Glossary of rowing terminology/British words:
Coxswain/cox: person who sits at the front/back of the rowing boat, gives orders and steers
Bow/stroke/three/four/five/six: positions you can sit at in a rowing boat
Tube: the system of underground trains in London
Off-licences: shops which sell alcohol and tobacco for consumption off the premises
Michael Hatchet felt his body begin to wake up. Sun shone dimly through his thin red curtains, casting a bloody glow on his bedroom. The room was filthy, but Michael didn't care. His mother would clean it up, muttering about how he should get a job and move out of her house.
He eyed his reflection in the mirror, his sickly pale skin and loose joints, the dark rings around his eyes. When Michael looked into the mirror, he saw the sickness in his eyes. The disease was breaking his body apart, piece by piece, and it showed.
Still. Today was a new day, a bright morning, and the boy would be outside. It was ten past eight, according to the cheap plastic clock on the wall. Michael threw the covers off and padded over to the window, twitching the curtains open slightly. Yes.
The boy was there, right outside number 42, blonde and beautiful and healthy. He was younger than Michael – fifteen, sixteen maybe – and Michael could remember the day the boy was born. It had been an easy birth, according to Michael's mother. Michael had never seen the father.
The boy walked to the underground station every morning, blue eyes crackling with energy. Michael sighed softly and slipped a hand below the waistband of his pyjama bottoms.
"Easy there!" a coxswain called in the distance; eight rowers held still, their boat gliding seamlessly through the water.
The boy at the front of the boat smiled lazily, feeling the sun seep into his skin. Usually, the first hints of summer brought all the houseboats onto the river, their pot-plants vivid and their coloured streamers playing on the wind. Today, though, the river had been almost deserted and the stream was slow. A perfect day, the boy mused, for annoying the coxswain.
Flicking a strand of dirty blonde hair out of his eyes, the boy opened his mouth and started to sing loudly. "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream-"
"Andrew," growled the next boy down. "Stop singing."
"Merrily, merrily, merrily-" Andrew sang. The other six rowers grit their teeth in annoyance.
"Who's singing?" the cox snapped, peering down the boat.
"Who do you sodding well think?" said the boy in front of Andrew. "It's Andrew."
"You're such a telltale, Rob," Andrew muttered reproachfully as they started to row again. He watched Robert's pitch black hair stick to the back of his neck, and wondered what it would be like to kiss him there. Oh bollocks, Andrew thought to himself, don't think like that.
The boat began to cleave towards the landing, eventually bumping gently against it. The moment the rowers were out of the boat, the coxswain flicked Andrew's ear. "Don't sing. It's annoying."
Grinning at a job well done, Andrew stuck his tongue out and bounced over to Robert, who was helping to carry oars into the boathouse. Andrew wiped his wet hands on Robert's all-in-one. "River water," he sneered. They were told at least once a week that the River Thames was a glorified sewage duct.
"Sod off," Robert said. "C'mon. If we sneak off now, we won't have to help put the boats in." He whipped Andrew with a wet rag and then followed him upstairs to the changing rooms.
It was always awkward. They changed together every Thursday after rowing, and their usual conversation would dry up all of a sudden. Andrew would find it so hard to stop himself from looking at his friend, watch the creamy skin become exposed bit by bit.
He mentally shook himself and tied his laces. "Ready?" he asked, picking up his kit.
"Yeah. Yours or mine?" Robert asked every week, but they always ended up at his house. He had a sneaking suspicion that Andrew was ashamed of his two-up two-down in Whitechapel.
Andrew caught Robert's eye. "How about… How about mine?"
Robert tried to disguise his look of surprise. "Are you sure? Your mum doesn't like me much."
"She does…" Andrew giggled. "C'mon. We can get the East London line."
They walked the short distance to Rotherhithe station, past the grimy off-licences and Chinese takeaways. Andrew was still reeling from the changing rooms and didn't have much to say. He felt vaguely sick.
Robert glanced over at his friend. "You're not right recently. What's the matter?"
Andrew looked up at him and sighed. "You know what's wrong."
"I don't." This was more or less a lie. Robert had always been vaguely aware that their friendship was tinged with something else, something unspoken and basically forbidden and very, very dangerous. He imagined that Andrew was only just beginning to realise it.
"I- I think I…"
They arrived at the train station and their conversation went on pause while they fished around for their tickets. Neither of them spoke again until they were on the train, rattling through the tunnel like a bullet in a shotgun.
"Robert-" Andrew said, miserably.
"We can't. We just can't talk about it."
Andrew felt tears threatening. "If we don't try…"
"It's too hard and… it's dangerous."
"Please," Andrew pleaded. He didn't know what he was asking for, but maybe Robert would understand; he always seemed to have the answers.
Robert never had been able to deny Andrew anything. He glanced nervously around the carriage, and then back at Andrew. "When we get back to yours…" he trailed off awkwardly, but Andrew's blue eyes widened, and a sudden understanding passed between them.