Rating: M, mostly for language, but, of course, nothing stops me from practising other debaucheries here as well...
Warnings: Slash. So you were warned. Bad language, too, I suppose. For some reason, I love to use the word that begins with an F. Oh, and the extensive use of italics. That's something authors should always warn their readers about.
The sound of rain at midnight. Some things return. Others end.
We nearly miss the train, because Lilla – as always – knows how to choose the most inconvenient time to start rebelling against me and my absurdly stupid ideas. My absurdly stupid idea today: a dog crate. What kind of a self-respecting dog – Jesus, puppy, she's all too young to think she knows everything better than me – allows herself to be crammed into an idiotic plastic box? An angsty looking teenager smoking a cigarette outside the station building can barely hold back a giggle watching me swallow both my pride and my incredibly bad mood, kneel on the damp pavement and coo persuasive pleasantries to the tiny baby dog who sinks her needle-like teeth into my finger and I get this close to howling aloud and shaking her off. I hear the metallic female voice announcing our train is about to leave, so I stop trying to negotiate and simply stuff the whining and growling Lilla in her crate, grab it and the rest of my luggage and run.
I make it, managing to jump on the train just when it begins to move. A backpack on my shoulder, a duffel bag, laptop case and mobile phone in one hand and a dog crate and train ticket in the other, I quickly find myself growing desperate. It's Friday afternoon, so the train is crowded, and it's July, so most of the people in the crowd are holidaying their hearts out and behave as if they'd never been on a train before, jamming the aisles, blocking the way, fussing back and forth with their luggage and so on and so on. And, to make it all even more idyllic, Lilla decides she's had enough of the crate already and starts to yap, loud and high-pitched and with admirable insistence, as we slowly and painfully trudge our way to the opposite end of the train and the pet compartment.
"What do you have in there?" a sour-looking middle-aged woman asks me with an evil eye. She's the kind of a person who floods the local paper's From our readers section with bitter complaints about her fellow beings. She probably thinks I'm planning to unleash unpleasant creatures amidst my fellow travellers and it's her citizenly duty to put me in my place.
"A gigantic sewer rat, you want to see it?" I retort over my shoulder before moving on. Far too childish and silly for a man of my age, yes, of course, but my mood – which, admittedly, wasn't all that sunny to begin with – is deteriorating very quickly. I hate crowded trains and nosy middle-aged women.
To my utter relief, however, the pet compartment isn't quite as full to the brim as the rest of the train and there aren't that many other pets to be seen – just a young woman with a loudly purring basket – so I can take my seat, place Lilla's heartily abhorred crate on the empty seat next to me and underhandedly slip her out of it.
"There, this is a train", I tell her. A very busy and important business-man gives me a long, long look over his laptop. I just raise my eye-brows at him, and continue: "We're supposed to sit here all nice and quiet for the next two hours or so. I suggest you take a nap now. You must be very tired after being up all morning."
I don't know when I stopped caring about what people think of me and how stupid I appear. When I was younger I thought about those things all the time and died of shame ten times a day, but at some point I just – forgot they mattered.
I wrap my comfortably worn woollen jumper around Lilla and fold her in my arms like a baby. She wriggles a little, but soon calms down and falls asleep, turning simultaneously heavy and fragile in that indescribable way only puppies can. I smooth her head with my fingertips, letting myself hope for just a second I wouldn't have to do anything but close my eyes and trust someone to hold me while I drift away.
Uh, stupid as hell. This proves it. I need my eight hours of sleep every night, or else I turn into a miserable little wanker with all sorts of strange clingy tendencies. Get a grip, mate.
Carefully not to wake Lilla, I pick up my backpack, take out my iPod and the novel I meant to finish today, put the headphones on and start reading. With the train steadily humming on and rain rattling rhythmically against the window, sleeping puppy comfortingly warm in my lap, it's easy to fool myself into believing I've found peace and quiet, at last.
But today is one of those days. Peace and quiet grates on my nerves, makes me edgy and anxious, and all these old symptoms return. I close the book, breathe out and let my eyes rest on the green wet landscape we're hurrying through. Why is it always rain -?
My mobile goes off before I manage to find an answer to that nightmarishly ambiguous question. Stephen. Speaking of nightmarish. But not ambiguous. I'm not sure I want to talk to him, but I suppose I must.
"Dolph? Are you okay?"
"Yes. I'm on the train."
"Oh, right. I forgot you were going. Erm – " He sounds as if he were attempting to read my expression without seeing it. "Sorry about last night."
I close my eyes. "Sorry about last eight months."
"Don't worry about it. That's life, right?."
"Well, I just wanted to – you know. Check on you. Let's stay in touch, okay?"
"I have to go. Bye, Dolph."
I put the phone away and just sit, staring out in the rain again. Jesus, what a frigid jerk I am. Is this relief I'm feeling? Am I relieved to have finally driven him out of my life?
Perhaps. Yes. I am.
Poor Stephen. Someone like him should never have got involved with someone like me. He'll be better off without me, that's absolutely positive. All that affection, understanding, commitment – wasted. Sadly wasted, thrown away. We both knew it, but still he kept hoping. Far too long. If I were half as good as he, I'd have put a stop to it myself, much earlier, but I'm not. I'm selfish. I couldn't let him go, I didn't want to be alone, I needed him – no, I needed someone to be there. Anyone.
Well, no more. I'll start over. Again. And this time, things will change. It will stop raining.
The Clayhill Station. My sister Anna waiting for me in her bright red rain-coat. I fix a brave smile on my face.
"Dolph! It's so nice to see you, hasn't it just been ages? Wow, you look so good with a beard!"
"Hi, Anna – damn, I'd kiss you but my hands are full, take that, please – Yes, Lilla, that's your Aunt Annie, you'll meet her soon enough – "
"Oh my God, what a gorgeous little thing you have in the box! But call me Aunt Annie once again and I'll put arsenic in your tea." Anna punches my arm and flings my heavy duffel bag on her bony shoulder. "Let's go and quickly, too. I parked the car a bit carelessly."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" I chuckle, but obediently follow her through the crowd, nodding half-hearted greetings all around me as I go. Apparently every single citizen of our sleepy little village – community as they love to call it – has decided to visit the train station today. Once, I used to be horrified of these people who know my parents and grand-parents and have known me since I was born. Their curious looks, their nosy questions, the way I can always trust everyone to find out everything, somehow. Is it true about that younger Anderson boy -?
Once we've made it to the car Anna indeed parked "a bit carelessly", I let Lilla out of her crate and walk her along the street while Anna stuffs my things in the car and runs to the corner shop to buy "ice-cream and cereal Mum forgot". It isn't raining here, but the sky is cloudy and the asphalt is wet and the grass is very green. Lilla barks at people and bikes and cars and sparrows. I'm trying to arrange my thoughts in neat groups. Going home is always like that. Drawing a line across my life – things to let out, things to hide. I'm fine, happy and healthy, no anaemia, no insomnia, no panic attacks. Casually in passing, hey, Stephen and I kind of broke up. No mention of it happening last night. Lot's of talk about my recent trip to see our relatives in Sweden and how great Karen and her kids are. Not too much emphasis on my new job, except maybe to Anna.
Absolutely nothing about the fact that I'm emotionally crippled and hellishly lonely and trapped in something I can't name.
Except maybe to Anna. I usually find myself telling her everything, anyway. She's my best friend, my fellow hobbit, my partner in crime. I can't help but feel a soppy little burst of tenderness looking at her, skittering across the street towards me, butterfly-like as always.
"Okay, let's get going." She takes the driver's seat and Lilla and I share the passenger side. Lilla's paws are cold and damp and, soon enough, so are my trousers, as she wiggles in my lap with barely contained enthusiasm. She loves cars and is young enough to believe there's sightseeing to be had driving through a dingy little country village like ours.
"Be warned, Mum's been cooking all day", Anna says ominously. "She started talking about it approximately two weeks ago. Poor little Dolph just looks gaunter every time he comes home."
"Wonderful." I sigh and grin. And grin and sigh. "Oh, speaking of Mum – Would you be so kind as to subtly assure her I'm not a miserable wreck even though Stephen and I broke up?"
"You broke up?" She gives me a sharp look, clearly to see if I actually am a miserable wreck. I keep my face carefully composed, raising my eyebrows and smiling slightly. She shakes her head at my attempt. "I knew there was something. Well, what happened?"
"Erm – it was more of a question of what didn't happen", I say diplomatically. Well, that's one way to put it. "I really don't want to talk about it."
"Okay. But you're not heart-broken over him?"
"Not in the slightest."
"I'm not so sure that's a good thing."
"Me neither. But whatever. Murky water under the rotten bridge."
I bite my lip and look out the window, following Lilla's curious gaze over the fields and towards the lead-tinted sky. Driving down this same lazily meandering road, I always feel I'm driving back into my childhood. The world I wish I had left behind for good. The thought of it is a hard little knot against my sternum.
My childhood home sits there at the end of our drive-way, primly and properly white, neat and tidy. Dad has mown the lawn and painted the gazebo, Mum has tended her flowerbeds and made everything pretty. As ever. The numerous tentacles of bourgeois virtue reach deep into the core of the Anderson family. Men make houses, women make homes, and so forth, until you throw up.
"Who's in?" I ask Anna as we get out of the car. The air smells of cool, grey summers – rain.
"Mum and Dad and Mark et co", she says, meaningfully rubbing her temples. Our big brother Mark has a loud wife and two loud children. "Oh, and Grandma. Hooray!"
"Grandma? Why didn't you tell me before?" I immediately feel like grabbing Lilla, jumping back in the car and driving away. "What's she doing here?"
Anna rolls her eyes, at Grandma or me, I don't know. "She wants to see you, of course."
"So that she can tell her holy knitting club how utterly degraded and unregenerate I am?"
"Uh-huh. Although it's more likely she's going to invite her holy knitting club here to see you for themselves", Anna says, dead-pan. "Like a tourist attraction."
"Oh, God." I know she's only joking, but the hard knot is positively mushrooming in my chest. I bend down to gather Lilla in my arms for comfort. "We're going back home."
"No, you're not. I won't allow it", Anna says quickly, grasping my wrist as if I were actually trying to go. "Just be brave. You know you don't have to give a fuck about her or any other stupid evil old hag."
I smile listlessly. "I know. I just – I'm a bit – sick and tired. I don't want to hear a single word condemning me and my vile tendencies to hell."
"You won't. I'll stuff something down her throat if she starts", Anna says harshly. "I promise."
I can't help but chuckle. "Well, that sounds like a show I wouldn't miss for the world."
She laughs and flings her arm around my shoulders.
"Listen, Anna. Speaking of shows. I kind of – " I find myself unable to hold it back any longer. "I have huge news."
"What huge news?" she asks immediately. "Tell me! Now, before we go in."
"If you promise not to draw any attention to it whatsoever."
"I wouldn't do that!"
"You would, actually."
"Okay, okay. I promise. Let's hear it."
I lower my voice conspiratorially and say very quickly: "I got a job at the National Theatre playing Puck in Kathleen Bentley's new staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Thank God for Anna, the only other Anderson black sheep who cares about useless nonsense like arts and culture. She lets out a loud whoop and – because Lilla prevents her from hugging me – tightens her crushing grip around my shoulders.
"Oh God, Dolph, that's FUCKING BRILLIANT!"
Despite everything, I feel a foolish smile taking over my face. It is fucking brilliant, even if I still can't quite believe it myself. Three years of endless struggle, tedious poorly paid temporary jobs, acting in the most miserable places just to be doing something, attending an occasional acting class whenever I had just enough money for it, going to audition after audition after audition, feeling like the most pathetic idiot in the world, wondering if I wasn't throwing my life away in vain, whoring myself for nothing at all and just plain sucking at it, too – and now I'm working. I'm actually working. At the National. With Kathleen Bentley. Doing Shakespeare. Playing Puck.
I sure as hell didn't plan any of this, which makes it all the more blissful and suitably dream-like. I happened to hear the National Theatre was casting extras for Dream and, hoping I'd get a tiniest spear-carrying part so that I'd be able to breathe a little air inside the walls of a real theatre and have at least something to do this coming season, I auditioned. I didn't expect anything. When Kathleen Bentley herself tossed the play-script at me and told me to read, I had no idea what she wanted of me. I simply read. And when they called me a few days later, I just kept saying "Uh, what?" like an imbecile, not comprehending a single word.
"Yeah, it is", I tell Anna, giddily leaning against her. Lilla climbs up my shirt to lick my ear; God forbid I should ignore her existence for two seconds. Ha, my girls. "It's – God, I have an opening night coming in November, can you believe it?"
And when I say it out loud, it's suddenly TRUE. So amazingly true my head spins.
Fuck everything else. Fuck trains, fuck Stephen, fuck Grandma and her knitting club, fuck Clayhill, fuck my childhood, fuck summer, fuck bourgeois virtue, fuck anxiety, fuck nightmares – fuck rain.
Yes. Fuck rain. Maybe some things return, maybe others end. Fuck them. Things that begin are the only ones that matter.
Author's Note: I'm bravely trying to refrain from making tedious author's notes every time I get the chance, but since this is the first story I'm publishing here, I guess I'm entitled to being a little over enthusiastic. So, here it begins! This story will be a long one, but I promise I'll say this only once: Reviews would be very, very welcome.