Gary found out about the accident via Twitter, which he thought was mildly insulting. It wasn’t even via Twitter in a personal way, not a private message or even someone tweeting at him, but just by scrolling down and seeing a tweet from one of the numerous football news accounts he followed. A very undignified way of learning that one’s colleague and occasional close personal associate had been the victim of oncoming traffic, all things considered.
Gary scrolled further down his timeline for a few seconds, before closing Twitter and idly opening a new text message.
Sent to JAMES at 2.56pm:
Just saw on TWITTER of all places you’ve been in a car crash. Learn to drive will you! Though at least you weren’t on the bike?
He made himself a cup of tea and a sandwich, then sat down at his laptop to answer a few emails. Not the most exciting work but it wasn’t the most exciting afternoon: a Wednesday, quiet with the kind of grey drizzle that threatened to become a downpour at any moment but never did. Gary trawled through his mail and clicked lazily across a couple news sites. Presumably the sun went down, although the thick cotton wool of the clouds was making concepts like the sun more theoretical than concrete. But it was nearly dark when Gary remembered Twitter, and his unanswered text.
It remained placidly unanswered and even unread, which was unusual. Jamie had no compunction about ignoring Gary but he rarely didn’t even open messages. Gary frowned at the screen which glowed innocently at him.
Jamie had been in some sort of accident. Perhaps he had been busy all day sorting out any damages to his car. Perhaps the text had been too flippant. Perhaps Jamie had actually been injured and was even now lying close to death in some under-funded Liverpudlian hospital, using his last gasps of living breath to complain about something.
But no. Gary was just being paranoid. Overly-worried. After all, he was pretty sure that someone would have had the presence of mind to personally inform him if Jamie was in some sort of condition. Or Twitter would have told him, blasted thing. Gary disliked Twitter. Twitter made people anxious, all the time, because all it took was one miserable afternoon, slouching on a park bench with a soggy pie and stained trousers for the entire internet to start spreading rumours that you were minutes away from ending it all and then photoshopping you sitting on famous monuments across the world looking depressed. If Jamie was lying dead on a pavement somewhere, Gary was fairly certain that Twitter would have already turned it into a serious hashtag, an irreverent hashtag, and at least four incomprehensible jokes that would get run around the entire internet before becoming entirely divorced from their context, namely Jamie’s vehicularly battered corpse, hit and run and being investigated by bored children and perhaps a dog.
He was definitely being paranoid. Jamie was probably still alive. He was probably just bruised and more than a little annoyed.
Gary dialled the number.
It was picked up on the other end after five rings. “’Ullo?” It wasn’t Jamie’s voice on the line.
“Steven?” Gary hazarded a guess, pulling the most likely name from his mental database of Scousers. “It’s Gary. Gary Neville.”
“Yeah, it’s me. I’ve not got any news for you, though. They haven’t even let me in to see him yet.”
“Sorry, what? See who? Where’s Carra?”
Which was how Gary learned for the second time that day that Jamie had been hit by a driver running a red light and was currently ensconced in Royal Liverpool University Hospital, condition uncertain.
“Gary, mate,” said Steven in what was probably meant to be a soothing tone of voice, Gary attempting to barrel through the hospital door with the same momentum that had kicked him out the door and dropped his foot down on the accelerator the whole way from Greater Manchester to Liverpool, “he’s fine. He took a bump on the head which put him out cold for a bit but he’s awake now. No need to bring in the army.”
Gary forced his expression into something less alarming and willed his eyebrows to do less than they were currently doing. “He’s awake then? Can I see him?”
With Jamie’s condition firmly in the “alright” category, Steven looked as though he was fighting back amusement. Gary distantly registered that he was probably acting like a lunatic but he didn’t really care. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have plenty of dirt to dish on Gerrard if this moment of weakness was ever used in an attempt at blackmail.
“Yeah, I was just in there. Try not to yell at him, will you?”
Gary lowered his voice guiltily. “Of course not. I do have self-control, you know.”
Steven looked as though he desperately wanted to disagree. Gary glared.
“Well I can’t legally stop you. But he’s been battered well around. They think concussion as well, so don’t, I dunno, try to tell him any riddles or whatever.”
“I don’t- I don’t think that’s a thing with concussions,” Gary said, although also having been trained in the nineties it wasn’t as if he knew any more about concussion science than did Steven. He could call one of the youth squad kids if necessary, they probably could rattle off a list of symptoms and treatments that went beyond balancing a bag of ice on Jamie’s head.
Inside the hospital room it was bright white and smelled strongly of something chemical, poorly masked by a sickly sweet lavender scent, probably some kind of air freshener.
Jamie was awake and sitting somewhat upright on the creaky-looking hospital bed. He turned at the sound of the door opening and frowned. “Thought I heard the sound of your voice out there.”
“Hi,” Gary said, a bit sheepishly. “Sorry. I wasn’t really yelling. Probably.”
Jamie waved a hand. “What do you want? I’ve already had Stevie send out emails that I won’t be able to come into the studio this week. I’m not supposed to be looking at screens. So don’t worry about that. They’ll probably get someone else to cover for me.”
“Oh, that’s fine, then. I wasn’t really worried about your job, Jamie.”
“Okay,” Jamie said, raising his brow, “you know that almost makes it sound like you were worried about me. Careful, there.”
Gary laughed. “Idiot.”
Jamie’s brow shot back down angrily. He scowled. “Alright, well. You’ve seen for yourself I’m still alive –unfortunately, I’m so sure- and you’ve got your dig in. So. Feel free to get back to doing whatever you were doing.” He crossed his arms.
Gary was nonplussed. The irritation was coming off of Jamie in veritable waves and he couldn’t figure out why. “What?”
“Are you seriously here just to bother me?”
“No,” Gary said, baffled, “I wanted to see you. That’s what people do, when their friends get in car crashes.”
That got a laugh, but not really a good laugh. More of a scoff. “So I’m your friend, now? Okay, spit it out. What’re you on about?”
That was a bit of a nasty shock. Gary blinked. “We work together.”
“Obviously. I’ve already told you, I’ve had emails sent round-”
“Yes, yes, yes, alright, okay, but we work together. And we like each other.” Gary was scrabbling a bit but this was just plain weird. If Jamie wasn’t literally on a hospital bed with a big bit of gauze wrapped around his head the way Gary had vaguely thought only happened on television for dramatic effect, he’d have thought this was some sort of elaborate set-up. Maybe he could go outside and threaten Gerrard’s life until he gave up the joke. “We’re mates.”
“Okay, ha ha. Very funny.”
“You like me! I like you!”
“What’s this,” Jamie said, with a sort of wary disdain, “a confession?”
“It’s a fact, you brainless twerp,” Gary snarled. “We’re friends, and you’d better get used to that because even with half your head gone we still have to do the show and pretend to the world like you’re not working with a bowl of lukewarm porridge instead of your usual two brain cells!”
“Oh yes,” Jamie said, “I’m really feeling the love, Neville. I don’t know what kind of, of prank or whatever you think this is you have planned, but I’m not in the mood. Seeing as I’ve just been run over by a car.”
“It’s not a prank,” Gary protested. “I don’t- I wouldn’t play a prank on you, Christ.”
“Well sorry if I’m a bit suspicious. Don’t pretend like you wouldn’t take the opportunity to send me up- I’m not saying I wouldn’t do the same.”
“This isn’t- I took care of you, you arse!” Gary shouted, feeling suddenly very put upon. “Actually! When you got started, and I could have done everything in my power to make life miserable for you but I didn’t! You’ve got to remember that much at least! I was nice!”
“Yeah, well thanks for that,” Jamie said blandly, and Gary was given a nasty reminder of just how much they had disliked each other, back then. He had forgotten what it was like to have Jamie look at him so coldly.
Jamie got back to the studio the next week, at least physically. Mentally he was still somewhere back in 2014, or at least where Gary was concerned. It was infuriating. He could rattle off the current standings for at least four of the major European leagues by memory but he still thought Gary was someone to be vaguely distrustful of. This was a pernicious attack, on Gary, by the universe, and there was nothing Gary could do about it.
Nonetheless the show went without a hitch. But then, it always had gone without a hitch. Back at the beginning he and Jamie had always managed to meld professionalism and antagonism as was necessary: it was part of the reason why their repartee had been so good. The competition had been real and serious. It was just that somewhere along the line that competition had bred respect.
Gary didn’t get maudlin as a rule. Gary Neville did not wallow. It was a point of professional pride. Trophies were lost, friends moved away, and Gary dusted himself off and went again. He always had and he always would.
But he’d put work into his friendship with Jamie. He’d put a lot of time and effort and pints of stout which had cost real money into that friendship. He’s suffered through mockery and honest confusion from his friends and further suffered the same from Jamie’s friends, and what was worse, was that he still wasn’t entirely certain why he’d invested so much in what he would have initially called the most lost of all causes. But he had, and he didn’t want to have to start over from scratch again just because Jamie was a stupid tit who couldn’t drive.
The thought passed through his mind simultaneous with the realisation that he would start over from scratch if he had to. He would go through the motions with the Jamie-from-three-years-ago because it had been a lot of thankless work but Gary valued what he’d gotten out of it.
Shit, Gary thought, irritated with himself, I think I want to be friends with Jamie Carragher.
He made the ultimate mistake of saying as much to Scholesy the next day over lunch. He had meant to make it a joke (though whether at his or Jamie’s expense, he hadn’t quite figured out yet) but Scholesy had immediately levelled him with the gimlet-eyed stare that meant Gary was about to get eviscerated.
“You think you want to be friends with Jamie Carragher?” Scholesy said, dripping sarcasm like an ice block gently melting in the heat of the sun. “Despite my best efforts and all my invaluable advice to the contrary, you are friends with Jamie Carragher. It’s an aberration but it’s true.”
Gary spluttered. Scholesy turned up the incineration factor.
“Spit it out.”
“Well, he doesn’t want to friends with me!” Gary managed, his voice definitely not rising to a wail at the end of the sentence.
Scholesy’s eyebrows rose in a mad dash to reunite with his receding hairline. And the whole story came out, about Jamie’s unfortunate memory loss and Gary’s entire sorry plight.
“-and so we’re not friends anymore and now I want to be!” Gary finished, plaintive.
“Hhm,” Scholesy hummed, entirely too unperturbed by this tale of woe for Gary’s liking. “Maybe this is the universe just trying to put things back to rights. As I did say, it’s an aberration.”
Gary glowered. “No. This is an inconvenience. I can’t work under these conditions.”
“You clearly can, you used to do just fine.”
“Okay, I don’t want to. But short of hitting him on the head really hard until his stupid brain clicks back to where it should be, I don’t know what to do.”
“Have you actually tried that?” asked Scholesy, hopefully. “Maybe you just didn’t hit hard enough. If you like I could give it a go.”
Inspiration struck when it usually did: while Gary was in the shower the next morning. One minute he was staring absently at the shampoo and wondering why some soap was good for bubbles and others weren’t, and the next he was scrambling to finish up so he could write down his idea before it vanished into nothing like the aforementioned bubbles.
Of course, a good idea was nothing without an audience. Which was why Gary had to forcibly pin down Jamie next time he managed to catch him at the studio.
“Sit,” he ordered, kicking the door of the green room shut behind them. “And listen. I’ve got some incontrovertible evidence for you, and even you’ve got to respect the facts.”
“Is this still about us being friends?” Jamie asked sceptically, eyeing the folder that Gary had pulled out of his bag. “Can’t we drop this? I’m just trying to get caught up on work from the week I missed.” He gave Gary a meaningful look that was probably supposed to elicit sympathy for an invalid. “Y’know, from being run over by a car.”
“You didn’t get run over, you got hit in an intersection while you were also in a car. Quiet.” He opened the folder. “I’ve got some pictures here, because you’re a visual learner.”
Jamie muttered something that was likely unflattering but didn’t actually interrupt.
“Exhibit A,” Gary said in his best listen-up-lads attention commanding voice, “you biting my head off.” He held up the photo of Jamie shouting at him during the derby.
“I remember, I was there,” said Jamie.
“Well, lately it seems your memory cannot be trusted,” Gary told him. “So shut up and listen to my presentation.”
“Why did you print this stuff out? We have laptops.”
“Don’t question my methods. Now, exhibit two.”
“Exhibit B. You started with exhibit A, so you can’t just go to- oh, never mind. Just show me whatever, this, is.” Jamie waved a hand in a vague motion that encompassed Gary and his supplies.
Gary looked at him suspiciously. “Are you trying to derail me?”
“I’m striving for accuracy.”
“That’d be a first,” Gary snorted, and went back to his photos. “Exhibit B, then. Us, colleagues, employment. Et cetera.” He waved the paper at Jamie, upon which two imminent professionals sat, still shiny with new printer ink, waiting placidly behind the Sky desk in their best slightly ill-fitting suits. It was from their first season together. “This is where you are. But this is the past.” Gary whipped out his final piece of evidence, the pièce de résistance as someone might say. He wasn’t certain if he had the accents right but it didn’t matter because he wasn’t about to say it aloud and have Jamie laugh at him for trying to sound posh or whatever.
Said pièce was a full-colour rendition of the two of them squashed onto a couch. Gary was caught in a headlock and Jamie was inexplicably barefoot. Gary deemed it a decent demonstration of the fact that while Jamie might have a fist to Gary’s cheek in the photo, they were no longer actually actively seeking methods of ending the each others’ lives.
“This,” Gary said, flapping the picture aggressively, “is the present. This is what’s actually happening. You. Me. Friends.”
“Looks like I’m trying to hit you,” Jamie said, but he didn’t sound positive.
“Of course! That’s what friends do!” Gary shoved the photo at him. “There you go. You go home and study that and tell me we’re not friends.” He crossed his arms and glared.
“Can I go now?” Jamie asked, and promptly did. But he took the photo with him.
They didn’t see each other for a few days in which Gary did a lot of cleaning around the house and a lot of texting to Scholesy until the latter actually rang him up to yell at him for being annoying.
“I’m trying to live a quiet life of peace,” Scholesy scolded. “I don’t need to know every time you stub your toe on a pebble. Go back to being embarrassing on Twitter.”
Being embarrassing on Twitter was actually a good stress-reliever, so when Gary next saw Jamie for a recording, he was quite relaxed and cheerful. Ticking off idiots on the internet did wonders for the karma, or whatever. Consequently, Gary wasn’t even concerned when Jamie beckoned him aside afterwards.
Jamie looked- embarrassed, which was a new one. Gary had gotten irritated, cold, exasperated, and unconcerned, but forgetful Jamie had never once seemed embarrassed. Embarrassed implied some level of caring about Gary’s opinion.
“You could have told me,” Jamie started, which could have used a bit more context but Gary was listening. “Of course I feel like a real tit now. And also, I dunno, I mean it’s weird. But you could have mentioned.”
Gary drew a blank. “Told you what?”
Jamie was studiously avoiding Gary’s eyes. “I- that we-” He huffed. “Well, that we’re together! Together-together. We’re, I dunno, together!”
“We’re what now?” Gary was floored. This was unexpected.
“Your photo exhibits. I decided to go digging through my phone,” Jamie explained, “which you probably should have just told me to do first thing, because I’m finding all this, this sop!” He waved his phone screen about in front of Gary’s face. Their text message history winked innocently at him. “I don’t know how or why but from this nonsense it’s fairly obvious I’m quite gone on you, which I don’t much like, but it’s not as if it isn’t me as well!” He took a moment to breathe.
Gary spluttered, then stuttered, then stammered. Jamie started scrolling back through their conversation history. “Look at this- from me, sent at two-fucking-A-M, ‘Opinions on novelty ties? And if you lead me astray and have me look like a tosser on national television I will drown you’, to which you replied, ‘Don’t even think about bringing one near my studio can’t have you lowering the tone of the place. I have to stand next to you’.
“What’s wrong with that,” Gary protested. Novelty ties were awful.
“Who texts at two in the morning about ties! I certainly don’t,” said Jamie. “No, this is horrible. Look- later on I ask you what you’re wearing to the charity ball so I won’t clash. This is prime grade repulsive couple nonsense.”
“We’re not a couple!”
"Seriously?" Jamie looked sceptical. As sceptical as he had when Gary had initially tried to convince him that they didn't hate each other, which was really top irony or something of the sort. "We're not together."
"Fairly certain on that point," Gary said, feeling faint.
Jamie looked back at the phone in his hand with a frown. "But I've really- this isn't exactly the subtlest work, here. I think, I think I've been flirting with you? And you just haven't even noticed?" He looked at Gary somewhat reproachfully. "That's not great on your part."
"Stop talking about yourself as though you're not you!" Gary barked, confusingly and little bit hysterically. "You haven't been flirting with me, we're friends!"
"Yeah but actually, this is me flirting." Jamie tapped the phone screen insistently, sending the conversation scrolling rapidly through several dozen pointless late night exchanges and more than a few teasing emojis. "Which makes no sense believe me, but it's definitely-" he broke off with a frown. His brow furrowed. "Definitely..."
Jamie's face flared bright red then, as though someone had lit a match under his chin. His eyes went wide, and he looked at Gary with an expression of sheer horror. "Oh fuck" he said, and leapt to his feet. His face was a veritable bonfire and he was looking at Gary like he actually knew who he was instead of some bizarre interloper in his life...
Gary blinked. "Jamie?" Understanding broke like the first drop of rain on an umbrella. "Carra!"
"I should go," Jamie squeaked, and turned tail to flee.
Gary only just managed to get to his feet as Jamie's coat tail was whipping around the corner. Jamie's legs were longer but Gary was quicker and always had been. Carragher couldn't outrun a snail on its Sunday stroll, and Gary caught up with him down the hall, thankfully deserted as he snatched at Jamie's arm and shoved him sideways against the wall.
They stared at each other, one very red face and one very white one. Gary could feel his pulse absolutely beating itself to bits against his eardrums.
"Definitely what?" He managed, squeezing Jamie's arm above the elbow where he had him tight in grasp. "You're...you're you-you, again, I know you know we're, well. Definitely what?"
Jamie looked at him a little desperately. "C'mon, Gary, I already bloody said it, didn't I? You're not really going to make me say it again."
"I really am, James, now tell me. You were definitely what?"
Jamie glanced haplessly up and down the hall as if hoping to see someone he could appeal to. No one appeared. "I just got back to remembering we're friends. Now you're going to have me ruin it all over again?"
"It doesn't have to be ruined," Gary chose his words carefully. "I just want to hear you say it. As you. And be sure about it."
Jamie sighed. "Fucking fine. I was definitely flirting with you, alright? I knew you didn't know. It was just a bit of fun, I thought it was harmless, and I'm sorry. Feel free to yell at me now."
Gary studied him. The beetroot was slowly fading from Jamie's face but his brow was still furrowed in half-defiance, half-embarrassment and he was refusing to meet Gary's gaze.
"So it was just a bit of fun?" Gary said, and he thought his voice was even but he must have sounded like something because Jamie slowly -agonisingly slowly- looked at him.
Neither of them said a word. The bonfire of Jamie's face was now suspended somewhere between them, roasting the air and blowing a shimmery heat mirage in front of Gary's eyes.
Jamie swallowed. Gary was still gripping him above the elbow. "Whatever you're about to do," Jamie said in a semi-whisper, "Kick me or, or...whatever, should we maybe get somewhere that's not a public corridor in our place of employment?"
The hallway remained deserted save for the two of them but Gary nodded, a quaver of some sort of emotion like anticipation shivering through his stomach at Jamie's open-ended...was it an invitation? If what Jamie said was true, that he had been flirting with Gary for months without the latter any the wiser, then he wasn't perhaps the best judge of such an invitation. But then again, he'd never received one while pinning Jamie to a wall and wrangling a sort of maybe confession of interest out of him. It was worth considering.
They made it to the car park and nearly into their cars before Gary's nerve failed him. What was he doing? What was he thinking? What was Jamie thinking? He opened his mouth to say something but got beat to the punch.
"Having second thoughts?" Jamie asked, and he put his hand over Gary's on the door handle of Gary's sensible Honda Accord like it was a challenge.
"About what, kicking you?" Gary shot back, and it felt good to be back to this, the easy exchanges, even if there was a current of something new and thrilling there now. Or maybe it wasn't so new, and Gary was only just getting it for what it was. Embarrassing that Jamie Carragher might be more emotionally perceptive than him, but life was like that sometimes.
Gary kissed him. Not well and not gracefully, as he had to halfway twist to get at Jamie's mouth and slightly miscalculated, ending up with his lips at the corner of Jamie's mouth and his back awkwardly turned. But Jamie made a muffled squeak-turned-moan and turned Gary about properly; sinking against him and kissing back eagerly.
"Still our place of employment," Gary gasped when he managed to come up for air, although it was a half-hearted objection. His knees felt a little bit wobbly and he was never, never going to tell Jamie what a good kisser he was.
"Couldn't give a toss," Jamie declared against Gary's neck. "I've been wanting to kiss you for ages, fucking hell."
"Ah- Christ, no, I'm not getting long-lensed snogging you in a car park like a couple of teenagers, we're grown men!"
"Oh believe me," Jamie said with a grin that was probably illegal and a grope at the front of Gary's trousers that was definitely illegal, "I can tell."
"The Daily Mail would have a field day," Gary panted. "Scholsey would cut my throat while I was asleep."
Jamie made a pained noise. "Please don't mention Scholes right after I've been kissing you. It makes me paranoid."
Gary gave him a shove that was, again, less than quite assertive. “No. Get off.”
“I’m trying to,” Jamie said, mournfully, but stepped back. “Get in the car. We’re going to your flat. And don’t drive slow, drive fast!”
“Patience, James,” Gary teased, although he had to blink his vision back to clarity before opening the car door. “You hated me ten minutes ago, don’t you think we’re moving a bit quick?”
Jamie made a sound of despair and shoved Gary into the car before crawling over him. The gearshift was digging painfully into Gary’s spine and his legs were still halfway out of the vehicle. Jamie elbowed the horn by mistake and it squawked loudly into the mostly-empty lot, making them both jump as best they could, wedged between the seats and the steering wheel.
“I don’t care,” Jamie said between kisses and strange, excitable hand motions around Gary’s general person. “Probably best we don’t drive anyway. I’ve had a bad track record with cars lately.”