PART ONE - PALPITATIONS
Josh stepped carefully down the sloping path to the beach, his feet sinking into fine white sand. His gaze took in the curve of the bay but he saw only a few early dog walkers.
The ocean was a grey slice today, seaweed smelling under an unbroken cover of cloud. Southern California never suited Josh. To him its unrelenting summer lacked shadow and texture. Its sprawling angel city was an alien place shooting up from the ground without beginning or end or centre. Its wide sky giving up sun and smog in equal measure.
He was always the out of town business tripper when he came west. The guy in a suit looking for a last sniff of the Pacific. The guy in a suit getting sand in his shoes and sweating too much under his tie.
He was not even sure why he’d come. He’d had a few meetings yesterday but he could have got a flight straight home after. Could have avoided the night in the air-conditioned hell that was LA.
Walking on sand was harder than it looked and he finally toed off his shoes and pulled off his socks, wobbling gently as he balanced on each foot. He put a sock in each shoe and, slinging his backpack over his shoulder, he trudged on with one in each hand.
At last he saw a distant figure, an approaching runner, following the shoreline close to the incoming tide. As he came nearer Josh could define Sam’s easy grace as he ran. All in black, his dark hair longer than it used to be.
When he was close enough he looked at Josh, looked again and came to an abrupt halt. “Josh. God.”
He was doing well. Josh saw it immediately. He was fit looking and hardly out of breath from a run that would have finished Josh off for good. He took Josh in with a clear, even gaze and then smiled.
“Where did you come from?”
“I had a couple of meetings yesterday. Finished too late to fly back. Your mom told me where you’d be.”
Sam’s smile turned wry. He would be imagining how that conversation went.
They hugged with Josh’s shoes knocking together behind Sam’s back. Sam smelt salty. Like he used to when he came straight from sailing into Josh’s bed. Like he had been formed whole from the sea.
“Did you stay near here?”
“No. I got a cab from the city.”
Sam wrapped an arm round Josh’s shoulders and they started to walk up the beach. “Have you got time to get breakfast?”
The place was almost on the beach with an open area looking out on to the slate Pacific. A spiky haired kid mixed some long carroty orangey concoction for Sam. Josh regarded it suspiciously. “What are they doing to you here, Sam? You’ve got to come home.”
He had honestly meant it as a joke but it came out like the whole point of the trip and Sam’s eyes became fluid as he searched for a reply.
“It’s got vitamins in. It’s a west coast thing.”
“Some kind of caffeine substitute?”
“Yes,” Sam said. “That’s it.”
The kid poured coffee into a solid white mug for Josh. It was milder than he usually took it and hopefully wouldn’t give him the weird heart palpitations he had been getting lately. He pulled a strip off the Danish he had ordered with it. It was soft and yeasty but left his fingers sticky so he regretted it anyway.
The paper napkin stuck to his fingers instead of helping and he was aware of Sam watching the process.
“Ah dammit,” he said balling the napkin.
“You’re a pretty suave guy, Josh.”
They laughed at this and then fell silent.
“But Sam,” he said finally. “You should anyway.”
“What?” Sam asked.
“Come back. Your jobs open again. Come back. Toby’s pining.”
Sam shook his head, though Josh was reasonably sure it was an unconscious gesture. “Josh, have you come to get me again?”
Perhaps he had. Josh thought about New York in the rain. He thought about the peculiar kind of innocence he and Sam had once shared despite the accumulated grime of all they had done and seen and felt.
“You know,” Sam said, his voice low. “It might be easier to telephone if you’re going to make a habit of this.”
“You never called me back,” he returned gently.
Josh felt out of place in this Tshirt-and-shorts beach shack. The sweaty old guy long past forty, with his brown shoes and brown socks on the floor under his chair and a shaving kit in his backpack. He would have sworn that the four years between himself and Sam was really twenty-four.
Sam looked into his health drink and stirred it seriously with a straw. His hair fell across his forehead. If he let it grow more it would be in his eyes. He looked up.
“Did you come by before?”
Josh nodded. “Once. A year ago. No, I guess more.” He smiled. “Your mom tossed me out.”
‘Your fault,’ her eyes had said. ‘All this is your fault.’
“Don’t blame her. I lost it a bit, Josh.”
“The job. The election. Us.”
“I wasn’t jumping off the roof or anything but it was pretty - grim.”
“I wish you’d called. Come back after the election.”
“I was better off here. You couldn’t have done anything for me. I mean,” he said. “With your job.”
“And with Amy?”
Sam shrugged. “You couldn’t put me back together on your schedule.”
“Why not? You did it for me.”
Sam looked up from his drink. “How are you doing, Josh? How are things back at the ranch?”
“It feels like nearly the end.” Sam rested an appraising gaze on him as if he wasn’t sure which question Josh was answering.
“I guess it must,” he said.
“What about you, Sam? You look – you look fantastic.”
“I’m good. I’m writing. Got an advance from a publisher and everything.”
Josh felt the tiny drumbeat of his heart again, subsiding quickly. “What are you writing? You’re not -?”
“A political text. Law, politics and power. How our system hinders good law making. You’re not in it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Josh smiled guiltily. Habits of mistrust were ingrained now. Even with Sam. He sipped the good coffee, looked away to a gap in the sky breaking through the cloud, blue like Sam’s eyes.
“Why aren’t I in it?” He demanded. “I make laws. I hinder good law making.”
“When I write my Washington political thriller you’ll definitely be in that.”
Josh was strangely satisfied with this. “Really? Thanks, Sam.”
A car drew up at the lights outside, the sound of the Supremes momentarily filling the room before fading away. Josh tugged his tie loose and rolled it into his pocket, unbuttoned the top two buttons of yesterday’s shirt. The collar felt grimy and he became conscious of this too.
“But you’d be better off writing in DC, wouldn’t you?” He tried again. “That’s where your sources are, right?”
“We do have telephones in California now. The postal service, the World Wide Web. Books even. The last century brought many innovations, undreamed of in the age of the gold rush.”
“And I’ve bought a house,” Sam said quietly. A gentler explanation.
“A house. Right.” If he had come with a plan it would have been ruined. “Where?”
“Just down the beach. I’m renovating, it was kind of a wreck when I bought it.”
“You’re not with your mom anymore?”
“Sometimes. The rewiring and the plumbing are just about done so I’m at the new house most of the time now.”
The spiky kid refilled Josh’s coffee and he tried again with the Danish pastry. His heart was making itself known again. Palpitations. The word always made him feel like an elderly aunt. Arrhythmia sounded manlier. But also sounded like something you would have to take to a doctor. He couldn’t face all that again.
“Are you still with Amy?” Sam’s voice broke into the silence.
“Nah,” he said. “It fizzled out.”
“Just the usual really.” Whatever that was. “How about you, are you with anyone?”
Sam hesitated. “No. Oh, but I came out to my mom.”
“Wow, really? How did she take it?”
“You can imagine.”
“Is that why she hates me?”
“No, she doesn’t know about us. She hates you for turning me Democrat.”
As the day brightened the shack began to fill with breakfasters, tourists in cut-off jeans and Venice Beach T-shirts coming in from LA.
“Hey,” said Sam. “Do you want to see my house? We can walk from here.”
Sam waited while Josh put his shoes and socks back on. Then they walked along a street of small shops and further along a grassy roadside with a feel of the countryside about it. They finally came to a sign announcing ‘Kowalski’s Dental Surgery’ and turned into a long sandy path where the sea could be heard but not seen. Sam opened his mailbox which seemed to be full of samples of dental floss.
“Dental surgery?” Josh asked as he waited, appreciating the sudden cool of the shaded path.
“It used to be a dental practise. Then Kowalski died while drilling.”
“You’re sure you haven’t moved in with a dentist? Because I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Sam smiled enigmatically and led him along the path to the house.
It was a Stucco house, vaguely Spanish looking in the way they used to build them in the middle of the last century. It had a new red-tiled roof and new windows but was obviously in the throws of building work. Piles of supplies and equipment were scattered around the front among the dusty palms which grew there. The walls needed a new coat of white paint and the curved steps to the arched doorway were waiting tiling. But it was a beautiful house.
“Okay, Josh, there’s a big hole just inside the doorway. Watch your step.”
Sam opened the front door and edged around a hole in the floorboards. Then he took Josh’s arm to guide him around it too. “Is that a design feature?” Josh asked.
“There are holes all over the place. So look where you’re going. I fall in one a day.”
Josh smiled. “I can imagine.”
They were in a small hallway with several rooms and a winding staircase coming off it.
“There are bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. Or I keep believing there will be. I live downstairs at the moment. Come and see the selling point.”
He led Josh into one of the ground floor rooms. It was large and would eventually be a living room. It was as unfinished as the rest of the house with wires showing in the unplastered walls and significant holes in the floorboards.
Here Sam had set up a futon, a rack where some of his clothes hung, an old chest of drawers and a desk with his computer. Books and papers piled on the desk and on the floor next to it. There were four boltholes in the boards in the middle of the room presumably where the dentist’s chair had once been fixed. Josh could easily imagine how the chaos would be driving Sam to distraction.
There was a large pair of French doors encompassing all of the side of one wall and as Sam pulled back the makeshift curtains that covered them Josh noticed the ocean just outside.
“You’re kidding,” he said taking in the view.
Sam opened up the French doors and the sound of the sea echoed through the room. Newly laid decking outside led from a porch area straight down to the water. Going outside, Josh followed it to its end where sea washed up at its sides.
Virtually all that was visible from here was a wide empty expanse of ocean, bluer now the cloud had lifted. Far down to the left he could see some buildings of the town but a deep planting of trees and bushes mostly concealed these. To the right all he could see was sea.
Sam had followed him down. “What do you think?”
“It’s practically a ship. You’ve bought a semi-aquatic house.”
He turned to look back at Sam standing in front of his house. It was made of arches and balconies and asymmetrical lines. It was unpretentiously beautiful and belonged, like Sam, to the sea. He thought of Sam’s place in Washington, painted blue, rather desperately in retrospect.
“It’s perfect,” he said sadly.
He suddenly felt Sam’s hand on his arm. “Josh, are you okay?”
He realised he had become dizzy and gripped the rail. “Er, yeah.”
“Did you just black out?”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
Though there was, now he thought about it, a moment or two unaccounted for. Sweat prickled at his temples and he fought a wave of nausea. His heart pounded in his chest and then, as it usually did, quietened.
Sam was leading him into the shade anyway and helping him into a sun chair. He disappeared and came back a moment later with a glass of water.
Josh sipped the water and claimed to be fine a few times. Sam drew up another chair. “Sit there for a while anyway.”
“Okay,” he said. “But I am all right. I never do well in California, you know that.”
“And how have you been doing in DC?”
He shrugged in reply. Once when he was alone in his apartment in the middle of the night he had woken up on the bathroom floor with no idea how he had got there. But he had gotten up and gone to work. It was okay.
A movement caught his eye and a moment later a giant dark ginger and black ball of fur hurled itself at him. At first he thought it was an interesting new symptom and then he realised it was a cat.
“Jesus Sam, what the hell is it?”
Sam reached out and scratched the cat’s head and it nuzzled his hand.
“It’s a cat. He is, in fact, my cat.”
“This is an astonishing development.”
“Well, he was here when I moved in. I think he was the dentist’s. He lives under the floorboards and keeps the mice company.”
The beast stood on four paws and clawed Josh’s legs industriously.
“He likes you,” Sam observed.
“Is that why he’s tearing me to shreds?”
“I think so, but it was six months before he came anywhere near me. And he’s really against anyone else who comes here.”
“Is he meant to be round?” The cat turned a few times and then curled himself up on Josh’s lap.
“Do you want to know his name?”
“It’s Toby.” Josh laughed hard until his chest tightened. “Seriously, they’ve got the same personality.”
They sat quietly, the three of them. Josh looking out to sea, listening to the gentle motion of the waves and to Toby’s rhythmic purring. Finally he said.
“There’s no chance, is there Sam. There’s no chance that you’ll come back to DC?”
Sam hesitated. “I’m starting again, Josh and think I could be happy here. I’ve got to give that a chance.”
Josh let Toby’s fur ripple through his fingers. “But I had to ask though, didn’t I?”
Sam nodded and they fell silent again.
Josh looked at his watch. “Late. Dammit. I’ve got to go or I’m going to miss my flight.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
The strange light-headedness had settled though his heart was a constant presence and for some reason his teeth hurt. “Yeah, I am.” He gave Toby a gentle nudge. “Move it, fat boy.”
This had no affect so Sam swept the animal off Josh’s lap and put him on the floor. He wandered off in a cloud of reproach.
Sam drove Josh to the airport and parked at the departure gate entrance. He wrote down two phone numbers and an email address then Josh knew he had to get out of the car. He wasn’t ill. His heart missing beats was a symptom from way back.
“You know, you could come and visit some time,” he said.
“I will and you should come and stay once the house is finished.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Take care of yourself, huh Josh.”
Someone honked a horn behind them as if in protest against these banalities before driving off to a more likely bay.
“Can I ask you something, Sam?”
“Why did you come out to your mom, after all this time?”
“I had this idea,” Sam said. “That I wouldn’t always be alone in that house and I didn’t want it to come as shock to her.”
“Okay,” Josh said and then got out of the car.
Sam was woken by the sound of Toby moving about under the floorboards. Webb’s arm was flung over his chest and he eased out from under it, rolling off the futon without waking him.
He pulled on shorts and a T-shirt and crouched over one of the holes in the floor. He called Toby’s name in a loud whisper but the cat did not emerge. After a silence the scuffling noises resumed and Sam was sure Toby was there, returned after three days mysterious disappearance.
The kitchen, which Sam crossed into now, was the only part of the house which had started to look as it was supposed to. The maple units and stainless steel appliances had been fitted in the last week, water flowed from the taps and a flick of a switch brought electricity. The floor, some plastering and lighting still needed to be done but the room already had a pleasing sense of completeness, which the rest of the house entirely lacked.
He opened a can of cat food and put half in a bowl on the floor. When this did not entice Toby he tapped the can with the end of a spoon. The cat finally emerged from a hole in the kitchen floor, dust balls attached to his fur. He flung Sam a look of profound suspicion and rushed to the bowl, eating energetically.
The kitchen, like the living room, overlooked the ocean. For several minutes as Toby ate noisily and he waited for coffee to brew he watched the sea begin to turn from blue-black to a misty grey as the sun rose and he was perfectly happy.
Finally Toby finished breakfast and began to nuzzle, purring at Sam’s leg. All was forgiven. Sam gathered him up in his arms to scratch him under the chin and dust him off.
The peaceful morning lasted only as long as it took for the scent of coffee to reach Webb and wake him. Sam heard him start to move about. First visiting the newly fitted guest restroom by the front door, edging past the hole in the floor there, and then finding his way to Sam in the kitchen.
At the sight of Webb Toby jumped from Sam’s arms and vanished into the nearest gap in the floorboards. It might have had something to do with Webb’s habit of walking about totally naked. A cat might not appreciate the finer points of a perfectly toned body. The truth was though, Toby tended to vanish even when Webb was clothed.
Sam sighed and crouched over the hole. Sometimes Toby would shelter near the entrance just out of sight but this time he was totally gone. The message was clear. Toby wanted him to choose between him and Webb. It was really no choice at all.
He had met Webb at the gym and had been drawn to his light brown curls. The astonishing body had been an added bonus, which he had discovered soon after.
It had been a long time since he and Josh had broken up. A long time since his work and then the election had meant a night with a stranger was too great a risk. A long time since all he could do was stare at the ceiling at his mom’s house and sex had been the last thing on his mind.
But he was better now and freer and he discovered that sex was one thing Webb could do fluently. It was like a dam bursting on to a dry, dry land.
He had thought of it as coming back to life. Like working on the house, like getting fit again, like pouring everything he had learnt in the last ten years into his book. He had thought of it all as small steps forward.
The joy of discovering he was a physical human being after all expired when he made a discovery. He realised it was just not as much fun as with Josh. He was a guy, emotions were supposed to be an optional extra. But after a while, sex with Webb just made him miss Josh. That wasn’t moving forward, that was a step backward.
“Cat hates me,” Webb observed pouring himself a coffee.
“Yes,” Sam agreed absently.
Sam unconsciously averted his gaze as Webb turned to him. “Gym, Sam? Thought I’d put in an hour before work.”
“Not today, I’m going for a run instead.”
“Okay.” Webb took the coffee into the other room and when he came back to Sam he was blessedly fully clothed.
He was running his tongue over his teeth. “Feel like I ought to go and get my teeth cleaned. Might make an appointment.”
Sam had come to suspect that the dentist, Kowalski who had died while tending to a patient’s cavities was still here. A lot of people left with an urge to attend to their teeth. He had lost his electrician for an entire week when he had suddenly realised he had to have wisdom teeth taken out.
“Tonight?” Webb asked. That was the problem with Webb. He never used complete sentences. It was as good a reason as any to finish with him.
“Let’s leave it for a while,” Sam said. “I’ve got to work plus I’ve got the bathrooms being fitted upstairs tomorrow.”
Webb shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Later, Sam.”
Webb left after asking Sam for dental floss. It was the easiest break up ever.
When he had gone, Sam peered again into the hole in the kitchen floor. “Toby,” he called. “He’s gone.” But the cat was sulking somewhere and would probably not be seen for a while.
He poured himself a coffee and went through to the living room. Pulling on deck shoes he went outside through the French doors.
He followed the decking down to sit on the edge of the little jetty, where one day his boat would be moored, and sipped his coffee. It was a grey day. One of those rare mornings where the sun did not sparkle a thousand diamonds off the top of the water.
Looking into the clouds for a trace of sun he thought of DC, of the fearful weather they sometimes had there. He thought of Josh coming to his apartment and bringing a blizzard one night. It had been right at the end of their relationship but even then they had sat close and he had fallen asleep with Josh’s hand in his hair.
He dismissed the dangerous thoughts and finished his coffee. Then he wandered back inside. He had intended to go to the gym but that was out of the question now and he decided to actually go for the run he had invented for Webb.
The other consequence of not going to the gym was that he had nowhere to take a shower. Brilliant. So, as he pulled on sweats, he called his mom and told her he would be round later. She was remarkably civil considering she had not really forgiven him for being homosexual and it had only been a few days since she found out. An announcement made in an excess of hope for the future shortly after discovering Webb’s brown curls and extraordinary six-pack.
He warmed up for a while and then took a path from the front of his house to the beach. In the sultry morning the air was rich with ozone and the beach was empty but for a few dogs daring the tide before their owners called them back. He ran hard and fast unhindered, the sea hushing at his feet, his mind focussed on nothing but the run.
He sometimes ended his run with a health drink at a small coffee place on the beach and as it came into sight he decided to head that way now.
At first he scarcely noticed the figure ahead of him, walking slowly in his direction. Then as he grew closer he briefly wondered why anyone would come to the beach early in the morning in a suit. Except to possibly commit suicide.
But then he found himself thinking of Josh again. He put it down to the effect of the break up with Webb. But as he approached, he made out his familiar size and build, the thousand unconscious registers of stance, mannerism and dress that identifies the one person you know from the other hundred who resemble them. He came to a stop.
“Josh. God.” He looked terrible.
PART TWO – TODAY’S MOUNTAINS
Josh had been in Dallas talking to the Ranchers and Cattlemen Action Association. Outside the heat was visible in hazy waves but the room they met in was air-conditioned to below zero. Josh wondered at his purple fingernails and a chill that seemed to penetrate his spine, radiating through every bone and organ.
The flight back to Washington arrived late afternoon and he had planned to go straight back to work. But he had not yet warmed up so he decided to go home for a shower and a change of clothes first. He made the mistake of lying down on his bed after the shower and woke confused to find ten hours had passed and night had fallen. He lay in the darkness of his bedroom wondering why no one had called to find out what had become of him.
He dressed and drove in the dark to work. He had five meetings today and had not prepared for any of them.
Donna would normally have pulled the files for each meeting. He expected to find them on his desk when he came in. Instead he found only a note from her.
‘See Leo first thing re today’s mountains.’
He gathered this translated to ‘meetings’. Evidently Leo had something else in mind for him. He was relieved, it absolved him from meeting prep.
It was not yet five-thirty and Leo would not be in so he went outside. There was a knot at the back of his throat, tightness in his chest. He often sought outdoors now as if walls and a roof could suffocate him. He walked out into the silvery dawn of one of the gardens. It was a cool morning, the air laced with recently fallen rain, a droplet glittering on each rose leaf.
“Josh.” Leo stood in the doorway, his coat still on and briefcase in hand. It did not seem to be the first time he had called.
“Oh hey, Leo.” He made his way along the stone path back inside. “I got a note to come and see you. Something up?”
They walked together through the sunshine yellow corridors and Leo did not answer his question.
“How did you get on in Dallas?”
“Okay. We got some concessions on subsidies. I’ll put something together this afternoon.”
“Were you all right during the meeting?”
Josh paused. He recognised this tone. “What’s going on?”
They reached Leo’s office where he switched on the lights and put down his briefcase. “I had Bill Scullard on the phone,” he said as he hung up his coat.
“What did he have to say?”
“He said that several times during the meeting yesterday you appeared to have difficulty concentrating.”
“And several times during the meeting your eyes closed -.”
“That’s just not true.”
“And I have to say I’ve noticed this kind of thing too.”
“Okay, I might have been a bit tired.”
“Josh. You’re distant and disorganised. Your work isn’t up to standard and you look sick.” He paused. “I know we’re coming to the end of our term but that makes pushing through our agenda even more important.”
Josh gripped the back of a chair with one hand. “Are you firing me?” He asked and realised what he was feeling was hope.
“Of course not. I want you to go and see your doctor. I want you to go today and I won’t have you back until he says you’re fit.”
“I’ll see a doctor. I will, but I’ve got things I need to work on.”
“I’m delegating everything. Today’s meetings have been reassigned to your staff and I’ll be passing on the rest of your projects. Your team is more than capable of covering for you.” Leo’s eyes found Josh’s before he said. “I don’t expect to see you back for a while. You’re not fit to be here at the moment.”
“Please Leo, this isn’t necessary. I’m sorry I screwed up –.”
“Josh,” Leo said more gently. “You haven’t screwed up. You’re ill. Go and get better.”
Josh’s hand went through his hair. He could argue this point, negotiate to work from home for a while, negotiate a review of the position in two days. He could but he was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of relief. If it was really true that for a week or perhaps two he was not needed to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders then why not hand it to others who believed themselves stronger. And in that thought he failed to recognise the man he once was.
A steady rain fell throughout the day and was tapping loud against the roof of his doctor’s office. The doctor listened to his symptoms, took his blood pressure and frowned. He listened to his heart for a long time, tutting occasionally. He wrote his notes and then advised he was arranging for Josh to be admitted to hospital without delay.
A combination of his medical history, his family history and the symptoms he had been experiencing all suggested significant irregularities in his heart rhythm. Josh did not dare ask what this might mean but agreed to go to hospital that afternoon.
While he packed a bag he called Donna, told her he was having tests but not that he was being admitted. He called his mother and told her he would be travelling for a few days. Then he sat on the bed and called Sam.
He wouldn’t have, except they called each other more now. Josh called or Sam called every night or every other night to chat and to make each other laugh. They gossiped about DC village life, they talked through the arguments in Sam’s book, page by page and Josh let Sam gently nag him about his health.
“Sam, it’s me.”
“Hey Josh. How are you doing?”
“Fine.” Josh heard Sam putting aside some papers and going downstairs. He went outside as he always did when they spoke and Josh imagined he could hear the sea in the background. “How about you. Have you finished that book yet?”
“Sam, that’s fantastic. We’ve got to, you know, celebrate.”
“I think so. Are you at work?”
“Nope. Listen I just wanted to tell you. Don’t worry, but I’m going into hospital in a minute to have some tests done.”
There was a pause. “What kind of tests?”
“I’ve got an irregular heartbeat, apparently. Too slow mostly.”
“Oh, that’s – really? With you I would have said too fast. But I’m glad you’re finally getting checked.” Another pause. “Did something happen?”
“I guess I haven’t been my usual razor sharp self at work. Bill Scullard complained.”
“Did you not manage a minute on a bucking bronco?”
“Something like that. You know I swear he came to our meeting armed.”
“How long will you be in for?”
“A couple of days, unless they want to go straight for the transplant, of course.”
“Okay.” Pause. “Shall I come?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Sam. I’m just going to lie there while they stick electrodes to me.”
“I know but I can still –“
“I’m only calling because you won’t be able to get hold of me if you tried tonight. I’m seriously fine.” Josh knew Sam was looking out to sea and frowning. “I mean there’s probably some medication they’ll prescribe. And Leo seems to think I should have a week off or something.”
“I know what you’re like with doctors. Promise me you’ll listen to what they tell you.”
“I will.” Sam was silent. He wasn’t buying this. “I didn’t phone you to make you worry.”
“I’m not worrying.”
“Why not? I’m tachycardic.”
Sam chuckled. “Bradycardic. Tachy is when it’s too fast.”
“I’ll remember that when they shout for the defibrillator.”
“Look, I’m going to do anything they tell me to because I feel like shit all the time and I need to get back to work if I’m going to scrape back anything of my career.”
“That’s better. Where you gonna be?”
“Okay. Take it easy there.”
The truth was that since Rosslyn Josh was deathly afraid of hospitals. But this was not something he had ever told anyone because he did not want to be considered more of a basket case than he already was. But he was fearful as he waited in his room, ominously filled with equipment and alarms.
He was immediately connected to an EKG machine for continuous monitoring and left alone. Oddly enough he found himself reassured. The screen’s dips and spikes proving there was a heart there, ropy though it apparently was, working away on his behalf. Lately he had felt he was drifting away from everything connecting him to life.
Evening came and turned into night and the rain fell hard against his window. As the hours passed he was only interrupted by the bright-uniformed efficiency of an occasional member of staff and his real world of work and home seemed something he knew in a dream. The strange disconnection increased, the people he had spoken to today; Leo and Donna, his Doctor, his mother and Sam became people remembered from another life.
He slept deeply and without interruption for 13 hours and woke more tired than before he went to sleep.
Then there were the tests. Blood, urine, monitors, scans, x rays, treadmills. No one told him the results and he did not ask. He had thought it was going quite well though, right up until the moment they put him on a medieval torture device called a tilt table.
This was a table which was tilted upwards in order to test his heart’s ability to cope with stress. He lay down on the table and was attached to monitors.
When Josh next opened his eyes he was back in his room, once again attached to the EKG but now with an IV in. He was confused to see Sam sitting by his bed.
For a moment he thought he was back in GW after the shooting. This was how he woke on many occasions through those times. As reality asserted itself he realised whole years had passed since then. And yet Sam was here.
When he spoke he was surprised at how weak his voice was. “You came anyway,” he said.
“How are you doing?” Sam spoke quietly, a night time in a hospital voice.
He looked around. “I, I don’t know. Something happened, I think. I don’t remember.”
His hand was lying on the blankets and Sam reached for it. Sam’s hand was warm and he realised his own was cold.
“Do you know what happened?” Josh asked.
“Your heart stopped on the tilt table,” Sam said. “You had to be resuscitated.”
“Right.” He wasn’t surprised. “That probably means I failed the test?”
Sam’s thumb stroked his hand. “The doctors are going to talk to you tomorrow.”
“Right,” he said again. Trying to remember how it had been to simply stop living.
“Nobody’s panicking,” Sam said. “They just had to find out what the problem was.”
Josh took in Sam’s tired but still lovely face, his warm, reassuring expression which was slowly chasing his fear away. “You’re here. Did someone call you?”
Sam shook his head. “I left after you called yesterday.”
Josh sighed. “Sam, you don’t have to cross the continent every time I cut my finger.”
Sam shrugged as if to say, “Why not?”
Josh smiled. “But thanks.”
Their fingers tangled, met at the tips, interlaced and rested together.
Josh examined him more closely. “Your hairs got even longer. You big hippy.”
“You’re definitely balder,” Sam replied.
They found themselves looking at each other in silence.
“Who’s looking after your fat cat?” Josh asked eventually.
“In LA there are people whose actual job it is to feed peoples’ cats.”
“I might go for that job when I get out of here.”
“You’re going right back to the White House, don’t worry about that.”
“You should get some sleep, Josh. It’s after Midnight. The resuscitation probably took it out of you.”
“Where are you staying?”
“Don’t Sam. Go to my apartment. My keys are somewhere. My car’s outside.”
“It’s okay. I’d rather stay here.”
Josh didn’t try too hard to make him leave.
Sam clicked save for the last time and closed the document. Then he shut down the computer and leaned back in his chair.
“Done,” he said.
The book was finished. He stretched his arms out behind him and whirled round on the chair. He went over to the armchair where a scruffy black and ginger ball had woken up and was blinking at him with startled eyes.
“It’s done, cat,” said Sam. Toby objected mildly as Sam ruffled his fur. “No, it’s really finished. We can go have some fun now. What do you think? Let’s break open the catnip and party.”
Toby was not impressed and soon laid his head on a languorously outstretched paw and closed his eyes.
“I really ought to get out more,” Sam said to himself sitting back on his heels.
He had a tendency, as Josh liked to point out, to be over-tidy. His new study, on its own at the top of the house was the one room in which he had allowed a little clutter of pictures, magazines and mismatch to build up. Clutter was a relative concept though. He gathered together some reference papers he had been using and throwing caution to the wind he did not file them straight away but put them on the shelf above his desk. In a filing tray.
There was one photograph on the shelf. It was a picture of CJ, Toby and Josh snapped at an event in their first year. He kept it there so that if he ever tried to get away with something lazy or pretentious in his writing he would hear one of their voices in his head expounding the opposing argument or simply teasing him about it. If that did not work he called Josh and Josh did it in person. Josh didn’t know but the book was dedicated to him.
He wondered if all this translated to a yearning to return to the White House, to the dark thrill of that world. It was something he thought about.
He left the study to go downstairs. Toby, now a terrestrial rather than underground creature, tapped after him, paws on the polished wood floor.
Downstairs the rooms were sparsely furnished, white painted but with bold splashes of colour in rugs or art on the walls. He had tried to give the rooms and hallways a Spanish feel in keeping with the style of the house and the need to keep them cool in the California summer.
There was work still to be done. Most of the rooms needed one item of furniture or another and the front looked like a cleared out building site, which it was. But even so the house was pretty much finished now.
He had worked the hardest on the living room and it was beautiful. It was simple because the sea was a constant presence, which nothing should compete with. White painted over rough plaster. A Navajo rug in front of a wine coloured couch and the occasional piece of dark wood furniture.
He picked up a carefully placed coffee table book and tried throwing it casually on to the couch. But he couldn’t leave it there. There was no question about it, he was becoming obsessive compulsive. He was sure even Toby had stopped shedding his fur so as not to ruin the ambience.
He went out front to get the mail and today’s supply of dental floss samples. Then he went into the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. He took it outside to eat at the wrought iron dining set he had recently bought. He had decided the reclining sun chairs that used to belong to the dentist, in all their floral patterned glory, did not look right with the new décor and they were gone. He had stored them in the basement rather than throwing them out in case Kowalski minded.
His boat had been brought from Chesapeke a couple of months ago and it was moored at the end of the jetty leading from his house. He had been looking at it longingly ever since.
He had time now, since the book was finished and most of the work on the house was done. He needed to do a bit of maintenance work on her but then he planned to go sailing. As he mentally mapped his route the phone rang inside the house and he went to answer it.
The woman on the line was Rita Baker, the Chief Executive of a campaigning group called Educational Reform, America. Sam knew them from the Education Bill days in the first term. He had been impressed with ERA’s touching belief that the country owed every child an education of the highest standard no matter what their family’s income happened to be. They also gave practical help to schools in deprived areas and this warmed Sam’s feelings toward them even more.
“Sam, I hope you don’t mind me calling you out of the blue but I was talking to Toby Ziegler and he mentioned you were in California and expressed the opinion you probably weren’t working hard enough.”
Sam laughed. “It’s good to speak with you Rita. How’s DC?”
“That’s what I’d hoped you were going to say.”
“Look, I won’t keep you. I’ll just get to why I’m calling. We’re looking to open an office in Los Angeles. We need to expand the work we’re doing on the West coast and be a little less Washington focussed.”
“That’s good news.”
“We’ve got one or two ideas I think you’d be interested in and I’d be happy to talk to you about them when I’m next in LA.”
“Well, it’d be great to see you again but I don’t -.”
“I’ll get to the point. There are two senior positions in the new office a Campaigns Director, in charge of operations and a Director of Communications. We’ve got the Campaigns Director in post already and I was wondering if you’d be interested in the Communications post. It’s not the White House and you might just laugh at the money we can offer but it would be a high profile position keeping in touch with what’s going on in education and communicating our message to those in positions of power and the media.”
“Rita, I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, all I’m asking you to do is think about it. I’ve got some details about the job and the work we’re doing which I can email to you. In fact I’m going to do it now if you just give me your address. But I tell you Sam, if we could snap you up we’d consider ourselves pretty lucky.”
“Well, flattery will get you pretty much anywhere. Let me have the details and I’ll give it some serious thought.”
But even as he was speaking to her, he began to feel the familiar thrill of a new challenge and he was smiling as he went back upstairs to his study to wait for the email.
He had printed the pages Rita sent him when the phone rang again. This time it was Josh, telling him he was going into hospital.
When he finished this call he turned the phone over in his hands. He was definitely glad Leo had forced the situation. Josh had been sounding worse each time they spoke lately, as if he scarcely had energy to continue the conversation. And probably nothing other than Leo stopping him from working would have induced him to do something about it. But Sam knew how scared Josh was of ill health after his last long recovery. Knowing him, he would be facing this alone, telling few people, if any, what was happening.
Without ever having put the phone down he called to arrange a seat on a flight to DC to leave the next morning.
A nurse named Sandy at Georgetown University Hospital directed him to Josh’s room telling him he was probably asleep still, since he was recovering from the resuscitation. Sam stopped and turned to her, his eyes widening.
“I’m sorry, I thought you knew. Mr Lyman was undergoing a stress test called the Tilt Table. Unfortunately he lost consciousness and his heart stopped.”
“Do you know what the problem is?”
“I don’t. The doctor will speak to him in the morning.”
Josh was asleep when Sam came into his room. The equipment around his bed brought Sam back to those terrible days after Rosslyn when he had had to watch Josh hanging on to life.
Josh did not look much better now. The room was in semi-darkness but Sam could see how pale he was, how thin his face had become. How old he looked. And now his heart had actually stopped. Sam settled himself in the chair next to the bed and waited, intending to stay awake. Just in case it should happen again.
Josh woke once during the night but went to sleep soon after. Sam stayed awake attentive to the lights and pulses of the machines in the room and Josh’s slightly laboured breathing. The following morning he stepped out after Josh woke to get breakfast and to give him time alone with his doctor. When he returned he found Josh out of bed.
He had detached himself from the IV and monitors and was getting dressed. He was clearly furious.
“What’s going on?”
Josh pulled his sweater over his jeans and started looking for his overnight bag. “Don’t say anything Sam, I’m leaving.”
“Calm down for a minute, tell me what happened.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” he snapped throwing the bag on the bed.
Sam put a hand on Josh’s arm. “Josh.”
Josh shook the hand off and then realising what he had done he turned to Sam and just stared at him. Sam saw that his eyes were smarting.
“Tell me. What did the doctor say?”
Josh was so upset he could scarcely speak. “Sam, they want me to have a pacemaker.”
Sam’s first instinct was to laugh but then he realised Josh was serious. “No. Why?”
Josh shook his head. He couldn’t speak anymore.
“Wait. Just wait here. I’m going to talk to the doctor. Okay?”
Josh nodded slightly.
Sam had passed a cluster of doctors and nurses at the end of the corridor. They all wore the hunted look of people who had been thrown out by Josh Lyman. He found the doctor among them and asked him to explain what Josh had just tried to tell him.
“Mr Seaborn, if you care about your friend you’ll convince him to take our advice. He was shot, he seems to have forgotten that. It’s a miracle he’s alive and yet he thinks he can go on as if nothing had happened.”
Sam nodded. This was a fair summary.
“The injury he sustained, the subsequent surgery and recovery weakened a pre-existing genetic heart condition which he inherited from his father. His lifestyle, diet and stress levels have exacerbated the problem. As a consequence his heart rate has become unreliable. Sometimes his heart doesn’t pump enough oxygen to his brain. This is why he’s been feeling light-headed and not coping as he usually would.
“A pacemaker will take a couple of hours to implant, will hardly need any care on his part and will mean he will never have this problem again.”
“But a pacemaker, at his age. Isn’t there anything else you can do? He’s really upset by the idea. What about medication?”
“There are no medications that can reliably speed up a slow rate. If he decides not to accept a pacemaker he’ll continue to feel weak and unwell and will probably have to give up working. I also wouldn’t like to guarantee that his heart wouldn’t just stop at some point.”
Sam stared at him. It was worse than he had expected. He bit his lip. “And if he got a second opinion?”
“He’d get the same advice. This is standard treatment. Many people of every age use pacemakers. It is an extremely efficient treatment and the right one for Josh.”
Sam questioned the doctor for a while longer and then went back to Josh’s room.
Josh was standing by the window his arms crossed protectively over his chest. He was looking out on to the hospital parking lot as if preparing for flight via the fire escape. Sam noticed he had his jacket on and had finished packing not only his own overnight bag but also Sam’s. Josh immediately read his expression and shook his head rapidly.
“No Sam,” he said as Sam started to speak.
“Josh, can I just tell you what the doctor told me.”
“You know what,” he said. “Not now. I can’t do this now.”
“Josh, don’t -.”
Josh grabbed his bag from the bed. “I’m just going to go. Are you ready, because -?”
Josh was moving fast, as if Sam would try and physically stop him leaving.
“I’ll be in the car.”
“Come on, just listen for a - minute,” he said to the empty air.
Sam threw on his jacket, slung his overnight bag over his shoulder and hurried after him.
He caught up with Josh at the elevator where he was impatiently jabbing at the call button.
He knew there was no point saying anything so he waited with him, just hoping Josh would allow him to drive them home. He could, he decided, talk to him later when he was less agitated.
Josh stopped pressing the button at last and looked down at the floor. He stood very still and after a moment Sam heard him gasp in a breath. As Sam started to ask him if he was okay Josh’s hand shot out and gripped his wrist. He turned to Sam and, as he turned, the life drained out of him. His eyes closed and he crumpled forward.
Afterwards Sam could not remember the following minutes with any clarity. He remembered catching Josh before he fell. He remembered seeing Sandy, the nurse he had spoken to the evening before who had been walking toward them, break into a run and shout for help.
He must have lowered Josh to the floor because he remembered kneeling and cradling him. He remembered the sure and certain conviction Josh was dead.
Sandy must have pulled Josh out of his arms and laid him flat. He remembered her putting her ear to his mouth and then to his heart.
“He’s breathing,” she said, putting out her hand to warn the resuscitation team who were already approaching.
The words echoed in Sam’s mind until he understood their meaning and after what seemed like minutes but was probably only a few seconds Josh’s eyes flickered open. His gaze darted about until he found Sam. Then a doctor talking to him drew his attention away.
Josh was taken in a chair back to his room and Sam was left alone trying to shake the conviction that Josh had just died in his arms.
Later Sandy found him, still standing by the elevator with both their bags at his feet.
“Josh is fine,” she said. “You can go in and see him.”
He must have stared back at her in incomprehension because she picked up a bag, handed it to him and took the other one herself. “Come on, Sam. I’m not going to have to put you to bed as well, am I?”
The joke made him smile and come back to earth. “I thought he’d died.”
“I know,” she said, guiding him along the corridor. “He was unconscious for a few seconds, that’s all. He’s asking for you.”
Josh had been undressed and put back to bed, attached again to an IV and an EKG and his legs slightly elevated. His eyes were closed but he opened them as Sam and Sandy came in. She put down the bag she was carrying and went to him, checking the reading on the EKG.
“What happened?” Josh asked, his voice faded and resigned.
“You passed out for a few seconds. You need to rest now but no harm done.”
She took Josh’s pulse and blood pressure, made some notes on his chart and left, closing the door behind her.
Sam sat on the chair next to Josh’s bed, took his hand, brought it up to kiss it and then held it firmly.
“Well,” said Josh lightly. “I’m quite the Victorian heroine today, aren’t I?”
Sam clasped his hand even tighter, too shocked still to respond. Josh must have felt him shaking.
“Hey,” he said gently. “I’m okay.”
Sam lowered their hands. “You’re not. Josh. You’re not okay.”
Josh nodded and his eyes closed again. “I know it.”
Sandy brought Sam a cup of tea and he sat outside Josh’s room with her while he slept, talking and regaining his composure. It turned out Sandy had volunteered for Bartlet during both the campaigns and appeared to be harbouring a long held belief that he and Josh were a couple.
When Josh woke he was feeling better. Sandy took his vital signs and gave him a hot sweet drink to take as well. Then she left them alone again.
Neither of them mentioned the word ‘pacemaker’ but Josh read Sam’s expression.
“You know what this means,” he said. “A lifetime of being a patient, of doctors and check-ups and special questions on health forms and Christ knows what.”
Sam sat again in the chair next to his bed. “To me that’s better than a lifetime of not being able to walk up a flight of stairs without getting breathless, of not being able to work, of not knowing if your heart isn’t just going to stop one day.”
“Sam, I’m not even 45. This can’t be happening.”
“I want to know I can celebrate your forty fifth birthday with you. And your forty sixth and your ninety sixth. This isn’t your fault Josh. You were shot and all you’ve ever wanted to do was walk away from it, but this time you can’t. Not this time.”
“No,” Josh admitted. “I couldn’t even get as far as the elevator, could I?”
By the following afternoon, having read all the pacemaker literature Josh had been given Sam was finding it hard to contain his fascination with the procedure he was about to undergo.
An incision would be made just below his collar bone and the generator containing computer chip and battery would be implanted just under the skin, leads threaded through his veins and attached to a chamber of his heart.
“This is amazing Josh, the whole things over in two hours and you don’t even have to have a general anaesthetic.”
Josh went pale and Donna, who he had finally called, gave a sympathetic squeak. “You’re kidding,” Josh said. “They’re going to do open heart surgery on me with a local anaesthetic?”
“It’s not open-heart surgery and they can give you mild sedation. If you’d actually listened when the doctor talked to you you’d know this. It’s a minor procedure.”
“It may be minor to you,” Josh said sulkily.
“My uncle had a pacemaker,” Donna said. “And he used to interfere with the TV signal.
Josh gazed at her in increasing horror.
“That,” said Sam. “That is just not true.” He found the relevant leaflet. “Outside electrical sources do not interfere with a modern pacemaker and can be safely used. There’s this whole thing with metal detectors though which you need to know but apart from that you’re fine. And you shouldn’t lean over a running engine. But, why would you?”
“Sam, can you just shut up.” Josh said.
“Right,” he turned the page. “Do you know the batteries last 7 to 10 years?”
“Really?” Donna was impressed. “I wish I had those in my walkman.”
“Any chance at all you could both pack it in.” Josh said hopelessly.
Donna and Sam waited in the minor surgical waiting area as the surgical team started to work on a very fearful and unwilling Josh. CJ and Toby arrived shortly afterwards.
They talked for a while about how Josh had been these last few months. How they had been trying to get him to see a doctor but he just kept insisting there was nothing wrong. Sam got the impression they thought he was holding them responsible and he wondered what they knew or thought they knew.
“Hey Toby,” Sam said, to change the subject. “Thanks for recommending me to Rita Baker.”
CJ stared at Toby accusingly. “You gave Sam away to someone else?”
“I did not. I told her you’d become a Gen X Slacker and not to touch you with a barge pole, unless she wanted a surfer on her senior team writing beat poetry.”
“You should totally come back to the White House, Sam,” CJ said, flinging herself into the chair next to him and linking arms with him. Donna, who was in the seat on his other side, put her arm around him and squeezed his shoulders.
“Yes, come back. Josh is all lost without you and none of its any fun anymore.”
CJ said. “And Toby can’t manage at all.”
“I absolutely can.”
“Shut up Toby. He can’t. He’s impossible to put up with. That’s why no one stays in your job. You’re, like, the only one in the world who can deal with him.”
Toby puffed up with outrage. “I am sitting here you know. I can hear you.”
“Well tell him to come back. Now’s your chance while he’s vulnerable and remembering how charming we all are.”
Sam laughed and he was remembering the old camaraderie. It was hard to keep reminding himself to look forward and not back. It was a mantra he had had to repeat a lot these couple of days.
“If it would guarantee that the pair of you would only shut up. I’ll gladly reemploy him.” From Toby, this was as good as a contract.
When they had been waiting for a while longer Toby said. “By the way, Sam, I hear you’ve got a cat.”
Josh was discharged from hospital the following morning. This came as a surprise. His one previous hospital admission had lasted two months and he had half expected this one to as well.
He had been told he would need a couple of weeks at home to recover and then he would be able to resume all normal activities. As his normal activities these days mostly consisted of looking for somewhere to sit down and wondering when he could lie down he did not find this advice encouraging.
He certainly felt lousy now. The incision site was tender, he was itching like godknows where they had shaved his chest for surgery, his left arm hurt and he was completely punch drunk exhausted despite a deep sleep with Sam at his side.
He was grateful to Sam now for carrying his bag up the steps to his apartment and for supporting him by his right arm. He was even too tired to complain and this seemed to be bothering Sam the most.
“It’s probably the effect of the pain killers that’s wiping you out,” he said. “And all this happened really quickly. You haven’t had a chance to get used to the idea yet.”
“I’m fine,” Josh said, looking around his apartment and wondering if Sam would let him just curl up by the front door because this seemed to be the easiest option. When he realised this was probably out of the question he started to make his way to the bedroom. “I’m just going to lie down for a while.”
He started to undress and his ‘ow, ow, dammit, ow,” soon brought Sam in to help. He wasn’t supposed to lift his left arm for fear of dislodging the wires during the healing process. This complicated the business of taking off his sweater no end. Sam sorted this out without Josh noticing and he also helped with his shoes, which seemed a long way away.
Sam remained kneeling by the side of the bed while he got in. He looked almost as tired as Josh following his nights of disrupted sleep.
“Do you want anything?” he asked absently straightening the blankets.
“Nah. Thanks Sam. Are you going to get some sleep now?”
Sam nodded but didn’t show any sign of leaving. He smiled when Josh reached to stroke his hair.
“Can I ask you something, Sam?”
“Donna told me Toby offered you your job back.”
“Yes. I think there was a job offer beneath the character assassination.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
“You know what I think.”
“I’d made up my mind to stay in California. But now I’m here again it doesn’t seem so straightforward.” Whether here meant Washington or Josh’s bedroom wasn’t clear.
“We’ve got a year and a half left,” Josh said. “After that you could go back to your own personal ocean.”
Sam shook his head. “If I come back now I don’t think I’d ever leave.”
Josh grinned. “I don’t think you would either.”
But the thought evidently did not make Sam as happy as it made him.
“The truth is, Josh. I’ve been offered a job in LA as well. Or as near as dammit. With ERA. They’re opening up on the West Coast and they’re looking for a Director of Communications.”
Josh absorbed the information. “I’ve got a lot of time for ERA.”
“But you think I should be more high profile.”
“I don’t think there’s any limit to what you’re capable of, if that’s what you mean.”
Silence fell between them.
“Can you feel it there?” Sam asked eventually, nodding at the pacemaker site under Josh’s pyjama top.
“This thing? Yeah, kind of, just a sense of it. But it doesn’t hurt, with all the painkillers they’ve given me.”
Sam lifted the pyjama with his finger to look at the dressing. “It must be so tiny. It’s a miracle really.”
“It’ll be visible though. Just under the skin.” He did not say any more, he did not want Sam to know he felt his life had effectively ended. Sam had evidently figured this out though.
“You’ll be okay. I hate that you have to go through this but you will be okay.”
Sam dropped his head a little, letting his hair fall across his face. Sometimes Josh could be completely overwhelmed by Sam. Even now when he was more than usually self-obsessed he could hardly take his eyes from him. The physical beauty, which just got more astonishing as the years progressed. The beautiful mind and heart and soul which shone through all of what made up the surface.
It was hard to believe he had let Sam slip away from him for reasons that now seemed so trivial. He wanted more than anything for Sam to stay and he knew he was closer than he had been in a couple of years to actually agreeing to. A little persuasion from Josh and he probably would.
But looking now into his troubled eyes Josh also realised coming back to Washington was possibly the worst thing that could happen to Sam. Hard as it was to admit, Washington had been the only thing that had ever been able to dent Sam’s soul. Even the law firms he hated had not managed that.
And the town would bring him down again. Josh understood this clearly for the first time. He understood it was not right for him to keep dragging Sam into his own damaged orbit.
“You should work for ERA,” he said and Sam looked up at the sudden change of subject. “That’s what you should do. That’s where you belong. With them. In California. That’s what, that’s-.”
Sam lifted his head slightly and kissed Josh’s lips. When he drew away, blinking he looked like he had just woken up.
“What was that for?” Josh asked.
Sam sighed and looked immensely sad. “I’m supposed to be looking forward you know, Josh, not back. You make that so hard.”
“Stay here tonight,” Josh said, mustering all he had to sound healthy and remotely competent. “And then go back home. Sort out your job. Don’t miss this chance.”
“Josh, are you sending me away?” Sam said, so quietly.
“Yes. It’s for the best.” If his heart hadn’t been newly rewired it would have broken into a thousand pieces there and then.
“I don’t know if I can go.”
“Go tomorrow. Just you know, I can’t keep saying it.”
Sam nodded slightly and dropped his head again. Josh lifted it with a finger under Sam’s chin.
“But stay tonight.”
Sam came in with Josh and slept next to him. Not daring to touch him and disturb any newly sensitive area but for a kiss lingering on lips and hair and neck and a light caressing hand.
The next day, which was Saturday. Sam stayed until Donna arrived and then, at Josh’s continued quiet insistence, left.
“Why did you just let him go?” Donna asked. “He would have stayed. I’m sure he would.”
The next two or three days were terrible. Josh felt old and ill and sad and he missed Sam dreadfully. His whole body ached and the presence of the thing in his chest took on the proportions in his mind of a giant lead weight pinning him down or sometimes a croaking toad pressing down on his heart. Sam called a couple of times a day but he could barely talk to him. Donna came and went, all bossy kindness but he hardly noticed her in all his contemplation of how easy it would be now to just give up.
Then on the fourth day something strange happened. He woke up and felt better.
For the first time in months the thought of getting out of bed did not seem more trouble than it was worth. He got himself breakfast and opened the mail that had been piling up. He switched on the news channels to see what had been happening in the world and wiled away the morning in a state of surprise at how easy this all was compared to how hard it had been for so long.
He had literature about the pacemaker, which until then he had not been able to face but suddenly became curious about. Sam had emailed him some bits and pieces as well and he sat down and read through it all.
He came to the surprising conclusion that perhaps this was not the end of the world. The little device monitored his heart and fired into life when the beat faltered or slowed. It did nothing when his heartbeat was normal. It didn’t prevent him doing anything except keeping his cell phone in his breast pocket and of course leaning over a running engine. Sam was right it was a small miracle.
Over the next few days he continued to recover at an astonishing rate. He had never been one to wallow in his misfortune, he never wanted to be a victim and he began to realise he had a chance now to reclaim his life.
Josh strode into work with something of his old swagger two weeks after surgery, with the blessing of his doctor and the doubtful approval of Leo.
At first he didn’t have much to do. He had been physically away for little more than a fortnight but had really been away for a lot longer. His team in the Deputy Chief of Staff’s office had learned to manage projects and keep things going in his absence. So, far from walking into a scene of bush fires that he was required to put out, his office had been running embarrassingly well in his absence. Leo was also deliberately keeping the myriad of unplanned situations away from him until he was sure he could deal with them which meant he had to watch the big things happening from the side-lines as well.
He could not sit and do nothing though. He began to revive projects which had been allowed to slip for lack of time. With a little diplomacy and negotiation bills which had been stuck in committee came unstuck, funding became freed up for Bartlet’s programs, even Big Tobacco got cranked up a gear. He spent time with his deputies. Something he had never done before. Listening to what they had been doing and offering guidance and encouragement where necessary, giving more responsibility to those ready for it.
In the times when he was quietly alone in his office, aware of the heavy presence above his heart, he began to think seriously about what he would do after he left the White House. He had never been able to put things in perspective, he just didn’t have that gene. Still, he tried.
He had been back two months when Leo found him, and in his usual straightforward way, asked.
“Are you okay to fly with that thing in?”
Josh shrugged “Sure. I mean I might set off the metal detectors and get designated a weapon of mass destruction but apart from that it’s fine. What’s going on?”
“I want you to go back to Dallas and have that meeting again.”
“You’re sure? Bill Scullard wants me humanely destroyed.”
“You’re ready.” Leo’s eyes wandered over him as if he was assessing and reassessing this opinion. “We need to take some concessions on farming subsidies to Oslo next month and I don’t want Scullard turning every farmer in the country against us.”
“So they think that their market is going to be flooded from Argentina and Brazil.”
“Give them an agreement to clearly label US product. Give them access to Canada and other markets that currently have trade tariffs. Tell them we’ll be saving the whole damn developing world from poverty.”
Josh grinned. “Got it.”
PART THREE – AN UNQUIET VOICE
“It is critical,” Sam said, as the floor manager made winding up signals. “That the work done to bring talented young people to teaching through federally supported fellowship schemes is maintained. ERA also supports incentives for those who take posts in schools where recruitment is difficult and rewards for those who stay in the profession. For many thousands of our children an education of the highest standard is the only chance they have to realise their potential. This is one way their future and America’s future can be assured.”
The interviewer beamed at him. “Sam Seaborn, thank you for talking to us today.” She turned to the camera. “The WTO is meeting today in Oslo. What will an agreement on free trade mean for US farmers and for the developing world?”
After the interview Sam headed back to the office. He had a meeting with Rita Baker and she was there when he arrived talking to his colleague, Ralph Fielding, Campaigns Director.
“Hey Sam,” said Rita, an elegant woman in her fifties. “We just saw your piece, you did well.”
“Thanks, I think it went okay.”
“Do you think you could try and sound less Democrat?” Ralph grumbled. “We’re supposed to be a non-aligned interest group not a satellite office of the West Wing.”
“We’re an interest group, so I thought I should express our interests. We can’t sit on the fence because it might upset a few Republicans.”
“He kept a balance, Ralph,” Rita said diplomatically. “Though it wouldn’t hurt to point out that Bartlet could have done more with the Education Bill a couple of years ago.”
Sam was ready to point out that the Education Bill was essentially killed by Congressional infighting but he did not want to prove Ralph right. His job would definitely be a lot easier after the President’s second term finished.
Sam and Rita went next door to Sam’s office and after he had poured them each a coffee, she closed the door.
“Sam, I just wanted to check in with you. You’ve been in post almost three months now and I thought it would be a good time for a review, to see how you were finding things.”
The problem for Sam was how not to sound too pleased with himself. He knew he had made the job his own. He had firmed up ERA’s communications strategy, started to raise its profile on the West Coast and, as was his habit, made inroads into policy. He had also negotiated an increase in funding for some particularly ropy rural schools in Oregon which probably wasn’t his job at all.
“It’s going great, Rita,” he summarised. “I feel like there’s lots of scope for me to develop ideas and get things done, and I’m enjoying my work more than I have done in a long time.”
“That’s good to hear. The Board is really pleased with the work you’re doing. You’re making me look good, so carry on.”
They talked through the different aspects of the job, the progress of individual projects. Then Rita lowered her voice.
“Last question then, Sam. How are you getting on with Ralph?”
Sam paused. Ralph Fielding was a man who made Toby look light-hearted and foolishly optimistic. But this was not the problem. He was Campaigns Director but was content to issue the standard statements and rehash the same old initiatives. It was hard to keep staff and volunteers motivated when the person supposed to lead them was disinterested and apathetic.
“I get on fine with him,” Sam said carefully. Which was true, he had had lots of practice with curmudgeonly colleagues.
“All right then. How are you finding his performance?”
“He’s really strong on fundraising,” Sam said helplessly.
“Okay, that’s fine,” Rita said. “I hear you. Have you got anything you want to discuss before we finish up?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Then something unbidden and unexpected popped to the surface of his consciousness. “Actually, yes there is. There is something I want to raise with you.”
Rita looked at him. “Well, this sounds ominous.”
“I was wondering about the Communications post that’s just come up in DC. I was…I was thinking of applying for it.”
“You want to transfer to DC?” She asked, her voice rising in disbelief.
“We’ve offered the job to Judy Hinchliffe and she’s accepted it.”
“Right. Yes, it’s her job, of course. I thought it would be. I just thought I’d ask.”
“Sam, what’s going on? Are you not happy here? Is this something to do with Ralph?”
“No. I love my job. Forget I said anything. Please.”
That evening Sam took his boat out onto the ocean before the sun set. Lying back he watched the stars in the cloudless sky flicker on one by one. Toby, habitual stowaway, was curled up next to him.
The silence at sea was unmatchable. There were no human sounds to be heard beyond the occasional aeroplane overhead. The only noises were the gentle lapping of the waves, the purring of the cat and sometimes, the sound of his own heart beating in his chest.
For a few years now he had not been able to think of his heart without thinking of another’s. Josh’s heart, matching his own, beat for beat across the miles of land between them.
Both their hearts had faltered, failing to withstand the pressures of preserving their secrets. Now Josh’s heart was sure and certain and mended, why couldn’t his be the same? Josh had recognised the impossibility of their situation, why couldn’t he?
Sam thought about what he had almost done today. How he had almost given up everything to go back to DC. Unplanned, unconsidered, something urging him on, a constant unquiet voice.
As the temperature began to drop he sailed the boat back home. Securing it, he waited for Toby to decide to disembark and follow him inside.
He got himself a beer, sat on the couch and switched on the TV. Toby leapt up onto his lap and stuck his face into his armpit purring madly. A scent of toothpaste told him Kowalski was probably here too.
Sam instinctively turned to the news channels. His interview was on but just for a few seconds. Long enough to worry about how much of a geek he looked in his new glasses. Then they moved onto other news and finally to a longer feature on the World Trade Organisation meeting in Oslo.
And suddenly there was Josh, who had not left his thoughts all afternoon, on the steps of the White House, holding a mini press conference.
He was virtually unrecognisable from the Josh Sam had last seen a day after he got his pacemaker. He looked ten years younger. In his mac, he was once again the man who had detached Sam without ceremony from his life in New York. His eyes were alive again. Though now they were full not with mischief and arrogance, as they used to be, but with something softer, something calmer.
“What we’ve got here,” Josh said. “Is a great deal for the world’s developing countries, for the US agricultural communities and for the tax payer.”
“What is the Administration’s response to those who say that the American cattle industry is going to be swamped by cheap foreign imports?”
“It’s a legitimate concern, Katie. But we believe there will simply be more choice for the American consumer. There will be an opening up of markets such as Canada and the EU because tariffs on imports will gradually be broken down. Also we could save up to 400 million dollars in subsidies on behalf of the tax payer.”
Then the camera moved to the man standing next to him who was nodding in agreement. He was a towering six-foot and wore a plaid shirt over broad John Wayne shoulders. A baseball cap bearing an image of a side of beef in the shape of the United States adorned his head. Buffalo Bill Scullard. Sam laughed delighted. Bill and Josh had evidently settled their differences.
The last time he and Josh had spoken a couple of days ago Josh had said he was feeling fine and that things were going well at work. But he had spoken so mildly Sam had not quite believed him, had believed he was keeping something from him. But now he could see it was true.
During the next ad break he went to the kitchen, looked in the fridge for something to eat but didn’t find anything. He went back to watching TV. He could not find anything to watch on the whole Friday night schedule until he realised he was just looking for Josh’s interview again.
The TV off he could not be still, could not focus on anything. His hands in the pockets of his jeans he went out, walking along the sea front. Listened to the murmuring of the darkling sea. Inside again he walked about with a phone in his hand but did not make a call for an hour and then another. It was after midnight by the time he had made a decision.
By one o’clock he had a flight booked to DC and a bag packed.
He did not sleep well that night. Doubts and uncertainties and fractured dreams unsettled him. But in the end he knew he had nothing to lose. If Josh would have him back he would give up his home and job. He had done it before and not regretted it. If Josh had moved on, if he really believed a relationship could not survive the pressures of a life in politics then he would come home again and at least he would know for sure.
But he knew now he had to do this. Josh was the one thing from his old life he missed and the ache never numbed or showed any sign of abating.
As Sam stood outside the National Airport Arrivals on Saturday afternoon waiting for a cab he was grateful he had remembered to disinter his black overcoat from the very back of the closet. He stuck his hands in his pockets against the November chill and tried to squash the sense of dread he increasingly felt.
What would Josh do when he just turned up? What could he do? Be kind to him of course. He would not turn him away but he would be embarrassed, would think less of him because in their world careers always came above everything else.
When the cab dropped him off at Josh’s apartment he rang the doorbell a few times but got no response. He used his cell phone to call the apartment number but it soon switched to the answer phone.
His cab was long gone now and he sat on the steps of Josh’s building to decide what to do next. There was a pretty good chance Josh was at work but plunging in on a Saturday afternoon with half the White House staff there wasn’t exactly conducive to a romantic declaration.
This could have been predicted. Impulsive had never really worked out for him. God, but it was cold as well.
He called Josh’s cell phone. It immediately switched to voicemail but he did not have the nerve to leave a message. He called his number at the office and heard the slight click as the phone automatically diverted.
“Deputy Chief of Staff’s office, Donna Moss speaking.”
“Donna hi, it’s Sam.”
“Sam!” She sounded anxious.
“Are you all right? You sound a bit -”
“Haven’t you heard? I was sure –.”
“Heard what?” Sam was on his feet. “Is it Josh?”
“Oh, Sam. Josh resigned.”
“What happened?” He looked up at the windows of the darkened apartment. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. He just -. He took me out to dinner after work yesterday. He told me he’d spoken to Leo and to the President and he had resigned.”
“How had things been going at work?”
“Fine, I mean really good. He was really back. He sorted out the WTO thing by himself pretty much. He was working with all the interest groups for weeks and weeks. You know how sometimes he’s just so good.”
“I do. I know what you mean. Did he say why he was resigning?”
“He was really – no he wouldn’t tell me anything. He just said he had some plans which he couldn’t talk about. He had offered to work three months’ notice but Leo refused and let him go straight away.”
Sam shivered. “You don’t know where he is now?”
“No idea. I’ve been calling the apartment and his cell but no answer. I called your place but you weren’t answering and I just gave his mom a stroke by calling there. She hasn’t heard from him.”
“Look Donna, if he’s gone somewhere to think things through and sort himself out then we should let him.”
“You’re right. I just keep remembering the time he was sick, that Christmas and we didn’t know.”
“But you don’t think he’s sick now do you? I’ve been speaking to him and he seems absolutely fine. Better than ever, in fact.”
“Yes, that’s true. It’s just he had an appointment at the Pacemaker Clinic yesterday. He just seemed weird when he came back and he quit straight after.”
They neither of them spoke what they were both thinking. That Josh was accomplished at disguising any pain, either mental or physical. He’d had a lot of practice.
He promised Donna he would call her again soon and rang off. He raised the apartment super to ask him to let him in to Josh’s place, the old fear of what he might find rising inside him.
Josh was in the consulting room at the Pacemaker clinic, buttoning his shirt and tying his tie when the doctor came back with his test results.
“Well, Josh,” he said turning over pages of notes. “The good news is that the device is working fine. You’ve adjusted to it well and I’ll be able to review your medication and decrease it somewhat.”
Josh nodded. He had been expecting to hear this.
“The not so great news is that in the last three months the Pacemaker has ‘fired’ almost fifty times. This means your heart rate fell below forty beats-per-minute fifty times.”
Josh knew the rate should really be at least sixty and this news surprised him. He had privately believed, despite what he had been told, that he was feeling better because he was cured.
“But this hasn’t happened recently, has it? I mean those fifty times were right at the beginning.”
“I’m sorry Josh, its fired three times in the last two weeks.”
Three times in two weeks.
His heart had come close to giving up three times.
Without the pacemaker a dizzy spell while driving, a sudden stop while alone in his apartment could have killed him.
He had learned early that life was a precarious thing. Something insubstantial a popcorn maker with faulty wiring could extinguish in a moment. Something insubstantial that could be preserved by a carefully wired heart. Perhaps though, he hadn’t really learned anything.
He was thoughtful as he drove back to work but as he walked into his department a cheer and a round of applause greeted him.
“What’s going on?” he demanded.
“They’ve signed the agreement in Oslo,” Donna said, handing him some faxed briefing notes. “Every clause went through.”
Josh turned to his team. “You did this. All of you. You guys have been working your asses off for a year. Along with all the other projects you’ve been covering. I’m going to make sure the President knows it too.”
He went in to his office with Donna, looking swiftly through the paperwork.
“Is Bill Scullard here?”
“Not yet. He’s going to be here for the press conference though. CJ wants the two of you to cover it together.”
“Really? Can we make him not wear that hat with the dead cow picture?”
“You can ask him.”
“I’ve got a heart condition.”
“When it suits you. How did it go at the clinic?”
“Fine. Thanks, Donna.”
He took a bottle of water from the fridge and opened it while flicking on the TV to see if the media were covering the WTO agreement yet.
The first thing he saw though was a sight for sore eyes. Sam. Sam, looking handsome in a grey suit and silk tie, hair shorter than it had been when Josh had last seen him but not by much. When the camera came in close, his eyes seemed startlingly blue.
He was being interviewed for ERA about teaching fellowships. The question of cancelling funding for the scheme had been in the news lately and no one had really been standing up to defend it because of the usual political nonsense. Sam made it sound clearly and simply a good thing.
He channel-surfed for a while until he found Sam again. He was watching when Toby came in and sat with him.
“He’d be nothing without me,” Toby observed.
“Are you ready for the press conference?”
“I’m not going to say anything dumb if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s what I mean.”
Josh flicked through a few more channels until he found another news and Sam again.
“I’m in love with him,” Josh said.
Toby paused. “Don’t say that in the press conference.”
He glanced at Toby. “That’s it?”
“Like I didn’t know already. What I want to know is how you’re here and he’s there.”
“You know why.”
“He’d come back if you asked him to.”
Josh looked at Toby and made a decision. “I’m not going to ask him to do that. Donna!”
“I need to meet with Leo and the President.”
He grinned at Toby. Toby frowned. “What are you going to do?”
He suddenly did not want to waste another minute. He had served at the pleasure of the President and did not regret a minute of it. But it had almost cost him his life on more than one occasion and had certainly cost him his happiness. There was a time for everything and he recognised his time in the West Wing was over. Sam had rebuilt his life from the chaos the White House had wrought on it, he could do the same.
With plans no more formed than that he went with Leo to the Oval office after the press conference. He told him and the President he had decided to give up his job.
The President looked horrified and turned to Leo. Leo was nodding as if he had expected this.
“Did something happen at your doctor’s appointment today?” Leo asked.
Josh shook his head. “No Leo, that’s all going fine.”
“Then, why Josh?” The President asked. “I was under the impression things were going exceptionally well in your department. We made a good deal today in Oslo, that was down to you.”
“Things are going well. But you can thank my team for that. They’ve been carrying me right through my illness. They really are – they really are extraordinary. Leo knows.”
“I know Josh, but I also know you’ve been working better than ever since you came back from sick leave. But perhaps your heart hasn’t really been in it. If you’ll pardon the expression.”
“It’s time to move on for me. That’s all. I’ll work any notice you want me to work or I’ll clear my desk right now.”
“Have you been offered something else?” The President asked, sitting down beside Leo.
“No, sir. The truth is I’ve got another part of my life I want to sort out. Once and for all. I don’t blame you for looking at me as if I’m going to go and stick my hand through a window. But it’s not like that.”
“May I ask what you’ve got planned?” Said the President after a few mutterings of ‘God help us’.
Josh smiled. “I’ll let you know if it comes off.”
Leo walked out with him and after they shook hands and parted at his office Josh was sure he heard him say, “Say hi to Sam for me.”
In the meantime, Toby had rallied CJ and they were both waiting to tell him to think again, to sleep on his decision. But he had been sleeping for too long already.
Finally he went to find Donna to take her to dinner and break the news to her. He did not want to tell her what he was planning. Not yet. But he thought he had managed to convince her this was a positive move and not something she should be concerned about.
He hugged her as the cab they were sharing dropped her off. He said he would be in touch in a few days and told her not to worry. He knew what he was doing.
He booked a flight, packed a bag and after a sleepless night he arrived at the airport about five hours early. He ordered herbal tea, which he hated and as he stared into it realised he had no idea what he was doing.
All Sam needed, now he had got his life together, was Josh turning up with all his emotional baggage and their chequered history. He knew he was fit and healthy again, both mentally and physically but Sam did not know it. He would just see another load of trouble walking in. Something he had to deal with like his cranky colleague and his cat’s fur balls.
He tried to stop rehashing these arguments over and over again. If Sam did not want him then that was okay. At least this unquiet voice, which constantly murmured to him year in, year out, could finally be silenced. It would not change his reasons for leaving the White House, those were still valid, and it would still be a positive new start. He just didn’t want to be the guy who gave Sam up because it was inconvenient to be in love with him.
Then he forgot he wasn’t supposed to walk through security gates. He set off the metal detectors and couldn’t find his Pacemaker ID card and if he survived this trip it would be a miracle.
The flight mercifully left and landed on time and he hired a car at the airport. He thought about checking into a hotel but this would mean another night of anxious anticipation, which would probably finish him off once and for all.
He found Sam’s house with some difficulty as Kowalski’s sign had gone and he parked in the driveway next to Sam’s car. It was still daylight and he stopped to look at the changes to the house since he had last been here. How beautiful it now looked.
He was sure Sam would be in as his car was there but he got no answer when he rang the doorbell. He wandered round to the back of the house but the blinds at the living room French windows were down and he found no sign of life.
He thought about calling Sam’s cell phone but decided to just wait for him instead. He sat for a while at the wrought iron table Sam had set up on the porch. Inside, Sam’s phone rang a couple of times unanswered.
Then after an hour or so, he went for a walk down the street along from Sam’s place, pottered about the little shops and wandered on to the beach.
It looked beautiful to him now compared to when he was last here and it had seemed a vast expanse of forbidding desert which he could barely cross.
He went to the beach shack he and Sam had come to. He ordered a sandwich along with the health drink Sam had had before. He quite liked it, though he undertook to keep this fact a deadly secret from Sam.
The spiky haired waiter who had served them last time was there again and he got talking to him. He turned out to be a Londoner called Vic who had been travelling round America, liked it here and stayed. He knew Sam and recognised Josh.
“It’s a good place,” he said talking about the neighbourhood round the beach. “You think it’s going to be all beautiful people showing off but it’s not, it’s dead friendly. It’s mostly a load of hippies who live here. You can’t move for bleeding chickpeas in the shops. All the LA people come in on the weekends as well, which livens things up. It’s gorgeous too, look at it. The airs clean and the sea is magic, it changes every day.”
I mean, look at your mate. When he got here he looked like death warmed up. Now when he goes running, all the girls from the shops come out and look at him. The lucky bastard.” Vic shrugged as Josh hooted with laughter. “He doesn’t seem to notice though.”
Josh walked back to the house after Vic had entertained him for an hour or so. When he got there he found there was still nobody home.
One of the things he had miraculously remembered to pack was Sam’s spare set of boat keys which he had been looking after since Sam left for his election campaign.
He let himself into the cabin where there were a couple of bunks. He lay down on one and was very soon asleep.
He woke again a few hours later with a distinct impression of heaviness in his chest and the conviction that his heart had finally stopped beating. Stopped beating and started - purring. He opened his eyes to come face to face with a pair of wide staring cat eyes. Toby was lying on his pacemaker. Toby was trying to kill him.
He picked the cat up under his front forelegs ignoring his outraged mew. Moved him a little to the right where, with quite a lot of sweater clawing, he got comfortable and fell asleep. Josh fell asleep again too.
He was woken early the next morning by a finger gently stroking the side of his face.
Sam was sitting on the edge of the bunk shaking his head slowly, almost in wonderment. “How did you -. I was just in DC.”
Josh sat up as Toby crept off him.
“I spoke to Donna,” Sam said. “She said you quit. I couldn’t believe it. I thought you’d – “
“You thought I’d unravelled again. I don’t blame you, but I’ve never been better.”
Sam gazed at him. He put his hand over Josh’s heart. “And this?”
“It’s fine. It was just, it was just trying to tell me something, that’s all.” Josh covered Sam’s hand with his own. “So why did you go to Washington?” He asked. “You never mentioned it when we spoke.”
“I – Josh – I just wanted to see you. I just –“
Josh watched Sam stumble over his words. There had been too much talking lately but no communicating. He put his arms around Sam and kissed him and Sam did not hesitate before responding.
Sam still had his arms around Josh when the kiss ended.
“You came to California. Did you come to do this?”
“If that’s what you want. Yes.”
“And you want me to come back to DC with you. I’m ready Josh.”
Josh shook his head. “I just want to be where you are.”
EPILOGUE – BE WHERE YOU ARE
Sam pushed open the front door and stowed his briefcase by the hall table.
He went through to the living room, picked up a sweatshirt from the couch and a coffee mug and laptop from the floor.
Then he made himself put them back.
He went outside where Josh was lounging on one of the Kowalski reclining sun chairs. He had recently retrieved them from the basement despite the fact they lowered the tone.
Josh was wearing a pair of shorts and his pale legs were a shade browner than when he had arrived a month ago. He was looking better in other ways too. Some of the weight he had lost was back, softening the angles of his face and collarbones. The last of the weariness had gone from his eyes.
He pulled Sam down into his lap. “Good day at the office, darling?”
“Great day,” Sam said as they kissed.
Josh looked at Sam with interest. “Gone where? Does he sleep with the fishes, Sam?”
“I don’t care who he sleeps with, he’s been transferred. He’s now responsible for fundraising for the whole organisation and his office is in - Washington DC.”
“Praise be,” Josh said.
“I love my job.”
“I love your job. We should celebrate.”
“Yep. And anything else to celebrate?” Sam asked.
“Yes, indeed. We should celebrate you not tidying up the minute you walked in the door.”
“You were watching.”
“Yes, and I’m proud of you.”
“You left things lying about as a test?”
Josh paused. “I’m going to say yes.”
Sam kissed him again and then climbed off his lap to go upstairs and change out of his suit. He stopped at the kitchen to get beers before coming outside again and sitting in the other sun chair. It was admittedly more comfortable than the chairs of his wrought iron dining set. Despite the big brown and orange flowers.
Toby trotted up to him and mewed significantly.
“Did you feed the beast?” He asked.
“Yes, mate,” said Josh, engrossed in a newspaper.
“He’s such a liar,” Sam stretched out looking up at the dark blue sky. Toby jumped on his lap and showed him his tummy which he duly rubbed.
After a day at work in the city he always let the sound of the sea and the cool breeze smooth away all the accumulated rough edges. Josh always left him this space until he was ready to talk again.
“So what have you been doing?” Sam asked eventually, extracting dead vegetation from Toby’s fur as he stroked him. He had probably been burrowing again. “Did you just sit here all day scratching yourself?”
“I resemble that remark. Actually, I went to the dentist and had two fillings thanks to your damn ghost.”
Sam leaned over to admire the fillings which Josh showed him.
“But Kowalski didn’t cause them, he just diagnoses. You should be grateful.”
Josh did not look convinced. “I just don’t think it’s a coincidence that Mr Dental Hygiene, USA lives with a dead dentist.”
“I’ve been thinking about Kowalski a lot today, as a matter of fact.”
Josh checked to see if he was serious and seeing that he was, folded his newspaper and put it aside. “Let’s hear it.”
“I think we should exorcise him.”
“Okay. You’re not talking about taking him to the gym are you?”
“I’m serious. He shouldn’t really be here. He’s probably stuck.”
“Because he died at work. He probably thinks he’s still got to do nice bridgework for people. Maybe we could convince him he doesn’t have to anymore.”
“Sam, are you worrying about your ghost’s welfare?”
“He could be any of us. I can think of another workaholic not a million miles from here who almost died at work. You nearly ended up haunting the West Wing. Maybe we should help him go into the light.”
“Go into the light? What the hell –.” Josh shook his head. “Have you thought he might like it here and that’s why he’s staying? He’s got the sea, the sunshine, his cat.”
“His chairs, exactly. The most perfect set of teeth in the Western world to admire. Why would he leave?”
“I hadn’t looked at it that way,” Sam pondered. “But it can’t be better than somewhere like heaven, can it?”
Josh smiled. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“Oh,” said Sam, constantly amazed at how much he was loved. “So we should leave him be?”
“I think so. Unless I have to have any more fillings in which case it’s time for the bleeding holy water and crucifix.”
“Josh, why are you talking like that?”
“Like what?” Josh asked and drank his beer.
Sam stared at him for a moment and then moved on. “So haven’t you got anything to tell me at all? Haven’t you found a job yet?”
“I tried to find a job. I’m surprisingly unemployable for someone who spent the last seven years running the country.”
“Didn’t you speak to Senator Mitchell?”
“I spoke to Senator Mitchell’s chief of staff. The Senator was suddenly unavailable.”
“You had that job sewn up.”
“Well, apparently not. Alan Owen’s been offered it.”
Josh shrugged in reply.
“Its discrimination,” Sam said.
“Maybe not, I didn’t exactly have the most dependable reputation in politics, did I? Anyway I don’t care. What do I need a job for, I’m living off you.”
“Josh, he virtually offered you the job. You told him you were with me and now he won’t even speak to you. You’re going to let this go?”
“Life’s too short. Maybe next time, huh, Sam.”
Sam gazed at Josh, wondered about arguing with him. But in the end he couldn’t face disrupting Josh’s very obvious sense of contentment.
“Well I know where there’s a job going,” he said.
“Professional pet feeder?”
“Nope. Campaigns Director.”
“A respected and influential pressure group in the field of education called ERA, LA. They’ve got a really cute Communications Director. If you sleep with him you’re in with a chance.”
Josh looked at him, a smile playing at his lips. “Seriously?”
“Seriously. Rita’s looking for someone to cover Ralph’s job for a few months and she thought of you.”
“Rita’s always loved me.”
“She wants someone to knock things into shape while she recruits. I get the impression the jobs yours permanently if you wanted it but I know it’s not exactly your thing.”
“Nah, it sounds perfect. But are you sure, Sam? Are you sure you want to be working that closely with me again?”
“Are you kidding? It’d be great,” said Sam. “We wouldn’t have the pressure of this huge secret hanging over us. I know it’d work out. And anyway, that’s not the point. This is your job. Maybe not forever, but for a while it would be perfect for you and you’d be able to do a lot of good.”
Later they went for a walk on the beach to watch the sunset before going to dinner. It was, as usual, warm enough for jeans and Tshirts.
“I was talking to Vic today,” Josh said.
“Well that explains the extraordinary use of English.”
“Yes guvnor, it does. Do you know what Vic is short for?”
“Victor, I suppose?”
“It’s Vicar. It’s a nickname. He was ordained in the Church of England.”
“Ordained? You’re kidding me. He can’t be more than twenty.”
“He’s twenty five, old man.”
“And he’s so – so heathen.”
“Pagan actually. It turned out he had a bit of a problem with organised religion. So he dropped out, went travelling, washed up here and discovered the surf goddess or somebody like that.”
“That’s her. But the point is –.”
“Hey! I think I’ll ask him about Kowalski. Or do you have to be Catholic to cast out spirits of the dead?”
“He probably took a class in it at the seminary, even if it’s frowned upon.”
“Well, he’ll have an opinion on it either way. But the thing is-“
“Sorry, go on -.”
“The thing is - Vic said - if you wanted, Sam - he’d do a commitment ceremony for us. Right here on the beach.”
Sam stopped walking and turned to him. “Josh?”
“Yeah. So. Will you uh – marry me?”
“Wow, you really don’t want to work in politics anymore do you?”
Sam realised then that the question, unthinkable though it was, was a serious one. Josh dropped his head and didn’t speak for moment. When he looked up he said.
“You’re my whole life, Sam. Be with me forever.”
Sam gazed deep into brown eyes, which he sometimes thought were flecked with gold, sometimes green. They were searching his own in anxious expectation. He understood he was being offered an end to the semi-random collisions that had characterised his relationship with Josh so far. He was being offered forever.
He brought Josh’s hand up and kissed it softly. “I just want to be where you are.”
And Josh pulled him into his arms.
They held hands as they strolled along the beach and the clear dusk sky began to flood with colour.
“We could ask Donna and CJ and the non-cat-Toby to the ceremony,” Sam suggested.
“Good idea, we could bring down the Bartlet Administration yet.” Josh agreed. “And you could ask your mom to come. I think she’s been secretly hoping for a pagan gay beach wedding for her only son. And she’s definitely warming to me.”
“Really? If she warms up any more she’ll spontaneously combust.”
“My mom can come, now she’s absolutely clear on the situation.”
“She’ll think I’m best man, won’t she?”
“Yep. And she’ll ask CJ when she’s planning to give her grandchildren.”
“My dad. He knows how to please a lady.”
“Senator Mitchell can be bridesmaid.”
“Buffalo Bill Scullard, chief bridesmaid.”
Giggling curtailed the guest list.
The beach was deserted as Sam lay with Josh’s arms around him. They watched the sun, a perfect red disc, sink into the horizon and he dropped his head a little to listen to the beat of Josh’s heart, drawing comfort from it as he always did.
“You don’t have to check,” Josh whispered. “I’m battery operated now. I’ll just keep going.” It was his favourite pacemaker joke. Sam’s too.