The old man and his young companion hadn't spoken to each other since sitting down. In fact, the elderly one looked in such a zombified state that Adam was beginning to wonder if he was capable of such an energetic activity as speech. The young companion sat smoking mindlessly and looking around at nothing in particular. He had little to say to his charge, and was merely performing the obligatory duty of "taking him out for an hour".
After he had smoked three cigarettes the nursing assistant walked round to the old man's chair, and lifted him out of it with professional ease before depositing him back in his wheelchair. Adam watched this little ceremony with macabre curiosity. He wondered why the old man had insisted on the inconvenience of being hoisted out of it to sit on one of the hard cafe seats in the first place. He could only assume it was the old man's last vestiges of pride, a final lingering of testosterone-charged ego. He had wanted to sit up at the table and drink his coffee like a man in his prime, not lolling back in his pushchair like a wrinkled toddler.
Adam had watched it all with appalled fascination. It was unusual to see very old men around the City, as longevity wasn't the norm anymore. Nowadays men tended to burn out after fifty. Adam was all too uncomfortably aware that this gave him exactly ten years. Could this be him in a matter of only a few years time? Would Kieran, Joby or Hillyard - the three men nearly half his age with whom he lived - argue amongst themselves as to whose turn it was to take Old Adam out today? Would he have to ask them for help when he wanted to visit the toilet, with the added indignity of a colostomy bag to cope with as well? Would he embarrass them? Bore them? Revolt them?
Ironically, whilst Adam sat in the June heat dwelling on the terrors of old age, he was being admired by many from the other side of the cafe fence. The Pen, as the open-air cafe was nicknamed by most of its regulars, was where customers could sit whilst being ogled by passers-by. In the summer heat there was plenty to admire, and at that moment Adam was intriguing many of the onlookers.
He may have turned forty last winter but he had never looked better. His skin was tanned golden from the many hours he spent sketching and painting outside (the commissions were coming in at a steady flow, and it meant he was at last doing what he had always wanted to do AND getting paid for it). His fair hair, at the moment partially hidden by a broad-brimmed hat, was bleached by the sun. The pale blue shirt he wore was open to the waist, and exposed the nipple rings he had had put in on his birthday. He had long been fascinated by body piercing, and had been informed by the piercer that to regard this operation as a rite of passage, as he did, was fairly common amongst Men Of His Age. Adam simply saw it as being true to himself, and when feeling particularly sensual he linked the two rings by a fine silver chain. And there was no doubt that Adam was a sensual animal, as many of those who slowed down by the fence to stare at him would willingly have testified, if given half the chance.
They were unanimously put out when a thin young man with dark hair and a bony, angular face sat down in the chair next to him. Joby had been working on his allotment all day, and now reeked of earth and sweat. How such a captivating creature as Adam could possibly look pleased to see him was beyond many of the onlookers. When he was "scrubbed up", as his friends called it, Joby could in fact look quite striking. Certainly not good-looking in any conventional sense, but there was a strong "look again" quality about his enigmatic grey eyes and hawk-like features. Unfortunately he spent most of his time hiding under a layer of dirt, and certainly had no inclination to impress anyone, particularly as he regarded a great deal of the population of the City as "a bunch of jerks".
"Joby", said Adam "Why are you carrying a bag of compost around the City?"
"Some soil for your coffin!" Joby barked with laughter, and lovingly patted the compost bag, which he placed on the remaining chair "You looked bloody miserable just now. What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Just in need of a holiday I expect. Care to join me in an iced coffee?"
Joby nodded. Adam summoned a waiter and placed their order.
"I think we need to get out of the City before the worst of the heat arrives", said Adam, after the coffees had been delivered "It was unbearable last year. No wonder the crime rate always goes through the roof in July and August".
"Good idea", said Joby, who had had his eye on a ludicrously expensive fishing-rod for some time now, although he had an idea he would be too afraid to use it and would simply keep it for gazing at in adoration "Marlsblad again, I take it?"
"No, not Marlsblad", said Adam, testily "There are other places in the world you know".
"But we always go to Marlsblad", Joby pouted.
"Exactly, we're in danger of getting dreadfully suburban and middle-class. There is a whole vast region to the south of here, which we have never yet seen".
"There's nothing down there but desert, and that's even hotter than here!"
"Maybe, but the heat won't be so unbearable as in a City. Anyway, it isn't just desert. There are mountains and beaches, plus vast tracts of jungle", Adam stretched back in his chair and scooped up his hair in a languid fashion, knocking his hat off as he did so "It all sounds tremendously exciting".
"Yea well, I've had enough excitement in my life thanks. You can go if you like, but count me out".
"Oh I see, you fancy the idea of Marlsblad all by yourself, or perhaps a cosy 'a deux' with Hillyard? You could bore each other with your fishing stories", said Adam, knowing full well that Joby would hate the thought of being alone with Hillyard.
"And what makes you think Flannery won't want to come with us?"
"Patsy will want to come with me", said Adam.
"You mean you'll tell him he has to go with you!"
"Not at all. If it was a choice between several weeks in some torrid, tropical region with me, or watching you and Hillyard fish, I would think he would choose my version, don't you? So, I assume you will now be joining us?"
"I haven't made my mind up yet".
"Oh come off it Joby! You won't want to be without Patsy's company for the rest of the summer, I know you too well".
"You've got it all sewn up haven't you?" said Joby "So what do we all get up to in the desert, apart from indulge you in your frontiersman fantasies?"
"It won't all be sleeping out under the stars".
"I'm glad to hear it".
"We can get a cruise ship down to a small resort called Lixix".
"Lixix? Sounds like a cough medicine!"
"It's one of the glittering 'in' places to be nowadays, according to the holiday agent I spoke to. Anyone who is anyone stays there apparently".
"Sounds dead boring".
"I agree", Adam sighed "But it'll be a useful stopover between getting off the boat and heading out into the desert. It means we won't have to take a lot of equipment with us, as we can arrange to pick it all up there".
"I still don't see how any of that's going to be better than Marlsblad".
"Joby", said Adam "Can you not just do this for me?"
"I don't get you ... Hang about, you're not still depressed about turning forty are you? You haven't been the same for months now".
"Perhaps in all honesty that's partly the truth. But I want to get us all out of that claustrophobic apartment, and don't tell me could do that in Marlsblad. I want to re-awaken some of our old adventurous spirit".
"If you carry on talking like that I'm going to be sick. You mention those days as though it was one long riot. Well it was bloody horrible in parts from what I remember. Being cold, no grub, Flannery disappearing. Why can't you be happy with what you've got?"
"I am", said Adam "I have my painting, and Patsy of course".
"Well then ..."
"But I'm afraid that if I let things drift I'll ... I'll lose him".
"Bollocks. Who's he going to run off with? Hillyard?"
"I meant that as a joke!"
"Oh Joby, you haven't noticed what things are like at home recently. You've hardly been there".
"I'm always there at night, and Flannery hasn't said anything to me that you need to worry about".
"He spends too much time alone with Hillyard. Whilst you and I are out all day, working like galley-slaves ..."
"Doing what we enjoy".
"Those two are holed-up in the apartment like two old spinster crones suffering from agoraphobia. Arsenic and old lace they're turning into. We don't know what they're getting up to in our absence".
"Nothing very exciting if I know Hillyard", Joby grunted "Anyway it's not Flannery's fault he can't get a job. Nobody's going to employ the Vanquisher of Evil are they? And he hasn't got a natural talent for anything like we have, apart from defeating the Devil, sensing psychic presences, and screwing".
"Yes, and it's the third one that worries me", Adam lit a small cigar and drew on it slowly.
"Then don't sit there going on at me about it", Joby stood up and collected the bag of compost from the other chair "Go home and see what they're up to. If you dare".
Adam took Joby's advice and decided to go back to the apartment straightaway, even though it was still only late afternoon. Normally, at this time of year, he worked until the light faded, but for once his heart ruled his head.
Their apartment block looked particularly sordid and depressing in the harsh, white light of a blistering June afternoon. Every sound and every smell was amplified to a level that made you feel irritated at best and suicidal at worst. He walked past the ground floor apartment belonging to the elderly couple who only seemed to communicate by yelling obscenities at each other. The rumour was that they'd been living there for over twenty years, to everyone else it certainly felt like it. Their room was quiet at the moment, so Adam assumed one of them must be out, as they never went out together.
At the top of the first flight of stairs he was dismayed to find their next-door neighbour leaning over the bannisters. Adam was beginning to get a complex about this man. He seemed to have no existence whatsoever other than to hurl complaints at them, usually about their noise level, their tardiness with their rubbish bags, and Kieran's habit of wandering around the foyer with hardly any clothes on, although Adam couldn't see how anyone could object to that, as surely a half-naked Vanquisher of Evil lent prestige to the place? (And God knows it needed it).
Today the neighbour looked even more mutinous than ever. He was wearing his habitual faded blue bath-robe, pulled reluctantly over his pot-belly, and his unwashed hair hung lankly over his face. He looked like an illustration for severe depression, and years older than his true age of thirty. Originally Adam had tried to feel sorry for him, reasoning that 2000 years earlier he would probably have had a wife and children, and not be the lonely, dysfunctional character he now was. But after several months of listening to his incessant whining and complaining, Adam revised his opinion and concluded that this man would have been a miserable git whichever era he had lived in.
"Don't start today", Adam said, sharply "I'm not in the mood".
"YOU'RE not in the mood?" the neighbour exclaimed in disbelief "You're not in the mood!"
"Repeating yourself again, that's a nasty habit you've got into. Why don't you go out and try living for a change? Instead of hanging around at the top of the stairs here, trying to catch us doing something wrong".
"I do not".
"Yes you do", Adam suddenly felt exhausted. The man's loneliness was overwhelming when confronted with face-to-face. His constant complaining was the only way he had of convincing himself he was still alive.
"Have you ever just tried going out and ... er ... enjoying yourself?" asked Adam.
The neighbour relaxed his belligerent pose, but it was more through a fresh wave of misery than a softening of attitude. He crept back into his room like a wounded animal. Adam faced his own apartment no more easily, having already overheard several gusts of laughter coming from within.
Inside Kieran and Hillyard were standing with their backs to him, rooting through a pile of damp washing on the kitchen table. Hillyard was nudging up against Kieran's shoulder, whilst the Irishman playfully slapped his hands with a wet handkerchief. Both seemed to find this inordinately amusing. Adam dumped his easel and his kit-bag loudly on the tiled floor, which caused the two men to leap apart guiltily. None of it was helped, in Adam's view, by Kieran looking highly ravishable. Because of the stuffy heat he wore only a pair of black thong underpants and a baggy string vest which had slipped down over one skinny shoulder. His long hair was almost white from the sun, and emphasised his long-lashed blue eyes. Anyone would have had to have been blind not to have noticed his extraordinary qualities.
"You're back early", he said "Has the heat been getting to you?"
"You don't wanna overdo it", Hillyard boomed.
No phrase could have been guaranteed to make Adam feel more old at that moment. How could he, an old crock of forty (albeit a very well-preserved old crock of forty, his ego reasoned) hope to hang onto such a luscious young creature of twenty-two? Particularly as in recent months he had hardly been at home to take care of him.
"Hillyard", said Adam "Didn't you have somewhere to go this evening?"
"I was going to pop in and visit Lonts", said Hillyard "Later on".
"The sooner you go the better surely? Before they put all the little darlings to bed for the night".
"I-I'll go now then, shall I?"
"That seems best".
Hillyard left sheepishly. Kieran watched Adam preparing himself a pot of coffee.
"You've got a damn nerve Addy", he said "Ordering Hillyard out of his own home like that".
"I'm fed up with having him around! He's always here, he never goes out".
"Yes he does, it's me that's always here".
"Well that's changing from now on", Adam took a gulp of his coffee and felt better automatically "From now on you are to come with me when I go out to work".
"You've always refused to take me before", Kieran protested "Said I would be too much of a distraction".
"I've changed my mind. And the clients would be delighted if you turned up. They could dine out on it for months. Anyway, it's high time I put you back on a leash, you've had too much freedom lately. Freedom away from me that is. It's not healthy having Hillyard slobbering over you like that".
"There's nothing going on between me and Hillyard, you daft eejit. Do you think I'd shit on me own doorstep or something?"
"I don't believe you would. But it's Hillyard who I don't trust".
"He's alright, he just wants to look after people", Kieran sat down on the table next to the coffee pot "I kept hoping you'd take me with you one day. Sometimes I've felt like just sitting inside the doorway and waiting for you to come home. And each day you've gone out and left me behind".
Adam placed his hand round the back of Kieran's head and nudged him close enough for kissing. He was appalled to realise that he couldn't remember the last time they had kissed properly, let alone enjoyed one of those glorious sessions in which Kieran always finished the evening by sleeping curled up on Adam's bed.
"I've let things slide a bit haven't I?" said Adam, pensively.
"No problem", said Kieran "I knew you'd catch up with me sometime, in the autumn at least".
"Oh Pats, have you been very lonely? Both Joby and I have neglected you lately. Trouble is, we're happy just to know you're here".
"I don't expect either of you to keep me entertained day-in day-out", said Kieran "I've been happy enough. I don't ask much of life, and I'm satisfied with just knowing that you're both coming home at the end of the day. I'd have made a good housewife wouldn't I?"
"Hopeless actually", Adam laughed "It's Hillyard that does all the work. You just sit around here all day whilst he whisks around you, treating you like a fairy prince".
"I will say that a bit more nookie in me life wouldn't go amiss. So are you up to it nowadays, or do I have to give you three weeks advance warning?"
"I have never yet failed to rise to one of your challenges Patsy", Adam got up and bolted the door.
It was stiflingly hot behind the curtains of Adam's box bed, but they enjoyed the sensation of total seclusion that it gave. Kieran lay with his head against Adam's chest, whilst the older man plaited his hair.
"It'd be nice to live like this all the time, wouldn't it?" said Kieran, drowsily.
"You just say the word and I'll find us a place", said Adam "Just big enough for the two of us".
"You know I couldn't leave Joby".
"No, and I don't want to be responsible for his death", said Adam "He'd wither away within a month if you weren't here. Still it's a nice dream. The fact remains though that I have neglected you Patsy".
"Daft Addy", Kieran rolled over and pressed himself onto Adam. He squeezed the older man's flesh whilst kicking his feet in the air. Adam was laughing so much that he didn't hear the hammering on the door at first.
"Oh who's that at this hour?" Kieran groaned.
"One of the others I expect", said Adam "I bolted the door so that they couldn't burst in on us".
Adam slid out of bed, pulling his robe around him as an afterthought. He unbolted the door and stepped back as Joby and Hillyard walked in, looking disgruntled at having been kept waiting on the landing.
"Where's Flannery?" asked Joby.
"On my bed", said Adam.
He noticed the neighbour watching them with a face like thunder from a couple of feet away. He shut the door on him abruptly.
"How's Lonts, Hillyard?" he asked.
"Paranoid as ever", Hillyard replied "Convinced that the bloke in the bed opposite him hates him".
"And does he?"
"I don't think he knows Lonts exists half the time. Completely ignores him. G'night", Hillyard disappeared into the box-room.
"I had to buy him a beer", Joby yawned "He always gets depressed after seeing Lonts. Can't blame him. Last time I went to see Lonts he was trying to persuade me they'd painted the hospital walls white just to irritate him. Send Flannery in when you've finished with him".
"Will you listen to the way he talks about me!" Kieran exclaimed, when Adam returned behind the bed-curtains "Like I'm a bottle of vintage port or something".
"You are Pats, didn't you know?"
It was the hottest night of the year so far, although nowhere near as hot as it would get in the weeks ahead, when the night-time humidity would rival that of a Turkish bath. Kieran wandered through the apartment in the torrid gloom. Every window was open and yet no breeze disturbed the air, which almost felt solid. And there was noise everywhere. At this time of year the rest of the block and the City encroached on them permanently. There was the distant but irritating sound of the accordion-player who lived on the top floor. Kieran had long since decided that this man was either tone-deaf or mad. There was the sound of every slurred word and occasional spluttering of vomit from every drunk that lumbered past below their window. There was usually someone somewhere yelling at someone else to shut up / fuck off / leave me alone, all of which occurred with depressing regularity.
"Right, I've had enough, I'm going to bed", an elderly-sounding man bellowed crossly from the stairs "And here's why!"
Nobody answered him, so Kieran had to remain mystified as to what the 'why' was. Joby had once remarked that the trouble with living in this apartment block was that you were constantly disturbed by other people's quarrels, but could never make out exactly what they were quarrelling about.
Kieran clambered onto his own side of the bed without disturbing Joby, who had fallen asleep with a seed catalogue open on his chest. Kieran turned out the light and lay down. He had barely done so when an argument of volcanic proportions broke out in the apartment directly below their own, the one that belonged to the old couple who communicated by yelling. For a couple of minutes Kieran lay there marvelling that such a loud quarrel could suddenly erupt out of what had been complete silence from that area. Joby woke up and instantly guessed (from long experience) what was going on. He sat up and stared blindly around him.
"It's on your side", Kieran grunted.
Joby reached for the walking-stick which they kept by the side of the bed solely for one purpose, to hammer on the floor with it. Joby did this with gusto.
"It's no use", he said, after a while "Like pissing in the ocean. They're rowing so loud they can't hear me".
"They might get tired of it and shut up in a moment".
"Doubt that. They're only just getting warmed-up!"
"If they hate each other so much why don't they just go their separate ways?" said Kieran "From what I can gather, after wading through the f-words, is that the rows usually start because one goes and touches the other".
"Better than being alone at their age is how I expect they see it", said Joby.
"It's probably how we'll end up when we're sixty. Mouthing off at each other all night. You'll end up yelling obscenities at me because I've dared to touch you".
"Don't be such a pillock, that won't happen to us. But I do often wonder how many blokes round here have taken up with each other just because they've got no one else. After all, it's not just women that have gone. There's no family either".
"I expect Adam would say that was a bonus".
"Yea, and I spect his family are now saying it about him", Joby exclaimed "In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they was sacred shitless he'd reappear!"
"You're cruel you are".
"Why are you laughing then?"
"What the hell's going on now?" Kieran cried, as a horrific, squealing noise came up through the floorboards "Sounds like they're sawing the cat in half!"
"I dunno", said Joby, climbing out of bed "I don't like the sound of that. I'm going to get Adam to go downstairs with me. Check what's happened. You stick your head out of the window and see if you can find a City Guard within yelling distance".
The entire block was up and out of bed. Attempted murder wasn't, alas, uncommon, but this incident had involved the enigmatic "old 'uns" from the ground floor, and thus was a peepshow worthy of missing sleep for. The first old one was carried from the room by a couple of medics, having miraculously survived being stabbed in the abdomen with a pair of scissors. His partner had rambled incoherently to the City Guards at great length, who had then taken him to the Assizes Court, where it was hoped he might calm down enough eventually to speak properly.
"I wonder what made him suddenly do that after all these years?" said Kieran, sitting at the top of the stairs with the others "It's frightening how people will just snap without warning".
"Perhaps he couldn't take being got at anymore", yelled the troublesome neighbour, in a very pointed fashion "Everyone has a breaking-point you know!"
"Yes, and I'm getting very near mine where you're concerned", Adam replied.
"Come inside Addy", Kieran tugged at his sleeve "He's not worth it".
"He gets to me", Adam said, when they were safely behind the door of the apartment "There is always something about him which makes me want to wash in cold water. At the moment it's those never decreasing sweat-circles under the arms of his robe".
"It was probably just the hot weather had got too much for his nibs downstairs", said Hillyard "Once and for all he just decided he couldn't take it anymore".
"Well it makes my mind up more than ever", said Adam "We're getting out of this City, and we're not coming back until at least October!"
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