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My pen scraped dryly on the page. Midsentence, on the trail of an idea, I paid no attention and ploughed on, only noticing at the end of the line that I was no longer writing but carving invisible letters into the paper. Damn.
I sighed and sat back, chain of thought snapping, dissolving in fireworks behind my eyes. I was due a break anyway. If Piers were here, he'd be calling time, reminding me of the promises I'd made a year ago when my headaches started getting out of control. Ten minutes' rest every hour, Gavin. I smiled, thinking of my cramped little study at home, where Piers had propped up a massive metal sign, nicked from the verge of a motorway: Tiredness Kills. Take a Break.
Nicked by him, I suspected, though I never could get him to confess. And he was taking care of me in absentia now too. The pen had been a gift from him. At first glance an ordinary biro, the barrel was packed with tiny Swarovski crystals. I'd never have bought such a thing, or imagined I wanted one, but the glimmer of the crystals in sunlight or neon would catch my eye from time to time as I worked and distract me, making me stop for a minute and turn the pen idly in my fingers. It was the prettiest, most frivolous thing imaginable. It gave me great pleasure to flourish it before the bearded professors in my academic publisher's meetings.
Take that and the motorway sign together, and you'd get an impression of Piers diametrically opposed to the reality. He wasn't a devil-may-care young student with a taste for mischief and glitter. He was a theology postgrad, tall and thin, serious enough to make you weep. He had silky, thick black hair that would flop into his eyes whenever he took off his glasses, and those eyes were so beautiful, hazel struck through with golden green, that I'd offered to pay for corrective laser surgery. But Piers had no time for personal vanities. He was a Catholic, quietly and fervently devout.
Desire shivered through me. I got up, went to the window of my hotel room and looked out. Snow was coming down with the four o'clock dusk. The roads were still clear but the hills were hushed and shrouded, a deep chill reaching me through the glass. A perfect Christmas Eve, in this outpost of northern England, among the crests of the Pennines. I imagined a train leaving Newcastle, threading the Tyne Valley and stopping at Bardon Mill. I imagined Piers, who could drive but didn't like to, loping through the snow like an elegant short-sighted wolf in time to catch the little bus that ran from the station up to Hadrian's Wall. It wouldn't be long now. He was on his way.
Coming to join me for our first Christmas together in three years. How so chaste and earnest a Catholic boy had ended up in my bed in the first place I had no idea. Perhaps it had been because I had known little about his religious convictions and cared less. We'd met at a drunken party in a mutual friend's digs. I'd taken one look at him, and disregarded the alarm with which he'd returned it. I'd wanted him. I'd bulldozed him into the nearest bedroom; laid him down among the coats and college scarves, where thirty seconds of protest and struggle later he'd been coming down my throat with a force that suggested starvation need. I'd been bulldozing my way past his scruples ever since. They didn't matter. He'd grow up and get over them. He'd never told his family, and we'd never spent a holiday together, but all that was coming an end at last. I'll come clean with them tonight, Gav. Then I'll get the train out and join you at the hotel, I swear.