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Come sail your ships around me

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Colin - it says in handwriting on the envelope.

Aaron picks it up and looks inside, thumbs the crisp fiver, a couple of ones, and a shiny fifty penny piece.

Beside it there’s a note and a discarded pen. Strange to think of him writing it - this person that he’s never met.

All the other details about the house are typed and left in a folder with plastic sleeves, like a holiday let. Only this isn’t - It’s home, for now at least.

Leave this out for the milkman, he comes around six. I get a pint of organic every day. If you want to order something for yourself, you’d better let him know.

Aaron raises his brows. Every day? What’s he doing; bathing in it?

He puts the note down again on the kitchen counter, sees his work boots have left a trail of mud and bends to take them off, unthreading the laces from the metal eyes. In his socks, he pads over to the sink and opens the cupboard, peering underneath for a cloth. The place is spanking clean.

He finds some anti-bacterial spray. He’d better show willing.

 

 

“Explain it to me again, you’re sharing with this bloke -,” his Mum is giving him the third degree, “who you know nothing about, and haven’t met, and sleeping in the same flaming bed? That can’t be right!”

Aaron holds his fork an inch from his lips, suspending the simple pleasure of a full English. This is why he needs to leave, this and all the other stuff going on in his head; he needs the space. They can’t keep treating him like a kid, like a victim.

“I’ve already told you; he works nights, I work days. It’s a one-bedroom gaff but we’re not there at the same time.”

“Like a timeshare, then,” Paddy offers.

“Take your own sheets at least.”

He drops his cutlery with a clatter and stands. It’s enough now, but his Mum can’t help herself.

“Just, why would he do that, rent the place out when he’s not there?” She spreads her hands as she speaks, throwing the question out to the universe. A question he can’t answer, because what does it matter?

He picks up his car keys.

“We’ll see you next weekend, though?” she calls after him. “We worry about you, love!”

 

  

There are herbs on the kitchen windowsill. The evening sun slants in, illuminating the paper-thin leaves.

It’s a second-floor apartment with its own entrance from the street. At the back there are metal stairs from the kitchen leading out to a narrow garden secluded by a high fence, topped by trees.

The garden is as pristine as indoors, laid with shingle, with a bistro table and chairs, and exotic looking plants, and one of those outdoor lantern candles.

Aaron sits and drinks a beer, scrolling his phone in the peace and quiet.

Every now and then he looks up, still feeling slightly uneasy like he’s trespassing.

This must be where his housemate took his Instagram profile pic, it occurs to him. On a whim he decides to check.

He’s right; there’s the blue corner of the bistro chair, and the leaves of one of the plants. His eyes are drawn back to his housemate's face.

It’s a terrible photo; the sun’s behind him and you can barely make his features out; and, as if that’s not enough, he’s wearing dark reflective glasses. All Aaron can say for sure is that he has a goatee beard and his hair’s scraped back and tied in a man bun. You can see the collar of a utility jacket, a shiny button on the breast pocket. 

It’s hard to be sure, but he looks serious.

He thinks back to when they spoke on the phone, when he first answered the ad in the paper; he was quite breezy and business-like, but there was something about the timbre of his voice - something quiet. Like he’d survived something; just like he has. It was one of the reasons he decided to take the place.

But maybe he’s projecting.

It was something his therapist brought up when they touched on his issues of trust.

A blackbird on the fence is giving it full throttle as the sun starts its descent.

He frowns one last time at the photo - Either he’s ridiculously bad at taking selfies. Or he’s hiding. The account is only a few months old and the rest is just boring seascapes and pictures of food. Saddo! Or maybe his Mum’s right - weirdo?

No point in dwelling on it now anyway. He’s signed a contract and here he is.

He goes back indoors, unpacks his games console and plugs it in. He could get used to this; he thinks as he starts playing.

Another hour and he’s yawning. He checks his messages and procrastinates, hovering at the bedroom door. It feels like he’s snooping when he finally makes it into the room. There’s a large double bed with dark shiny sheets. They look clean enough. He has his own in a suitcase. But can he really be fussed? 

He strips off, leaving his clothes where they fall on the carpet. Raises an arm in the air and takes a whiff.

A minute later he's in the shower, admiring the marble and taking the lid off some fancy shower gel – phwoar-what? -  he tosses his head back at the heady scent. He growls For Fucks Sake! when he drops the bottle and sees the splash of dark blue against the white porcelain shower tray. He tops the bottle up with his own Right Guard Zingy Mint, then replaces the lid and inspects the bottle for drips. They smell almost the same, he reasons; his housemate will never notice.

He pads back to the bedroom leaving a trail of wet footprints and towels himself dry, looking around once again. One of the night stands has a reading lamp, and glasses, a couple of books, the other is empty. Presumably his ‘side’ then.

He swallows, slips naked between the sheets and lies there blinking. 

His Mum’s right. For someone with trust issues he’s taken a humongous risk.

He wonders if he should put on some boxers at least, feels his eyes closing. He twitches his nose as a faint masculine scent from the sheets loosens the tightness in his shoulders, and next thing, without even realizing, he’s out for the count.

 

A noise downstairs outside the front door wakes him. Is it him, maybe, already back from work? Did he sleep too late the very first morning? But it doesn’t feel late. Quite the opposite.

He grabs a robe that isn’t his own from the back of the bedroom door and flies down the stairs, pulling the sides together which flap open again as he opens the mortice lock and turns the door handle.

He opens the door just enough to peer round. The light has an unfamiliar misty morning quality about it and there’s dew on the flowers by the path. 

Someone’s legs are disappearing through the gate, there’s a rattle of bottles in a crate. Glancing down he sees a shiny bottle of green-top on the doorstep. Colin!

“Hold on, mate!” he calls. A round face appears above the hedge. “Could you add another bottle a day to the delivery? I’m Aaron and,” he manages a fleeting smile, “...I’ve just moved in with Robert.”

He sees Colin glance up to the windows of the flat and back at him from over the hedge. He clutches the sides of the gown closer at the waist, suddenly conscious of a light breeze around the nether regions.

Colin says, “Nice one!” and then he’s gone before Aaron has time to add any clarification.

Aaron turns to the house and looks up. Has he made a good decision? Maybe it’s something pretty normal to move out from your parents; but for him, after the court case, this is his first stab at changing something up.

His heart lifts for a moment as he picks up the milk bottle and then glides swiftly up the steps, gown open.

Perhaps Colin’s right – Nice one!

 

 

 

 

There was a lot of milk left over so I made a quiche. Assuming you’re not actually allergic to fresh vegetables, I made enough for two. Better for you than take-aways. Please wash up the dish when you’ve done.

 

Aaron’s eyebrows play as he reads the note. Alright - so he’s had the odd take-away since he moved in a couple of weeks earlier – it’s been an adjustment period. It’s not as if he lives on them. And, anyway what’s his housemate doing? - Going through the bins? It makes him wonder for a moment what else he’s been snooping through.

He leans over the quiche in question to examine it. Definitely something green in it. He wrinkles his nose. But on the other hand, the kitchen smells savoury and warm and good.

He washes his hands with a sigh under the kitchen tap, shrugs off his hi-vis. He takes a spatula and places half the remaining quiche on a plate. Grabs a bottle of beer from the fridge and pops the lid. He treads lightly down the metal steps to the garden and sits at the bistro table.

With the sun shining through the leaves, he takes a first bite. It’s crisp and light and he inhales it, serenaded by the resident blackbird, goes back inside to fetch the rest.

 

“Hello.”

He’s on the stairs when he hears the voice. It takes him a moment to locate it. There’s a bloke standing on the other side of the garden fence, who he wouldn’t be able to see except from this elevated position. The bloke has keys in one hand and a package wrapped in greaseproof paper in the other.

“I’m Mike, your downstairs neighbour.”

“Aaron,” he nods introducing himself.

“Lovely weather,” Mike goes on. “Not that you and Robert get to see a lot of it. Have you settled in alright? He told me you were coming. You must be like ships in the night, the two of you. I suppose it’s one way to keep the interest alive?” He smiles rather salaciously, then goes on, “Are you a foodie, too?” Aaron watches his eyes travel wistfully to the plate in his hand. “You’ve fallen on your feet with that one!”

Mike’s mobile phone starts ringing and he fishes it from a pocket with the hand holding the keys. “I have to get this – possible job interview, but don’t let me keep you. You’ll have to come round for a beer one evening and tell me how you two met - maybe I can bag myself one!” He cracks another grin. then looks down and says hello into his phone. From inside there’s the sound of barking as he disappears under the entrance porch into the house.

Aaron stands for a moment holding his plate.

Now there’s no one to see him, he pulls the corners of his mouth down. How well does this Mike know Robert? Clearly, well enough to pass judgement on his cooking. Whereas he, Aaron, who shares his space, has never even met him face to face. He can’t explain why but he feels a sudden irrational resentment of Mike the Neighbour.

 

He watches an action film until bedtime and, after, sleeps fitfully, wakes suddenly, convinced he can smell fish and chips.

It sends him rolling down deep into a tunnel where he can’t breathe, and his heart rattles like a bird flung back and forth against the sides of a cage.

He sits up, arm pits running, turns on the lamp; it’s not enough so he climbs out of bed, crosses the room and turns on the big light.

He grabs the robe that isn’t his from behind the door and wraps himself in it, moves back and sits against the bed head, tugging the cover up.

His chin drops and he feels the tears smart from his eyes and run over his cheeks. Why is he still such a loser, letting himself get dragged down?

Was moving here was a massive mistake after all?  He’s out of sight. His Mum’s getting on with her life with Paddy, with the pub. Adam’s at the farm and probably going out with lasses. They’re probably glad he’s gone. And who can blame them?

He’s all adrift.

He casts about the room looking for something to distract him from the pain and the panic.

His eyes land on the book on the far bedside table. He clutches at it, bringing it near and gazes at the cover. Space Minotaur – he reads the blurred title. Frankly the illustration on the cover is ridiculous. He wipes his nose on his arm, opens the book where Robert has left a book mark, takes a cursory glance at the page. Somehow, he finds himself reading one sentence, then another.

This Ariadne is clearly in love with Captain Theseus and her father is a dick. He’s the real monster not the Minotaur. The captain has been tasked with saving the galaxy by defeating the Minotaur in a labyrinth of worm holes that will take him to a parallel universe. Will he ever get back? Aaron imagines himself as Ariadne as she implores him not to go. Theseus kisses her. It’s really nice. He turns the page.

There’s an erotic scene which Aaron skip reads, blushing wildly, but still impressed by Theseus’s pounding member. Now Theseus has to go. Ariadne says she can help him trace his route back through space in his ship with thirty oars … the words start to swim in front of his eyes.

 

He wakes cocooned in the robe.

The white pages of the open book beside him reflect the morning sun. Some of the pages are creased where he’s slept on them. He smooths them, places the book back carefully on the nightstand, gets up and goes to the bathroom to pee.

He thinks about Gordon. In the cool light of day, he can imagine that what happened, happened to someone else, not him. He remembers at work listening to the radio, he’d heard someone say how all the cells of your body replace themselves every seven to ten years. In which case he’s not the person all those things happened to anymore. He doesn’t have to be.

 

 

I got you a bookmark of your own. Please don’t turn down the corner of the pages again, it ruins them.

Also I made a larger tiramisu this time since I noticed you liked the last one. It’s in the labelled box in the fridge.

 

He picks up the bookmark and inspects it. Time has moved on. Robert - well both of them now - are on book three of the Demigods in Space series, but this is from the first book: Aaron never did find out what happened to Theseus - whether he got back safely - because Robert presumably finished the story and replaced it before he had time.

The bookmark is just a flimsy rectangular strip of card. On one side there’s an illustration of the Minotaur framed by stars, on the other Captain Theseus. His impressive member is trapped inside some jazzy metallic space trousers; his face enigmatic, hidden by a helmet and visor except for some locks of escaping blond hair.

He frowns, takes the bookmark to the bedroom and lays it down on his table. All evening he’s conscious of it there - waiting for him to turn in for an early night.

 

 

 

 

Someone’s bending to unlock a bicycle from the stand as he drives into his parking place. Legs that go on forever, shapely calves above short socks, an arm golden with summer freckles. Aaron wets his lips and looks away.

It’s been months since he put himself out there. Since Gordon.

‘Aren’t you lonely in that place by yourself? Well sort of by yourself,’ his mum had snuck in before he left for work after staying the weekend.

‘Chance would be a fine thing with you pecking my head every day.’

Lonely? – no.

Horny? – definitely.

‘Still quite happy for me to do your washing though,' she'd handed over a bag of laundry.

Now he takes the bag from the back seat of the car. 

There’s a barking from behind the hedge and then a voice: ‘Gary! Come here, oh deary dear, don’t eat that you mad mut.’

The last thing he wants is to be trapped into a conversation with Mike. He slides his key quietly into the door, races up the stairs.

 

He loves coming home to the flat; he loves how uncluttered it is, and the view from the kitchen window over the garden and red rooftops to an open sky.

He drops his new Indie music magazine in the basket in the bog next to Robert’s Classic Car monthly and his DC comics. After, he takes his clean clothes to the bedroom. He opens the wardrobe to hang up his hoodies next to Robert’s patterned shirts. He knows there’s no circulation so Robert never wears them, sticking to a couple of plain blue ones. And yet strangely they exist.

Aaron glances at the bed. Clean sheets on a Monday.

He approves. But all at once he’s wondering what Robert gets up to at the weekend and whether he has company in their bed? He’s noticed that there’s a box of condoms in the bathroom - X-large and ultra-fine for that natural feeling, allows the transfer of body heat between you and your lucky partner. But they never seem to get used. And no, maybe, alright - yes - he has actually counted them a couple of times, just out of boredom.

The truth is he’s the one that wants some action.

He’s renting this place to get space so he can live his life and not be held back by the past. He could go out to his old haunts and just hook up with a random. Or download a dating app.

But he’s nervous.

He has half-formed questions but no-one to ask. They chase around his mind until he drowns them out with Indie music and video games.

Now he goes back to the kitchen and takes some bread out of the fridge to make a sandwich. He grabs his plate and a beer, rests his feet up on the table in his socks, and rereads the back page of his newspaper for the soccer results.

 

Eventually he stretches his fingers out to Robert’s note and pulls it towards him.

 

You probably noticed I bought a Google home hub for the flat. I’ve sent you an invitation to be added as a user, so download the app and follow the instructions. If you get stuck, message me and I’ll help.

 

Aaron blinks and glances around, spots the new sleek curved monitor on the counter near the fridge. He stifles a yawn. Robert is such a tech bro with his man bun and his zip up cardigan. They have literally nothing in common.

He makes a decision. He starts to download an app, but not the home hub, a dating app. Finally – he’s going to get laid!

He crops a picture taken outside the Woolie with Adam earlier that summer for his profile. He doesn’t look amazing or anything but it’ll have to do. When he starts swiping, seems like all the blokes have gym bodies; a lot of the photos are in underwear and taken in bathrooms or bedrooms. His photo isn’t like that; he wonders what he should do.

He goes to the bathroom and undresses down to his underpants and looks at himself appraisingly. He turns sideways and then right round to look at his bum, then back to the front, there’s nothing wrong with him, he thinks. Will someone swipe right for his body? He has scars; he used to keep his top on with hook-ups, but he’s not so fussed about them anymore; now it’s the scars that he can’t see that worry him most.

He longs to be touched, to be held. But what if they look at him and just know? What if they’re polite but then make excuses to get far away from him.

There’s a message notification on his phone. He frowns at it. Robert.

- 'You haven’t added your account to the hub yet. It’s not difficult. Let me help.'

Erm, no thank you, Robble, I’m rather busy with my own life at the moment,’ Aaron murmurs to himself, pulling up his trousers and tucking his jewels in before standing on tip-toe to fasten the fly.

There’s another notification. This time it’s a voice message. Aaron rolls his eyes. He scratches absently around a nipple as he wanders back to the kitchen and presses play.

- ‘Hey, Aaron –'

The thing is he’s forgotten what his voice even sounds like. It’s so long since they spoke that time when Aaron first answered the ad – but it’s nice. And then he’s saying his name like that; like a mate, no, someone closer, like a cousin, or…

- ‘I’m going to talk you through how to use the hub…’

‘Yes, you are, aren’t you? Because you’re a control freak with ocd or summat, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen,’ Aaron waggles his finger with a smile.

He puts the phone on speaker and opens the fridge again, full of labelled boxes with contents and dates. He pulls out a bottle of milk, drinks some from the neck.

- 'It really is child’s play, but if you listen carefully, you should be alright.’

Aaron burps.

Roberts starts to give the instructions. As Aaron listens to his voice, he wonders where he is, out alone in the universe somewhere, while the evening gets late. His mind drifts to Captain Theseus.

So, once you’ve done that, you can add your Spotify account or apple music or whatever you use and then you just say - Hey Google, play my favourite song - and it’ll play, okay?’

After the message ends, he waits a moment, then sits and opens the page of his dating app again. He’s had a couple of likes for his profile in spite of being fully dressed in his photo. But that’s not what he’s looking at as he swipes rapidly through some of posts.

What he’s realized is that he’s just not ready after all to be a with a bloke.

But what he is ready for is to spice up his wardrobe. Not the outer wear which is an unalienable part of his identity, and also pretty on point thank you very much, but the underwear.

After all, what’s the point of living by himself – well almost by himself – if he can’t wonder around the place near naked of an evening except for something tiny and shiny.

He cracks his knuckles: time for some online shopping.

 

Later he adds his account to the hub. It takes him less than a couple of minutes. He doesn’t actually listen to Robert’s message again, but decides he should at least send an answer.

He clears his throat before speaking.

 

-  ‘Hi, erm (Robble) Robert, I hope you’re having a good day at work, I mean night, of course because that’s what time it is ...obviously …duh. But, anyway, what I wanted to say is thanks for the instructions, even if I didn’t need them ‘cos I’m not a total dummy ha-ha …ha. But no, really, thanks, and,’ (his voice lowers as if by itself: he wasn’t expecting to be saying this) ‘also thanks for letting me stay here and share your house. It’s, erm, well it’s made a big difference to me, and I’ve been wanting to say that for a while.’ (Has he? What the actual…?) Well, it was good to hear your voice again, (What? Who? Coughs loudly) mate.’

 

He spins his finger in the air, presses send all at once so no option to back out now.

But argh: What was he even thinking? - Good to hear your voice? He writhes internally.

But it’s too late now. Best not to think about it.

 

Robert’s reading glasses have slipped between his nightstand and the bed. He picks them up and closes the handles and positions them next to this week’s new book.

He doesn’t actually read these days, but he doesn’t want Robert to know that, so he takes his bookmark and puts it randomly between some pages.

He lies down against his pillow.

The thing is he meant what he said. Moving to this house, it’s given him space. Important space: - To think, to find himself. And it’s okay if that takes time. His therapist told him to be kind to himself, and most importantly, there’s no hurry.

He snuggles back on their bed, catches the familiar clean warm scent from the sheets. On a whim he reaches again for his phone. His thumb hovers over his messages. He has a theory, what would happen if he turned the volume up when Robert’s speaking?

He listens.

- ‘And then you just say – Hey Google, play my favourite song – and it’ll play, okay?’

He turns the volume to max: -

- ‘And then you just say – Hey Google, play my favourite song – and it’ll play, okay?’

He isolates the phrase: -

- ‘Hey Google, play my favourite song – ‘

It’s Robert’s voice, and just as he predicted the hub picks up on it.

Suddenly there’s a music intro.

 

‘We are two in a million
We've got all the luck we could be given
If the world (the world) should stop (should stop)
We'll still have each other.’

It takes him a moment to register that he’s listening to SClub7

Who even is this Robert Sugden with his sad Instagram selfie and his labelled food boxes? He shakes his head and laughs, drifts off to sleep while the music plays.

 

He dreams he’s in the kitchen wearing nothing but a blue patterned shirt. Captain Theseus walks in in his metallic space pants. They’re caught in a steamy embrace, then shift to the shower and turn the water on. Robert’s bought a new bottle of shower gel whereas his own zingy mint is almost empty. Robert won’t mind, he tells Theseus. They lather up. The watery gel scent fills his nostrils. There’s a moment when he’s caught between pain and ecstasy...