“I've had just about enough of that, Tony.”
“Enough of what?”
“Enough of your complaining, that's what.”
“My complaining? You're the one whinging about my 'sleazy chord changes' when you can't keep up on guitar. I'm only trying to—”
“What? 'Can't keep up'?!”
“Lads, please don't fight, not again.”
“You stay out of this, Peter!”
Phil sat glumly behind his drum kit and watched the situation devolve around him again. This had already happened four separate times today and it was always the same. Mike and Tony would argue, which made Peter try and take up the shield of peacekeeper, only to be goaded into an even more heated battle of wills with Tony. He rested his chin in one hand and tapped a cymbal very lightly with his sticks. Perhaps joining this band hadn't been such a smart idea. He loved his new friends, he really did. But between the three of them was enough temper for six, and whenever they got like this he was reluctant to confront them directly. Besides, they were all classmates at that posh school. He wasn't.
“I'm not going to stand here and let you insult me,” Peter was saying. He petulantly swept his lyric sheets to the floor and turned his back, ignoring anything else Tony had to say. His long shining hair flounced dramatically as he stalked to the other end of the room. Mike and Tony continued their loud and fruitless bickering for a while until they had run out of insults and sat fuming. The old Maltings house fell deathly quiet, save for a faraway creaking echo as the wooden floorboards settled in the midsummer night.
“Phil,” Peter said at last, desperate to break the awful silence. “What do you think we should do?”
Phil didn't answer for a few seconds. He lowered his eyes. “Um,” he said meekly. “I think... maybe we should go home.”
He looked up anxiously to see Peter's soft face drawn up in a worried frown, but he seemed to agree.
“You're right,” Peter said. “It's getting late and we're tired anyway. I am, at least.”
“Tired of arguing,” Tony was heard to mutter under his breath. He crossed his arms and refused to make eye contact with anyone as they glanced in his direction. Peter glared but chose not to dignify him with a reply.
“Sooo, right then. Does anyone want to go down the pub for something?” asked Phil. His stomach grumbled; suddenly he was a lot hungrier than he realized. But Mike shook his head.
“No, no,” he said through a tired yawn. He got up and stretched to his full height, nearly brushing the ceiling with his fingertips. “My mum wouldn't hear of it. She told me to invite all of you to the Cottage whenever you liked.”
“Oh yeah?” Phil brightened a little. “I haven't met your mum yet. Is she going to feed us?”
Mike laughed. “You have no idea.”
The smiling woman in a rosy flowered dress greeted her son as he traipsed through the front door to Hill Cottage, his three friends trailing behind. Phil hung back a little, unsure of what to do with himself. After hearing Mike complain endlessly about his stern military father, he had been apprehensive about meeting the whole Rutherford family. But the sight of Mike's kindly mother Anne set him more at ease. She looks just like him, he thought with a smile, as he glanced between their shared features—the same sad blue eyes, same long face. She was not a short woman, but she still had to rise on her toes just to kiss her lanky son on the cheek.
“How are you, darling. You brought all your friends?”
“Yes, mum,” Mike replied, as always a little embarrassed by his mother's attentions.
“Good. Hello, Tony, Peter—and who's that hiding back there?” she exclaimed, catching sight of their little nervous drummer. “You must be Phil!”
“Yes! Phil Collins,” he blurted, and came closer to shake her hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Mikey's told me all about you,” she said.
“Oh. Good things, I hope!” Phil replied, and was gratified to see her smile at his little joke. But in the next moment she glimpsed Tony and Peter's glum expressions.
“You're all so quiet,” she said worriedly. “Didn't it go all right today?”
“It was, um. Fine. We, er...” Peter mumbled. He looked to Tony for help, but his stubborn friend only gazed sullenly at the floor. “We didn't finish very much today,” Peter admitted.
“Oh dear. Well, never mind.” Mrs. Rutherford waved a hand dismissively. “Good music can't be rushed. And anyway, you have plenty of time to work it out, I'm sure. Come along, dinner's ready. Your father and I ate dinner an hour ago but I've kept your food warm. I hope you're all hungry.”
The four of them nodded in agreement. Their empty stomachs had been growling nonstop ever since they left for the drive over.
Mike peeked into the hall connecting the kitchen and dining room. The table had been moved to the widest part of the hallway, and was covered with an array of serving dishes and place settings for four. There was a tantalizing smell of roast beef and rosemary that made his mouth water.
“Mum, you didn't have to make all this,” he said, more for politeness' sake than for his appetite. “I mean we were all set to go down the pub for something...”
“Nonsense, I wanted to! Besides, this is better for you than that old nasty stuff. I don't want you getting ill.”
“Yeah, Mikey,” Peter said in an undertone, nudging his arm playfully as he went to wash up.
Mike scoffed but chose not to respond. Not in front of his mother, anyway.
Once everyone was seated, they quickly realized that Mike wasn't kidding when he said his mum intended to feed them well. There was creamy mushroom soup and buttered bread to start. Then a platter of juicy roast beef and tender rosemary potatoes, served with thick gravy and a side of savory green beans with slivered almonds. And Yorkshire pudding. And cheese. The abundance seemed endless and the more they stuffed their hungry bellies, the more it seemed Mrs. Rutherford was ready to give them.
“Tony, would you like some more?” she asked as she passed the platter around for seconds. “You've barely had anything.”
Tony contemplated the offer. He had in fact cleaned his entire plate, including the gravy, but seeing the tempting roast beef made him think perhaps there was still room for a little extra.
“Yes, thank you,” he said quietly, and accepted seconds.
“I would also like some,” Phil piped up, to the surprise of nobody.
Conversation seemed to flow easier as time went on, now that they weren't so hungry. Even when Mike's father made a brief appearance to say hello, Phil wasn't nearly as nervous about speaking to him. Capt. Rutherford was a serious, square, though not unkind man, and was willing to help out their fledgling group however he could. He was, however, completely lost when they began to talk shop, all musical and studio technicality. Phil smiled to himself as Mike's father tactfully made his excuses to retire.
When they had finally eaten everything they could hold and sat dazed in their seats, completely stoned on food, there was yet one more surprise.
“I bought a fruit pie while I was out today,” Mrs. Rutherford announced, setting the fragrant pastry on the table before their astounded eyes. “Would anyone like dessert?”
A collective groan of protest arose from all four boys before they started to laugh.
But of course, it didn't mean they didn't want any pie, either.
Tony lay atop the sheets of Mike's bed, feeling much too full to move. He luxuriated for a while in the cool breeze wafting through the open window, grateful that the Rutherfords had allowed them all to stay for the night. It was too late to drive back anyway, they insisted, if they didn't mind sharing beds. He didn't. He put his hands behind his head and was silent for a long time, deep in thought.
“I'm sorry,” he finally said to Mike, who was lying beside him in a similar drowsy state.
“For being such an ass today. It doesn't seem to matter, what we were arguing about.” Tony spoke in the same clipped, serious tone he always did when they argued, as if not wanting to admit this was indeed an apology. But Mike knew what he meant, and accepted it.
“I can't even remember what it was,” said Mike, and they both smiled.
A gurgle escaped Mike's tummy and he patted it reassuringly, feeling intensely heavy and content. Tony smirked and mischievously poked his stomach, testing how round and taut it was. Mike was built like a narrow rail but it only meant that any fullness in his stomach showed all the more, and Tony enjoyed teasing him.
“I think your mother is trying to fatten us up,” he said, resting one hand on his own bloated tummy. It ached a little, stretched much too tight.
“You're not wrong,” Mike replied. “It makes her feel she's done a good job. D'you know what she told me? She once said we must live on air and dewdrops to be so thin.”
“She said that?” Tony exclaimed, laughing.
“Yeah. She thinks we don't get enough decent food on the road, you know. She's determined to do something about it.”
“Hmm. Your mother is funny,” murmured Tony. He hiccuped and rubbed his belly, a little shocked at just how overfull he really was. “But she's an excellent cook.”
“I'll tell her for you,” said Mike sleepily. His eyes fluttered as his head lolled to one side, resting securely against Tony's shoulder. All was still for a while, until Tony's hiccups decided to continue. Every few seconds a new hiccup jostled them from sleep and showed no signs of stopping any time soon.
“You all right?” Mike asked.
“Ugh, sorry,” Tony muttered, stifling a burp. “This always—hic—happens to me.”
Mike smiled. Without a word he shifted on his side and placed a soothing hand on Tony's belly. There was almost no give in his stomach at all, stuffed round and firm. He was mildly surprised; usually Tony never ate this much. Seeing him like this, so full and vulnerable... Mike suddenly felt very warm all over but was careful to say nothing.
Tony held his breath and tensed a bit as Mike began to rub his belly gently, but he didn't protest. Gradually, as everything moved inside and air came up in a burp, he noticed his stomach didn't feel quite so achy and eventually his hiccups stopped. Even after Mike stopped rubbing, his hand remained on his tummy with a warm, stationary pressure that made him feel oddly safe.
“Thanks,” Tony whispered.
“Mmm-hm,” said Mike. He wanted to say something else but frustratingly couldn't find the right words to describe this feeling, this desire to keep Tony safe and happy. Why couldn't they be like this all the time? What was it about writing music that made them fight so? He didn't want to fight, he wanted to—
Mike shut his eyes and tried to ignore the arousal in him that pulsed to each heartbeat. He tried to cut short all thoughts about Tony's beautifully serious face and long dark curling hair, about the nervous way he spoke so fast when he got excited, about the warmth of his tired body lying so close.
He bit his lips and said nothing. He lay awake for what seemed like hours before the both of them finally eased into sleep.
Meanwhile in the guest room, Peter groaned softly and released an impressive belch. From his seat on the bed, Phil opened one eye to catch a glimpse of the singer undressing before the open window with his back arched, lithe and shirtless, both hands caressing the fullness of his belly. Christ, he looks pregnant, Phil thought.
There was a time during his school days, Pete had told him once, when he had been quite round and fat before he grew taller. Usually this was difficult to reconcile with Peter's willowy figure, but now it didn't seem so farfetched. In the low light everything about him looked soft, from his oval face framed with long dark hair, to his smooth chest and round, deep little navel, his curving hips. Phil couldn't help but be reminded of those old Renaissance paintings, the ones with all those pale naked nymphs dancing and cavorting amongst the reeds. Even his shifting pose, with his hips canted to one side and arms stretching above his head, was reminiscent of that kind of grace. Though he supposed that mythological nymphs didn't belch quite as loud. He quickly shut his eyes as Peter turned out the light and lay down next to him in bed, lovingly caressing his own stomach with his fingertips.
They both lay quietly for a long time, listening to the summer drone of insects chirping outdoors in the tall grass, interspersed with the satisfied rumbles of digestion in their own full stomachs. It was strangely comforting. On impulse, Peter moved closer and rested his ear against Phil's warm tummy, listening to the steady relaxing gurgle from inside him.
Phil stirred at the gentle pressure on his stomach. He realized Peter was using him for a pillow and his heart beat a little faster at the contact.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“You took all the pillows and I needed one,” replied Peter, in a very characteristic deadpan. “Also I was thinking about new sounds for the album.”
Phil grinned as he imagined how Tony would surely object to such an idea. “Oh, yeah? Might be a distinct improvement,” he said, thumping the side of his own belly. He pulled one of the extra pillows from behind him and fluffed it on Peter's side of the bed. “Here.”
“I think I prefer this.”
Phil laughed, causing his friend's head to bounce slightly. Pete was a strange bloke, but an amusing one. He wondered if Mike or Tony would ever put up with these antics and then realized they probably wouldn't. Maybe that was why he and Pete got along so well. He put his arm around Peter's shoulders.
“All right then,” he said. “But I warn you, I'm a restless sleeper.” He twitched and pretended to be asleep while kicking Peter in the leg repeatedly. They giggled.
“So am I,” said Peter. “I used to sleepwalk. So if you wake up tonight and hear something blundering about the house, it's me.”
“Right. I'll just get you to do my bidding, then. Woooo-oooooo.” Phil waggled his fingers. “Like that hypnotist movie we saw, remember?”
“Oh yeah. Only I don't think that's how it works.”
Phil chuckled and sighed contentedly as Peter relaxed in his arms. Even the thought of returning to the Maltings the next day for fresh arguments and disagreements couldn't faze him now. Maybe things would get better between them. Maybe they could eat this well every night, too.
“Well. Goodnight, darling,” Phil said lightly, as a joke. But he was surprised to feel a soft pat and a gentle kiss on his tummy.
“'Night,” mumbled Peter, mere seconds before dropping into sleep.
Phil could only blush hot as he lay very still, his eyes wide open in the cooling darkness.