Saturday, December 12, 2009

Will You Walk A Little Faster?

 “Will you walk a little faster?” Said a whiting to a snail
“There’s a porpoise close behind us and he’s treading on my tail.”
Lewis Carroll


It had been years of caucus racing, and still longer since I met anyone who even knew what a caucus race was. And then suddenly there he was. About fifteen feet tall, competent and practical, and quoting things at me that made everything damn complicated.  The man could even make me bloody laugh.

At the time, I was leaving. Don’t get me wrong, I like large, bossy, demanding men as much as the next red blooded guy, but their main intent? Give them five minutes, and they’ve figured out exactly how they’re going to try to fix you. In that don’t worry, just leave it all to me way. Oh they were nice guys, meaning well, but five minutes was all it ever took for me to know that I’d be hands down the boss and leader of that relationship. I knew exactly what they were trying to do and I was one step ahead of them, and they couldn’t let go of this ideal that say the right words and I’d turn to mush and be a happy, fluffy little bun, just like the rest of them.

All right, that’s mean, you get bunnies everywhere you go and while I’ve met a few brats who definitely are, the majority of them aren’t at all. But you get the cynicism? Who wants to be fixed in order to be acceptable?

I’d got it down to a fine art. Thank them politely, drain the wine glass in one swallow which usually scared them, and head off vowing to stay single and to stop hanging out for a life I knew I needed to admit that I wasn’t designed for. At the end of the day these guys want someone capable of giving something back, someone who actually plays by the rules. They don’t want gawky men who are too old to be playing the game anyway, who have more IQ than they do and who is too damn sceptical to do anything more than raise an eyebrow when they try sweet talking.  

There was a job at a mountaineering centre in Wales, which was the same kind of work I’d done right through my teens and while I hung around in Oxford doing degree after degree to stave off having to make any kind of decision about living. Not client work. I wasn’t good with people and they knew it; I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me. But setting ropes, marking trails, going to get people who were stuck and needed action rather than coaxing- that I was good at, and that was always needed even if it didn’t pay much. I’d been marking time since the age of 18, there was no reason why I shouldn’t go back to marking time to the age of 40. I filled out the job application. Damnit he even helped me do it. He didn’t exactly follow me around, but he just had this habit of being in the vicinity and looking harmless, and coming over to chat as if we were friends or something, and he was immune to sarcasm.

“Why the sudden panic to leave?” he asked me once, sprawled out in his chair across the table at some cafe type place in the square. He was working as a security guard at the time, and the uniform wasn’t convincing once you’d seen the smile. He’d stop a bank robbery by casually blocking the doorway and smiling.

“This isn’t a panic and it isn’t sudden.” I told him, continuing to fill out the forms with his pen, since he’d pointed out that the form demanded black ballpoint. “Why would I be panicking?”

“I can’t imagine.” He gave me another of those amiable smiles, drinking a massive Americano which is his one real weakness.

“I’m not panicking.” I filled out another line of pointless post grad qualifications, trying to remember the order they came in. He peered at the upside down writing.

“Geology? Wow.”

“It filled the time between Archaeology and Medieval French Poetry.”

Freres humains qui apres nous vivez, N'ayez les coeurs contre nous endurcis ...” he said to his coffee, as though normal people just reeled this stuff off all the time. I severely doubted there was anyone else within fifty miles that would have recognised it.

I looked up at him, deeply suspicious.

“Where do you know Francois Villon from?”

He gave me a calm shrug and he was smiling again. The smile drove me nuts.

“I got good at French, I served in the Mounties for a few years before I came here.”

That should have warned me. Bloody Mounties have this fixation on always getting their man.

“So where exactly are you going?” he asked me in the crush of the airport. I still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d suddenly appeared as if he knew where I’d be, how he’d even found me considering the means by which I’d got to the airport, or why he was as relaxed as if we were still sitting outside a cafe when it was two am in the morning and there was a howling storm going on outside which meant all planes were temporarily grounded.

“What does it matter?” I demanded. The queue was still sixty or seventy people deep ahead of me. He pushed my back pack further along as the queue moved forward, hands in the pockets of his soaking wet jeans.

“Well it’s generally good to have some idea when you’re travelling? And if you’re going to Wales, you’re in the wrong queue.”

He was unbelievable.

“You are a lousy top.” I spat at him. “There’s a whole set of speeches and threats you ought to be making right now, starting with, what the hell are you doing out of bed at two am, you’ll turn into a pumpkin, and going through the whole no one knows where you are, and the forcible dragging away with menaces-“

“Would that help?” he asked me cordially. I glared at him and he nodded, nudging my pack further forward again. “I didn’t think so. Want a coffee? It’s perishing in here.”

He didn’t wait for an answer. Just mooched over to the stand and brought two steaming cups back with him.

We stood and drank coffee. I took no notice of him. He took no notice of being taken no notice of.

“Are you really going to get to the hatch with no idea of where you’re going?” he asked gently when we were two people from the front of the counter.

I hated that tone. I really, really hated it. It got under my skin, it seeped. Industrial strength bleach would have stood no chance against it.

“You kissed me.” I accused him, dropping my voice low enough that no one risked overhearing this appalling situation.

“I did.” he admitted quite without guilt when I didn’t add anything further.

“Well you can forget it.” I kicked my pack nearer the counter with only one person left to go.

“I don’t want to forget it.” he said calmly. “I enjoyed it. It’s a very nice memory of a very nice evening. I’d like a lot more evenings like that.”

“No you wouldn’t.” I informed him.

He dug his hands deeper in his pockets, giving me that ‘hmm?’ expression, that’s sort of genial interest rather than any properly Toplike inquisition.

“I’m mean. I’m vindictive, I have a lousy temper and I fight back. You think I’m a brat? I’m not. I’m a lousy brat.”

“You said I was a lousy Top. That would probably work out.”  

“No, it wouldn’t.”

The person in front of me was nearly finished at the counter.

“Is that why you’re running?” Jake inquired. “Because I kissed you?”

No. And I’m not running.”

The traveller in front of me picked up his bag and left, and the woman behind the counter gave me a cheerful smile.

“How can I help you, sir?”

“Passport?” Jake said helpfully. I grabbed my pack and dug for it viciously.

“I don’t get why the thought of possibly being kissed is that awful.” Jake obligingly stabilised the bag while I rummaged. “You’ve never struck me as someone in danger of putting up with being kissed when you didn’t want to be.”

I abandoned the search for my passport, erupted upwards and shoved him hard in the chest.

“Don’t you dare try that pop psychology crap on me! You aren’t the reason for anything. You’ve got nothing to do with this, and I don’t give a damn who you kiss, how dare you think you’re the reason!”

“You’re the only one saying I am?” Jake pointed out. He hadn’t moved an inch from my shove. He stooped and picked up my passport, which had fallen on the floor, and put it on the counter.

“Is there anywhere you want to go?”

The woman behind the desk was watching us with her eyes wide.

Damn him. Damn him, damn him.

He picked up my backpack when I couldn’t answer, put an arm around my shoulders and gently steered me out of the line.

Way back at the far end of the hall, we sat on a steel bench and I pulled my knees up to my chest and buried my face. He put my passport back in my backpack, I heard the zips, and then the weight of his hand on my knee. It was warm and it felt like it burned.

“We were talking,” I said into my knees, aware how acidly vicious my voice sounded. “That was all. I was actually enjoying talking to someone who had half a brain, and you had to go and –“

And I’d not only let him. I’d hung on to him as if I was starving. It was only in the bitter humiliation afterwards, after he’d gone-

“And stop stroking me.” I ordered, yanking away from his hand. “I’m not one of your weepy queens, I won’t just melt if you look sinister.”

He yanked back. Hooked an arm around my shoulders, dragged me against him and took absolutely no notice of my struggle to get away. Very angrily I hugged my knees tighter and leaned against him for some time and the clock ticked slowly around to nearly four am.

“You needn’t think you’ve won.” I told him eventually.

He didn’t sound particularly defeated. “Shall we go somewhere quieter and figure out where you do want to go?”

“There’s that job in Wales, I told you.”

“Do you want to go to Wales? I didn’t think so. Where do you want to go?”

“What does ‘want’ mean in any real terms?” I demanded. “It’s where can I go. What can I do when I get there.”

“I’d think pretty much anything you wanted.” he said dryly. “Where do you want to go?”

Nowhere, was the short, bitter answer to that. I’d been going nowhere for years and I would walk away from him now and keep right on going nowhere. His arm tightened around my shoulders, although there was no way he could have felt my throat tighten.  A proper Top would be pushing me now towards going back. Going to bed. Things looking better in the morning. The penalties involved with disappearing in the middle of the night, which I’d get through in silence with my teeth grimly gritted, for no real reason I understood.

I’d never been good with closed doors. It got hard to breathe behind them.

“There are plenty of places you want to go.” he said reasonably. “You told me.”

“And do what?” I demanded. He looked right back at me.

“Like I said, anything you wanted. Bengal. Rome. Alexandria. Jungles and ruins and oceans.”

I’d told him far, far too much that night we spent walking together, a whole lot of romantic idiocy that I was ashamed of now.  

“Cairo.” he said when I didn’t answer. “I’d like to see Cairo.”

“What for?” I demanded. “You know about working visas? You know about tourist complexes and hotels?”

“Why?  We’d both hate it.” He got up, collecting my backpack. “Let’s find a flight out to Cairo and we’ll pick up my stuff.”

“You can’t just get on a plane and go, you’re mad.” I snapped at him. “You have a job?”

“I’m not good with rulebooks.” he said apologetically. “Suppose we start with Egypt for a month and see where we get to?”

 “I’m not going with you.” I warned him. He held out a hand to me. And stooped to grab it when I didn’t respond.

“All right. How about I come with you?”


I’d seen what he could do with ropes and rocks; that had been what first grabbed my attention and refused to let go, the first time I saw him. And he was a seasoned, confident traveller. I don’t know what the plane was above when the steep gravity of takeoff levelled out, but it was pitch dark outside the windows, and he propped one knee against the bulkhead, comfortably slouched in his seat, and signally failed to reel off any properly Toppish crap about anything at all. He said nothing. Just pulled my head down against his shoulder and took a very battered paperback out of his pocket, and calmly read as though this was some perfectly normal thing to be doing in the middle of the night.

I stared at the black window and couldn’t think anything coherent at all. I was moving – running – which was often the only thing that truly smothered the panic when it took over, and that animal need to run had sunk back down under its rock, appeased. But the cause of the panic was sitting right here beside me, reading a book. And for no reason I understood, I couldn’t have lifted my head from his solid, very bony shoulder with the aid of a crowbar.

He led me straight out of the neat, air conditioned streets and hotel areas of Cairo to back streets and alleyways where ours were the only Caucasian faces in sight, and in the markets there he haggled in gesture with the traders and grinned at me when I managed some phrases of broken Arabic gleaned from two years on an Egyptology degree. We armed ourselves with long sleeved pale shirts, hats and light flannels instead of the jeans and t shirts we’d travelled in. The hiking boots on his feet were as battered and as lived in as mine. I mean you need to realise this. Any sane Top worth the name would have been having kittens by this point. An unplanned flight, strange country, no itinerary, no map, no plans, no room- not the slightest definition between us about what we were doing or what it meant, or even who we were together as I bought falafel stuffed in pita bread from the market and handed half to him.

He just ate and walked alongside me without the faintest concern about what it was, with simple interest, fair hair shining in the sun under his hat which on him looked natural instead of dressed up like most men. Without talking, we drifted together in to the Khan el Khalili souk, somewhere I’d only read about and seen in pictures. The crowds were thick in the heat of the day, and the shining goods were piled high around the little stalls and cave like shops and traders grabbed our arms and tried to push items into our hands. The glitter of gold and pottery and marble was everywhere, the sunlight here seemed brighter than anywhere I’d ever been. We drank Arabic coffee from a tiny coffee shop built into the wall, golden in colour and spicy with cardamom, where the air smelled of tobacco and at times of hashish, from the shisha hookah pipes on the tables. The ancient city wall led down to the citadel in all its glory, and by twilight we were walking its massive walls and courtyards, by the castle like towers and Islamic spires, and the ablution fountains. It was like a city within a city, quiet now the tourists were fading away, and in the distance a lone and clear male voice sang the Adhan over the city.

He stood and listened to it, back pack on his shoulder, face turned towards the spire where the man sang of his devotion and called others to prayer. I’d been watching his eyes all day, drinking in the buildings and the people around us. He didn’t chatter; in fact he’d said very little at all, although he smiled a lot, at children, at street sellers, at particularly beautiful architecture, and I was willing to swear he knew what he was looking at. He didn’t behave like a tourist, and whenever I woke from my amazed drifting amongst these stunning buildings, I found him drifting too, eyes just as spellbound.

It was rather like having spent years pecking desperately at the bars of a cage, and then suddenly finding yourself afloat in a clear sky.

Dizzied with jet lag and with the unreality of the sweeping courtyards around us, I sat down on the side of a fountain and washed my hands and face. And watched him. At six foot three I was used to being taller than most men, but he comfortably topped me by a good couple of inches. He stood easily, untired despite the miles we’d walked today, and the backpack apparently contained all his worldly goods, which were Spartan to put it mildly. I’d watched him pack up his room in five minutes. A few books, a few changes of clothes and little else. He was worse than I was.

He glanced over, he must have felt me looking at him, and he gave me the same smile he’d given me the evening of the day we met. And we all knew how that ended. It still made me shiver. I gave him a glare and he laughed.

“It’s no good looking suspicious now. Do you want to find somewhere to sleep tonight?”

“What are we doing?” I asked. He knew what I meant, and he wasn’t thrown by the question, he seemed as calm with it as he was about the options of what we did now it was getting dark. As if that wasn’t a problem, as if he didn’t see darkness as any kind of border of time, as if he was genuinely willing to follow my lead.

“Does it matter?”

I got up, picking up my back pack. He deserved some concession.

“We can find somewhere to sleep.”

He waited for me, glancing beyond the citadel and in the direction of the river.

“How about Shepheard’s?”

Of course I’d heard of it. Who hadn’t? Anyone who knew anything of the golden age of Egyptology, Carnarvon and the great explorers, knew of Shepheard’s hotel, it was a romantic legend all of its own. The sweeping marble foyer and the old fashioned dining room were the stuff of history, of Boy’s Own fantasies of mine, years old, when I’d first devoured these stories in books, and while I stared around me, Jake leaned on the hotel desk, turning that smile of his on the receptionist.

We were given the keys to a twin room, high at the top of the hotel, and when dropped my back pack and opened the doors out onto the balcony, it was to look down on the Nile below, alive with lights and river traffic in the darkness. It was spellbinding.

Jake had put the lights on in the room and he came to lean beside me on the balcony rail, looking down.

“I read about this.” I said eventually. “As a kid? I fantasised and dreamed about this, I had shelves of books on it. The histories, Carnarvon, Elizabeth Peters-”

“Crocodile on a Sandbank.” Jake glanced up at me and smiled. “And Thunder in the Sky. I love that book.”

How many men would even know the reference? Never mind speak with affection of dry, witty little romance novels, or understand the sheer magic of being in this particular hotel where the afternoon tea and the formal dances were the zenith of the explorers who made the history and made Egypt the heart of far too many romantic myths and stories? Jake straightened up and put a hand on my shoulder.

“Shower and get comfortable before you get settled out here.”

It was the first time all day he’d given any kind of instruction, and he said it naturally, without looking or waiting to see what I did in response.

I showered, which after the long hours of the flight, the stress of the night I left – which by my watch was now approaching 48 hours ago and was thoroughly bolloxed up by travelling across time zones – and the day in the hot and dusty city, I was more than in need of. I found a pair of loose shorts in my back pack and shaved as I was distinctly shaggy, and went back out to tell him the shower was free. He’d stripped down himself, and was bare foot, shirtless and definitely ripe, although that did nothing whatever to detract from the view. He was as golden skinned as he was fair haired, and every inch of him in view was lean and flat, he must have spent no little of his off duty hours in the sun. I couldn’t see tan lines.

He’d been in the shower ten minutes when I answered a knock at the door and a man brought in a tray. I dug for coins to give him, found the phrases to thank him and Jake emerged from the bathroom as he left, towelling off his hair and arms.

“I thought it was past time we had a decent meal.”

From what I could see, he’d ordered a range of side dishes, food for grazing, and he only paused to pull shorts and a t shirt on before he carried the tray barefoot out onto the balcony and put it on the table there, settling into one of the two chairs with the comfortable slouch I was starting to recognise. I pulled the other chair out and sat with one foot under me, and in silence we dug into the food and watched the river below. He apparently wasn’t in the least precious about what he ate. Some of the little dishes were highly spiced, all were unfamiliar and he ate from all of them, using the bread and unfamiliar vegetable sticks to dip into the yoghurt and hummus type dishes which I didn’t recognise. I discovered a particularly spicy fish dish on the tray and he smiled when I involuntarily sighed with satisfaction at the bite of it.

“You like it hot?”

“I like it to take the roof of my mouth off.” I admitted. “I used to live out of a Bengal take away in Oxford that made goa that fought back. I’ve been known to drench hamburgers in Tabasco even, but this.... “

Whatever the sauce was, it was unfamiliar and deeply, intensely spiced, and as strange and as satisfying as this city and the river flowing away below us. That was the Nile. I was sitting here, beside the Nile, with him, so tired I was drunk on it. Dreaming.

“I’d always wanted to see the museum.” Jake said, dipping pita bread into one of the less easily identifiable dips. He did it without delicacy and with practical gusto. I was starting to recognise it. This man didn’t dip a toe in things; if he did them he immersed himself.

“The Mummy room. And the tomb discoveries.”

“I remember reading about the city of the dead.” I said, reflecting on it. “The roofs were visible from the citadel. Two kilometres of cemeteries and tombs, occupied as a shanty town, the living alongside the dead. No electricity, no sanitation.”

“From what I understand, it’s unwise to set foot there without a very experienced guide.” Jake said mildly.

I understood his tone. And while it hit me wrong, I couldn’t blame him; he didn’t know me. A proper brat type bunny would have been frantic to rush straight to see the spooky tombs, and would do it in a way that involved a lot of enthusiasm, no forethought and spectacularly bad planning.  

“It’s a settlement, people’s homes and encampments, not a tourist exhibit.” I said, controlling the disgust in my voice. “Although I know some tourists treat them like that. Unless you’re going to do something practical about water supplies or power, what business would anyone have there?”

“You’ve done something like that.” Jake said, picking up another piece of pita bread. It wasn’t a question, he’d heard it in my voice. I watched him tear off a piece of bread, throw it up and catch it in his mouth like a sea lion.

“Does your mother know you do that?”

“She wouldn’t know.” Jake gave me an uncritical grin, doing it again. “But at home, that would get me sent from the table, yes.”

“I spent a month with a project digging water supplies in Uganda, when I was a teenager.” I conceded. “I went with a group from school. And I did a couple of runs with Red Cross lorries into Romania before too many convoys got shot at and the UN closed the borders. The University had links with the British Red Cross teams.”

“You never thought of joining the military?”

I hesitated. “......... yes. A few times. But you have to be good with people and I’m not.”

“I’d think that depends on the people.” Jake said, dipping more bread. There was a tenderness to his voice that went straight through me.

I wasn’t blind. This guy had walked out of a steady job to come with me – with zero notice, which must have caused him some serious issues, not that he showed any sign of minding. All based on a couple of weeks of me being appallingly rude to him, avoiding him, telling him to get lost any way I could, following one long evening walk together and one kiss.

He was watching me and he spoke before I even got my mouth open.

“What if I don’t want anything? What if it’s ok to forget about everything and just have a good time?”

From most men that would be sinister, a get out clause; from him it was gentle and sincere and I knew exactly what he was telling me.

“How did you ever get classified as a Top?” I said with all the aggression I could summon up. Which wasn’t much.   

He flipped up another piece of bread and caught it, giving me a confiding look.

“I cheated on the exams.”

I laughed out loud.

It was maybe an hour later that he got up and stretched.

“I think I’m going to get some sleep.”

I didn’t answer. He leaned on the balcony rail, looking back at me.

“You don’t sleep a whole lot, do you?”

Not well. Not long. It was a serious bone of contention in the whole Top/brat type dynamic, I’d been told so often I’d be so much better if I just caught up on sleep. And the stronger the boundaries, the clearer the bedtimes, the less I actually slept. Like a lot of the Toplike stuff, I quietly did as I was asked and hid the fact it made things worse; it wasn’t the poor bastards’ fault that I wasn’t the right stuff. Another very good reason I’d left.  

“I’ve got a stubborn streak a mile wide.” I told him. “I’m a destructive S.O.B., I did warn you. I’m not a brat. The more people push, the less I sleep.”

“Pushing probably doesn’t work then.” Jake said candidly, getting up. “You’d do better with a blanket out here, it’ll be cold in an hour or two.”

He went into the room and I heard him moving around, then a blanket landed in my lap, neatly rolled. The light went out and I heard the bed creak as he got comfortable. And then the soft, deeply comforting sound of his breathing.  

I wrapped the blanket around myself, curled up in the chair, and watched the Nile flow.

As a matter of fact, I’d always been a night owl. Even as a small child I’d always wanted to be outside at night. The world slowed down in the dark, everything was clearer, every thought came more distinctly. There was a calm in the dark that there never was in daylight. I often needed the night to be able to manage the day.

It was shortly after two am that I reached a decision, left the blanket on the balcony and sat on the edge of Jake’s bed.

He’d turned the sheets down on the other bed; that was a thoughtfulness that touched me. He was asleep with the covers kicked off, one arm behind his pillow, and he rolled over towards me when I brushed a hand against his shoulder.

“I’m a grown up.” I said grimly, keeping my hand on his shoulder. “I do not need looking after. I do not need sorting out or fixing. I make my own decisions and I’m an awkward, bloody minded cynic so it’s a waste of anyone’s time trying anyway. I don’t buy into the fairytale crap and this isn’t being swayed by jet lag or the place or anything else.”

“What isn’t?” Jake shook his hair out of his eyes, and I stooped down and kissed him.

The last time had been in the dark too. He’d put a hand gently under my chin to lift my face and it had been sweet and unhurried and like being burned alive by a flamethrower built out of butterflies. And it was even sweeter now than I remembered. I felt his hand slide through my hair and pull me closer, and I remember him laughing and co operating with me removing his t shirt with my hands before I resorted to using my teeth, but I don’t remember a whole lot more. Other than it was..... well, a classical education came back to me in that one Greek root. Eu. The root of all things good.  

We didn’t say a whole lot at the time. I discovered he had a tendency towards deep, rumbling animal sounds; purring growls, like a satisfied big cat. And that he took up most of the bed when he stretched out, which meant lying on and around him. I felt boneless and so peacefully exhausted I couldn’t move, and there was a depth of calmness and orientation that ridiculously made me want to laugh every time I thought about it. I lay with my cheek against his chest and his arm weighed a ton wrapped around me, and the night breeze came in the open door and over the both of us, as the covers had disappeared onto the floor hours ago.

“That is the good thing about the end of a caucus race.” he said at some point, lazily, with his fingers sliding through my hair.

“What is?” I demanded. It was still a perfect image to me. The chasing round and round, never a beginning, never an end and no discernable reason, just the chasing...

Jake tousled my hair, pulling me closer.

“Prizes for everyone.”


As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back;  For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the wolf is the strength of the pack’
Rudyard Kipling


We dived the blue waters of the bay of Alexandria, having hired diving equipment from some quayside shop in the town. I wasn’t at all surprised to find Jake qualified as I was, and we both produced our certificates from our wallets without hesitation when asked for them.

There is a certain trust that you have to have in someone when you go into deep water with them, where safety is nothing more than an oxygen tank on your back. At that depth you have hand signals and nothing else. You depend on your partner to be alert, to see if you’re in trouble, and maybe to know better than you do if things are turning sour. I’d seen people with oxidised tanks get confused at forty feet, drift off, let the rubber mouthpiece go in the belief they could breathe under water, and only an alert diving partner stood then between them and a soggy death. On the dock I turned Jake around to double check his tubes and the safety of his tank before he shouldered it on, and I’d seen how he’d looked over our tanks and the tubes and masks before he accepted them. He knew exactly what he was doing. Under the water he moved like a seal, smooth and gliding in long, easy strokes, and his attention never wandered, there was never a move I made that didn’t draw his eye. I’d been trained by less expert diving instructors than Jake, and there was some ridiculous sense of pride in just how skilled he was. As if I had any ownership of him.  

We dived from just beyond the eastern harbour, and for the first six metres down, it was like diving through milk, or a thick fog. And then near the sea floor, the waters suddenly cleared and the remains of the sunken city emerged, and we drifted through it in wonder. A battlefield of debris, giant broken slabs, shattered chunks of obelisks, and the remains of pillars, and out on the south east side of the harbour, we found statues, some standing and some tumbled, and a sphinx, patiently looking out to sea from what remained of Cleopatra’s royal apartments. We’d watched, fascinated on the docks where a team of archaeologists had been carefully unloading what looked like a pharonic statue from the dive site of Herakleion, a city sent to the bottom of the sea by an earthquake twelve hundred years earlier. Jake was as honestly riveted by this stuff as I was, his knowledge was practical and extensive and he was well read, starting from the same Boy’s Own type adventures I’d devoured as a kid. 

Warming up by walking later, as diving chills you, and drinking bottled water by the gallon as the oxygen tanks dry out your throat, we ransacked the shops and found battered second hand books that mapped the cities and the history, which we read while we lay in the hot, grassed parks and sat on the eastern harbour where the little local boats bobbed as they had done for centuries. We often shared a book, or one of us read interesting parts aloud, most often with Jake lying flat and me sitting using him as a back rest, and we dived several more times as we found out more about the sites and what they had once been. Jake got talking to someone at the bar of a little harbour restaurant where we’d sat to read outside while we ate, and a couple of men sat with us, initially making me wonder what Jake was on – I hated company and I froze with strangers – but Jake sat down, distributed beers and introduced me to two archaeological divers, and the divers told us in detail about Herakleion. Initially Jake asked all the questions, all the things we’d read and wondered about, until I couldn’t resist asking a few myself, and we ended up sharing a meal together and the following day rode a boat with them out to Herakleion and dived with them on the research site. We dived with them several times in the end. They found Jake’s diving skills too useful, and when they found out I’d got some geology qualifications one of the researchers got me into a whole area he was looking at with volcanic debris all over it. With Jake there who could chat to anyone, who did the whole easy social thing, it was no effort and their friendliness to him just spilled over and incorporated me. They accepted I didn’t say much, it wasn’t questioned, they just took us as a pair.

It was one of the busiest, strangest times of my life, and it felt like after years of having battled and battled to the point of exhaustion to keep from drowning in a pool, someone had pulled me out onto the side in the sun and let me rest. 

My Arabic was developing in leaps and bounds, Jake teased me about being a sponge for languages. We roomed in a little battered hotel near the harbour where no one looked twice at us, and we only went back to the room late at night to sleep, spending our time busy and eating at cafes and as we walked, explored and read. We didn’t talk a whole lot between ourselves, and hardly ever about anything more serious than who had small change or the details on the maps and books we devoured. The sex got steadily better with practice, and we put in a lot of practice. And it was kind of if we never mentioned what we were doing, what was happening, and just kept doing it, the magic couldn’t stop.

The only thing I found hard was the whole sleeping issue. I’d never been able to sleep. My body just didn’t conform to other people’s rules and schedules. Left alone, I’d fall asleep around three or four am and wake late morning; at University I’d been more or less nocturnal for years. Jake never mentioned it or hinted at anything regarding me going to bed when he did, which I appreciated; but apart from him needing his sleep, I knew it was something I had to control and I tried to. Each night in the scruffy little room off the harbour, when Jake fell asleep, I laid still and I tried. Or I read by the light of the moonlight through the window, careful not to move and disturb him. I got up when he did, around sevenish, and every day we were walking, diving, we often went for a run in the early morning around the city, I was physically tired out and properly tired out by the end of the day in a satisfying way I’d never before been in my life, and Jake was by nature as restless as I was. It was the first time I’d ever not had to carefully control my pace on a run, or be considerate about whether we went another few miles, I was used to my stamina and energy reaching unsociably inconvenient levels, but Jake was, if anything, worse than I was and I could visibly see him getting twitchy when he hadn’t physically done enough with a day. There’s a kind of psychopathic fun you probably only understand if you’re seriously into this kind of thing, but someone who pushes your limits, who challenges you to be fitter, stronger, to improve your running style and the range of what you can do – with the right person it can be intoxicating, you get to know their body like you know your own, and I knew I challenged Jake as much as he did me. But I still, no matter how tired, slept only a couple of hours a night.

Several times we walked the catacombs of the Mound of Shards in the Karmouz district of the city in the earliest parts of the morning when hardly anyone was about, moving in silence through its subways and tunnels with its sarcophagus tombs. When you reached the part where no natural light remained, where the deep, ornate shafts were used for lowering down the dead, and where the carved pillars marked heavy, deep set entrances like the doorway to a palace – it was like stepping into another world. The Egyptian and the Roman blended together in this city, where Alexander was buried, and where Cleopatra’s palace had stood. In the catacombs, it was like being able to walk in the dark; there was a peace and a stillness and clarity that drew me like a magnet, and Jake never said a word when I steered another early morning run towards Karmouz, simply smiling at the man at the door who came to recognise us and to greet us with “Asalamu alaykum”. Peace be upon you. 

“What about Thebes?” Jake said one morning when we’d paused on the harbour front on the way back from a run. It was one of our familiar routes, ending by a small street cafe that sold a peculiarly mixed menu including croissants, baklava and mint tea.

“Karnak’s there.” I sat down on the edge of the harbour wall to share still-hot croissant, looking down into the milky waters. The Valley of the Kings. A desert full of ruins, and rocky valleys and the remains of cities. We tended to eat from the same item, it was a habit we were getting into that saved time.

“Easy enough by train.” Jake slouched comfortably on the concrete beside me and took another chunk of croissant from my hand. I looked down at his fair head with another of the disturbingly powerful rushes I got at times like this when I looked at him without thinking. Gold hair. Wide bones, long limbs, no hurry, the easy and comfortable lounge of an athlete at home in his body. Sometimes it scared me how fiercely I felt and how deep it went, and how it just went on deepening by the hour I spent with him. He ran his hand down my bare thigh below my shorts, and I jumped.

“You look tired.”

I handed him the rest of the croissant, brushed crumbs off my legs and got up.

“I’m not.”

“You know you don’t have to sleep because I do?” Jake rolled slowly to his feet and came with me, sipping tea from the paper cup we were sharing.

“It’s fine. We don’t have to move on, I’m not getting tired of being here, or tired in any other way.” I picked up a stone and skipped it viciously out to sea. “You don’t have to second guess me, I’m not passive aggressive.”

“You’re not a bunny.” In the privacy of the corner of the harbour, Jake stepped up against my back and his arms slipped around me, his teeth finding the edge of my ear.

“I’m not a bunny. My body is stupid.” I leaned back against him, despising myself when I should have pulled away and told him to get knotted. “I warned you. It does nothing it’s supposed to do.”

Jake, whose hands don’t so much wander as roam with purpose and guided intent, snorted into my ear.

“There is nothing stupid about your body at all.”

He made the shorthand sound that I knew very well, which means come somewhere quiet and private, now, and to which the answer is always a helplessly physical oh yes please. That was one need of his that I felt half way competent to meet. Yeah, he was good at wearing me out, the man was tireless there too and it helped.

But damnit, not enough.

The roof of the hotel was neither ancient nor decorative, but it was isolated in its ugliness of flat, heat scarred concrete and aerials. If there was a tv in our room I hadn’t noticed it; neither Jake nor I had time for sitting in front of electric boxes. I sat up there with my arms wrapped around my knees, very determinedly not thinking the queues of thoughts hammering at my brain.

I was screwing this up. Again. As I’d screwed up everything else, it was a habit of mine.

If he left me here, I was alone in the middle of bloody Egypt.

Actually if he left me, it made no odds where I was, since the only plan I had after that was to walk out into the nearest bit of ocean and keep walking until I didn’t care anymore.

If I had the faintest grain of sense, I wouldn’t be sitting up here like some bunny, I’d be with him and fighting to salvage what I possibly could, trying to explain, I’m like this. I’ve always been like this. I am a lousy brat and I’m sorry, please try to give me more time to learn, to do this better.

And yet I went on sitting here. The sea was in view over more ugly rooftops, the sea we’d dived together, and I went on sitting, looking at it, frozen, doing nothing.

I had no idea what time it was when I heard the scuff of boots, a hand caught the edge and my stomach froze. Jake hauled himself easily onto the top, gave me a casual smile and came to look with me out over the sea.

“What’s the view like?”

I’m ashamed to say, I got up and hit him. I really did.

He caught my fist before it got near his face, wrapped his arms around me and stepped back from the edge, and that was about all he did, but it was like trying to fight with an eiderdown. He just held on until I quit, and then he wouldn’t let me go either when I tried to pull away.

“You at least owe me the ‘where the hell have you been?’ speech,” I snarled at him when I couldn’t get my arms free. “You can’t possibly have known, I had no business leaving you without a word in the middle of some city in the middle of nowhere, you can’t have known why or what you’d done wrong, it was a filthy thing to do. And you didn’t do anything wrong, I did.”

He was probably supposed to say something around now, but he wasn’t saying anything at all, leaving the gaps for me to fill. I knew exactly what we should be saying. Blah blah blah responsibility... blah blah unacceptable risk...

He didn’t do anything at all until I quit fighting, partly in exhaustion and partly in despair, and then he simply walked backwards to one of the concrete bollards supporting the aerial sprouts, sat on it, and turned me over his knee. He did it as if I weighed nothing at all, as though six foot three was three foot two, and he had no difficulty whatever with my shorts or underwear, both of which he simply dropped straight down to my ankles, one elbow between my shoulders keeping me exactly where I was over his lap. He then, without a single comment or warning, brought the palm of his hand down across my bare backside, hard enough to make me jump, and proceeded to continue swatting, with the same easy commitment I saw him put into everything he did.

I’d been spanked before. As an adult, by other well meaning Tops. And actually a hell of a lot harder than this, when they’d decided that nothing seemed to penetrate the thick walls of my brain. This really didn’t tickle, but it wasn’t the kind that leaves you unable to think or be aware of anything but your conviction it’s never going to end. No, I was horribly, fully aware of every flaming part of it. From the concrete roof just out of reach of my fingers, to the competence of the arm around my waist and the elbow that stopped me moving anywhere, the pitiful brush of my clothes around my ankles that made me hideously aware of how very bare I was and to what extent, and that bloody hand of his that just calmly and unhurriedly and bloody painfully went on swatting. And it was him.

I have no way to adequately explain that.

I’d been tanned by Tops I’d liked, men I’d respected, and I’d got through it and done my best to try and learn from it, accepting the transaction as it was intended, without grudges. But the second Jake laid a hand on me, every atom of me was acutely aware this was him. This was Jake, and my body felt very strongly in all kinds of ways about Jake, and had no interest at all in what was bunnyish and what was not. This was the man whose back I lay against at night, whose hands knew exactly where to touch and what to do as if he’d studied a map of me for years, and whose palm knew exactly what it was doing with my backside. It was his knees I was draped across, his body I lay against, and doing anything to shut him out wasn’t just unthinkable, it was impossible.

There was a fairytale I read as a kid, about a boy with a fragment of a witch’s mirror caught in his heart, a little splinter of cold viciousness. There was a short answer to it, which I was discovering now; Jake went straight to that splinter of mine and melted it as deftly as he’d tipped me over his knee.

I hadn’t the breath to say anything – which is probably just as well, as it would have been pathetic beyond bearing – but for the first time since I’d truly known what a bunny was, tears streamed and I snivelled like one, out of all proportion to what he was doing to my backside. He didn’t stop either, not for tears, not for squirming, not for any kind of bunnylike tactics which I should have been too ashamed to try. He took no notice whatever, and it was in his own good time when I’d given up in despair that he lifted me upright off his lap as if I was a rag doll, put me on my feet and gently re assembled my clothes. There was nothing short, exasperated or reproachful about it: there hadn’t been from the first moment he laid a hand on me, and yet the gentle and very firm way he handled and moved me made it absolutely clear who was in control of this. He still said nothing at all. Just got up as if we’d been sitting drinking coffee, used his hands to wipe the worst of the mess very gently from my face, and sat down this time with his back against the bollard, in the shade of it, and pulled me down between his knees.

He sat me right on my sore backside, which did nothing to soften the smart of it, but my back was against his chest, his knees fenced me in on either side and his arms folded around me with the safety of a fortress. I felt his face nuzzle against the back of my neck, and we sat and looked out at the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean in the bay.

I admit, it took me a long time to stop coughing and snivelling. He didn’t say anything, just mutely went on lipping softly at my neck, my ear and jaw, his arms unbreakably around me.

“I’m sorry.” I said eventually and very unsteadily, aware I had to do something to try here. “I told you I-“

“How’s the headache?”

He interrupted as though I hadn’t said anything at all. I leaned my head back against his shoulder, eyes sore under the brilliant sunshine. He had helped me find painkillers late last night when I couldn’t hide from him any longer that it was pounding. My body always made it abundantly clear when things were really going wrong.

“It’s gone.”

My backside smarted atrociously, but in a weird kind of way that was much more tolerable. I needed to try to explain this to him, I knew I did, but I couldn’t find the words, and he gently bit my ear before I managed to say anything more.

“You’re so tired you’re more or less asleep on your feet. Come on.”

I hadn’t thought anyone but me was capable of that climb up to the roof. It was a tenuous business of slides down to a study drainpipe and then a swing across to a fire escape, and neither of us bothered with the steps down. Just the rails. Jake dropped to the ground first, gave a pleasant smile to a veiled woman walking past who eyed us with alarm, and held up his arms, catching me as I dropped.

We’d chosen to stay in the old city by the east harbour purely because it was anything but a tourist area. The beaches were cluttered with them, the big hotel districts were full of them, and not too far from here the trams rattled and the streets were filled with shops which we’d avoided like the plague. We took the now familiar route through the back streets and took refuge in the grassed garden of St Catherine’s cathedral, where Jake sprawled full length on the grass in the shade of the walls, put up a hand and pulled me down beside him, and I rolled over onto my front, turning my head on my folded arms. He’d pulled a book from his pocket. He always had one. He curved his body around to shelter mine, longer than me, propped his head on his hand and I watched his face until I fell asleep on the grass.  

We were still there when it grew dark, when the only lights were the ones on the road beyond the garden, where the city began its night life. We still lay on the sun warmed grass.

“How did you know where I’d be?” I asked him eventually. I’d slept for several hours, and I was still vaguely drowsy. Jake gave me a mild grin over his book.

“It wasn’t difficult.”

That was all he said. I watched him go on reading, unable to take my eyes off the line of his jaw, the fall of his hair across his forehead, the shine of the fine hairs on his arm as he turned the page. He laid the book face down on the grass and looked directly at me.

“Are you going to stop?”

“I’m going to screw this up.” I told him. “I won’t mean to, but I won’t be able to help myself, I always do.”

Jake nodded, apparently finding this completely reasonable.

“Well you can try if you want to.”

I knew that tone. That was a Top tone, and he didn’t do Top.

Well yes, he did, I had the hand prints to prove it, but not like any one I’d ever met.

“You can’t just do it like that,” I accused, “It’s supposed to involve bloody torturous negotiations and explanation and reasoning, and all the rest of the crap-“

He stooped, kissed me swiftly despite the fact we were in a public place, and got up.

“Let’s find something to eat, I’m starved.”

“You are a bloody awful Top.” I accused him. He took my hands to pull me to my feet and pocketed his book.

“Normal ones have rules.” I said to his back, following him.

“I told you I wasn’t good with rules.” Jake said apologetically.

No. Neither was I.

“That’s not the point.”

“Why bother when we both know perfectly well?” Jake paused, slightly in front of me as we reached the road, and I realised I’d seen him do that before. Block me slightly, his shoulder in front of mine, if we were too close to a road’s edge, or close to strangers when we walked at night. Like he promptly found cafes whenever we needed to eat, and charmed people behind hotel desks, or anyone else we met. I hadn’t noticed.

He glanced down at me, eyes very soft. Painfully soft.

“It’s not going to make the slightest difference, so why waste the time?”

And like that, he simply took me on trust. Entire, and unconditional and unfixed.

There was nothing I could give back to that except to confide the thing I’d been struggling with the most in the past few weeks.

“I don’t sleep.” I blurted out. “I try, but the more I try the less I can, and it’s like being – crowded. Too bright, too fast, too loud. I’ve always gone up on roofs when it gets too much. I used to do it at school.”

He was listening, and I could see him processing, but he didn’t come out with any of the exhortations I’d heard from other people, at school and beyond, about talking. Expressing this. Dealing with it instead of acting on it. He just nodded understanding.  Just as I understood that what he’d done to me on the roof top had nothing to do with don’t climb up there, it’s not safe, or you don’t disappear without a word to me, and everything to do with a brisk jerk out of the quicksands of my head. Apparently he didn’t even require promises from me to talk to him first or not to vanish again; which on reflection was probably just as well, since I’d never managed to keep them to all the people who had made me promise in the past.

“May be better to quit trying then.” he said mildly.

“You have to sleep.” I pointed out. “I can’t responsibly wreck your sleep every night wandering in and out-“

“So wander in and out quietly, I’ll get used to it.”

I reflected on that as we walked down the long harbour walkway around the dark sea front. He so flatly refused to play by the rules. In fact he refused to play at all. I’d looked for years for a man I couldn’t outwit, manipulate or lead by the nose, and here he was, driving me insane.

“All I’m thinking now,” I told him, “is what about this? And what about that? How it would feel for you in a strange city in the middle of the night with no idea where I’ve gone? What if I promise you that you can trust me not to do something stupid if I am out alone in the night, and I can’t keep that promise and show you that you can’t? Things that haven’t and might not even happen.”

And he’d seen me chew on exactly this stack of fears the night he gently kidnapped me from an airport and took me to Cairo, I hadn’t fooled him in the slightest.   

“I’m neurotic.” I warned him. “I’m probably the worst of the bunnies and I’m not even honest about it-“

“You’re three parts wolf, in a city, sleep starved.” Jake said calmly. He caught my hand and pulled me down at an outside table of one of the odd little restaurants we liked, which mostly served locals rather than tourists. “We’ll eat, get our stuff and head out to Faiyum.”

“That’s by Karnak?” I asked, confused. Jake shook his head.

“No. It’s an oasis. Lot of ruins in lots of desert and not much else.”

“You wanted to go to Karnak.” I said, shocked. Jake lounged back in his chair and gave me a friendly look that sent a primeval shiver of care for my backside, right down my spine. I processed that, and nodded, very reluctantly returning the smile.

“..........Faiyum. Faiyum sounds good.”

In the four hour night train journey to Giza, where we changed trains to Faiyum, we used our packs as cushions and Jake slept with his long legs sprawled and his head against the window, opposite me. I watched the night go by with the train window open, breathing the rush of cool air and the silence but for the train wheels. The train was nearly deserted but for us.

In among the several books Jake carried, when I dug for something to read, I found a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, well thumbed and dog eared, and I settled to turn the pages in what little light came through the carriage window. In amongst the early stories, I found myself reading through a poem, lips moving, breathing the words, and looking at the sleeping face across from me. I’d always thought that Kipling had great insight, and he had raised my man well. 

Because of his age and his cunning,
because of his grip and his paw,
In all that the Law leaveth open,
the word of your Head Wolf is Law.

Now these are the Laws of the Jungle,
and many and mighty are they;
But the head and the hoof of the Law
and the haunch and the hump is -- Obey!

Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


Lauran Hammill said...

I love this story, and have read it many times. I can never decide if I love Nick and Damien best, Tom and Jake, or Dale and Flynn. I guess they are all different enough it is easy to love them all. Just amazing writing. Lauran

Anonymous said...

I feel the same. I just keep re-reading it over and over. I'm not sure I've ever read a more beautifully romantic story. I keep hoping that Tom makes his way ever more into Dale's journey with the family and keeps finding those bits of happiness that prove it's never too late for anyone. I just love it when Jake says, "Well you can try if you want to." It gives me shivers. Definitely, prizes for everyone. Thanks. - C

Ranger said...

thank you Ddarius!

Ranger said...

And thank you Lauran, it's great you enjoy it.