up at Ross standing behind him, waiting for confirmation. Ross nodded.

‘Back in time for tea, ey?’ Ross said.

Robert stood up and they walked towards the van.

On the way he’d stopped just like last time, and bought a booster seat, and filled a bag with toys; relieved to have cash from his earnings at the festival. He opened the bag to show Seb and then handed it to Ross who put it down.

‘They’re from me for later when you get home, okay?’ Robert told Seb as Ross lifted him up onto the high up seat in the Diddy Diner, and fastened the belt.

He was so quiet. His hands held on to the arms of the booster seat, elbows out, like the birds yesterday, ready to take flight,

He hadn’t had a plan what to do with him, so that morning over coffee, he’d searched on his phone. He’d found a farm that was open to visitors and felt relief flood through him.

‘Your grandad Jack had a farm,’ he told him, glancing sideways as he drove, following the directions on the sat nav on his phone. ‘That’s where I grew up with your Auntie Vic and Uncle Andy.’ He looked again at Seb’s face as he stared ahead. ‘We had sheep and lambs. Maybe there’ll be some where we’re going. That could be nice. Would you like to see some sheep?’

Nothing.

‘We need Daddy Aaron here, don’t we? He’d know what to say.’

Seb shifted his gaze sideways to his face. Just for a second their eyes met, and then just as quickly he turned his face front again, arms stiff beside him, following the progress of the road.

At the entrance Robert realized Seb’s shoes weren’t appropriate.

There was a gift shop where he bought them matching green wellies. As he helped him adjust his socks and slip his feet inside, for a moment he could hear his son breathe.

 

 

 

 

Reserved - the notice said on the table.

Marlon had complained that Sunday afternoon was one of the busiest times of the week, but he’d still done catering for the party, laying on sandwiches and snacks.

‘Cake!’ Aaron rubbed his hands together gleefully, laughed at Ben’s excited expression.

‘Don’t touch it yet! I’ll get some drinks in.’

‘This is nice,’ Liv looked around at the crowded pub. ‘Are you alright?’

‘Fine! Why?’

‘What about Robert being around?’

‘What about it? You were the one kicking off.’

‘So, it doesn’t bother you?’

‘Not for a second. This here is my family. Robert is nobody, nothing to me at all, alright? So can we just not talk about it?’

Then Jo arrived and Aaron stood up to greet her. By now the bump was definitely showing.

Chas bought over some fizz in a bucket of ice and Ben dished out a tray of pints and shots, and sparkling orange juice for Jo and Liv.

‘Victoria sent her love,’ Chas told them. ‘She said she wished she could be here, but well, you know.’ She rolled her eyes.

All the usual suspects were there; Paddy with Evie, Faith, Belle, Mandy, Sam and Lydia, Rhona with Leo and April. Ben had asked Ethan to join them, too.

And then Ben disappeared and reappeared with a giant balloon with We’re having a - dot-dot-dot written on it.

‘The answer’s inside,’ Ben stretched his eyes.

‘Such a cliché,’ Liv shared, her cheeks already flushed. ‘But it’s cute.’

Aaron stood up and gestured in the direction of the bathroom.

‘Wait for me a moment.’

‘Don’t worry!’ Mandy called. ‘We won’t pop it prematurely!’ She turned to Jo and squeezed her shoulder. ‘The balloon I mean, love, obviously!’ Everybody laughed raucously.

Thank God the bathroom was empty.

He’d felt the panic coming on and now he raised a hand to his heart and felt it thumping as he looked at his ashen face in the mirror. He couldn’t explain it; what was he panicking about? Impressions of lying in Robert’s arms in the dark at the caravan park flashed through his mind uninvited. How their bodies pressed together, heavy and inevitable.

He brushed a tear away. His baby was out there in the pub. His baby! And what was he doing? Imagining running away?

He gripped onto the sink and took a deep breath. And then the answer came to him. If the risk was Robert destroying everything, what if he destroyed Robert first? He raised his eyes again and looked back at himself. That’s what it. That was the answer.

Destroy him. For good. And if it meant getting close to him, well, he’d just have to do that.

 

 

 

 

Robert helped Seb sanitize his hands, and then they set off side by side following the visitors’ path that took them on a circuit round the farm. They stopped at each animal field and pen. Seb held on to the fences, solemn eyed, examining sheep and goats, donkeys and pigs. They stood back to watch the Turkeys, then spent longer with the rabbits who were lolloping about in straw, and watched a man give a talk about ferrets. Robert lifted a guinea pig and placed it in Seb’s arms, watching him as he held it carefully. Then it was done. Outside there was a café and a play barn so Robert bought them both sandwiches and crisps which they ate outside. Seb didn’t once say a word.

At first Robert tried to fill the silence with chatter, and then he gave in.

Just before they left, they saw a real tractor in the playground.

Seb stopped and stared up at it.

‘Do you want to get in?’

He lifted his son high in his arms and saw the sunshine reflect round his golden hair and shining freckles. He’d missed him so much; he could hardly believe they finally had this time together. He swung up next to him, and started showing him the controls on the dashboard. When he looked at Seb he was looking back at him thoughtfully, then twitched his nose.

‘You’re the giraffe,’ Seb said.

Robert remembered the toy he’d brought the last time. And grinned.

‘You’re the giraffe!’ He countered laughing.

‘No, you are!’ Seb giggled.

Robert wrapped an arm around him gently, kissed his hair.

 

 

 

 

Ben and Jo and Aaron popped the balloon together and a shower of pink confetti rained over the guests and table.

‘Oh My God! Another girl in the family!’ Chas exclaimed. ‘Aww! Are you happy, dads? Are you happy, Jo, love? Our whole family is so indebted to you. The gift you’re giving us is, well, beyond words, isn’t it? Photo, photo! On our phone, Marlon! Yes! And Ben’s. And one on Aaron’s phone…’

One windy day, he’d look back at the picture, scrolling his phone with a plate of almost finished smoky albondigas in front of him, and remember: remember how that had been the first time he’d actually believed that he would hold his daughter; that she wasn’t just some dream, and remember how that was the last day before the chaos started, before everything the picture stood for was swept away for ever. His thumb would hover over the picture as he squinted up into the sun, then he would press delete. For good.

 

 

 

‘Wait! Seb! I’ll see you again soon, yeah? I had the best day!’

He waited on the path while his son stood in the doorway, grappling with the heaviness in his heart at having to walk away.

Seb turned back one last time and looked at him long and hard, scanning his face for what felt like an age.

And then he smiled and turned and ran inside. And Robert exhaled slowly.

It was true then; Sunday brought the sunshine.

 

 

 

Liv had helped Ben take the baby gifts into the back room, and then Aaron followed carrying the remains of the cake, which he told his Mum they were taking back to the Mill by the way, and not to get any ideas.

They hadn’t noticed him enter the room behind them, and carried on the conversation they were having.

‘So, if I hadn’t spotted you in Manchester that evening, you would still have invited me, wouldn’t you?’ Liv was asking.

Ben raised his hands in the air in appeal.

‘Of course, we would, silly! It was just a happy coincidence I saw you there first.’

‘Hold on,’ Aaron said. ‘That night when the police questioned you. I thought you said you’d been nowhere near Manchester?’

He saw Ben swallow. Felt his chest thud as a sense of foreboding gripped him.

‘So what? Were you lying? You were, weren’t you?’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘You were lying!’

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

There were slow moving queues on the motorway. He hadn’t been paying attention to the navigation app. Instead, he’d been spinning plates in his brain; money plates, custody plates; a where-to-take-Seb-when-he-eventually-arrived-in-Liverpool plate. And now he’d dropped this particular plate and he was going to be late.

He stretched his fingers forward to where his phone rested against the dashboard and pinched the screen to reveal a lengthy stretch of red on the route ahead.

He’d be able to take the turn off to Blackburn and the M6 which would add twenty miles to the journey but would still be quicker once he got to the junction, but for now he had no choice but to sit tight and wait.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. It would be fine. He gave his shoulders a shimmy roll to loosen them up.

Lunch in a pizza restaurant and then the Aquarium: That’s what they’d do. Father and son time bonding over clown fish. One day they’d watch Finding Nemo together.

He squinted down his nose at his phone again; better call Ross to let him know he might be later than expected.

‘Oh no! But how can you be the fun dad if you’re gonna start letting him down?’ Ross mocked.

‘I’ll be there,’ he replied icily before ending the call. He curled his lip at the sea of bumpers creeping forward on all sides of him.

 

About fifteen minutes later the traffic had moved less than a mile. He shifted in his seat. He needed a bathroom break.

He checked the sat nav again. He was near a retail park. He nudged his way into the left lane and soon he was changing up to second gear as he climbed the hill of the slip road off the motorway.

The Northern sun was shining when he finally found a space to park. A quick search in the dashboard uncovered a pair of heart shaped sunglasses in a sickly shade of green. He raised his eyebrows as he examined them. He would have ribbed Victoria about her poor taste, but for that she would need to be talking to him.

He used one hand to open the arms and put them on, blinking up at the sky.

Better.        

Five minutes later, having made use of the facilities, he found himself in the toy aisle of the vast supermarket. There would be no point in re-joining the traffic yet.

And fun-dad, was it? - He raised his green heart sunglasses onto his forehead. He was quite happy to earn that accolade.

 

He knew Aaron was there even before he caught sight of him standing behind a tower of soft toys on the neighbouring aisle.

A bear rolled drunkenly off the pinnacle and spun to a standstill on the floor.

Aaron murmured ‘Whoops,’ and picked it up with a wink at him. Robert’s eyes involuntarily scaled his body as he straightened again. He was wearing black jeans and a black puffy hooded jacket with the zip fastened all the way up to his collar bone. He remembered their night at the caravan park; ninja mode again, he thought fondly, trying to still his beating heart.

But the WINK…?

‘Batmobile? Or Alien dissection Kit?’ He held up each toy in turn, his arms rotating like a windmill when the wind changes direction.

‘Small parts. I think they’re above your age range, aren’t they? Look it says thirty-seven plus,’ Aaron joked lightly, pushing his hands in his pockets.

‘An early birthday present then,’ Robert answered, going along with the banter. ‘Seb’s almost seven, though, and he’s smarter than your average kid.’

‘Did you spot the all-terrain Monster Truck down there on that lower shelf? Yeah, just step sideways – there – that’s the one.’ Aaron gestured with his chin.

Robert lifted the box up and they both angled their necks inspecting the description.

‘Remote control,’ Robert observed.

‘Batteries included,’ Aaron added.

‘You always were better than me at choosing,’ Robert said.

He thought he saw Aaron stiffen for a second, after all, they weren’t supposed to be talking. For the first time he looked beyond him, wondering if someone was going to suddenly appear to take him away.

‘We’re on our way to Liv’s. Sunday lunch,’ Aaron said, reading his mind. ‘Though neither of them can actually cook. Nah, I’m only joking.’

Now joking are we? Robert said to himself in his brain in his best Yoda voice.

‘Well, have a good time,’ he said out loud innocuously.

‘How’s it going with the van? I’m surprised with this traffic you aren’t parked in a layby selling Enchiladas with that samba verdi ….’

‘Salsa verde,’ Robert corrected him with a gentle smile. ‘You’re right. It would have been the perfect day.’

They both smiled at each other, and for a moment the silence made a circle around them.

‘At the festival, Liv, she was…,’ Aaron’s voice faded.

‘She was right. We both know that.’

‘I haven’t seen you around in the village at all, since.’

‘No, I thought best to keep a low profile in the circumstances.’

‘Well, if that’s cos of me, don’t. I mean it’s not fair. You have as much right to live your life, after all we’re all adults. We should be able to get on.’

Get on? Robert blinked, startled.

‘Anyway, have a good time with Seb. I’d say give him a cuddle from me but it’s not like he’d remember who I am.’

He pushed out his hands deeper in the pocket of his coat with a shrug.

‘He’s not quite at the cuddling stage yet. He’s quite shy,’ Robert said.

‘You’ll get there. You were always a brilliant dad.’

‘So were you. You’re going to be.’

‘Bye then,’ Aaron said. ‘They suit you by the way.’

Robert was puzzled until Aaron removed a hand from his pocket and pointed up to his forehead and he remembered the sunglasses.

‘What? Oh yeah, I’m trying to set a new trend in Liverpool, John Lennon roll over.’

Aaron nodded and turned to leave. There was just a second where he seemed to hesitate, and Robert wondered if he was going to turn again and say something else. But he didn’t.

He watched him turn down a food aisle where the shelves were too high to see anymore.

He stood holding the toys for Seb. He already knew he’d buy them all.

But for now, he couldn’t shake off the idea that Aaron had come looking for him.

He walked round to the aisle where Aaron had been; nothing but tins of cat food and litter and a bargain bin of discounted 80’s DVD’s.

 

 

 

 

‘Money?’ Paddy was asking.

‘That’s what Liv said. She said they had a flaming row because Ben apparently lied about a trip to Manchester, but the reason he’d lied was because he’d gone to see someone to borrow some money. And he felt embarrassed telling Aaron.’

‘But if they needed money, why didn’t they come to us?’

‘That’s what I said. But Liv said Aaron said they were financially good. It was Ben worrying about not contributing enough. And the money was for Jo.’

‘So how much had he borrowed?’

‘Twenty.’

‘Twenty pounds?’

‘Twenty thousand.’

‘Twenty thousand!’ Paddy spluttered.

‘Keep your voice down!’ Chas reprimanded him, inclining her head to the clientele enjoying a lunchtime drink in the pub.

Paddy’s eyes did a sweep of the room.

‘Oh yes, I see, because ole Daft Vader is here of course with his menacing presence.’ He sneered in the direction where Robert was sitting with a pint and a copy of the Financial Times open. Robert closed his eyes and slowly shook his head.

But when Paddy turned his back to the bar, Robert strained his ears so he could listen for more.

‘So, how are they going to pay it back?’ Paddy hissed in a failed attempt to whisper.

‘I don’t know. Aaron says they’re coping.’

 

About five minutes later the door swept open and Aaron himself swung in.  As he weaved past the lunch time punters, his eyes caught Robert’s; they both seemed to hold onto a breath for a second, and then Aaron nodded, and Robert nodded back and watched his figure as he continued purposefully on his way to the bar. He kept watching as he leant forward on his elbows, and called briskly.

‘Mine’s a pint if anyone’s serving?’

Then he turned and looked again at Robert from over his shoulder, and Robert, sensing it, looked quickly down at his paper.

‘Alright love.’  He heard Chas when she arrived back in the bar. ‘No Ben?’

Aaron answered something he couldn’t quite hear.

‘You do know there’s a special lunch offer on at the Hop today, don’t you?’ Chas continued. ‘Steak pie, I think I heard. Your favourite. I expect you’d prefer to head up there.’

‘No, I’m happy where I am,’ Aaron answered flatly, seeing through her.

Robert smiled into his glass.

He looked up, there was a shuffling and a scraping as Aaron arrived at his table and pulled up a chair.

‘Alright?’ He asked.

‘Yep, yep,’ Robert nodded. Very alright, he thought to himself. He couldn’t understand where this change of heart had come from, but he wasn’t complaining. In his peripheral vision he could see Chas and Paddy flapping about behind the bar.

He raised his pint and chinked glasses with Aaron.

It was brave, it was brazen, and he was loving it.

Aaron asked how Seb was, and if he’d liked the toys, and Robert told him they were making progress, slowly, and that they’d gone to the Aquarium. He sucked beer froth from his top lip watching Aaron laugh as he described scraping charcoal from their Sunday meal.

‘You got some new clothes,’ Aaron noted.

Robert glanced down at himself. Yes, after that first day of takings at the festival he’d invested in new jeans and a shirt and sweater and a winter coat and scarf. He couldn’t keep visiting his son looking like he had.

‘You approve?’

‘Dad clothes.’ Aaron cocked his glass.

‘Hey, don’t knock the look. You’ll be in Dad clothes soon enough.’

They both broke into grins, coughed and looked down.

‘Nah, you always were good at getting back on your feet though. I don’t know why I ever bother worrying about you.’

There was another short silence.

‘Do you? Worry about me?’ Robert asked.

‘It’s just what people say, innit?’ Aaron answered looking skyward, and then all at once he was standing, and Robert wished he’d not asked at all, because he seemed to have scared him away. Or had he?

‘We should have a drink and a proper catch up one day,’ Aaron said without meeting his eyes.

‘Yeah, I’d like that.’

‘Well soon, then.’

Aaron took a couple of steps to the bar and put his empty glass down and then he was gone, out through the door.

And Robert sat, lips parted, wondering what had just happened.

 

Chapter Text

 

‘So why him? You were looking for a nice bloke who wouldn’t let you drown? - Let you down! Wouldn’t let you down - I meant to say. Sorry. Don’t stand up, we only just got here. I promise I’ll behave. Just it all seemed a bit shot gun at the time.’

‘No. I knew him.’

Robert watched Aaron’s face journey as he decided to sit again, and exhaled.

‘You never mentioned him.’

A lunchtime pint in Robblesfield - just far enough away from the village to avoid the gossip mill. The pub was under new management and had been refurbished since Robert had last been around. A new menu, too. But were they going to eat or would that feel too much like a date? To be honest Robert wasn’t sure what this was. He was struggling to read Aaron’s signals. He just knew he was hungry, but maybe that wasn’t about food.

He'd had to give himself a pep talk in the mirror in the bathroom when he’d first arrived; things he was good at - Ready? Go! - He was good at turning a tidy profit from the food van.  And?  - He was a good Dad Aaron had said so himself. More? - Maybe he could be a good ex-husband too?

Aaron did that thing where he pushed up the sleeves of his black sweater over his forearms. Robert raised his pint glass and blinked fast. Seemed being a good ex-husband really needed work.

‘I didn’t mention him because he wasn’t someone on my radar,’ Aaron continued, ‘I knew him from school, never saw him or gave him a thought until he started work at the HOP. Even then I didn’t recognize him cos he’d changed so much.’

‘School boy crush? He’d changed for the worse, hadn’t he? – Only kidding.’ He grinned and raised a hand in apology, but kept his wrist against the table.

‘Nah,’ Aaron folded his fingers and arched his shoulders back.

‘Come on, you can tell me.’

‘I bullied him if you must know.’

‘Never.’

‘I did.’

‘So, was that why you married him?’ Robert reached for the packet of peanuts between them. ‘Some misplaced sense of guilt?’

‘No, course not. We were just kids back then.’

‘Why then? To get your leg over? That was it, wasn’t it, you horny so and so.’

Were ex-husbands allowed to refer to their ex’s sexual appetite? Maybe not. Aaron’s chin had risen. He knew the look well. The problem was it made him want to reach his hand out and squeeze his face, graze a thumb down over his beard.

‘Nah, I’d already joined an app, hooked up with a tonne of blokes actually before we even met.’ Aaron told him like it was a funny anecdote.

It wasn’t funny. Robert pulled a face as if he didn’t care, but he couldn’t find a come-back. All at once he wasn’t having a good time anymore.

Why the olive branch? He thought.

In the silence that followed, they heard someone win a stack of cash on the fruit machine.

‘You must have had some help to get the food van going, I remember Vic talking about the overheads and all the permits and licenses when she started up.’ Aaron said, changing the subject.

Robert wet his lips. Looking down at a beermat.

‘Well, you know me, I can always find my way around that stuff, especially after some of the contacts I made inside; forgers, counterfeiters.’

‘So, what, you’re breaking the law again, isn’t that a bit risky?’

Robert rolled his eyes.

‘Says Mr. Su…, Mr… Dingle.’ He tripped over his words, caught out showing a chink of the state of his mind. ‘You are still Dingle?’ he managed to ask, straightening a crease on his trouser leg as he recovered his equilibrium quickly. He didn’t even know Ben’s surname to be honest. He wondered if anybody did.

Aaron nodded.

‘Still Dingle.’ Aaron looked down again at his pint. ‘So how do you keep in touch with these people; the ones from inside?’

‘One of them’s a pigeon fancier, no don’t laugh, I’m serious, you know the kind of blokes you get inside. He keeps a loft in Leeds, around sixty birds. He races them too. You know I found out they have different categories for the races, old birds and young birds.’

‘Jail birds,’ Aaron cocked his pint.

They were both laughing. Robert was looking straight in Aaron’s eyes.

‘So, what does he do, strap little burner phones onto their backs?’ Aaron waved his glass.

‘No microfiche in the little metal rings!’ He was still grinning when he lifted his phone and waggled it. ‘How do you think I keep in touch, idiot?’

Aaron rolled his eyes.

‘I didn’t actually believe ya!’

‘Much!’ Robert mocked.

His eyes had a will of their own, they travelled down to Aaron’s chest, he could see the outline of his pecs under the soft black wool of the sweater, his brain had run on imagining pulling it off over his head, the pale recess and dark hair of his armpits, the scent. He blinked heavily, reached quickly for his glass.

‘So have you decorated a nursery?’ he asked, changing the subject.

‘The baby’s a girl,’ Aaron told him, and now his eyes were shining, and Robert could feel himself melting.

 

 

 

 

 

After the warmth of the pub, the chill of the caravan seeped into his new clothes and pressed against his skin.

But he didn’t notice the cold. Instead, he stood, hands on his hips, looking out at the sweep of grey green hills falling away to the village below, ignoring the vapour trail of his breath, hearing Aaron’s voice in his head.

And for a while he let himself stay in that place with Aaron talking to him, like he used to do in prison; breathing life into memories.

Eventually though his eyes flitted down to his surroundings; the Formica-topped table where Jimmy’s binoculars rested, the blanket rolled up in the corner of the bench that would open out into a bed for him once he’d got through all the jobs that still needed doing.

He had food prep to get on with in the Diddy Diner.

In spite of all the nonsense he’d just spouted to Aaron, he’d applied for all his licenses from the local council – Food business registration, Food premises, a licence to park by a highway, traders licenses at local Farmer’s markets.

Admittedly, he’d gone in person to the council offices and turned on the charm with what was her name; Julie? Judy? Now his first license had come through to trade at Skipdale the following day, and he needed to be ready.

But first he needed to stock up on ingredients.

He bent and lifted the bench, revealing the storage compartment underneath where he’d originally found Jimmy’s fake fur coat. He pulled out a sports bag and unzipped it. He looked down at the bundles of cash: his takings from the festival - or at least what remained of them.

From now on, everything would go through the bank, but it was smart to have a reserve of ready cash when you couldn’t be certain what was round the corner. His eyes lingered over the notes. He extracted a roll of twenties and put the bag away again.

 

He was pulling on his coat when something moving down in the valley reflected the winter sun in his peripheral vision and he turned to look out of the window again.

Just a car winding its way on the turn off to the hop.

It was too far away to see clearly, but some sixth sense told him it was Aaron’s. He lifted the binoculars before he could talk himself out of it.

He was right.

Aaron snug with his chin buried in his black coat in the driver’s seat, tailbone tilted forward like a racing driver, elbow on the open window in spite of the cold weather. Robert wet his lips, then remembered the probable reason why Aaron was driving there; his smile dropped.

 

He was going to put the binoculars down, he swore he was, but as he panned away, he saw people; Jai with Laurel walking towards the offices, and then a family bundling out of the cafe, and the coloured Kayaks in yellows and blues on the grass by the river.

And then his attention was caught by two figures facing each other on the path in front of the long boat shed.

They looked like they were having a heated argument. One of the two, Robert recognized, was Noah.

He frowned, watching him step forward and back, all the while pointing in the air at the person he was talking to. Which was Ben.

Ben’s chest was out and shoulders back, trying to look tall, while Noah was going right off at him. Noah gestured towards the river, stabbed at the air and then pointed again. And then their demeanours suddenly changed, as quickly as changing the filter on a picture.

Robert saw Ben turn to look behind him and do a double take. He swept a hand over his brow, and Robert saw Aaron approaching with a smile and Ben smiled back.

Then Noah waved a weak goodbye and trotted off down the path.

Robert’s brain whirred as the scene by the river played on, Aaron and Ben still framed by a crescent of white from the binocular lens.

Aaron had turned to stand face to face with Ben and now he was closing in with his face. No! Robert’s mouth twisted as he saw them kiss. And next thing Aaron offered a hand for Ben to take, inclined his head towards the boathouse.

And Robert put the binoculars down.

What had felt like a good day suddenly felt like the worst day for a long time.

He kicked out at the metal table leg, which only served to bruise his foot so he hopped howling banging against the walls.

He picked up the binoculars again; tore open the caravan door and flung them, soaring over the gravel park into the frosty grass by the border fence and slammed the door shut.

 

 

 

‘Does this mean I’m forgiven?’

Aaron shivered a reply with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile; he was reluctant to say yes out loud. They stood in the semi-darkness of the boathouse, coats undone, belts undone and buttons popped, fingers skating lightly against skin under their sweaters.

It was a couple of weeks since the big row’ between them. It had been even worse because they’d not had a proper row for ages, not since before they were first together, and certainly not since they got married.

‘I know I made a stupid mistake,’ Ben had said with those wide eyes during the ‘big row’. ‘But I honestly did it for you; I know how much this baby means to you. But it costs so much. I was the one who talked with Jo about what she wanted. She was going to back out. And you didn’t even know! I had to do something.’

‘But you lied!’

And then he’d realized what a hypocrite he was being. So, he’d had to tell Ben about going to see Robert, offering him money to get back on his feet.

‘So, you lied, too?’

‘No?’

‘By omission.’

There’d been a lot of head shaking, and snappy exchanges, and sitting in different rooms. And then Aaron had eventually made the first move and said sorry, and then said he thought they should talk about how they were going to pay the twenty thousand back, but that they’d sort it, together. And they’d held fingers and kind of made up.

Except they hadn’t had sex since.

‘I had a drink with Robert at lunchtime.’

‘Did you?’ Ben sounded startled.

‘He’s no threat.’

‘Well, why are you telling me here, now?’

‘Just don’t want to be told I’m lying by omission after I do this.’

He closed his eyes and moved in for a kiss.

Except his mind flashed up an image of Robert at the table; the way he’d sat like he always did, with his long thighs wider apart than should be legal. And then before he could stop himself, he’d mentally undressed him.

He drew a breath, kissed Ben harder.

‘You do realize my boss could just walk in?’

Aaron reached between them and slid down his own zip, found Ben’s hand and placed it against the material of his underpants, swaying forwards into his fingers.

Ben bent to kiss his neck, but that just annoyed him.

‘Come on!’ he said. It sounded snappy, mean even; but what was it Robert had said? - He’d got the horn.

He peeled the top of his pants down showing his tip; a shiny tight dome leaking sparkling pre-cum in the half light.

And Ben seemed to finally get the point. He climbed down on his knees.

 

 

 

It was late afternoon when Robert returned from the wholesalers. The sky had turned indigo but you could still see the clear outlines of vehicles and hedges, and hear small birds chirrup to each other that the day was almost done.

In the front seat of the Diddy Diner, with Seb’s booster seat beside him, Robert rolled up his sleeves then sanitized his hands and pulled a dry-cleaned apron out of its clingy polythene wrapper. He jumped down from the driving cabin and started to walk round the back to start his food prep.

He saw someone coming towards him and waited.

It was his neighbour who owned the dirt bikes.

‘We’re moving on soon,’ he said. ‘Might see you tomorrow, but you seem out and about so much we thought we might miss you, so just thought I’d say cheerio.’

He offered his hand to shake and Robert took it.

‘What brought that on? I got used to having the bikes around.’

‘There are some motor cross competitions with big prize money coming up down in Spain so we’re going to head that way. Seems someone lodged a complaint to the council about the noise, and they were successful. They only bloody passed a vote to evict all the caravans and shut this place down. I thought you’d know.’

Robert was startled. It wasn’t that he was particularly attached to the caravan, but it did throw up that he had nowhere else to stay.

Once again, his whole existence felt precarious.

Inside the food van he took out his phone and scrolled down recent contracts. He’d thought she wouldn’t pick up, but she must have added his name and number.

‘Hi, Judy? You may not remember, but I came in a few days ago and you were so helpful when I was trying to work out how to apply for trading permits for my food van – Robert, that’s right; you do remember me, that’s amazing.  I wondered if you could help find something out for me? The name of someone who lodged a complaint? I want to thank them. That’s right. You’ll call me back? That’s great!’ 

Half an hour later he paused from chopping onions.

Ben Tucker – so that was his surname then. The creep! He remembered when their eyes had met at the festival, was that what this was about?

All at once it felt personal.

Time to do something about it.

 

 

.

 

 

Robert ran a hand through his hair scanning the customers in the cafe.

He’d barely had time for a bathroom break at the Farmer’s market in Skipdale, but he’d underestimated the volume of trade and had to pack up mid-afternoon after running out of food. It was a relief really.

He was back to spinning plates and now he would probably need to add accommodation into the mix.

‘Where’s Jimmy?’ he asked Nicola at the counter, interrupting Rhona who was giving an order and rolled her eyes.

‘Poor Jimmy’s stuck in a lorry park in Kent,’ Nicola answered over her shoulder, knocking used coffee grounds out of the filter for the machine. ‘He’s been there forever waiting for the customs checks. Who’d be in haulage these days? Only mugs like us!’

She watched as Rhona took her two coffees and sat down with Vanessa.

‘The answer,’ she lowered her voice, ‘is Birkenhead to Belfast.’

‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Robert asked.

‘Because I don’t understand why you’re bothering with that ridiculous van when you could be helping us import you know valuable goods.’

‘Have you been talking to Charity?’

‘How’d you mean?’

But before he had time to answer, Charity herself had burst in through the door, looking for Vanessa.

‘Noah’s been arrested!’ she said.

‘Good god, wonder what that’s about?’ Nicola murmured under her breath.

Robert gave her his best ‘Search me’ expression, and quietly made his way out.

 

 

 

He decided that probably the best course of action in the circumstances was to keep a low profile and retreat back to his castle, well alright, caravan then.

The neighbours were in the final stages of leaving, lifting heavy duty bin liners over to the waste disposal with scarves over their mouths at the stink and the cold.

Inside he put the kettle on the hob and lit the gas, then checked his emails. He was waiting for news about spaces in farmers markets in towns between Emmerdale and Liverpool.

If he could get closer, maybe he could see Seb after school a couple of nights.

He thought back to Manpreet and Wendy and Bob, and even Chas; how they’d tried to warn him away that first week he was back.

Go to Liverpool, they’d said – Go and be near your son.

He clenched his jaw looking at the grey sky. He was pretty sure he had more right to be there then they had. 

And what sort of message would it send to Ross if he moved? That he accepted the status quo being a part-time dad? That he was willing to adjust his lifestyle to accommodate it? Hell could freeze over first.

He heard the whistling of wind, looked out of the window to see flakes of ice blowing in the air – Never mind hell; he might be the one freezing over!

There was a knock on the door.

He roused himself and walked down the awkward step to open it. He was met by a fist slamming like a rock against his face. A single blow. He fell forward into a white blizzard, and then darkness.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Was he dead? He might be dead: There was a bright light and an angelic face bending over him - good god two angelic faces! Or was it four? Hold on, why were they floating round like that?

And then it dawned on him that he had double vision; and that was the moment when the nausea kicked in. He turned and threw his guts up on something that felt convincingly like cold wet gravel - so not dead after all, because it would be a major let down if heaven had cheap landscaping. Was this where he was supposed to feel relieved? He chucked up some more of his stomach contents; loudly.

He heard a duet of voices groan above him; somewhere between Ooh! And Eww! So, there were two of them. And then as he lay back, he saw their faces bending over him for a second time.

‘The eye is still there, though?’ One of them said with a voice full of concern.

‘Dunno.’ There was the sound of a foot sifting half-heartedly at the stones.

‘I think it’s there, but he doesn’t look good, does he?’

‘Could be concussion?’ Robert felt he sounded rather over enthusiastic with the diagnosis.

‘Shall I call my Mum, do you think? Or you call Wendy?’

‘They’ll just ask why we were up here. Maybe we ought to take him to the hospital ourselves.’

‘Yes. Good idea. Let’s lift him into the car.’

He tried to blink back up at them but realized one of his eyes was sealed shut and half his face was numb.

He raised his hands in protest.

‘Whoa!’ he spluttered. He was wet and frozen like a fish on ice and even the weather was grim; it was snowing in sheets and dark as only the hills in the countryside can be - it was a stationary car’s headlights that were illuminating them.

‘Mr Sugden, Mr Sugden, if you can just try to sit up, slowly?’ One of the lads encouraged at some volume, like he was intellectually impaired, which he possibly was, to be real. There were firm hands under his armpits, and with a Hup! That’s it! – together they raised him.

He croaked something about his keys being in the caravan.

He watched one of the boys shoulder his way through the falling snow towards the vehicle and disappear inside, then emerge again dangling his set of keys in one hand and something bulky in the other.

‘It’s my dad’s fur coat!’ the boy called out sounding delighted.

‘Going to give me a fashion show later, then?’ The other lad who was still hunkered down holding Robert’s shoulder, yelled back.

He experienced a pang of possessiveness. It might be Jimmy’s coat but it had been his companion for these past weeks now.

Once in the front passenger seat of the car he asked them to drape it over him to keep him warm, then one of the boys strapped him in with the safety belt.

Robert raised a hand to his wrist.

‘Elliot,’ he said, having worked out now who his rescuer was. ’You’re sure you locked it? The caravan?’

‘Quote sure, Mr Sugden, everything’s going to be fine,’ he said sounding all the world like Jimmy when he hadn’t a clue what was happening, ‘We’ll have you in A &E in no time, won't we Heath?’

 

 

Time as Robert knew well wasn’t a constant. There were the few short shining blissful seconds of his life that he’d spent with Aaron, and then there were days in prison which he’d despaired of ever ending, a bit like this journey.

He sat, light headed, mentally sobbing with the effort not to tell seventeen-year-old Elliot how to drive as they followed the moor roads through a blizzard in the dark.

‘Congratulations on passing your test, by the way. First go? Impressive. Jimmy’s a good bloke letting you drive his car, I’ll say that for him, I mean, assuming he knows.’

Heath on the back seat was perched as far forward as he could go, his cheek pressed against the back of Elliot’s driving seat. Robert registered the light squeeze of his fingers administered to Elliot’s arm above the elbow at his words. It hinted at what he’d suspected; that Elliot hadn’t passed his test yet, and Jimmy hadn’t given permission. Kids, eh?

He looked sideways again at Heath. Noted his fingers still grazing against Elliot’s arm, the secret smile. Bob’s offspring, wasn’t he? Wasn’t Wendy his step-mum now? Wendy - who wanted him as far away from the village as possible; Wendy who was probably in touch with Victoria. His head hurt. He wished he felt cleverer right now but there had to be an angle here, right?

Meanwhile, his concussed brain had gone off on another tangent.

‘You know Charity’s son Noah, why do think he was arrested? Any theories?’ he asked out of nowhere.

He felt the car lurch momentarily, saw Heath’s fingers tighten. Interesting!

But as the car bounced something rolled forwards under his feet. He reached to pick it up, glanced at it with his one eye, then raised his one eyebrow that was functioning, his question about Noah put on the back burner for now.

‘I wouldn’t leave this in the car if you don’t want your parents to know what you get up to.’

He passed it back to Heath who took it, blushing deeply - a bottle of lube.

‘I’m guessing, well I’m hoping to be honest, there are condoms down here too.’

He was a dad, just like Aaron had said in the pub. He wasn’t judging; who was he to judge anyway? He lost his virginity to Elliot’s step-mum at sixteen. Kids are going to experiment, they want privacy, it’s all normal. Both have annoying sisters; it makes sense to head out in a large car with soft leather seats.

There was something else; he managed to reach under him and then angled his neck awkwardly to look down at it cupped in his fingers. He honestly would have said something because they obviously needed someone grown up to talk to, but was he that particular grown - up?

The decision was taken from him when his phone started ringing and so he slipped it in his pocket.

He saw Aaron’s name on the screen and experienced that physical and emotional sense of letting go, like when you see a loved one in the waiting lounge after a long journey.

‘Aaron! I’m…,’ he started. But he was interrupted by a very angry Aaron, something about a letter and broken promises. He’d obviously done something wrong again.

‘Will you talk for me?’  He passed the phone to Heath limply.

‘Mr. Dingle? This is Heath Hope. We just found Mr. Sugden concussed on the ground outside the caravan, so we’re taking him to the hospital in Hotten.’

Robert rested his head against the collar of the fur coat, working his best damsel in distress impersonation.

Then he heard Aaron ask another question.

‘Erm, I don’t really know what normal looks like for Mr. Sugden…?’

And then Elliot turned the car into the entrance of a large car park outside a multi-storied glass and concrete building, and announced cheerily that they’d arrived.

He was taken straight into triage and after a couple of hours he was told by the doctor they were admitting him for observation. They left him on a trolley in the corridor which was actually more comfortable and warmer than any bed he’d had for weeks; no years. He turned his face sideways against the cushioned padding, feeling a bit tearful. Then the painkiller they’d given him kicked in, and next thing he was sleeping.

 

 

 

 

‘What’s this?’

Men did that, Aaron reflected; acted genuinely surprised when someone did something nice for them; he did it, Robert used to do it too, Ben was doing it now. So, at what stage were men weaned off expecting caring gestures?

‘For you, well for us actually. Let’s just forget about all the other stuff going on, and focus on the future, on being … I don’t know… happy? Isn’t that why we got married in the first place? I still want exactly the same things as I did then.’

‘Me too,’ Ben answered.

The lights were on low in the Mill, outside there was a snow storm going on, but here it felt cosy like a home should be.

Aaron handed Ben the box tied with a bow.

He’d arrived home late after being out for a pick up, and found Ben sitting at the kitchen table smarting over an official looking letter.

‘I can’t believe this bloke. And I thought you said you had a drink with him yesterday? Aaron, I am genuinely a reasonable man, exes can be friends - of course they can; but not when he’s still doing this?’

He’d held up the letter with a flick of his wrist.

Aaron took it, already feeling a confused mixture of anxious and guilty but not knowing why. He stared quickly at the top of the page: -

Imran Habeeb

Barlow Legal Services

It was Robert’s solicitor. He scanned down the content of the letter. It was more stuff about the divorce settlement. A request for Robert’s solicitor and their solicitor to hold a preliminary mediation meeting to discuss what was on the table to be divided, business shares, savings, investments, items of financial or sentimental value, property…

Aaron swallowed.

‘But I was sure he’d said he’d drop this,’ he was bemused. Upset didn’t cover it.

‘Well, seems he’s taken you for a mug in that case.’

What he wanted to say was Robert wouldn’t do that, but course he would. Robert and money; his first love - always was, always would be! He felt sick. And Ben being judgy just made him even more nervous. They were bringing a baby home soon, but at this rate they wouldn’t have a home to bring her to.

‘The bloke’s a ruthless chancer! All he cares about is money and himself,’ Ben added.

‘Yeah well, if you cared a bit more about money, it might have helped,’ Aaron retorted, his face clouding, then immediately regretted it. ‘I’m sorry! I’m really sorry! I didn’t mean that at all. And I’ll call him. You’re right. But he’ll listen to me.’

Ben had risen to his feet, half in flight.

‘You know what, you call him, and have a good chat, because you’d probably prefer that to talking to me anyway’

‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘Stupid, yeah, don’t you see what he’s doing to us? You keep saying you’ll reason with him, but he doesn’t listen, does he? Maybe we should leave this to Ethan. Let him talk to Robert’s lawyer.’

‘No, I’ll make him listen.’

So, he’d phoned Robert, and then he’d found out he’d been assaulted.

‘I’m sorry. Aaron. I abhor violence of any kind, in any situation,’ Ben had said. ‘But this man, he deserves it. And I don’t think you should talk to him again after this.’

Aaron had nodded in agreement, and then turned quickly away.

Now, after a period of calm where they’d taken turns to shower and changed into pyjamas, Ben opened the gift wrapping and opened the rectangular shaped box. He dipped his hand in.

‘A mug! Am I the mug now; is that what you think of me?’ he laughed. ‘Two mugs?’ he added. ‘Oh nice - World’s best dad – that’s amazing! What does the other one say?’

World’s second-best dad – that one’s yours, only kidding, they’re both the same. Mine’s the blue one, though.’

‘They’re lovely!’

‘Yeah, shall we christen them, then, make a hot drink and head up to bed?’

‘Decaf tea? What do you fancy? Peppermint?’

For a fleeting moment Aaron caught the taste of Robert’s hot chocolate, whipped cream, the works, on his tongue. He let it go.

‘Peppermint, yum,’ he answered, bigging it up for himself, or for Ben?

And then Ben’s phone rang.

‘It’s Jo,’ he said to Aaron.

 

 

 

 

Robert was still in the corridor when he woke. He was sure it was Ben walking towards him, and when he was really close, he stopped and glared and then continued on past him, and after he’d decided it must have been some drug induced hallucination or dream.

 

He slept again, woken by a nurse taking his obs. His face throbbed and he couldn’t see well because of the dressing they’d put on one eye. He asked how long until he was taken onto the ward and the nurse said she’d check what was happening, and then he heard her footsteps fading.

He looked at the ceiling.

He assumed his eye would get better but would he be able to drive to see Seb on Sunday? He missed him so much every single day. He was gradually coming out of his shell, revealing his sense of humour and impish smile. If he couldn’t see him, would it set that progress back again? Or, like Ross had said, would he be disappointed and no longer see him as the fun dad?

It occurred to him he could die here alone, and he had no idea who would let Seb know. Would Charity tell Ross? He’d spent all that time in prison letting people go, letting people down. Diane had passed, Vic had disowned him. And then there was Aaron, what was he playing at? – Blowing hot and cold and hot and cold again; he could barely keep up. Choosing to lose Aaron had been the single most painful decision of his life.

Only he knew how bad it got; that second year when he thought he would be serving life.

Yes. Even he’d considered topping his-self for a brief while. Though deep down he’d known that for Aaron that would have been a step too far. How could he have looked him in the eyes and said the things he had; I’ll always love you and never forget, and then do that? Aaron would hate him and the hate would creep backwards in time and obliterate all the love they’d ever had. Snuff it all out. And so, the most beautiful part of his life would cease to have ever existed other than as a lie.

He couldn’t do that. Truth won after all. The love they’d shared was as true now as it had been then, and it would move forward with him all his life. Together. Apart. It didn’t matter anymore.

Anyway, he wouldn’t feel sorry for himself. He set his jaw: He would fix it. Just like he was fixing everything; somehow, he would fix this too. And just when he needed it providence had provided him with a little extra help. Where was that fur coat?

He sat up too quickly and the corridor tilted and the next thing he was falling head first into a tunnel like the lens of Jimmy’s binoculars when you held them backwards, and wondering what happened to them after he’d thrown them in the gr...

 

 

 

‘Mr. Sugden? Robert? Which do you prefer? Robert? Hello! How are you feeling now? You passed out for a little while back there.’

He was on the ward, still on the trolley but next to an actual bed with a rather burly orderly on stand-by while the nurse talked to him. The curtain was drawn and the strap of a portable blood pressure monitor was round his arm.

‘So, we’re going to get you into bed, but first we’d like you to undress and put this gown on. Can you fold your arms like this and sit up slowly, from the waist, Jim is here to catch you if you think you might fall?’

The orderly stood in front of him and held his shoulders as he moved up into a sitting position.

‘How do you feel? Dizzy?’

‘No, fine.’

‘Great! Now swing your legs round, and let’s get you out of those clothes and into the gown.’

He undressed and then made it onto the bed by himself, and finally lay back against pillows, experiencing a frisson of relief at the luxury of it all. But it wasn’t all good news; he’d been admitted onto a ward rather than being kept in a clinical decisions unit as he’d hoped, and now potentially, he’d be in for a longer stay, which could affect him seeing Seb.

‘The doctor is on surgical call but he’ll come and see you when he’s available.’

‘Nurse, could you find a fake fur coat I came in with. It may have got left behind in A&E?’

‘I’ll see what I can find out.’ She opened the curtains.

‘And look, here’s a visitor!’

 

 

‘You came to see me!’

Aaron stood at the foot of the bed, hands in the pockets of his unzipped puffer jacket. Robert soaked his free eye with the sight of him, fingers smoothing the light bed cover over his gown at his waist.

‘No, well, yes, but I was here anyway. You look terrible,’ Aaron mumbled.

‘Thanks, I was going for the minimalist look.' He plucked at the hospital gown.

‘So, who do you think did this?’

‘I have my theories. It doesn’t matter.’

He remembered seeing Ben in the corridor, so he hadn’t imagined it after all.

‘Why are you here?’

‘Jo, our surrogate had a headache that lasted a few hours so they told her to bring herself down and we came too as the parents and, you know, to give her some support.’

‘But everything’s okay, right?’

‘They seem to think so. They said they’re just being cautious. They took her blood pressure and everything and did a blood test and we’re just waiting on the result. They listened to the baby’s heartbeat and she’s doing great.’  

Robert watched as he looked away biting down on his lower lip to stop his smile from showing. Then he watched his face journey back to serious.

‘Anyway. What happened?’

‘I was at the caravan site,' Robert started to explain, and then the nurse interrupted by coming back with Jimmy’s fur coat.

‘Found it! If you roll it, it’ll probably fit in the locker with the rest of your clothes. Would you like to?’ She handed it to Aaron.

‘This?’ Aaron raised his eyebrows at Robert, as they both remembered the evening when they’d fought.

‘Wednesdays I wear fur and roll around on the ground apparently,’ Robert nodded with a spread of his hands.

And then Aaron started rolling the fur coat as the nurse suggested.

And a small bottle dropped out of the pocket and onto the floor.

‘What’s this?’  Robert watched Aaron’s expression change as he picked it up and read the label. ‘Rush – Room odouriser - Alkyl Nitrite?’ His head snapped up. 'Poppers? So wh… what it this, Robert? Is this a habit you picked up in prison? What have been up to up there at the caravan? Was that what this was then - something rough that just got out of hand and went too far?’

‘Noo!’ Robert objected, sounding hurt and offended. He was torn between outrage that Aaron would suspect such a thing, wanting to tell Aaron that he'd been faithful apart from that one time in prison that had only confirmed that he wanted no one else, that no one else compared; but then there was that small voice… that instinct for self-preservation that told him this might at some point be something he could use to his advantage.

‘Don’t lie Robert: It’s not like we’re together and you need to lie to me. Just promise you’ll be careful. And don’t use this stuff - you’re not as young as you once were and it can do all sorts of damage to your body, just promise, right?’

Not as young? Honestly?

But now they were looking at each other silently, all those memories bubbling up between them. They’d gone through a brief phase of using them in the early days of their relationship when anything went, as long as it went hard and fast, of course they had, until they’d realized they could get pleasure deeper and more lasting without any artificial stimulant.

‘Alright,’ Robert swallowed. ‘I promise. But just put it in the cupboard for now, thanks.’

‘I’d better go,’ Aaron gestured.

‘Wait! Why were you angry with me on the phone?’

Aaron snorted.

‘Ask your lawyer.'

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

‘You’re late. Is everything alright?’

‘Yeah, just Charity was kicking off at the pub about Noah. Apparently, he’s been charged with supplying drugs. Mum’s trying to calm her down.’

Aaron sat down on the big sofa with a shrug, feeling suddenly tired from the stress of it all. It’s not like he’s that close to them, but still; they are family.

And also, it’s one more thing on top of everything else, including Jo going to hospital, and even though the midwife assured them that the baby’s doing fine, it’s still a worry.

‘I’m sorry.’ He put a hand on Ben’s knee comfortingly. ‘It’s tough for you, too; the dreaded Dingles.’ He stretched the corner of his mouth. ‘You didn’t know what you were committing to: Not regretting it are you?’ he joked. ‘Well, you probably are - but you’re stuck with us now!’

‘I’m perfectly fine,’ Ben answered stiffly.

‘Jai’s not happy because they’re going back over all the cctv recordings again,’ Aaron went on. ‘… and of course, he and Charity are hardly the best of friends. Hey - they won’t have footage from the boathouse, will they?’

He was trying to lighten it up, but Ben hardly seemed to notice. Instead, he stood up.

‘Well, what are they hoping to achieve?’

‘Catch Noah in the act? As long as they don’t catch us in the act,’ he winked persisting. ‘Oh Ben, please cheer up or I’ll wish I hadn’t told you!’

But if he can’t tell Ben, who can he tell?

For a fleeting moment he had an image of Robert from the old days, the lopsided grin, his voice, ringing clearly, saying, ‘Spill the dirt.’

‘Did you see Robert in the hospital?’ he asked Ben, changing the subject suddenly while trying to sound casual.

Ben nodded.

‘I asked him to contact his lawyer, like we talked about. I think that’ll be the end of things,’ Aaron said.

They both breathed out: It was a relief. It was like having someone pour petrol over your life and hold up a match ready to drop, then blowing it out instead.

‘Did he say who attacked him?’

‘Casual sex that went a bit far, it would seem,’ Aaron said with a slow nod, eyebrows raised.

‘Oh dear.’ Ben bent over and picked up his mug walking with it to the kitchen where he rinsed it and put it in the machine.

Aaron waited; surely, he would ask questions – he would have asked questions had the roles been reversed!

‘Shall we watch a film?’ Ben eventually said.

‘Sure.’

 

 

 

Aaron went back to the hospital to pick up some results for Jo.

‘You’re working, I haven’t got a lot on at the scrapyard, and I’ve got the car anyway so it’ll be easiest if I go,’ he’d said to Ben over breakfast.

There was some traffic, a hold up near the bridge, and he sat, brooding while he waited. His mind kept flitting back to Robert; getting pleasure from strangers. So, what was going on? It all seemed so reckless. Some push and shove in the tight space of the caravan; the extra blood flow from the poppers? Then he was recalling him in his prison underwear under that ridiculous fur coat, or how about the underwear coming down, bending over, anal sphincter relaxing... He pressed hard on the car horn - put his head out of the window of the car, yelled: - Come on, mate, why aren’t we moving?

 

 

 

He had a dressing on his eye, and a spare dressing to replace it with after another forty-eight hours. Otherwise, he was good to go. He patted his trouser pockets; he had his keys for the caravan and the Diddy Diner. Except embarrassingly he had no money.

‘Legally you can drive,’ the doctor was saying. ‘Though strictly speaking we’d advise against it, or only very short journeys. Unless you’re an HGV driver in which case I don’t think it’s legal,’ she added laughing. ‘Anyway, how are you getting home? Is someone fetching you?’

‘Yes, erm, my, my husband,’ he said.

He turned away to hide his eyes; not just the lie, but also the sudden grief, because he’d lost everything, and sometimes it was overwhelming imagining it back.

He picked up the fur coat. How could he ask for a taxi fare? He couldn’t. He would have to walk or hitch a ride; only six miles in the winter rain, he’d manage.

He turned, and like magic, Aaron was standing there, breezily pointing towards the car park.

‘Alright? Looks like you’ve been discharged?’ His eyes swept over Robert. ‘I’m on my way home. I can give you ride if you like? Unless you have other plans?’

‘No plans,’ Robert answered swallowing. ‘Ta very much!’

He wondered if the doctor would see them as they walked tall shoulder to shoulder towards the car; he hoped she did.

 

Inside they buckled up. Aaron leaned over and opened the glove pocket, dropping an envelope in. Robert could see the soft dark buzz-cut hair above his neckline at the back. He could smell his aftershave.

For a while they drove in silence, Robert watched Aaron’s hand on the gear stick as they moved slowly through the town then out onto the country roads.

‘So, what did they say, the concussion and the eye? How are you?’ Aaron asked eventually.

‘All good, yeah.’

He saw the tip of Aaron’s tongue appear.

‘And you’ve, you know, got yourself tested?’

‘Tested?’ Robert blinked.

Aaron threw out a hand.

‘Yes, you know,’ he said. ‘Robert; if you’ve been up to stuff in prison…It’s not a safe environment. I mean,’ he lowered his voice, ‘half the population has hepatitis or some kind of STI?’

Robert pulled in his chin. Now would be a good time to tell Aaron he’d got it all wrong; but instinct still told him; not yet.

‘Yeah? Thanks Mum! I do know how to look after myself.’

‘But that’s the question, do you? Do you really? Because look at ya!’

Aaron took his eyes off the road to glance sideways at Robert.

He shook his head, alright he’d just spent two days in hospital, alright he had a dressing on his eye, he probably needed a haircut and definitely needed a shave. But it wasn’t his fault!

He did what he did best, after all attack is the best line of defence.

‘Well, what about you? All stressed out with the weight of the world on your shoulders.’

‘I’m not stressed.’

Robert gave his best could-have-fooled-me expression.

‘I’m happily married,’ Aaron added.

‘Oh yes; to Mr. Head-Barely-Above-Water?  Who gets into debt with a money lender for twenty grand? Who complains to the council about dirt-bikes? And I mean, can he actually drive?’ Because that’s damning if nothing else is, he thought to himself.

‘Well at least he isn’t a murderer.’

Wow! That had escalated fast! Was it wrong that he was actually enjoying this? Maybe they both were.

‘I was acquitted! But you carry on, mud sticks, yeah?’

‘Sorry,’ Aaron said suddenly. ‘But,  whatever you say, he’s a good man.’

‘Define good? Good conversation? Good cook? Good fu...’

‘Alright! That’s enough!’

Fun! – I was going to say – fun – not the other ‘f’ word, though that’s important too,’ he mumbled.

‘Have you done, now?’

Fun…,’ Robert muttered one last time.

The silence settled around them. As the wheels of Aaron’s car turned, following the familiar route of dry-stone walls and hedgerows and fields, Robert could imagine he’d gone back in time. That everything in the world had re-aligned into where it should be; where it belonged.

He rested back against the headrest, turned his face to Aaron.

‘Will you drive me to see Seb on Sunday?’ he asked quietly.

‘Oh, Robert, I … I don’t know. What would I do? Drop you off? Or… I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to confuse him. He’s just found out he has one dad he didn’t know about, what would he make of…’ he stopped abruptly, not wishing to finish the thought, let alone say it out loud.  

Robert knew, but he waited until Aaron picked up. ‘I didn’t just lose you when you went to jail, you know. I lost him as well. I had to go through that all on my own. Diane was there then, she would visit him and come back and tell me stuff.’

Robert reached out and touched his forearm where he was holding on to the wheel. He was sorry, but sometimes words weren’t enough.

‘Maybe you can pay someone to drive you? One of Jimmy’s drivers?’

‘Don’t decide yet. Think about it.’

They could see the caravan park in the distance on the hill.

‘Since I’m on a run asking for favours. Can you help me find a car? Just an old banger, something someone’s decided is ready for the scrap heap but you know will actually go after a bit of work? I’ll pay; I’m not asking for a freebie.’

‘Use your money for Seb, somewhere to live.’

They passed Wiley’s, past the turn to the Hop.

‘First my health, now my money? I hope you remember it’s not me you’re married to, anymore?’ He fake grinned.

‘Alright! I’ll help you find a car.’ Aaron rolled his eyes.

They’d arrived. He swung through the entrance gate across the gravel and stopped, leaving the engine rolling.

‘Your neighbours have gone,’ Aaron said.

‘Spain.’

‘Good for them.’

They both looked out of the windscreen at the empty space.

‘We could follow them. Run-away?’ Robert said impulsively.

Aaron huffed.

‘That’s an old song, Robert. Wasn’t much of a hit the first time round as I recall.’

They both sat.

And then Aaron turned and pressed his cheek against Robert’s cheek.

Robert thought how this was like being on the cliff edge of that perfect world; how in a moment he’d be falling and everything would be lost all over again.

He reached up to Aaron’s shoulder, stroked at the material of his jacket with a thumb.

Then Aaron slid his cheek back.

‘I’ll look for a car, and you call your lawyer off, right?’

Robert nodded, not trusting himself to speak, climbed out of the car.

‘And have a great time with Seb. Yeah?’ Aaron called, while the wind picked up Robert’s locks of hair and buffeted them around as he watched him drive away.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

There was only one thing that Robert cared about inside the caravan. The rest was just metal and cold fabric and too much time spent inside his own head.

He sensed at the door that someone had been inside, that the space had been violated.

Like when Vic was a child and Sarah had let her keep a hamster in a cage, and when it died, that day, knowing it was gone and there was nothing left but shredded paper; he knew now, even as he placed his feet on the steps, he'd find nothing but emptiness.

He turned the key. He was met by a faint but distinct smell of gasoline. And there on the table were the binoculars he’d thrown away into the grass, and the filter he’d picked up from Cain’s garage and used to siphon off petrol from his neighbour’s fuel tank and then misplaced – presumably also in the long grass.

Beside them there was a note. He picked it up with a sigh and read it.

We took payment for the petrol. Thanks, and adios, you thieving f****t.

He blinked and narrowed his eyes. So, after everything it was the neighbours who’d done this after all. They must have seen him with Aaron that night on the gravel, hence the slur. Or maybe it was the prison issue y-fronts; or just a random insult… And he’d thought they’d all been getting along so well.

They’d started to splash petrol around, then perhaps they’d decided the blaze would be visible from the bar at the Hop and the police would give chase. They’d miss their boat to Spain.

Would they have actually killed him? A chilling thought! No, the exact opposite of chilling! He shuddered.

So, it wasn’t Ben. Thank God he hadn’t said anything. And everyone was right, he thought glumly; Ben – Mr. Nice, Mr. Happily Married, Mr. Filling his boots at the Mill.

He flipped up the bench, upending the seat to reveal the space below.

Just like the hamster - the sports bag was gone.

He overturned the nurse’s costume and clean sheets and stethoscopes. But it was futile and he knew it. All the money from the festival, from the Farmer’s market at Robblesfield that he hadn’t yet paid into the bank; it was all gone.

He raked a hand through his hair and swallowed.

Then he kicked out at the bench, kicked the table from underneath, the kitchen drawers, the stove.

He wanted to burn the whole place down; the lust for fire coursed through him. The matches had scattered on the floor when he’d pulled out the drawer… he scooped some up, and the box. He was already back to the door planning his exit. There was literally nothing there he cared about… As for the police, he could place himself still at the hospital, only Aaron would know. And Aaron would back him up.

He could see him, hand on hips, shaking his head, judging him for being such a drama queen. He drew a breath and pouted.

A couple of gummy bear vitamins also spilt on the floor winked up at him with their blind gelatinous eyes. Even they knew the score.

He sat suddenly with a half sob, landed heavily on the out of place bench, not caring as it tilted precariously under his weight.

He caught sight of something else; that almost empty bottle of whiskey. He picked it up and unscrewed the top.

He’d got too relaxed; he’d taken his eye off the end game.

He called Ross before he could change his mind.

‘I won’t be able to see Seb on Sunday. I’ll let you know about the weekend after, alright?’

He swilled another mouthful of whiskey around his teeth, then stood up in front of the mirror and peeled off the dressing from his eye. Underneath his skin was yellow and swollen. He regarded his reflection as he raised his phone again.

‘Charity?... Yeah, it’s me. Tell me more about this round trip to Ireland you were telling me about? …Nicola and Jimmy? No, course I won’t say anything.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ethan’s glasses were half way down his nose, the lenses reflecting the lacquer from the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. His long fingers held a letter which he was reading with a frown.

At the sink, Ben was serious, rinsing coffee mugs.

Aaron greeted them both with raised brows as he entered the house.

‘I’ve got Jo’s results,’ he waved the sealed envelope. ‘Thought you’d be at work?’ he added to Ben.

‘I took an early lunch and Ethan suggested he came down to look at that solicitor’s letter.’

‘Well, there’s no need, I already told you. He’s dropping it.’

‘Probably a good thing,’ Ethan said thoughtfully. ‘They seem quite confident. This letter’s already asking for a face-to-face negotiation of who gets what.’

‘But we can bin it now, right? Since he’s changed his mind.’

‘It might be best to wait for something official from his lawyer. Do you want me to follow up?’

‘Yes,’ Ben answered, while at the same time Aaron said, ‘No.’

They both looked at each other.

‘Mates rates naturally,’ Ethan added with a spreading smile.

‘Whatever you think,’ Aaron conceded, turning away to hang his jacket up on the peg. There was the shell zip up jacket he wore when he went running. It seemed an age since he’d been out. For a moment his fingers lingered over the texture of it. Ben was such a Mr. Outdoors, yet whenever they did some sport, it always felt like an event; rowing or cycling or going up climbing walls and abseiling down again. Aaron chewed at the corner of his mouth, wishing Ethan would leave. He and Ben needed time to… to what though. He was vaguely conscious of life at the Mill feeling thin whereas the journey in the car with Robert that morning had felt….

He turned round again, not finishing the thought, signalled to Ben to come over and talk to him.

‘What is it?’

‘Nothing, just, maybe we could plan a date night tonight? What do you say? I dunno,’ he huffed a smile. ‘We can order a taxi and go out in town, a club, or dinner and a film?’

‘Have we budgeted?’ Ben blinked.

‘We can afford a date,’ he said rapidly.

‘Then yes, that would be really nice. There’s this new release about kayaking in the Arctic. It looks very moving. The reviews say it’s ground breaking.’

‘Rather than ice breaking,’ Aaron quipped while Ben frowned back. ‘I mean, wow, that sounds….’ He used a thumb to scratch an eyebrow, ‘Wow, great. You book it, then.’

 

 

‘Jimmy!’

Robert reached arms around him and rested his chin on his shoulder. He sighed theatrically, thinking how grateful Jimmy would be to know that he’d managed to not actually raze his caravan to the ground.

‘There, there!’ Jimmy murmured.

Robert allowed the hug to last. He swayed, genuinely surprised at how pleasant it was to be held, even by Jimmy.

His eye without the patch was alert to movement on the stairs in the cottage; Elliot bounding down towards him with Heath behind him, until both boys stopped abruptly half way, gripping the banister. They regarded him uncertainly; incapable, it seemed for a moment, of deciding whether to continue down or whether to turn heel and fly back up.

‘So, what happened?’ Jimmy asked warmly still holding both of Robert’s arms as he leaned back to inspect him. ‘A random unprovoked assault? Why would someone do something like that?’

Robert shook his head sadly, still milking the novelty of someone; anyone, caring.

‘I don’t know!’ Jimmy sighed. ‘… first the robbery of Nico’s delivery van, now this; soon we won’t be able to sleep safely in our beds! But at least someone saw you – a good Samaritan who took you to the hospital – Who were they? Was it someone local?’

Robert looked directly at the boys on the stairs as he spoke.

‘Just weekend holiday makers staying at the caravan site. They ‘ll never know how grateful I am, they saved my life, but now they’ve gone.’

He saw the boys drop their eyes; boom, fellow conspirators in the lie; from now on he’d got them at his mercy.

He stepped back, and now Jimmy noticed them as they continued down the stairs with measured steps. His eyes creased with affection.

‘And these two have been wonderful while I’ve been away.’

‘I’m sure they have!’ Robert agreed.

‘They kept the place spick and span. They even cleaned the car. Gave it a proper valet job inside and out; didn’t you boys?’

‘Wow, that’s brilliant!’ Robert noticed the boy’s blushes. ‘And how was the trip, Jimmy?’

‘Ghastly! Felt like an eternity trapped in one of those vast lorry parks in Kent, waiting for documents to be cleared, nowhere to wash, loos a mile away, listening to Europop blasting out.’ Jimmy shuddered. ‘Now Nico wants me to go on another trip via Ireland, but I don’t know if I have it in me. Anyway, let’s do something civilized like go for a drink at the local! I’ll just go up and change. These boys can keep you entertained.’

‘I’m sure they can,’ Robert grinned showing his teeth.

When Jimmy was ascending the stairs, he uncurled his hand to reveal a bottle of Rush - Room odouriser.

The boys paled.

‘Yours, I believe?’

 

 

 

 

He drank too much with Jimmy in the pub. They stayed until the afternoon became evening, giggling over anecdotes before sliding into nostalgic reminiscences about the past; the Sugdens and the Kings, Jimmy melancholy, Robert comforting him.

Outside was dark, and then Robert raised his head and saw Aaron come in; black shirt over new jeans, hair combed and lightly gelled, even from across the room there was an alluring aroma of a new high street brand of aftershave.

Maybe Aaron saw the way he smiled; was that a blush? He nodded an acknowledgement of Robert’s presence then turned his back at the bar. Robert closed his mouth and sighed.  He concentrated one eyed on lifting his glass carefully towards his lips, locked out of paradise , wasn’t there a song lyric?

‘What’s this, love? You and hubby going somewhere special then?’ Chas’s voice rang out. Was it just Robert, or was she louder than usual? Was it for his benefit? ‘Where is my gorgeous son-in-law then?’

Aaron murmured something about him being on his way.

‘Heaven!’ Robert hummed sweeping his glass through the air. ’Not paradise!’ He told Jimmy who blinked. ‘You know; duh - duh, I’m duh- duh- duh heaven …,’ Robert sang theatrically. Jimmy started to play the drums on the table. Robert placed his hand over his heart.

‘Should he be drinking if he has concussion?’ Ben blinked seriously, appearing at Aaron’s shoulder.

Aaron lowered his chin to stifle a smile.

‘He’ll be fine. He gets like this, just a blow out now and again. I got you a beer.’

For too long, for too long...,’ Robert sang. From across the room Dr Cavanagh decided to join in. Robert grinned. There was a round of applause from some of the punters.

As the applause died away, as if on cue, Paddy appeared in the entrance to the back of the bar wheeling a massive pram.

‘We wondered if you wanted this? It was Evie’s and now she’s grown we thought we could give it to you two; save you buying one.’

Robert, still standing, wanted to ask Aaron about Seb’s pram. Hadn’t they kept it back then? Wouldn’t it do? He placed a hand on the table to steady himself.

‘Have you chosen a name?’ he said out loud. He was looking at Aaron, ignoring Ben.

‘I dunno,’ Aaron answered.

‘Well, you’d better hurry up,’ he grinned. ‘She’s going to be here in a few weeks. You can just add something to your name, little Aaronella, or Aaronette….’ He raised a glass uncertainly towards his mouth, spilt drink down his sweater and wiped at it. ‘It’s A they add to boys’ names to make a girl’s name, right? Aarona, no that sounds like a beer… Or like a car,’ he lowered his voice, imitating an advertisement voice over, ‘… experience the new superior Ford Aarona...’

He giggled then tapped his chest releasing air from the beer. ‘…spect your mum wants something biblical?’ His face crumpled. ‘She would have been a little sister for Seb…he lost out, too. It’s my fault, but we can fix this, Aaron?…you know...’

‘You need to put that drink down, you - you’ve had enough,’ Aaron said gently. Robert looked around. The whole pub was watching him.

‘Enough?’ He choked. ‘Of you? Never!’

Ben stepped forward; Aaron extended an arm to gently hold him back.

The silence deepened. Robert swallowed.

‘She’s going to be beautiful. That I do know!’

‘Thanks,’ Aaron said, sincerely.

Nicola arrived and rescued them.

‘Look at the state of the pair of you!’ she stormed.

‘Don’t let Robert go back to the caravan tonight. Can he sleep on your couch or somewhere?’ Aaron asked quietly as she herded them out.

‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of them both,’ she answered ominously. Aaron nodded with a sideways glance at Ben’s face.

‘Come on, our taxi’s here. Let’s go,’ he said with a last look behind at Robert’s stooped shoulders and flaxen hair shining under the moonlight disappearing over the road into the dark.

In the cinema he sat watching penguins trying to jump across widening cracks in the melting ice floes. He’d wanted to destroy Robert, but it felt like he was doing that all by himself. Ben’s hand reached out for his in the dark, for a moment his head was too full to respond, and then he blinked and took hold of his fingers.

 

 

Robert fell asleep under the duvet on the sofa at Jimmy’s. He dreamt that Aaron lay down with him with his top off, his biceps squeezed into hard knots as he held him, his skin hot. He dreamt that his teeth grazed wet over his lips hurting him, that their bodies moved against each other, picking up speed.

He woke with a throbbing boner, empty arms, and tears seeping under his eye patch. He hobbled towards the bathroom, stopping on the way to twitch open the curtain and follow the lights reflected on the road surface down to the Mill. The rain misted up the black window and he turned away.

 

 

He was sitting over a pack of painkillers and a black coffee in Jimmy’s kitchen, when Nicola let herself in from the side door.

‘The family still asleep then?’ she asked with an eyeroll.

Robert nodded, raising his head painfully towards the ceiling. ‘Erm, Heath stayed over with Elliot.’ He watched her face.

‘I know; don’t imagine I don’t know what’s going on. Jimmy doesn’t though - yet.’

‘He’ll be fine about it. Meanwhile, tell me more about this haulage trip your sending me on via Ireland.’

He took another sip of coffee watching for the reaction on her face. He wasn’t disappointed.

‘You’re willing to shift some contraband?’ She asked loudly, then coughed, and repeated the question in a whisper; ‘I mean… you’re willing to shift some contraband?’

‘That was the idea?’

‘Yes! I knew you would!’

For the second time in two days, he found himself being hugged by a King, even if Nicola was an ex- King, it still counted, didn’t it? And it was still a hug. He needed to watch it or he’d begin to think he was actually human.

And then Nicola’s face fell as she looked at him.

‘But you can’t travel hung over and half blind.’

‘I’ll be sober as a nun and this’ll come off by tomorrow morning,’ he gestured at the eye-patch.

‘Excellent. Just don’t tell Charity. Or Jimmy.’

‘Course not.’

Nicola rubbed her hands, then hesitated one more time. ‘Hold on, you have got a valid passport, Robert?’

‘Funny you should ask, you see I know this bloke in Leeds, incidentally he keeps a pigeon loft...’

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

‘What’s this doing here?’

‘What do you mean what’s this doing here? This was still a scrapyard last time I looked.’ Aaron straightened up from where his head had been bowed under the bonnet of an old grey Porsche 924, his face smudged with engine grease.

He watched Paddy with narrowed eyes as he walked around the car with glasses fogged from the drizzling rain.

‘Looks familiar.’ Paddy frowned, ‘It isn’t…?’

‘No, it isn’t,’ Aaron interrupted swiftly.

‘Right. You’re sure? Because it looks a lot like… ‘

‘Well, it isn’t. That was an ’87 model; this is an ’88.’

Though it still had a glass hatch and a rear end spoiler, so it was an easy mistake to make. It was also actually remarkably rust free considering its age. He would be quite content to hand it over once he found out why the engine had stopped working.

‘What are you doing here anyway?’ Aaron asked. He gestured with a spanner.

‘Your Mum, she hasn’t seen you in a while; she was wondering what you were up to, that’s all.’

‘She needs to take up a hobby,’ Aaron observed.

A week; it had been a week since the night in the Woolpack. He could still hear Robert’s voice in his head, singing, see his smug face at the applause: And then he’d vanished.

‘But what are you up to? And you’ve got a face like a wet weekend,’ Paddy went on, stopping and swaying on his toes.

Aaron blinked and gestured at the sky.

‘Well, alright; I know it is a wet weekend.’ Paddy looked thwarted. Aaron decided he’d had enough and returned to peering under the bonnet of the Porsche. ‘But if it’s scrap, why are you fixing it, hey? Aaron? Tell me that, then?’ he heard Paddy say, but he was already leaving; walking towards his own car, and with a final appeal to drop in on Chas think of me at least he’d driven away, and Aaron was left alone.

In the dark recesses of the car engine, he squinted at the float below the fuel storage chamber of the carburettor; it was mucky, but it looked intact. The pump seemed to be working so that wasn’t the source of the problem. He turned on the torch and continued to search.

It was different being married to someone who always worked weekends. All the swathes of time spent apart. For a brief period, he’d taken a couple of days off mid-week so he and Ben could have more time together and left Vinny in charge; he was a smart enough kid but he’d struggled with making decisions and was on the phone to Aaron more often than not, and then he’d left anyway following Liv to Manchester.

Aaron put the torch down and jiggled the spanner instead. He found the valve; the little devil - one side was wrecked – he pulled off a glove to get better leverage and twisted it round.

After Vinny left, they’d started saving for the surrogacy and so he’d had to work harder and pull the business back into shape again after, well - a long period of letting it barely make money… after Robert had been sent down and he’d lost his focus… lost his mind.

He straightened up, holding the damaged valve in the palm of his oily hand, turning it with a frown. He dipped it in the water butt and sloshed it about, gasping at the contact with the ice - cold water. Then he rubbed it against his overalls to dry. He held it up; Cain might have a valve kit that would do as a replacement, or he’d order one… He chewed at his bottom lip, looking around the yard.

So where was Robert now?

He’d found him a car like he’d asked. Not just any car; he could picture the play on his face when he inspected it, the way his fingers would skate over the paint work then linger over the hub caps. 

But Robert had only gone and disappeared from the scene: Money or Seb; it had to be one of the two. Robert had never quite lost his relationship with money even during their best days; a lust, a shame, a fear, a contest - he knew him too well.

Their best days: Saturday mornings in bed at the Mill, Robert’s long toes catching at the hairs on his calves, sore lips sharing breathing, sore in other places too; trying to avoid the damp patches when they shifted around. Robert’s ungh, no! if he thought Aaron was moving too far from him, wanting to stay skin against skin while they snoozed. Later Robert would make tea and bring it up, read the financial pages of the paper, purse his lips while Aaron dunked a biscuit and swept it through the air over the burgundy Egyptian cotton sheets.

‘Everything in your house has a touch of luxury,’ Ben had noticed. Aaron had asked his mum for new sheets when they got married, not because the old ones were worn out, but because he was worn out - trying to forget the past every time he went to bed with his new man.

Which was exactly why Aaron had wanted Robert to go again; for good. But what if he had gone for good?

He could feel the seeping rain, more like mist than rain really. Problem was there was this rebel voice whispering in his head – Just come back, okay, you nutjob?

His phone rang from inside the portacabin.

He shook himself out of his stupor and hopped up the metal steps.

‘Ben!’

‘How’s it going? Are you busy?’

‘Yes, erm, well no; just breaking up some old car.’ He blushed, looking at the valve. He had broken that bit off, so it wasn’t exactly a lie.

 

 

 

 

 

‘No more Dublin - Holyhead – Dover - Calais.’

Robert arched his neck giving his best - are-you-talking-to-me? expression as the trucker next to him sighed. He moved his whiskey glass further away down the bar. The last thing he wanted was to get trapped by some misery guts driver during the 23-hour crossing from Cork to Roscoff. He was trying to keep his spirits up.

He asked for another double, ignored the sign saying not to take glasses from the bar, and walked between the rows of seats towards the back of the ferry and up a flight of steps. There was only one deck where you could access the outside. Maybe it was time in prison that made him want to go there. He pulled on Jimmy's duffel coat that he’d been carrying over an elbow. Nicola had given it to him before he left: -

‘He won't miss it. He might wonder idly where it is and then forget about it again, you know what he's like,’ she’d said.

She’d given him a number for some dodgy ex-pat in France at the same time.

‘And you’re sure we can trust this bloke?’

He’d looked her straight in the eyes, seen the nano second tick on her face before she spoke bombastically.

‘Yes, yes, course we can,’ she’d said.

Now he raised the hood of the duffel coat over his blonde hair and, whiskey glass in hand, he opened the door to the outside, met by the chill rushing wind and the bright rolling sea.

He felt his throat catch.

He knew England was to the North East of him.

He was being carried by the tide, getting further away from Seb and Aaron. All he wanted was to reach out and pull them back into the shelter of his arms.

 

 

 

 

‘Erm, we need to talk; my dad called. He’s got a place in a rehab facility in Cornwall.’

‘Wow, that’s…that’s so far away.’

Aaron put down the games controller and watched Ben hang up his coat. He looked pale and tired. He must have had a busy day, but then worrying about his dad always weighed heavily on his spirits, and Aaron got it, he really did.

‘It is far away, but it’s a good place, and it feels like a last chance. I just; he’s my dad.’

‘I know.’

‘He wants me to travel down with him and help him settle in then stay for a little while, we’ll take a coach. It means I’ll be away for a few days; do you mind? I think it’s better now when there’s still plenty of time before the baby’s here. Do you want to come? It would mean a lot to have you with me, but I’d understand if you think you should stay for work.’

Ben came and sat next to him; fingers poised like a prayer.

‘I’ve got a football match,’ Aaron mumbled. It was a bit feeble as far as reasons went to stay behind. The Emmerdale football team was starting up again after years of inactivity. He was just thinking out loud really.

But also, he didn’t want to go far away from his child. The thought scared him somehow, what if something happened and he never got back? What if she thought he’d deserted her before she was even born? The thought made his heart hurt. And also, what if Robert came back. He needed to hand over the car.

He wiped at an eyebrow.

‘I think I’ll stay. If you’re sure you don’t mind?’

‘Of course, that’s fine.’

It was what he wanted to hear, but also not what he wanted to hear. In his head Robert’s voice; ‘Are you trying to get some space?’

‘Shall we watch a film? There’s that new one with what’s his face on Netflix?’

‘You watch,’ he said suddenly, standing. ‘I think I need a lie down.’

‘Alright.’ Ben looked surprised. ‘I’ll wait for when you come down. I’ve got stuff to read anyway; this blog about paddle boarding.’

Upstairs the bedroom shutters were closed making the room dark. Aaron lay on his front and pulled out his phone. He found Robert’s number.

I’ve found you your dream car

He looked at what he'd written. It sounded flirty. He felt flirty. It also felt dangerous; references to their past, to Chrissie, poor cow, to their affair… The word affair hung in the air in the dark. He shifted on his front on the bed.

He deleted the message without sending it, turned on his back and looked at the ceiling. He would never betray someone. He exhaled; his marriage was solid and safe.

 

 

 

‘Michael,’ he’d held out a hand to shake when they met, a smile ready on his oversized mouth as Robert narrowed his eyes back at him. ‘A friend of Charity’s told me to help you out.’

This was just before they’d boarded ship at Cork. He’d waved the cabin vouchers in the air like they were something to celebrate.

He had an Eastern European accent. Robert suspected he was in his late twenties. He was long limbed with a distractingly pronounced bulge at the front of his faded denims. Robert looked back at his bright eyes in a long high cheek boned face. Trust Charity to have a contact who was attractive.

Was he supposed to trust his freedom to this person?

‘I’ll help with everything, the unloading, the loading up, the paperwork, yes? You don’t worry about anything.’

Heaven help them.

Sharing a cabin was like prison again. Except; he looked at Michael with his mouth open while he slept, his sheet knotted, one knee bent up and that oversized organ twisted snugly in some horrendous black and orange checked y-fronts; maybe not like prison, he thought.

He lay on his bed and undid the collar of his shirt and scrolled his phone.

No messages.

 

 

 

On Sunday, Aaron drove Ben down to Manchester to catch the coach to Cornwall with his dad.

‘Just drop me in Leeds,’ Ben had said.

‘No, it’s alright. I can see Liv.’

‘I thought you’d be happier,’ Liv pushed out a bottom lip when she saw Aaron’s face. ‘How long is it now till the birth? Ten weeks?’

‘Twelve weeks,’ he corrected her.

‘So, shouldn’t you be glowing or summat? What’s with the sad face? Your hubbies only gone for a few days.’

Aaron shook his head.

‘It’s not that, well it is that; we’re all so far away from each other these days.’

‘How?’

‘Well, you’re here, then there’s Adam, Vic. It’s only me that seems to stay in the same place.’

‘What’s brought this on? Is this something to do with Robert being back? Are you trying to get away from him?’

Aaron shrugged.

‘He’s gone away somewhere too; I don’t know where.’

‘But it bothers you? I knew it was bad news him showing up.’ Her face had changed a shade darker.

Aaron put down the tea Liv had made for him and let out a long sigh.

‘Maybe, yes, not what you think, but it has brought stuff back. That last day with Rob in the woods when he gave himself up, you know; he thought…. he seemed to think… me being happy depended on me staying in Emmerdale. I mean; a place? And yes, everybody going away and leaving me behind, it doesn’t exactly make me feel confident. But why the assumption I can’t be happy somewhere else?’

Liv smiled gently.

‘Maybe you just seem like one of those boys who stays at home forever?’

There was a silence while Aaron frowned. Then Liv passed a plate of biscuits and Aaron shook his head.

‘Anyway, why don’t you tell me what else in happening? Chas told me Noah was charged with selling Ketamine as well as other drugs. That’s serious, isn’t it?’  She had the grace to blush again as memories from her youth surfaced.

But Aaron’s thoughts had taken him on another track. Literally: The river bank near the boat house. Ketamine? What was going on up there? Was there some cruising scene he knew nothing about? At the HOP of all places? If there was, Ben would surely have said something about it. It was weird. He remembered Robert’s poppers, could there be a connection, as well?

It felt like he was missing something.

 

 

 

No customs! - Customs union, see?’ Michael slapped the declarations paperwork with the back of his hand and rolled his eyes at the French officials.

They were waiting to drive out of the docks, but he wasn’t making it easy. ‘Who are these morons, they don’t even know their job!’ He appealed loudly to Robert.

No surprise that they heard that too. In petty revenge they told them both to get out while they checked the goods item by item against the list.

‘There’s nothing wrong with being polite,’ Robert pointed out to Michael who spilled tobacco from his roll up.

‘They don’t like me,’ he said, gesturing widely.

‘I wonder why?’

He could only hope that Nicola’s expat was more up to the job.

It was late evening when the paperwork was finally stamped and they were able to leave. Somehow Michael seemed to consider the day a success.

‘You see! I told you! You can leave everything to me and I get it sorted. You see?’

Far too late now to pick up the contraband goods they were transporting back through Ireland and on to the UK.

They drove to a designated park where they could sleep in the truck.

They found somewhere to eat a hot meal and then drank a syrupy aromatic coffee. Michael was already eyeing up a club over the road through the window pane. Out of boredom more than anything Robert agreed to go along.

It was that sort of club. He should have known it would be.

There was a stage with a pole where scantily clad girls were dancing. Robert ordered a cocktail because when in Rome… or at least when in Roscoff…. Michael ordered a beer, perhaps because Robert hadn’t offered to pay for his drink. Michael ogled the dancing woman seemingly spellbound and was even more delighted when two more scantily dressed girls came up to them and started to chat.

There was a lot on display, both girls in flimsy looking G string bikinis. They talked in French then switched to English, they flirted, asking if the two men were brothers, asking how tall they were, if they were actors on TV because they were sure they recognized them from some long running serial drama. They smiled a lot, said they should be talking to some other men across the club sitting at another table, but they preferred to stay with Robert and Michael because they were more sympathiques more mignons, and if they bought them drinks it would be an excuse to stay with them instead. The bar staff hovered. Michael ordered something and appealed to Robert to pay.

One of the girls, Bette, noticed the bruising on Robert’s eye. She raised a hand to his cheek and moved her face near to inspect the by now fading swelling. This close Robert could see the mascara on her eyelashes and smell the perfume and foundation on her throat. She blinked a smile when she noticed him looking. She told him she worked in a hardware store part time, Robert wasn’t sure if she was being witty meaning the club was a hardware store; she winked and he decided he liked her; he felt rather clumsily out of his depths. It was like he was regressing in time to early office days after he’d been sent away from Emmerdale by his dad, trying to find his way, before he joined the Whites.

‘No seriously; I cut keys but I’m studying and dancing pays the fees,’ she said. Her body close to his was warm and real, he imagined holding her hand.

The music seemed to rev up making it harder to hold a conversation. The girl who’d been chatting with Michael started dancing. She slowly rotated 360 degrees and Michael clapped as she faced him again. She lowered her chin and fingered the cup of her bikini top. Michael sat forward in anticipation and was rewarded with the flash of a brown nipple. He wet his lips but she pulled the material over her breast again.

Michael’s hand hovered against her waist.

She pulled her top aside for a second time and leaned into his face. Robert saw his tongue flicker in a circle round her nipple and then she pulled back with a ruffle of Michael’s hair pretending to admonish him. He tilted his head on one side asking for more.

‘How about a private dance through there?’ Bette suggested to the two men. Towards the back of the room was a corridor of black conference partitions. Robert followed, his breathing light, his brain working now in images and sensations, not thoughts.

He saw a couple of bouncers and then Bette steered him into a secluded space with more black partitions and a reclining chair where he sank back, knees angled up. Now they were here she was quite business like: twenty euros and she’d dance until the track ended. She offered him another drink but he shook his head and she tutted, disappointed, because that was her job.

 

She slid down over the incline of his knees waiting for the music to start. She removed her top and pinched her nipples before letting them go so they bounced gently like those swinging magnetic office toys. She told him confidentially that he could touch her there but no touching below the waist.

He was hard and uncomfortable like a one of those rusty pipes exposed by erosion on the side of the grey roads he’d been driving past.  When the music started, she swayed over him.

Half way she stalled for a moment and reached both hands to the tie of her briefs against her hip and unfastened it, she made a little rise and fall motion and pulled the material aside, then waited, letting him inspect her bare pussy. The pink button of her clit winked.

When the music track ended, she told him to pay 20 euros or if he wanted her to keep going for the next song that would be 30 euros in total.

Robert ran a hand up through his hair. He missed sex; he longed for the release, a dull thrumming in the back of his legs. But it was his husband he ached for – his mind was ambushing him with memories; Aaron - thighs splayed, his opening pulsing around a gently inserted finger, the hot crease of his arm pits with his hands above his head against the sheets, his wet lips red. He longed for sex but he longed to make love - Not this - She was attractive, and lovely. But not like this.

‘I erm, I have a husband. It’s not true anymore. But I want it to be true,’ he said knowing he was making no sense.

‘Okay.’ She looked confused, as well she may be, Robert reflected. ‘Not him?’ she pointed in the direction of the cubicle where her friend had taken Michael.

‘God no!’

The suggestion worked on Robert like a cold shower. He apologised to Bette but she was losing interest anyway; looking over her shoulder for the next potential client.

He paid her the twenty euros and then walked back to the truck park.

He unlocked his phone. No messages.

The worst thing was still the grief. He was so far away; he shouldn’t have come so far away. He ran a hand through his hair for the second time that night. To calm himself, even though it was late, he sent a series of text messages to Nicola’s contact.

This was how he’d played it; two contacts, two lots of contraband, the profit he’d share with Charity, and the profit he’d share with Nicola, so double the pay off in the end. And okay, double the risk; but it had to be worth it. It would pay for custody of Seb. He was going to get back the world he’d lost; all of it.

He sank back into the driving seat and undid his trousers, slipped his hand inside and closed his eyes.

 

 

Aaron felt Robert’s absence like the calm at the eye of a storm. He watched nervously for signs of his return. And before he knew it, a whole week had passed.

He should be glad, he thought to himself as he set off towards the rec on Sunday where Bob was trying to resurrect the football team. He should be glad, because with Robert gone, no need to destroy him.

He shifted his sports bag from one shoulder to the other, looking down as he trundled quickly over the ground. And how was that going? – he thought glumly to himself. He’d tried to get close and to be honest Robert was an open book, but he’d hardly discovered anything dodgy he could use against him; just Robert being Robert – messy and impossible.

A car slowed to a standstill beside him engine running. It was Cain, definitely not going to the football match even though Moira would be there supporting Matty.

‘Ben not back yet?’

Aaron shook his head in reply and Cain nodded.

‘I’ve got that engine part you wanted. Came yesterday. You can drop by and get it later. It’s not for your car, is it?’

‘Just helping out a mate.’

Cain squinted back at him.

‘Not taking my trade, are you?’

Aaron rolled his eyes and watched him drive away. His mind travelled to the scrapyard where the car waited silently to be brought back to life. He’d take it down to Cain’s and get him to give it a full service.

On the side of the pitch, he saw his mother with Evie.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Charming as always. I know you’re missing him, but no need to take it out on us.’

There was just a split second…

‘Ben? Course. I mean he’ll be back soon, just a few more days.’

‘So, is it private this rehab place for his dad?’

‘I don’t know, do I? I didn’t ask.’

‘’Cos he’s got no money, has he? Drank it all away was what Ben told us.’

And then Wendy came bustling up saying something about being sorry not to answer Chas’s messages but she’d lost her phone and then Heath found it down the back of a chair though she could swear she’d looked… And Aaron rushed away and onto the pitch where the team were warming up.

Why did she do that every time? Manage to unsettle him, make him anxious. He breathed in the fresh air and let the green outdoors steady him back down. With Ben away he really could have started running, but at least he had the football match to play.

He stretched and thought of his unborn daughter and closed his eyes. His Mum’s voice up close startled him. She’d come onto the pitch. He regained his balance and looked around.

‘What are ya’ doing?’

‘ I wanted to speak to you and you’re never around. Paddy said you had a car up at the scrap yard just like Robert’s, and I know you and he have been hanging out. Don’t deny it, because Rishi saw you at the bar in Skipdale. He said you looked cosy.’

‘We were having a drink. I was just trying to support him, he’s got no mates.’

‘Oh he never had any mates. Just please, he’ll back from this haulage trip to France in a few days more’s the pity, and when he comes back you need to ignore him, for your new family’s sake; Ben and your new baby. Don’t get dragged back.’

So that’s where he was. Even Jimmy could have told him. But all at once it didn’t matter, he felt like he could breathe again. His Mum was still looking expectantly at him. He blinked; oh yeah:-

‘I am not, and will never be dragged back into anything with Robert, okay? Now can I play football without my Mum embarrassing me please?’

He could hear a whistle.

 

 

 

In the morning, Michael wore dark glasses. Inside the cabin of the truck there was a pleasant hush as they navigated the lanes of green winter Brittany.

Eventually they came to a vast scrapyard for cars no longer fit for the road. They drove in through the broad gates past row upon row of vehicles stacked up in two and in places three stories on metal platforms, rusting and damaged and missing windows and tyres and other parts.

This was where they would pick up special goods for Robert to take back to the UK, semiconductor chips for reuse or recycling with a global short supply. The silicon lithographs small enough to secrete amongst other legitimate goods.

They drove slowly. There were no signs of anyone working there, then they finally saw what looked like an office building and beside it a crane with great metal claws for lifting and a crusher.

‘Look, there,’ Michael pointed. Robert saw the man, wearing hi vis holding a clip board watching them approach.

They parked and Robert climbed down. He walked towards the man who took his safety helmet off. He was tall, around forty, with striking eyes. He had a stillness about him, and a certain gravitas and it was rare for Robert to be impressed by anyone, but he offered his hand in greeting and introduced himself.

‘I know who you are,’ the Frenchman replied.

‘Do you?’ For just a second, he wondered if he was going to get caught before he’d even got the contraband in hand.

‘Yes, you’re Aaron’s husband, non? I once helped you to hide your brother.’

Robert shielded his eyes from the sun, surprisingly in all that twisted metal he could hear birdsong. He squinted back at the Frenchman’s handsome face trying to place him.

‘Je suis Emile,’ he said, ‘…ravi de faire votre connaissance enfin.’

 

 

 

On the ferry back he bought Happy the porpoise and Sea Star who was Happy’s best friend. He bought three sets of the two toys, placing them carefully in his sports bag under a clean towel. On Thursday night he arrived back at the caravan and all Friday he slept. Saturday, he reread the message he’d received earlier that week from Heath. He took out one set of toys from his bag and went to Hotten post office.

For Harry, from Uncle Rob, he wrote. He copied the address Heath had sent him.

In the afternoon he went to see Charity and called Ross about seeing Seb.

 

 

He’d decided to take him to the beach at West Kirby since the forecast was dry. He’d gone shopping and as well as the gifts from the ferry, he’d bought a kid’s cricket bat and ball, and a kite. It would be cold on the coast with the winds from the Irish Sea whipping against the sand, but he imagined Seb would like it there after being cooped up in the city. They’d roam under the wide grey sky and dodge spray from the sea, tasting freedom in the salt air. He’d make him hot chocolate in the van after, before turning back. Seb would smile again; maybe he’d even get a cuddle.

And this time he was prepared for the traffic. He left early, ready to take the route that avoided the motorways if necessary.

He set off and drove down through Emmerdale over the Skipdale bridge, then took the turn to Connelton.

The engine of the Diddy Diner coughed a couple of times.

Robert pressed his lips together and held onto the wheel tighter as the van bounced. He put a cautious foot over the break and steered towards the side of the road, where it lurched to a final standstill.

He turned the key a few times, but it wouldn’t start. Robert stared unseeing at the tarmac.

You couldn’t make it up!

He glanced at the time on his phone where it rested on the dashboard, did a quick calculation. It was fine. It would be fine. It was probably something simple.

He popped the boot, jumped out and walked round. Twenty-five minutes later with his coat and sweater off, his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his ears and nose turning red from the sun and cold combined; he was running out of ideas.

He climbed back in the van and wrestled open the pocket, pulled at the car documents. His eyes searched for something, anything, that said Vic had breakdown cover. Nothing.

He’d have to call a local garage.

 

 

 

Sunday morning.

That moment in the week when the pleasure peaks before the inevitable slide towards another Monday. Aaron lay under the covers with the quiet cold air brushing against his cheeks.

His thoughts carried him on imaginary journeys; downstairs to make a pot of tea and toast, to the nursery in the room beside his bedroom - where they’d assembled a wooden cot with smooth lozenge hearts carved at the head and foot, and suspended a mobile above it of quivering cows and moons and cats and spoons. He travelled onwards to Jo’s dark house where she’d be sleeping right now, knees tucked up, tiny fists curled - waiting for her daddy to take her home - soon, darlin’, soon! And all the time another journey ran in the background, that he was trying to ignore, but it played anyway; a caravan, a sleeping freckled face with shadowy eye sockets, skin like spilt cream.

Aaron groaned and turned on his side: Guilt battling compulsion.

Only he wouldn’t be there anyway.

He was far away in France. He closed his eyes, willing himself back to sleep.

His phone was buzzing. It would be Ben in Cornwall. He smacked his sealed lips and reached for it.

A voice message. Not just any voice; one that sang to him like a siren.

‘I’ve broken down on the Connelton Road. And before you ask, course I don’t have breakdown cover. I have no idea what’s wrong with it and even if I did, I don’t have any tools.  Can you come and look?’

Aaron put the phone back down.

 

 

 

Robert looked at the time; nine-thirty.

Outside through the windscreen he could see the trees with their bare branches reaching into the sky.

A scattering of dark birds rose over the brackish fields to his right.

He squinted again at the time; nine thirty-one.

‘Come on!’

He said out-loud, he pressed his lips together and slowly shook his head.  

In the distance he heard a shot; someone out hunting rabbits or birds.

He groaned.

In a moment he would call a breakdown service and ask for a replacement car.

From the distance he thought he heard the hum of an engine. He looked in the rear-view mirror and strained his senses. A few moments later he saw the pick-up approach round the curve of the road. It was slowing down; it stopped behind him.

No time to think anymore.

He wrestled opened the driver’s door, gloriously alive, and stepped down onto the tarmac.

 

 

‘You took your time!’

‘Well, I’m here now, aren’t I? What’s wrong with it?’

‘I dunno, I was on my way to see Seb and the engine just cut out.’

‘Keys?’

‘It’s not working. Trust me.’

‘Yeah well, we’ve been here before, haven’t we?’

‘You don’t think I’m making this up?’ He squinted, watching Aaron’s face, who was giving away nothing. ‘I even got oil on my shirt; look!’ He cracked a lop-sided grin, showing his rolled-up sleeve as evidence.

‘Right,’ Aaron said. ‘Good thing you don’t need it?’

‘You what? I already told you, I’m going to see Seb. Why would you come out if you aren’t even going to look at it?’

Aaron was already walking back towards the pick-up truck.

‘What are ya’ doing? Aaron? Come back! Is this some sort of revenge for me being an idiot the other week? You know what I’m like.’

Robert followed after him, pulled at his elbow, and then Aaron spun his boots scraping over the gravel of the road. For a moment they both searched each other’s eyes under the winter sun.

Then Aaron held an arm out sideways.

‘You don’t need it, cos I got you your dream car,’ he said.

Robert felt his jaw grow slack; he knew his mouth was open, but he was confused… what was going on? And Aaron was biting down on his bottom lip.

Then he followed the direction of Aaron’s hand to the back of the truck and saw it; the Porsche. Identical to his old one, except not… the hub caps were different.

He snapped his gaze back to Aaron who stared silently back - Dream car – he’d said…. their past, Chrissie, all that they’d been through, this wasn’t about the car… it was about them. And Robert knew with a heart stopping mind blowing galactic certainty they were going to make love – now – in that car – that Aaron wanted it, wanted him.

‘Next time you go away, do you mind letting me know where you’re going?’

‘I bought you a Happy the porpoise.’

Aaron gestured to the front of Robert’s jeans. ‘Is that what we’re calling it now?’

They took a step closer towards each other, both of them swallowed. Robert was so scared to get something wrong. He’d been dreaming for so long just to get back to this moment.

He reached out to Aaron’s elbows, drawing him gently nearer. He saw the smile play almost invisibly on Aaron’s mouth; his voice was low when he spoke.

‘You’re not wearing those prison y-fronts are ya’? Because if you are, I’m going home?’

‘I’ll take them off....’

One more tug. He could feel the rise and fall of their bodies where they stood. It was as if they were wrapped around by some invisible force, floating on their feet, the length of each other’s bodies pressed together. And nothing else mattered; just them, just this moment and where it would lead them.

Robert raised a hand to Aaron’s cheek and looked down at his lips.

They both felt the buzz of the phone from Aaron’s pocket between them.

Robert waited mid-air; mouth open.

‘Sorry,’ Aaron said as it buzzed again. He took a step back and gestured. ‘I should probably…’

‘Course.’

Robert closed his eyes for a moment, opened them again.

He watched Aaron answer his phone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

He dreamt he was on honeymoon. The sea was the colour of blue glaze like the surface of those plant pots Robert had once got for the garden. The sky stretched on forever. Robert rubbed his hair with a beach towel and flopped down next to him, salt water drops suspended on sunburnt shoulders. Aaron’s body drifted deliciously, halfway between longing and completion, just like he always was the moment Robert was next to him. He wet his lips, waiting for the contact of sea-damp skin against his. Waiting for the kiss.

A bird shot up into the sky.

Somewhere a baby was crying.

His heart revved up to a dangerous pounding. It deafened him.

His lips moved; he could feel his voice vibrate in his chest.

Wake me up…Robert… Robert…Wake me up! She needs me! Wake me up, please!’

 

 

There was a baby crying, but not Ella: She hadn’t cried yet; her lungs weren’t quite developed enough, although she did sometimes whimper quietly which made his anxiety balloon. When that happened, he had to step out of the ward and stand in the corridor where he’d stare at the tree tops above the car park from the window. Cars constantly coming and going.

The crying baby was leaving; tiny and red faced and swamped in a hat and blankets, strapped into a massive car seat. Mother and father were being applauded by the nurses, the speech therapist, the counsellors. The crying baby had made it. Aaron added a brief nod of congratulations to the departing family, sitting forwards in the reclining chair where he’d been sleeping next to Ella’s incubator.

She lay, kept warm by the heated mattress under her and the dome above, attached to tubes; a nasal canula for oxygen kept in place by a band that hid half her face, an intravenous drip feeding her with donor breast milk. Wires measured her blood oxygen, her heart rate. He was still struggling to take in what everything did, who everyone was. They kept asking if he had questions but he didn’t know enough to know where to start.  He blinked at the monitor trying to make sense of the changing numbers and bleeps on the screen.

‘Your husband called. He says you’ve not been answering your mobile.’ The ward administrator came up to him, efficient and kind. ‘I told him you were probably sleeping.’

There was that fraction of a second from another life, before he looked at his phone and saw the photograph.

‘Sorry,’ he said to Ben. ‘I was spark out. Being on my own….’

‘I don’t understand what happened with Jo? Have you managed to find her yet?’ Ben asked.

‘Erm, no, she’s not answering any calls, from me or the hospital. After the birth she said this wasn’t what she’d expected and something about not coping, then she discharged herself and since then nothing. Mum’s trying to get hold of her. Maybe if you call…. She got on better with you.’ He paused to wipe away a new tear, squeezing the bridge of his nose as he looked down. ‘I hope she’s okay… I don’t want her to be unhappy or anything … and ... Ella needs her breast milk … you know?’

‘Ella?’

‘Yeah, I hope you don’t mind?’

He felt a surge of guilt… if Ben remembered Robert’s outburst in the pub… he felt like he’d cheated. He hadn’t cheated. Nothing had happened.

‘Course not; Ella! That’s a beautiful name. Listen love, just keep calling me. I’m at the train station. I’ll change in London and with luck I’ll be with you by lunchtime tomorrow.’

 

 

Outside the ward again, through the window he watched the grey Porsche arrive and park in a space reserved for doctors. Someone bent with a questioning frown to talk to the driver, then walked away smiling. ‘He can charm the birds from the trees that one,’ his Grandma Faith used to say.

Without thinking he found himself running down the stairs.

 

 

Aaron yanked open the passenger door and peered across at Robert in the driving seat; leather jacket, blonde hair unruly, those stupid green heart-shaped dark glasses, like this was all a joke to him. Robert’s universe.

‘Get lost!’

‘Nice to see you, too!’

‘I already told you. We don’t need you here. You’re not wanted!’

‘Well, that’s a shame, cos I brought you lunch.’

Robert reached an arm behind him to the back seat, lifted a paper bag of fresh bake hot sandwiches. He reached again for a cardboard tray with two coffees, and an energy drink. Aaron watched, breathing hard. Yes; he was hungry; he couldn’t remember how many hours it was since he ate.

‘You can take them inside with you, or give yourself some time out and have them here. I know what I’d do.’ Robert patted the upholstery on the passenger seat, then looked quickly away scanning the car park, giving Aaron time to decide.

Robert turned as the car door slammed shut, watched Aaron stride away, hands back in pockets, weaving his route through queueing vehicles, his shape disappearing in the shadow of the building near the side entrance to the maternity ward.

With a sigh, he reached inside the rejected sandwich bag, hunkered down in his seat as he took a large bite.

 

 

 

‘A’s and B’s - apnoea and bradycardia; they mean she may stop breathing for a little period and then that causes the heart to slow right down.’ The doctor was explaining to Aaron. ‘It’s caused by an immature nervous system and happens a lot with premature babbies. But we are here and watching. We are monitoring the blood oxygen levels so we can respond. She’s been with us for 48 hours and she’s stable right now.’ He smiled, regarding Aaron from behind thick lensed specs like he noticed him for the first time. ‘She also has her splendid father taking care of her,’ he said. ‘One day at a time for baby Ella.’

The doctor and his entourage moved on to the next baby.

Aaron sat down. The problem was he couldn’t remember anything the doctor said. It was all words and none of it made sense in his head.

Aaron’s phone rang. He stepped out of the bay and answered his mum.

‘You’ve found Jo?’

‘Sorry love, no joy yet. Do you want me to come?’

He could hear the reluctance in Chas’s voice. He knew it brought back memories of Grace. He didn’t want to think about that.

‘They won’t let you, anyway, it’s just parents and siblings.’

‘You’ll have Ben with you soon. It’ll all be alright when he gets there.’

‘He doesn’t know the first thing about babies, though, does he?’

‘He knows about you, and that’s all that matters.’

Aaron turned his back to the window where he could see cars searching for spaces to park.

‘I’d better get back Mum,’ he said.

 

 

 

‘Will you be here long?’

‘I’m waiting for Dr. Wang, however long he’s going to be,’ Robert rolled his eyes.

‘Cardiology?  Oh, that could be a while then.’

Robert smiled apologetically, shook out the crumbs from the sandwich bag and closed the car window again, watching as a gang of sparrows approached.

He raised his sunglasses on his forehead and looked down, brushed carefully at his open leather jacket, his shirt, straightened the denim on his jeans. He checked the time on his phone, adjusted his seat to recline and closed his eyes.

The past forty-eight hours hadn’t exactly gone to plan for him either, but nothing in comparison to Aaron.

After the phone call, he’d driven him to Hotten General in the pick-up, trying to keep him calm. He’d waited at the entrance of the ward, until he’d found out from a nurse that Aaron’s daughter was born and was alright, then watched the ambulance leave that transferred them the neo natal unit in Leeds.

After, it was like some surreal version of the wolf- goat-and- cabbage-crossing-a-river puzzle: He’d left the pick-up in the Leeds hospital car park and driven the Porsche to the Mill. Then he’d left the Porsche at the Mill and taken Aaron’s car back to the hospital. Once there, he’d dropped off the car keys at the reception to the ward, then he’d driven the pick-up back to Emmerdale. Finally, he’d got back in the Porsche and hit the motorway to Liverpool so he could at least see Seb before nightfall.

At the Mill, he’d run into Paddy who’d naturally gone out of way to be unpleasant.

‘I knew it was your car! I was right all along!’ He said seeing the Porsche. ‘And why have you got Aaron’s car keys?’ Robert had ignored him, pressing the remote to unlock Aaron’s car before walking round to the driver’s door. ‘Anyone with the tiniest drop of remorse would have stayed away; but oh – no not you; you couldn’t, could you, even after four years in the sin-bin. And now Aaron’s finally happily married to someone decent …  but you can’t help bringing him down to your level, turning him into a cheat….’

‘Aaron’s surrogate went into early labour. Congratulations, as of 12.30 today you’re a grandfather, call Aaron,’ Robert said. He started the engine and drove away.

 

 

 

He’d arrived in Liverpool around tea time. The house had been silent. He’d rung and then knocked. When there was no answer, he’d sent an angry text to Ross telling him to let him in. He’d knocked louder. He heard a noise behind the door and strained to listen. Definitely a soft intermittent noise, like something being rolled over a surface and then a knocking. He hunkered down and pushed the flap of the letter box open.

‘Seb? Is that you?’ he’d called softly. ‘It’s me – your dad Robert, yeah?’

He waited, listening above his breathing.

‘Seb? I really want to see you. Just to know you’re okay, yeah? Can you try and let me in?’

There was more silence. Robert frowned.

‘I’m sorry, Seb.’

He could hear Aaron’s voice telling him sorry meant nothing.

‘Look I couldn’t see you for a while. I really wanted to. I had to take a ferry over the sea, but I thought about you every day. I won’t leave you again like I did before. I know that must be hard to believe, but I promise. Because this time I went for us, for a better life for us, yeah? Seb, just, open the door, son, if you can.’

He looked around the doorstep for a plant pot or a stone; somewhere where maybe a key would be hidden; nothing. His eyes scanned the door itself, the frame, the hinges, the lower floor window; looking for any weakness where he could perhaps break in. Nothing.

He remembered the stuffed toys he’d bought on the ferry, decided to fetch them from the Porsche; maybe bribery would work. He jogged rapidly down the path; that was when he heard the sound behind him and turned.

The door was open a crack.

Through the space he could half of Seb’s face, a single blue eye glinting back at him. With a sharp intake of breath, he stepped back towards him.

Seb’s feet were bare. He was wearing pyjamas and his red hair was tangled. Dangling beside him clutched by a wheel in his hand was a Monster Truck toy, presumably the source of the rolling sounds he’d heard followed by banging against the skirting board.

There were footsteps rushing down the stairs, he saw a flash of Ross’s bicep, his jaw, heard the rattling of the chain. As the door opened, he could see all the way down the dim corridor; wellington boots and boxes on the tiles, scarves and coats on a hook; Seb’s yellow anorak, Seb wide eyed, afraid.

Ross was in red boxers and a cotton t-shirt, his hand reached up to Robert’s throat and seized him, making him choke. He spoke over his shoulder firmly.

‘Go back into the kitchen Seb; now! How many times have I told you never answer the door? You can’t be sure what low life might be trying to worm their way in.’

He turned back to Robert.

‘You’re late; not so much the fun dad anymore.’

A tall blonde woman appeared at the top of the stairs in briefs and a balcony bra. Robert’s oxygen starved brain was telling him he knew her, but from where?

‘What’s going on, Ross?’ She asked.

Even her voice was familiar; but he had more immediate problems to solve; like being strangled. He took advantage of Ross’s momentary lapse of concentration and grabbed his wrist, pulling his hand away from his throat, then used his most reliable fight move; which was to lower his head and plough forward. It usually worked up to a point, the point being gravity, so he wasn’t surprised when he and Ross both started falling.

He should know how to fight after prison, but somehow the substance had alluded him. This was where the screws usually broke it up, only here there were none. And now Ross was on top of him, fists curled around the neck of his shirt. Ross was heavy, his thighs pinning Robert’s arms to his sides. Robert could smell his sweat, saw his tongue wet his red lips above his black beard.

‘I’m flattered,’ Robert croaked, ‘and frankly - you are my type, but the timing’s not right.’

‘Timing?’ Ross sneered. ‘I’ll give you time, blondie, if that’s what you want. Carly, call the filth!’

So that’s who it was; Robert turned his head and squinted up the stairs where she sat near the top, legs going on forever. Of course!

‘Carly? I thought you were with that Irish Matt bloke?’

‘No, it didn’t work out, story of my life.’

‘Punching above your weight with that one, aren’t you?’ He’d said to Ross this time.

‘Speaking of which; try this for size, then,’ Ross had said.

He may have blacked out.

 

 

He lifted Vic’s sunglasses again and examined his eye in the car mirror. It was the same one that had only just healed after the neighbour attacked him. The lid had swollen overnight when he slept in the caravan before he woke up early to drive to the hospital to check everything was okay with Aaron again. He’d been here ever since. The lid was turning a lurid shade of purple.

But the point was if he’d been in any doubt before about his plan, now he was certain. Seb needed to be with him. Access wasn’t enough; he was going for full custody.

 

 

 

‘Do you want to put your hand in and touch her?’ the nurse asked. ‘I’m sure she’d want that.’

And now he couldn’t breathe. He managed to mumble something and headed for the bathroom.

There was another missed call from Ben.

Maybe he was almost there, sitting on the train watching the fields and houses racing by from the window. He hovered over the dial symbol, then put his phone back in his pocket.

 

 

 

‘Still here? What are you trying to prove?’

Robert opened the car door, still wearing those ridiculous sunglasses. He slid onto the passenger seat and turned to face him.

‘All you do is let people down; Seb, Vic, Andy, Liv, … me… Everyone lets me down anyway, but you… you, mate, you turned it into an art form…’

‘Come here.’

In the safe quiet space inside the car, Robert beckoned and Aaron leaned, breathing at last.

He felt Robert drop the glasses and then felt his hand slip around his tensed-up shoulders, travelling round and over them, then gliding down over his spine. At the same time, he drew Aaron into him, into his body until Aaron could feel the warmth of his chest in the open gap of his leather jacket.  Robert raised his other hand and held the back of Aaron’s neck, circling fingertips against his hairline.

He felt his body shudder; God only knew how long he’d been holding all this stress inside him. Now Robert was gently shushing him.

He felt a kiss against his cheek.

He dropped his chin on Robert’s shoulder.

‘How did I, me, ever think I could do this? I’m so stupid!’

‘It’s normal to feel out of your depth right now, you idiot!’ Robert whispered.

‘You wouldn’t though,’ Aaron answered into his throat.

‘Course I would! Anyone would. But you; you’re the best father, the best of all of us.’

 

Aaron sat back, running both hands down his tear-stained face.

‘You know what the nurse said? She said Ella would want contact, and it scared me so much; just the realization that she has wants; needs, that she’s an actual person, and I’m supposed to know. How can I know, Robert? When she can’t even tell me.’

‘You will; you’ll learn together.’

‘But I need…,’ Aaron stopped and closed his mouth, looking straight ahead for a moment. Then he turned and looked at Robert. ‘Will you come in and meet her?’

There was a long silence.

‘Please?’

‘It’s what I want, but only if that’s what you want, too.’

Aaron nodded.

He raised a hand and gently touched Robert’s eye.

‘What happened to you this time? You need to keep out of trouble. It’s even more important now.’

 

 

 

‘I’m going to say you’re Ben or they won’t let you in,’ Aaron explained.

The nurses greeted him as Mr. Tucker.

And then they sat down side by side next to the incubator.

They both nodded to each other.

Then Robert slipped his hand in through the opening, reached the back of his finger to brush gently against Aaron’s daughter’s cheek. Aaron watched Ella stir, she moved her head, then lifted her hand seeking the source of the touch, found Robert’s wrist and held on.

‘Hello, beautiful girl,’ Robert said in a whisper, ‘Hello darling. Hello Nell.’

Aaron simultaneously wiped his tears and rolled his eyes at Robert.

‘What? Aaronella – Nell. I know what her name is,’ Robert grinned softly back at Aaron winking. Then he eased his arm out and took Aaron’s hand and gently guided it inside with his, until for the first time Aaron was touching his daughter. Ella turned her face towards them both. When he heard Aaron sob, he slipped his other arm around his shoulder and rested his head on Aaron’s. And the three of them stayed for a while like that, quietly, so that when it was time for the nurse to come and change Ella’s bedding, she decided to leave them for a few minutes longer, not wanting to disturb the precious family she found.