Michael Arram








  ‘You look a bit preoccupied,’ Nathan observed, coming up behind Justin at the bus stop.


  ‘Do I?’


  ‘You alright, Justy?’


  ‘Me … sure, fine.’




  ‘Nothing … look, I’ll tell you later, okay?  No nagging.  I saw what my first stepdad did to my mum to stop her nagging him, so back off.’


  ‘Fine.  No probs.  Here’s the bus.’


  During the bus ride, Justin tried not to be moody, but it wasn’t working.  By the time they had walked up from the Green to Harlesden Lodge, as Nathan’s home was called, they were quite silent.  Nathan was not going to intrude on his friend’s space, once told not to.  Unused to this sort of consideration from his friends, Justin was especially grateful.


  Once through the front door, however, Nathan had important things to discuss.  ‘So here we are in the ancestral home, and first we have to have sex.  Frankly, I want it here in the hall, although on the stairs would be okay, but I want it now and I want you in me.’  He stripped in record time, and Justin noticed he had worn no underpants.  Nathan put himself on all fours in the middle of the floor, looking back over his shoulder and grinning.  ‘Condom and lube are on the side table.  Make it slow, Justy.’


  Justin was inside him within sixty seconds.  ‘You sexy son of a bitch, you’re really gettin’ off doin’ it here,’ he growled, kissing and licking his lover’s neck and shoulders.  Timing himself by the loud tick of the big hall clock, he began a slow humping that he kept going almost till his knees gave out.


  After Justin couldn’t hold back anymore, they collapsed on the marble floor, but didn’t stay there too long.  It was cold.  Gathering up clothes and gear, they scampered up to Nathan’s room and bounced on the bed, where Nathan took his turn.


  ‘So tell me about last night,’ invited Nathan as they lay together afterwards in a close embrace.


  Justin obliged with a detailed account of the midnight adventure.


  Nathan got up on his elbow and listened intently.  ‘What do you suppose was going on, Justy?’


  ‘I’ve been thinking about it all night.  I didn’t get to sleep till five-thirty.  It’s surveillance, innit?  I’ve watched enough telly to know that.  So if Matthew White’s the target, then it’s gotta be industrial espionage.’  He rolled out the phrase with some enjoyment.


  Nathan nodded.  ‘I can’t see what else it might be.  They’re spying on his media business … looks like it’s going to be long-term surveillance, too, the amount of time and effort they put into it.  They sound like professionals.  Shouldn’t we tell him?’


  ‘Duh … so I go up there as soon as he gets back, knock on the cellar door and say, “Scuse me, Mr White, but I’ve been living in your basement for a week, and these guys came when I was there and fitted spy stuff all over your house, sorry to bother you and I’ll get back to my sleeping bag now, and by the way I’m wanted by the police for breaking out of a secure centre.”’


  ‘But he was nice to us when he caught us that day.  We owe him.’


  ‘I know, I know.  We’ll have to think about it.  Maybe on Thursday when you do his garden, you can say something to him or that Dave bloke in the garage, something that’ll make them suspicious and lead them to look at the cellars.’


  ‘That might do it, Justy, but it’ll have to be a good story, won’t it?  And if they search the cellars they’ll find Justy’s nest too, won’t they?’


  ‘Sure will.’


  ‘Tonight, at least, you sleep here with me, babe.  You’re joining the sleep-over set.  I told mum that my friend Justin from Highgate will be spending the night.  She said it’s okay as long as your mum knows.’


  Justin snorted.  ‘I hope you told her that’s not a problem.’


  ‘Yup.  What’ll we do now?’


  ‘I’d like you to show me your garden, Nate.’  Justin could not have said anything that would have brought a bigger smile to his lover’s face.  He knew it too.  He wanted to make it happen, having learned that love is a two-way process.  His soul was awakening.


  They spent an hour viewing Nathan’s work and hearing about his future plans.  His enthusiasm made him such a compelling speaker that Justin was not in the least bored.  Even if he was not listening to everything said, he was drinking in Nathan’s sparkling eyes and animated face.  At one point he just stopped Nathan and closed mouths with him.


  Nathan grinned.  ‘What’s that for?’


  ‘I just love you so much, Nate.  I’d do anything for you, anything.’


  ‘Wow.  Thanks.  And I love you too, my chavvy babe.’


  ‘Chavvy babe!  You’re a git!’


  ‘Street trash!’


  ‘Snobby bastard!’


  ‘Er … evil, lower-class person!’


  ‘Well, that sort of fits.  Come on, tell me about the prize you won for that pergola thing.’




* * *




  They were playing computer games when the large silver Jaguar belonging to Nathan’s father rolled up outside the house.  Justin peered down on the drive.  Professor Underwood was a tall, well-built man in his early forties.  He was wearing academic uniform of sports jacket and open-necked shirt, and had a laptop case slung around his neck.  He looked preoccupied about something as he locked his car.


  ‘Come on, Justy.  Time to meet dad.  Don’t worry if he seems a bit vague.  He’s always like that.’


  ‘I never met a professor before.’


  ‘They’re much like anyone else.  Just don’t ask him about superconductors unless you’ve got five hours to spare.  Also keep off the subject of his colleagues.’


  ‘Wasn’ goin’ to mention it.’


  They found him in the hall as they came down the stairs.  ‘Hey, dad.’  Nathan hugged his father and received a kiss in return, much to Justin’s astonishment.


  ‘Hi son … is this Justin?’  He offered his hand to the boy, who hesitantly shook it, not knowing what to say.


  ‘What time’s supper?’


  ‘Whenever mum gets back.  Will you be in the study?’


  ‘Uh huh.  See you later, Justin … you too, son.’  He disappeared through a side door.


  ‘I see what you mean.’


  ‘Kitchen, then.’


  ‘You do the meals?


  ‘Oh yeah.  Dad’s not safe in the kitchen and mum’s always last home.  I started doing the evening meal when I was fourteen.  If I hadn’t taken responsibility, it would have been mostly takeaways.  Besides, I like getting together with them round the table.  They’re very interesting people as well as being my mum and dad.


  He pointed to a pan.  ‘If you’ll fill that with water and get it boiling, I’ll ring mum and see if I can get an estimated time of arrival.’


  An hour later, Nathan and Justin had produced quite an elaborate Italian meal, with crispy garlic bread, salad and wine.  Nathan lit tall candles on the dining-room table, which had been laid with formal place settings.    Justin was becoming more and more alarmed.


  ‘Just follow my lead,’ Nathan reassured him.  ‘The pair of them never notice anything anyway.  You could come in naked and it wouldn’t register.’


  ‘It sounds like you’re the adult and they’re the kids.’


  ‘Sometimes feels like that, but they’re okay, really.  I love them to bits.  They hated holidays, but they took me on them when I was a kid.  They really do try to be good parents.  It’s quite sweet.’


  ‘You make them sound lovely.’


  ‘That’s cos they are.’


  The clunk of a car door heralded the arrival of Nathan’s mother, who called out when she came through the hall.  Nathan shouted a greeting back.  Justin brought in the salad as Nathan retrieved his parents and got them seated.


  Mrs Underwood gave Justin a warm smile and said hello again, then thanked him for helping Nathan in the kitchen.


  As Nathan began interrogating the elder Underwoods about their days, Justin sat trying to look at ease but feeling woeful.  He desperately wanted out.  He did not like this dining round a table, preferring to grab his food and eat it watching the TV.


  Sooner or later, it had to happen, and it did.  ‘So, Justin,’ said Mrs Underwood, whom he had to call Mary, ‘what do your parents do?’


  Somehow, Justin had guessed that these were people who would want to locate him socially.  Not entirely sure how to lie his way out of this one, he decided to try the truth for a change. ‘Me mum and me live on our own.  I’ve never seen me dad.’


  ‘Oh.  Er … does your mother work?’


  ‘Oh yeah … on the tills at Tescos on Seven Sisters Road.’


  ‘Ah,’ but the lawyer in her wasn’t going to give up, ‘I thought Nathan said you live in Highgate.’


  ‘Oh, I’m bein’ sort of fostered at the moment.  Just seein’ how it’ll work out.’


  Professor Underwood looked from Justin to his wife, smiling a little wickedly.  ‘Teach you to be nosy, Mary.’


  Nathan gave a muffled laugh.


  ‘You two really think you’re so clever,’ she huffed.


  They laughed openly.


  Professor Underwood, whom Justin had to call Robert, turned to him.  ‘Mary loves to interrogate Nathan’s friends.  She can’t help herself, putting them on the witness stand as if they were at the Old Bailey.  You just gave her a bigger mouthful than she could chew for the first time in her life.  She daren’t look disapproving because that wouldn’t be liberal of her, and she so prides herself on being liberal.’


  Mary Underwood twirled her glass of wine while looking coolly at the three males around her table.  She informed them loftily, ‘I hate all three of you.’


  They all erupted, and from then on Justin felt at home.  He caught the happiness in Nathan’s eyes and was happy back.


  They sat round the table for another hour, but it didn’t seem that long to Justin.  The adults talked about law and society, and almost despite himself, he was soon chipping in with observations from his side of the wire fence.  They listened to him, then argued back, genuinely interested in drawing out his point of view.  He didn’t feel patronised at all.  They didn’t even mind that he lost his temper once and said a rude word.  He was almost sorry when Nathan started stacking the plates and shifting them into the kitchen.  He helped, and the pair kissed when they were out of sight of Nathan’s parents.


  ‘It’s no wonder I love you, Justy,’ Nathan told him with a happy smile.  ‘Dinner tonight was the bravest thing you’ve done in your life.  They love you too.  One day I’ll have to tell them we’re sleeping together.  Maybe, when that time comes, this’ll help them deal with it.’


  They filled the dishwasher, set it going, said goodnight to the parents and took themselves back to Nathan’s bedroom.  They lay naked on his bed, fondling each other intimately while watching a DVD.  Then, without feeling it necessary to have more active sex, they got into bed, kissed and went to sleep.


  The following morning, Nathan woke to a catastrophic fart from Justin that more or less lifted the duvet.


  It woke its perpetrator too.  ‘Jesus,’ he complained through a yawn, ‘talk about gas.  I shoulda warned yer about me and garlic.’


  ‘Lemme out of here.’


  Justin chased him into the bathroom.  They showered together, washing each other’s hair as they kissed.  Nathan threw Justin a pair of fresh boxers and put on a robe.


  Although it was early enough that the adults were not yet up, Nathan had to get dressed for work.  ‘Mr Anderson’ll be here for me in half an hour.  He’d better not see you, Justy.  What you gonna do for the rest of the day?’


  ‘I’ll head back to Highgate and me hideout, and chill out till I see you tomorrow, Nate me mate.’


  ‘Can’t wait.’


  ‘Issa date.’










  It was still only eight when Justin reached the side lane and swarmed over the wall into the garden.  The curtains of the garage flat were drawn, so someone was back, if not awake.  He quickly dashed to the cellar window and shot inside, where he sat on his bedding to ponder the surveillance problem long and hard.  He and Nathan had got no further with it, and he could not see any way out.


  The sound of music from upstairs gave him a jolt.  Then he heard footsteps, which seemed to belong to more than one person.  Matthew White was back, and maybe the little blond bloke … what was his name?  Peacher, that was it.


  He lay low all day, thoroughly bored.  He never read and all he had was his ancient CD player.  He didn’t even dare smoke, because the scent of tobacco carried, as he well knew.


  Despite its being an overcast day, he glimpsed people in the garden, several of them.  To make things worse, the house itself was busy, which destroyed the peace of his little refuge and indeed made it perilous.  The pipes knocked and hissed with running water and descending sewage.  He seemed to have swopped detention in the secure home for self-imprisonment in a waterworks.


  By eight that evening the sun had set.  Justin was then in such a state of nerves that he had to escape or scream, which would have been a dead giveaway.  He crawled up out of the depths and knelt down next to the wall.  Although the garage at least was dark, the house above him was fully illuminated, with squares of light shining from the windows to pattern the lawn.  The night was chilly and the sky was scattered with light clouds.  Occasionally he could hear snatches of conversation drift down.  Once someone stood for quite a while at the kitchen window immediately above him.


  He felt his way among the fuchsias and dwarf conifers in the border nearest the house.  Then he was off along a stretch of open lawn, running low, to reach the right part of the wall.  He was over and out, breathing heavily as he sat on the rubble pile, where he lit up and inhaled with relief.  Then he had another.  For the next couple of hours he wandered the streets aimlessly until the cold and loneliness got to him.  The distant church clock struck the midnight hour as he returned to the lane.


  He straddled the top of the wall.  There was still an upstairs light on in the house, but everything else was dark and quiet.  He dropped softly into the border and edged out on to the grey lawn.  The cloud cover over the Thames basin was breaking up, revealing a full moon sailing through a sky scattered with ghostly floating islands.  Its  silvery glow was bright enough to glitter on the heavy fall of dew and throw a shadow in front of Justin, who did not notice the dark trail his feet left in the moisture on the grass as he walked briskly back to his hiding place.


  With relief he slid down into the dark of the cellar and dropped to the floor, only to become ominously aware that he was not alone.  A light snapped on and a young man’s voice greeted him.


  ‘Evening, mate.’