Climbing into the jeep, Stuart shot Vince a sly glance, but turned his head towards the window.
"God, the traffic's bad today. I've just sat ten minutes at the crossing waiting for the damned train to crawl past." Vince began his usual tirade of early morning niggles. Suddenly he stopped, "Thanks for letting me use the jeep last night, by the way. You all right?"
"What?" Stuart turned slightly, "Oh, yeah, I'm okay. Just tired."
"Oh yeah, who was he? Or should I say 'who were they?'" Vince laughed.
Swallowing hard past the lump in his throat, Stuart continued to glare out of the window at the traffic whizzing by, "Can we just drive and forget the funnies? I'm not in the mood."
The smile dissolved from Vince's face, "I'm sorry. Look, Stuart, I'm sorry about missing the meal you'd prepared, but I couldn't leave Hazel."
"I know, okay? I never said anything about you missing the meal, it's no big deal!"
"I know you went to a lot of trouble..."
"Fuck, Vince. Let it drop will you? It doesn't fucking matter, just *forget* it!"
With a shrug of the shoulders, Vince pulled out into the traffic. "They say that Bernie should be okay, by the way. This was a 'warning' and as long as he stops smoking, stops drinking and loses weight he should make a full recovery."
"Why don't they just add 'cut off your dick and take up fucking dominoes' while they're on?" Stuart snarled, "Let's face it, if you're going to live your life like that you may as well be fucking dead!"
Casting a worried glance in his friend's direction, Vince cleared his throat, "So, you want to tell me why you're so pissed off at me this morning or have I got to spend all day trying to guess?"
"I'm *not* pissed off at *you*. I'm pissed off at *me*, okay?"
"Why, what did you do this time?"
Stuart's head snapped around and the stinging reply teetered on the edge of his tongue, "I'm just a no good, cheap, fucking bastard, okay?"
"You're supposed to argue with that, Vince."
Stuart felt himself smile, despite the anger still bubbling barely beneath the surface, "Y'see, that's what I mean? You're my best friend and even *you* know it."
"Well, yeah. But I know it and accept it, that's part of what makes you... 'you'!"
"I love you."
"Yeah I know and *no* I'm not driving tonight if we're going to Babylon, we're taking a taxi."
"Why do you always think I want something when I say that?" Stuart asked, for once so serious.
"Because you always do. It's like training a puppy, you give it a biscuit when it sits on command."
"Is that how you see yourself, Vince, my little lap dog?"
Realising that Stuart was serious and the conversation had strayed from its usual banter, Vince frowned and turned to face his friend as they pulled up at a red light. "What's all this about, Stuart?"
"I love you Vince."
"No, I mean I really do. But, I'll always hurt you, won't I?"
"Why should you hurt me?"
"Because I can't help it. Because I'm so fucking sad and weak that I'll do it before I know. You deserve so much more than I can give you."
"Stuart, you're really scaring me. What's all this about?"
A sudden hooting from behind the jeep reminded them that the lights had changed, and Vince hastily slipped the vehicle in gear, moving forward with a start.
"Stuart?" Vince tried to coax the other man to continue, but it was clear that Stuart Alan Jones had 'closed shop' and there was no more to be said. As Vince's place of work hove into view, he slowed and pulled the jeep into the kerb.
"Stuart, I'll call you later, okay? Tonight we'll go have a takeaway then hit the clubs maybe? Or maybe we should talk?"
"Nothing left to say, mate," Stuart slid over into the driving seat as Vince climbed out, slamming the door quickly, before speeding off into the distance.
"Honest, I just don't know what's got into him, he was acting really weird this morning," Vince spoke into the phone as he wandered through the shop.
"Look love, you know Stuart, he's strange on a good day, but on a bad day he's bloody indecipherable. Just don't worry about it, he'll be okay. Stuart Jones will always come up smelling of roses."
"Yeah, but this seems really different, like he was dead serious!"
"About what?" Hazel asked, her voice betraying true curiosity.
"When he said he loved me, for a minute, I thought he was being serious."
"Oh Vince love, you know Stuart. Just... just don't worry about it."
"No, I'm not. How's Bernie today?"
"Okay, moaning that they won't let him smoke and he's dying for a pint of Guinness!"
Vince smiled, "That's a good sign anyway. Look I'll call you later." He clicked off the phone and slipped it into his pocket. There were times when his life was weirder than any episode of Dr Who.
Stuart had been edgy all day. Even the fact that the new delivery boy had *the* most impressive arse he'd ever seen, couldn't shake him from his black mood. Though he had taken a moment to watch the kid wander through the lobby in those skin-tight leathers before going outside and flinging his long leg across the motorbike. The action made the supple fabric stretch across his groin, outlining the promises beneath, before he kicked the machine into life and roared away.
<Yeah, they always 'roar away' from you, don't they Stuart? > A voice in his head taunted. <All except Vince, he sticks in there like the faithful hound that he is and you treat him like a piece of shit. You were all set to drop to one knee and announce your undying love until Nathan walks in and waggles his dick in your face, then you're in like the old dog that you are. Yeah, 'old dog', that about sums it up. How long before you're one of those sad bastards hanging about down Canal St, waiting for some desperate half-pissed kid to 'throw you a bone', eh? When you'll be grateful that someone gives you the time to wank you off in a doorway. It's coming Stuart, that time is coming fast. >
Running his fingers through his hair, Stuart closed his eyes for a moment, trying desperately to shut out the mocking tone.
"You all right, Stuart?" Sandra, his assistant and confidante, rested a hand on his shoulder, "You look awful!"
"Well thank you for that vote of confidence, even if I wasn't feeling bad before, I am now!" Stuart snapped.
"What is it?" she snorted derisively, "Guilty conscience troubling you?"
"What the fuck's *that* supposed to mean?"
"I don't know, you tell me! Anyway, you've got a call on line three from Maybank." With that final message, she walked away, leaving Stuart stinging at the taunt, which unknown to her had fallen so close to the mark.
How much worse could his life get?
The answer to that question was quickly answered as Stuart pulled up outside the usual place he'd agreed to meet Vince for lunch, to find Nathan standing waiting. Pointedly ignoring the younger man, Stuart locked the car and tried to walk past nonchalantly, without looking in his direction.
"Not even a hello kiss?" Nathan taunted.
"Fuck off Nathan."
"Like last night you mean?"
With more anger than he thought he contained, Stuart rounded on the youth, "Why don't you just go away and leave me the fuck alone? I don't *want* you, Nathan, isn't that enough to make you go away?"
"So what was last night then?"
Nathan grinned and slid a hand across Stuart's chest, "Didn't feel like a mistake to me, it felt pretty wonderful."
Stuart grabbed the roaming hand and hurled it away from him, "Why won't you listen? Why are you being so fucking *stupid* about this? I don't love you, I don't want you and I don't want to ever touch you again. Got it?" he snarled into the grinning face, "Now fuck off and let me have my lunch."
"None of your business."
Nathan shook himself down and took a few steps away. "I think I'll go and visit Hazel then. Oh, doesn't Vince usually pop in to see her this afternoon? That'll be nice, we can have a chat... about stuff, ya know... things!"
Stuart tried to clamp down on the fury that was building inside him. Here he was being held to ransom by some fucking *kid*. If he didn't tell Vince first about last nights little tryst, then Nathan would and that would be so much worse. But, how could he tell Vince that he was in love with him in one breath and that he'd had Nathan the night before in the next? Nathan of all people, rubbed Vince up the wrong way. If it had been some faceless shag, then it was doubtful that Vince would have been more than slightly upset, but Nathan...
Without another word, Stuart walked into the café, spotting Vince in their usual seat, as ever reading a paper and smiling patiently as the waitress fluttered around him. As Stuart reached the table, Vince looked up.
"At last, I thought you'd changed your mind."
"I got held up, some wanker on the phone with a list of complaints he wanted sorted as of *yesterday*," Stuart whined.
"And did you sort them?"
"No I fucking didn't, I passed the job on to that new temp we've got. Just call it teaching her the art of delegation."
Vince smiled warmly, "I ordered the usual because I was starving, should be here in a minute."
"Yeah, that's okay," Stuart mumbled and stole a glance from beneath lowered eyes, "Vince, I'm sorry about last night. And about being a miserable bastard today."
"That's okay, why change the habits of a lifetime?" Vince grinned and took a long drink of his Cola.
"I'm serious," Stuart fidgeted slightly, "I've been thinking, about the future."
"Oh God, that *is* bad!"
"Vince, don't you ever try to imagine where you'll be in twenty years? Who you'll be with?"
"Sometimes, but I usually come up with the vision of: still in the same grotty flat, but I'll probably have a cat."
Stuart smiled, trying to hide the fact that he could so easily see the same thing for Vince, "Don't you want more though? You know, 'somebody'?"
"I suppose so, yeah. But you know me," Vince sighed and both men stopped speaking as their food was delivered, immediately taking the conversation back up as the waitress wondered away.
"Yeah, well, that's what I want too. I've decided that it's about time I considered 'settling down'."
"Oh fuck, are we back to that again? Have you been drinking?"
"No!" Stuart hissed, "I have *not* been drinking. I'm serious, Vince."
Suddenly the food in Vince's mouth seemed to lose all taste, "So, what you trying to tell me? Who is he?" he asked through a tight throat.
"The man of your dreams that's suddenly made you want to give up everything and be 'faithful'. By the way, have you looked up the word 'faithful' in the dictionary? I means you can't shag half of Babylon every night, it's a big step, mate."
Taking a deep breath, Stuart rolled the words over in his mind, "It... it.."
"And the 'gaymanchester' shag list online, you'd have to give that up too..."
"Oh, and don't forget those 'raiding parties' you do down South, just so they shout 'fuck harder' in a posh accent."
"What?" Vince looked up and frowned.
"It's you, you useless twat!"
Stuart groaned out loud and shook his head, "I must be fucking losing my head," he mumbled, "You're the one I want to settle down with."
There... he'd said it.
Vince stopped dead, his Cola poised half way between table and mouth. A blank expression written all over his face as the words struggled to sink in.
"Say something," Stuart squirmed, "Anything, even 'fuck off'."
"Is this another one of your stupid games, Stuart? Because I really don't have the time or energy..."
"No, it's not!"
"I wish I could believe you," Vince shook his head sadly and took a drink.
"Why can't you?"
"Oh do me a favour, Stuart. I *know* you, remember? You don't *do* faithful."
"That was then, this is now."
"And what's changed? You want a nice cosy domestic arrangement? What about the first time some good-looking bloke comes on to you in Babylon? You'd be like a ferret down a rabbit hole!"
"I mean it, Vince. I can be different, I can't do what I'm doing forever, I'm getting older."
"Yeah, so am I. Older *and* 'wiser'."
"Vince, why don't you give me a chance? I can't promise that I'll turn into a saint overnight, but maybe let me try?"
Vince thought for a moment, "What aren't you telling me?"
"What?" Stuart felt his stomach leap into his mouth. Was Vince really so attuned with him that he knew when he was hiding something?
"I dunno, I just get the feeling that there's a big 'but' coming in this conversation, like there's something 'else'."
"No," Stuart looked away, but that rare beast, guilt, was already gnawing at him. "Nathan came over to my place last night, little shit. I'd drunk half the champagne because *someone* didn't turn up for our dinner!"
The colour drained from Vince's face as Stuart danced around the punch line that he knew was coming.
"And next thing I know, the little prick was stark bollock naked, humping at me..."
Reaching into his pocket, Vince pulled out some money and threw it on the table, "This is for lunch, I've gotta go."
"Vince?" Stuart looked up in alarm.
"See you, Stuart."
"Vince, wait!" Stuart fumbled with his wallet, throwing his share of the bill together with Vince's and gesturing for the waitress to collect it. "Vince!"
Racing from the cafe, he saw Vince just disappearing onto the main road. Swearing under his breath, he ran off down the road to catch up.
"Will you wait? Vince!" Breathlessly he grabbed his friend's arm, pulling him to a halt. "Where are you going?"
"Back to work." Vince's voice was flat and unemotional.
"Look, I'm sorry... about Nathan."
"No you're not. Just don't say those things, Stuart, you are *not* fucking sorry, you are *never* fucking sorry about anything you do because Stuart Jones is *never* to blame. Oh yeah, it was Nathan's fault, a sixteen year old boy forced you to have sex. My sympathies!"
"You don't understand."
"No I don't. I know that now, that I really *don't* understand you and I never will. What I *really* don't understand is what I've done in wasting nearly twenty years on you?" Vince looked into Stuart's face and for the first time, maybe he saw the truth, "I'm not the sad bastard here, Stuart. You are!" With a jerk, he pulled out of Stuart's grip and walked away.
The office seemed so vast and empty, much like his life, Stuart thought with an ever-sinking feeling.
"Stuart!" Sandra stormed into the office and slammed a file down on the desk, "Did you leave the temp to sort out your mess with Maybank?"
"So, what if I did?"
"It's not *her* job, it's *yours*. That's what they over-pay you for. I'm in charge of the junior staff here and I assign them any jobs I think they're capable of handling. So here, do your own dirty work for a change." She swept from the room riding an air of barely contained fury, leaving Stuart to smart alone.
He sat and stared at the file, the last straw. Without another thought, Stuart grabbed his jacket and headed out, away from his job and away from his life.
Vince slipped the key in the lock with one hand while balancing the box of groceries with the other. As the door swung open he yell, 'Only me!"
Hazel appeared and rushed to help, "Hello love, you're early."
"Yeah, they owed me some time, I went in for stocktaking last Sunday, so I said I'd take it today. I'm feeling a bit 'off'."
"You haven't caught this flu have you?" Hazel lapsed into one of her rare motherly moments.
"No, I'm just tired," Suddenly Vince stopped dead. In the living room sat Nathan. "What's *he* doing here?"
"I just popped in to see Hazel. How you doin', Vince?" Nathan smiled a knowing, triumphant smile.
Nathan's smile turned to a grin, "How's Stuart?"
Vince pushed his way through the room to the kitchen, placing the box down, followed by a suspicious Hazel.
"What's going on, love?" she asked, noting the tension rolling off her son at the sight of Nathan.
"Nothing," Vince's voice was just a note too cheerful.
"What's happened? And don't say 'nothing' again or I swear I'll clout ya!"
"Look, you know I don't like *him*," Vince gestured to the other room and Nathan, "He just puts my back up, that's all."
"This hasn't got anything to do with Nathan, this is about Stuart bloody Jones isn't it?"
"Don't you lie to me!" Hazel tried to control her temper, "What has he done this time?"
"Nothing, look I just need a break. Now I think I remembered everything, oh and the biscuits are two for one..."
Turning towards his mother, Vince for the first time bit back the tears, "Please don't do this now? I need to go." He pushed past her and headed for the door, leaving Hazel seething at Stuart and determined to get to the bottom of this whole mess.
Stuart finally slumped down in the chair and threw the mail on the table in front of him. He'd walked until his feet ached, just walked and let his mind run free.
Over the years, he'd fucked his way through half of Britain's gay men and never for a moment had the slightest twinge of conscience at the wake he'd left behind him. They knew what he was and what he wanted, anything else anyone saw in their brief liaisons was their problem, not Stuart's. He never promised anyone romance, never offered to be faithful and never said he was 'in love' with *anyone*.
Vince had been there through all of that, seen every shag come and go and just smiled, shaking his head in mock disgust and quiet admiration.
Stuart was never quite sure why Nathan evoked such dislike in Vince. But he had from that first night when Stuart had picked him up in Canal St. They had both joked at the time that he had all the thing that were slipping away from them in their 'old age'; youth, looks and enthusiasm. But it was more than that.
It was as though Vince saw more than the usual 'shag' between them? Maybe more feeling and emotion than Stuart usually showed towards his conquests? Though he'd never really considered what Nathan meant to him, Stuart had to admit to himself that the kid had been something more than just sex. He didn't feel for Nathan what he felt for Vince, but there was *something* there, something that made last night so easy, that caused the Stuart Jones' barriers to crumble so damned quickly and something that said to Vince; he's a threat.
Stuart rubbed his temples and rolled his neck, listening to the creaking of his spinal chord and feeling the tightness of his shoulder muscles as he tried to shake them out.
Wanting a diversion, he picked up the mail and began to leaf through it. Bill after bill, life insurance offer, another credit card offer...
Suddenly he stopped. The letter was hand written on good quality paper. He stared at the page until his eyes hurt.
'Dear Mr Jones
Do your parents know that they gave life to a filthy, dirty, disease ridden little queer?
What do you think they'd say?'
Unable to tear his eyes away from the letter, Stuart began to tremble slightly. It was possibly the only real fear he had left in this world, that his parents would realise he was anything other than perfect.
'Gay' did not come under their 'perfect' image.
Angry suddenly, he screwed up the paper and hurled it at the waste paper basket, before burying his head in his hands. He'd never felt so weary, so old or so alone in his life as he did right now.
Once again, he tried Vince's number, but there was no answer. He knew Vince never went anywhere without his mobile phone, even to buying a special waterproof case for it so he could hang it in the bathroom while he had a shower. He just didn't want to speak to him, and who the hell could blame him?
At that moment, the phone began to ring, without looking at the callers name, he snatched it up, "Vince?"
"No, it's me," Hazel's tone was deadly; still and controlled. "What have done this time, you little shit?"
"Nothing, I haven't done *anything*," he snapped back.
"Our Vince just left here almost in tears and you're the only person who can do that to him. What games are you playing this time? And what's Nathan got to do with it? He's sitting here looking like the cat who licked the cream... and I'll bet he damned well did, didn't he?"
"It's none of your fucking business. Vince is an adult."
"It's a pity *you* aren't."
"Just leave me alone," Stuart slammed the phone off, hurling it onto the table angrily.
Feeling like the world was conspiring against him, he stumbled into the shower and turned on the water, letting the heat flow across his tired, aching muscles.
He wasn't sure how long he was in there, but as he heard the phone ring, he realised that the water was running almost cold. Grabbing a towel to dry the water out of his eyes, he snatched the phone up. "Yeah?"
"Romey? What's up?"
The woman's voice was shaky and clearly upset, "It's Alfred, he's in hospital. He... he's got meningitis, Stuart."
For a moment, Stuart felt dizzy, the words were ringing like bells in his head.
"Stuart, did you hear me?" Romey's voice was clearly now angry, "I'm sorry if I've interrupted your early evening shag with the news that our son could be dying!"
"No!" He exclaimed, clearly shocked and horrified at the suggestion, "I'm coming right over, which hospital?"
Vince watched the phone trill, he saw Stuart's number come up again, but he couldn't handle listening to him any more. Almost immediately that stopped, the static phone began, but he'd disabled the answering machine too.
It hurt sometimes, just how much he loved Stuart. It always had. It had never been 'easy' watching him with other men, but he knew that they meant nothing, they were sex... sex and love didn't inhabit the same realm in Stuart Jones' world. He'd always known Stuart 'loved' him, but that love was different from the one Stuart was now proposing. This new version included sex and commitment and it scared the shit out of him.
What if he couldn't live up to it? No way could he compete with all those fantastic looking blokes Stuart shagged. He was *bound* to be a disappointment, then he'd lose everything.
Why couldn't Stuart just leave things be? Why couldn't he be satisfied with just their friendship, it had lasted all these years, why not let sleeping dogs lie?
But, what must it be like to have all that *and* spend every night in Stuart's bed? Vince groaned at the thought and unconsciously rubbed his groin. "Stupid, sad bastard!" he spat at himself and headed for the kitchen and a beer.
Again the mobile phone began. As Vince settled back down with his can, he glanced at the display... Hazel.
"Yeah, what's up? Everything okay?" he spoke quickly into the phone.
"Love, it's Stuart, he needs you."
"I don't want to talk to him."
"It's Alfred, he's been rushed into hospital, suspected meningitis. I know he's a bastard love, but he's falling apart, he really needs you."
"Where is he?"
"Still at home, I told him to stay there until you got to him, he shouldn't drive in that state, he's even more dangerous than usual."
"I'm on my way."
Vince leaped to his feet and grabbed his jacket, punching in the key for Stuart's number he spoke into the phone as he left the flat. "Stuart, it's me. Hazel told me, I'm on my way, don't go *anywhere* until I get there, right?"
"Yeah... okay." Stuart's voice was timid and frighteningly calm.
"I'm coming, okay? I'll be five minutes. It'll be all right."
Stuart already had the door open when Vince arrived. Wordlessly, he handed Vince the jeep keys.
"You okay?" Vince touched Stuart's arm gently.
In one slow movement, Stuart moved into Vince's arms. "What if he dies?" he mumbled.
Vince wrapped his arms tightly around his best friend and hugged, hard. "He won't die, most babies get better, he's tough. He's a little Stuart, remember?"
"It's my fault, I said that kids don't always live... the night he was born, I said that."
Vince remembered back to Stuart's words as he sat snogging Nathan in the back seat of the jeep that night, high on dog wormers mixed with E.
"It's not your fault and he won't die. Come on let's get to the hospital." He pushed Stuart back and looked into his eyes. The sheer vulnerability he found there scared him. Gone was the cocky, arrogant egotistical Stuart he knew and sometimes loved. All that remained was a frail and frightened man in need of his friend's support. "Come on."
Stuart hated hospitals. Even the few very sexy white-coated doctors couldn't make up for all of that sickness and despair. He and Vince hurried through the corridors to reception with an air of nervous tension emanating from them both.
Stuart gave the woman the baby's details and stood impatiently tapping his foot while she accessed the files on the computer.
"And who are you to the child?" She asked, peering over her glasses with menace.
"I'm his fucking father, that good enough?" Stuart began to rant.
Vince gripped his arm and smiled at the woman, "He's very worried, and he really is the child's father. Just check with Romey, the mother, she'll tell you!"
Suddenly Lisa hove into view, "Stuart? This way."
Stuart shot the woman on the reception desk an evil look and stormed off after Lisa.
"What's going on? How is he?" Stuart's voice was trembling and even Lisa appeared shocked at the emotion that was so badly being masked by irritation.
"He's stable at the moment."
"How did he get it? I mean, it's not like he could have picked it up clubbing or anything. Where did he get it from?" Stuart was beginning to become almost hysterical.
"Stuart, you know very well that kids can pick this up anywhere. When we take them out to the shops, at the doctors surgery when he went in for his vaccinations, anywhere." Lisa shot Stuart a look, then her face softened, "No one's to 'blame' in this, Stuart, not even you."
As they neared the I.C.U, Stuart trembled almost uncontrollably. Suddenly he could see Romey sitting next to the huge bed, a tiny figure lying in the middle, covered with an oxygen tent, attached to pipes.
"Oh fuck!" he gasped in horror, "Just look at him, Vince! Oh my God, just look at him."
"I know, but he'll be okay. You go on in, I'll be there in a minute."
Lisa and Vince watched Stuart tentatively move into the room, to be greeted by a tear streaked Romey.
"If I don't remember today for anything else, I'll remember it as the day that bastard Stuart Jones made me feel a shred of pity for him," Lisa said suddenly with a tearful, nervous chuckle.
Vince half smiled, he knew exactly what she meant. At that moment, they were all getting a view of Stuart Jones laid bare, no barriers, no shield, just the incredibly vulnerable and insecure inner shell.
He looked up at Lisa; tears streaming down her face and gently put his arm around her shoulder.
"He's *my* son too," she whispered, "They forget that he's my son too."
"Not everyone forgets," Vince whispered, his hand stroking the woman's arm tenderly.
"You're far too nice to be a gay man, Vince," Lisa smiled.
With a smile Vince pulled her closer and they watched as Stuart and Romey cried on each other's shoulder.