Because neither man enjoyed being driven for any distance, by mutual consent they took their own cars. The motorway long behind them, Griffin supposed vaguely that it was the drizzle and mist which made everywhere look so dismal; the clouds were so low it was difficult to tell where they ended and the fog began, although it gave the glowing colours of the autumn foliage an oddly luminous quality. Even watching the car in front for Kilroy's signal, having been warned that there was an abrupt left turn to look out for, Griffin almost missed it.
The single-lane track they turned onto was greasy with mud and potholed, brambles and assorted vegetation scraping the sides of the car. Uncertain what to expect, Griffin waited while Kilroy paused to unlock the padlock on the high, rusting wrought-iron gates before following him onto a drive slick with moss and rotting leaves, the trees creating a twilight lattice-work of vegetation. Following the curve of the drive out into what light there was, Griffin pulled up behind Kilroy's neat, blue Renault and switched off the ignition.
He discovered he had parked next to an immense circular bed, in the middle of which sat a grey-green fountain, whose Cupid had lost half his head and one dimpled knee. Beyond it squatted the house. Transfixed, Griffin felt his jaw sag, the size of the place far beyond the Victorian villa he had imagined. The lurid red brickwork, untamed by at least a hundred years of weathering, looked as if it was held together by the ivy which smothered it like an overgrown beard and through which a variety of windows were just visible. The architectural style was...unusual, he decided: Victorian Gothic run riot, with every conceivable decorative aid bad taste could contrive. The immense front door looked like one of Hollywood's worst excesses, although perhaps that was due to the crumbling stone pillars which flanked it. While he couldn't see the roof from this angle, he was prepared to bet it leaked. Reaching for a cigarette, he jumped when he saw Kilroy beaming at him through the window on the passenger side. His party manners in place, Griffin stepped out into the fine drizzle which was still falling.
"What d'you think?" asked Kilroy eagerly.
"It's...secluded. Bigger than I was expecting, too."
"Yeah. It always takes me by surprise. I haven't explored it all yet myself. Isn't it the ugliest place you've ever seen," Kilroy added cheerfully, grinning when he recognised the fleeting relief on Griffin's face. "Relax. You don't have to be tactful. I've often wondered what the architect was on when he designed it."
"Opium?" suggested Griffin, walking backwards to enjoy a better view of the crenellated turrets. "Are they supposed to be gargoyles up there?" He pointed vaguely.
"Your guess is as good as mine. You've got to admit, the house has got something."
Hoping it would prove to be central heating, Griffin gave a noncommittal grunt and turned up the large collar of his American air force pilot's jacket.
"We'll dump our stuff inside before we explore," added Kilroy brightly.
Possessions piled beside them, it took their combined weight to open the warped front door, Griffin's attention remaining on the ominous cracks over the lintel throughout. Propelled inside when the door surrendered, the smell hit him immediately. During his house-hunting forays around the Home Counties Griffin had met various scents; the vast entrance hall, whose dimensions would have better suited a far statelier home, gave notice of dry rot, damp, drains and disuse, together with another odour he couldn't identify. He experienced the depressing certainty he would be able to by the time they left.
"It needs a bit of work," remarked Kilroy unnecessarily, flicking on the lights. The two forty-watt bulbs did their best but could make little impression on the gloom. Dust stirred, cushioning their footsteps before floating upwards in soft clouds; at least common sense had prevailed and flagstones had been omitted in favour of creaking floorboards. The only furniture was a broken grandfather clock, a lidless chest and the breastplate from a suit of armour, crouched ominously on the left side of the sweeping staircase.
"This is beautiful." Griffin ran a hand lovingly along a portion of banister. "I'd like to meet the guy who made this. It's far older than the house. The woodworm's been and gone though." Straightening, he gave Kilroy an accusing look.
"I've only been down here three times," Kilroy heard himself say defensively.
"And that panelling," breathed Griffin, going deeper into the gloom of the hall. "I wonder which house they vandalised to get this. Look. Thank god no idiot took it into his head to paint it."
Mindful of the white emulsion he'd intended to buy to brighten up the hall, Kilroy whistled nonchalantly as he ferried in their luggage. "You seem to know a bit about the subject."
"I studied the history of design. You pick up a bit that way. Look at the quality..."
"You can't have a love affair with panelling."
"I can when it's this good. I think it's late Elizabethan. The Victorians were shocking vandals," added Griffin, wiping his dirty hands down his jeans. "Still, Whitehaven obviously has some surprises to offer."
"I can't promise they'll all be good ones. Would you like to look round?"
"Sure." Griffin was inspecting the fireplace. "For barbecuing oxen?"
"Or the odd tree. There are plenty of fallen ones in the garden. Luckily most of the other fireplaces are smaller, though I haven't been able to get far enough into every room to check. Great-Uncle Percy was a hoarder. One room's crammed with stacks of newspaper. You won't believe the smell. He seems to have lived in this room," Kilroy added, opening a door.
The bilious green flock wallpaper was peeling from the walls, a bare light bulb revealing a large room so tightly packed with furniture that there was only one narrow path from door to a mean-looking paraffin heater, which blocked the grate of the fireplace. It took a moment for the full horror of the room to sink in. Staring with appalled fascination at a massive sideboard constructed of black fretwork, Griffin tried to decide what the two deformed elephants decorating the back of the top were supposed to be doing. His attention distracted, he wondered if he had imagined something small and brown speeding out of his line of vision.
"It looks better in the sunshine," Kilroy said into the silence.
"Of course it does," said Griffin, backing out past two deck chairs and gently closing the door.
They inspected every room which had space for them to enter. Huge and high-ceilinged, despite years of neglect and the hideous furniture, which ranged from the worst Victorian excesses to fifties utility furniture, the potential of the house was unmistakable. Griffin tried not to notice Kilroy's hopeful air as he trailed after him like a Berber with ten daughters to dispose of and not enough camels.
"The old boy had never heard of DIY. Apparently he didn't leave the house at all after the war. Thought fresh air gave you cancer. I've got to work on the windows, most of them are still nailed shut. You won't believe the stuff he kept. This room was full of bottles - not the collectable kind, either - I checked. Oh, and old shoes. As you can smell, the books have had it, the leather disintegrates when you touch it. When I've emptied this room I'll make it my study. The view's great - or will be when I've cleared up outside. That's the conservatory through the French windows to your right. It's a bit overgrown."
Griffin muttered something innocuous as he looked for a chink of light through the vegetation. Tripping over a flat-iron, the hand he flung out went through the rotting, mustard-coloured velvet of a three-legged wing-backed chair. Quickly righting himself, he watched the cushion heave. "Uh, Kit..." Agitated squeaking accompanied his voice.
"It's only mice," Kilroy told him blithely. "They're a bit of a problem, actually. They must have had the run of the place for years. I'll have to get Rentokil in. Come and see upstairs. Oh, watch yourself on the second landing, the lighting's dodgy."
Curbing his impulse to flee back to civilization, Griffin discovered that the lighting wasn't the only unreliable thing. For his peace of mind, he took to following in Kilroy's footsteps. Panicked rustlings preceded them.
The master bedroom held only a wardrobe of Narnian proportions, a commode (his eyes looking a little wild at this point, Griffin lit a fortifying cigarette and tried to pluck up the courage to ask about the plumbing), and a bed. Wide enough to accommodate six adults with ease, the sagging mattress was a good three feet off the floor; two ornate posts supporting a crossbar at the head trailed some sad-looking crimson hangings.
"When did you take possession of the house?" Griffin asked eventually, trying not to think what livestock he would be sharing that bed with tonight.
"July. While I filled up three skips with rubbish, I couldn't shift some of the furniture by myself."
"Now I know what I'm doing here."
Kilroy's face dropped. "We'll go back to town."
"Why? While tonight might not be very comfortable, with two of us we should be able to get a lot done this week. We'll only need a couple of rooms." Griffin almost looked round to hear who had said that.
A pleased smile lit Kilroy's face. "I hoped you'd like it," he admitted unnecessarily.
Griffin began to laugh when a connecting door revealed the bathroom off the master suite. "I've never had to climb stairs to take a pee before. That's an impressive cistern." Staring up at it, he was careful not to move within fallout range.
"Installed in eighteen eighty-seven. It's printed on the side. The bath's my favourite."
Griffin peered into it, then at Kilroy with respect. "You've used this?"
"Not yet," he conceded, adding defensively, "there is a drought order in place. I didn't want to use up the county's supply of water with one bath."
"Liar," said Griffin amicably. "Though it is bloody deep."
"I know. I was afraid I might get sucked down the plug hole. Now you've seen the mod cons, I'll light the fire in the bedroom, help air the room."
"I noticed the radiators," said Griffin with fine understatement; it would have been difficult to miss them. "Does the central heating work?"
"I got it going twice." Kilroy looked guilty.
"Third time lucky." Strolling to the full-length windows, whose scarred sashes showed where nails had been removed, Griffin open them wide. "A balcony! Is it safe?"
"Sort of," said Kilroy, picking up the coal scuttle. "The view's - "
" - yes, it is," agreed Griffin, who had climbed over the sill. "My god it is."
Even the low cloud and rain couldn't mar the sight of the rolling countryside spread out in front of them. Except for bird song and a lone cow lowing there was no sound; the air sweet, if cold, the only sign of human habitation was a village on the other side of the valley. Closer at hand, a vague pattern became discernible in the tangle of unattractive vegetation beneath them.
"Great-Uncle Percy wasn't a gardener either," offered Kilroy, joining him on the balcony.
"How much land do you have?"
"About sixteen acres in front of you. More round the side and front, of course."
"Then we'll drink a toast to Great-Uncle Percy tonight. It's not just this," Griffin gestured outside. "The house has incredible potential, although it'll always be eccentric."
"Is that bad?"
"Not if, like me, you prefer something with character. And this has character plus. Is that water through those trees in the middle?"
"I have a lake," said Kilroy in lofty tones. "And a wood, though I have to admit it's not easy to tell where it starts." While he struggled for objectivity, his love for the place shone through.
"Let's go and take a look." Griffin climbed back into the musty-smelling bedroom. "From the approach to the house you'd never guess it would have these kind of views, or the privacy."
"You value that highly."
"Especially after I found it in short supply. Let's go."
Climbing in behind him and closing the window, some rotting wood came away in Kilroy's hand. He gave it a doubtful look. "It's still raining."
"I had noticed. If we put the heating on before we go..."
"You must be frozen. It is chilly."
"The exercise will warm me up."
"Have you been taking lessons from Pollyanna?" enquired Kilroy. "Never mind," he added, in answer to a blank look from Griffin.
Following Kilroy down to the kitchen which would have been considered Spartan fifty years ago, Griffin jumped at the clanging noise which had started up, seeming to echo around him.
"It's OK," said Kilroy, reappearing from the laundry room. "It just means the pump's working. I think there must be an airlock somewhere in the system."
Of the view a hurricane would be nearer the mark, Griffin firmed his beginning-to-twitch mouth, adding a central heating contractor to the mental list he had begun to compile. "Probably," he agreed, managing to keep his voice steady.
Busy kicking the warped bottom of the back door, Kilroy paused. "This isn't what you're used to, is it." He put his shoulder to the top of the door, while giving the bottom another hefty kick.
"That's what you think. I spent quite a few holidays with school-friends, when it wasn't convenient to fly home. I could write a book about draughty white elephants. Stop worrying, I'm fine."
Beaming, Kilroy heaved the door shut behind them. A small pane of glass fell out of the window next to it. Glancing at Griffin, who was struggling for sobriety, Kilroy released the bubble of laughter which had been forming minute by catastrophic minute.
"We'll have to work out a plan of campaign," he decided, when they had sobered.
"Bedroom, kitchen, study. Bedroom first, because I get nervous about sleeping with anything large and hairy." Griffin punched Kilroy's biceps when Kilroy gave a lecherous grin. "You don't qualify."
"I could work at it. 'Strewth, it's cold out here - and murky. You don't fancy going upstairs for a bit of the other, do you?" A familiar gleam replaced Kilroy's theatrical leer.
Griffin gave him a thoughtful look, before murmuring:
"Though Love and all his pleasures are but toys/
They shorten tedious nights.'
"Not to mention the fact the exercise warms you up. Save the thought for later. I intend to take my time over you - now you're awake enough to notice." While his tone was flippant, the spark had been lit, lust running between them like a current, firing their nerves.
"Ah." Stepping closer, Kilroy ran his fingertips along the edge of Griffin's jacket. "It's only five past twelve. We've got as long as you like. I'll come quietly, guv."
Griffin's smile was wickedly knowledgeable. "Not today, you won't." Oblivious to the soft rain speckling their hair, faces and clothes, he found Kilroy's mouth. The kiss, assertive and deep, was a possessive statement of intent. "OK," he murmured, drawing back a few inches, "you talked me into it."
Touching constantly, as urgent for one another as if they had been parted for months, they left a trail of clothes up to the bedroom. Hunched with desire by that time, Griffin seemed to have forgotten the cold as he pulled down his jeans, his erection straining at the front of his boxer shorts.
"I am not going to rush this," he insisted, evading Kilroy's hands. "No, I'll come. Let's see to you first." Sinking to his knees, he unfastened Kilroy's cords, easing his briefs down with care for the burgeoning contents.
"James." Kilroy firmed his legs. "You can't. It isn't - " his breath caught " - safe."
Blowing gently over his prize, his eyes heavy and brilliant with lust, Griffin looked up. "The fuck I can't. I'm going to eat you. 'S all right." One-handed, he fished for his discarded jeans, fumbling for his wallet, forgotten until now in his back pocket. Flipping it open, he found a foil-wrapped condom. Tearing the top of the foil open with his teeth, he dropped the limp latex on the bed against which Kilroy swayed, and leant forward.
Sucking the dark-downed thighs, his tongue teasing the stark definition of muscle at the junction of thigh and groin, Griffin explored every fold, crevice and warm hollow, his hair and the slight abrasion of jaw and cheek a further distracting stimulus for the man above him.
His prick seeming to swell with every touch, Kilroy swayed and gasped as his swollen testicles were thoroughly investigated. And all the time Griffin's hands supported, restrained and caressed him, fingers rarely still, so that Kilroy was never sure of the exact moment when he was expertly encased. For heart-catching seconds the head of his penis enjoyed the torment and promise of Griffin's lips and tongue. Groaning, Kilroy thrust involuntarily, forcing Griffin to draw away or gag.
"Gently...gently." Holding Kilroy's flanks, Griffin took him back in as he willingly offered up his mouth and throat. As Kilroy's pelvic thrusts shortened, Griffin's eyes scrunched when the fingers locked in his hair clenched, before they relaxed as Kilroy came.
Wordless, his legs unable to support him, Kilroy slumped, finding the edge of the bed more by luck than judgement. "Bloody hell," he breathed, staring at Griffin, whose forehead now rested against his bent knees. Reaching out, he lightly touched the top of the bowed head.
Stirring, Griffin muttered something incomprehensible. Interpreting with no difficulty, Kilroy quickly removed the remainder of their clothing and settled Griffin on the sagging mattress.
"Only had the one condom," said Griffin, frustration grating in his voice as his right hand encircled his penis.
Kilroy caught hold of his wrist. "Then we'll be careful. Come against me. Over me." Loving Griffin's helpless responsiveness, he took charge, cradling Griffin, who came the moment his balls were gently squeezed.
Slumping as the storm in his blood eased, Griffin rolled onto his back. "M-goy," he gasped.
"Very probably," agreed Kilroy with a grin, hugging Griffin with exuberant delight.
"Thank you again, I think." Griffin's eyes were still closed, his slightly swollen mouth curving. "So much for my plans."
Lightly massaging cooling slickness into his belly, Kilroy patted Griffin's flank. "There's always later. I've got all we'll need in my bag." He licked the corner of the softened mouth, before kissing Griffin in earnest. Urgency abated, they indulged themselves.
"Mmn, what was that for?" enquired Griffin some time later, his mouth rosy. "Not that I'm complaining," he added unnecessarily.
"I'll give you three guesses."
Looking absurdly pleased with himself, Griffin rolled onto his stomach, his stretch doing wonderful things to the muscles of his back and buttocks. "You're more than welcome. Sucking you is no hardship. Shit, but it's cold."
"The bedding's damp, too." Loving the sensation of the muscled flesh brushing his naked cock, Kilroy snuggled closer.
Giving him a determined shove, Griffin sat up to rub his goosebumped arms. "It's too cold." Slumped on the edge of the bed, he fished for his clothes.
"Passion-killer," accused Kilroy, sadly watching some favourite areas disappear from view.
"Believe it. But if it worries you so much, there's an added incentive for you to keep me warm."
Having heaved the mattress onto the floor to air it in front of the fire, they left it there after discovering later that evening that it had all the characteristics of a trampoline when on the sagging divan. An unzipped thermal sleeping-bag slung over his shoulders, Griffin was straddling the man he had lavished such care over, Kilroy's skin fragrant with aromatic oil, his body open and spasming with need.
"How would you like me?" murmured Griffin indulgently, nibbling a pink nipple and feeling Kilroy's belly muscles ripple in response.
"My wish is your command?"
Kilroy traced Griffin's profile with his forefinger. "I want to feel the weight of you covering me while your cock's filling me. And I want it to last for ever."
Giving a husky snort of amusement, Griffin helped him to turn onto his stomach. "I'll do my best." Stroking the wide-parted buttocks, he bent to suck at the spasming anus, before probing it with his tongue.
Kilroy's breath hissed inward when the head of Griffin's cock entered him for the first time and he tried to raise himself, abruptly wanting it all, now. His legs splayed wide, pelvis only slightly elevated, he lacked the leverage. He gave a sigh of contentment when he felt Griffin's weight settle over him fully, the mouth that teased shoulders and neck, sometimes sucking, sometimes biting.
Toying with them both, Griffin's movements were almost languid at first; he would stop, murmuring to the man beneath him as he sucked at his flesh, only to start before stopping again. By the time he surrendered to the rhythm his body demanded, Kilroy was incoherent beneath him, his roughened voice breaking as he urged Griffin to completion, his own lusty yell precipitating Griffin to climax.
It was some time before either man felt like moving. Having been cleansed and covered, Kilroy lay in a blissful sprawl, languidly watching Griffin slide back onto the mattress.
"It means 'thank you', doesn't it?" Proud of his pronunciation, Kilroy was indignant.
"Oh, is that what you were trying to say? Well, yes it does, but in the circumstances daw-tse would be more appropriate."
"Why?" asked Kilroy, mistrusting Griffin's mischievous grin revealed by the flame of Griffin's lighter.
"M-goy is just a polite acknowledgement. Daw-tse is the common response after receiving a gift - or some service of great value."
Griffin's voice was so bland that it took Kilroy a moment to catch on. "Of all the smug, self-satisfied... You could have a point though," he conceded fairly, before a thought occurred to him. "Hang on, how come I didn't rate a proper 'thank you'?"
"I was afraid you might think of that," Griffin admitted.
"So you should be. I might take great umbrage."
The warmth of Kilroy's arm banding his abdomen, Griffin flicked his partially-smoked cigarette into the heart of the fire. "You haven't got the energy."
"Maybe not, but you wait until tomorrow," Kilroy threatened darkly, rubbing his nose on Griffin's shoulder.
Giving a resigned sigh, Griffin felt content enough to let him get away with it.
A pressing need for the bathroom waking him, cowardice kept Griffin in their snug cocoon for a few moments more as he drowsily surveyed what he could see of his surroundings. The glow of the fire cast surreal shadows, pools of deepening darkness spreading out from the mattress. A window was rattling in the wind, the fire whispering as ashes resettled. Refocusing with a sense of being under surveillance, he jumped on realising they were three to a bed. A mouse sat at the foot of the mattress, ears tuned for the slightest sound. Unblinking and bright-eyed, whiskers twitching, it seemed to return his gaze before it scratched its ear, defecated and skimmed off into the darkness.
"Oh shit," said a hollow voice.
The spell broken, Griffin turned to face Kilroy. "Did you see that?"
"I hoped you were asleep," Kilroy said wryly.
"You did see it then."
"Don't worry, you're not hallucinating. We can move to another room if you'd rather."
"No point," shrugged Griffin. "I have a feeling that all the rooms will be equally blessed."
"You're taking this remarkably well."
"Yours isn't the only draughty house I've visited. You just have tamer livestock. I'll call - Rentokil, did you say? - in the morning."
"There's no phone," said Kilroy, in the manner of one making a clean breast of things.
"There is in my car." Griffin's smugness gave way to pathos when he slid from the bed. He quickly hauled on his thigh-length jacket.
"Oh, I like it. Very fetching. Where are you going?"
"For a walk round the estate. Where d'you think? God, it's cold. The lights aren't working either." Muttered imprecations indicating his progress, Griffin disappeared from the circle of light.
His baser instincts coming to the fore when a yell suggested the cistern had reverted to its habit of overflowing onto whoever was unfortunate enough to be under it, Kilroy drew the sleeping bag over his head. By the time Griffin returned, limping from the splinters he had acquired from the floorboards, Kilroy was giving an excellent portrayal of a man deeply asleep. It lost conviction when icy hands burrowed between his thighs.
Slow to wake the following morning, it wasn't until he emerged from the bathroom that Kilroy saw the note weighed down by a mobile phone on the mantlepiece.
As the tooth-marks on the bread in the kitchen were too small to be yours, I've gone to buy fresh food (and a kettle, paraffin lamps, toilet paper, mouse-proof tins and condoms).
Ring Rentokil! Much against my better judgement, I shall return.
Smiling, Kilroy got busy.