Sing for your lover like blood from a stone. Sing for your lover who's waiting at home.
Nick dialled Dave’s number. It rang three times before he answered.
‘Hey,’ said Nick. ‘I just finished up for the day. Do you wanna hang out?’
There was a brief pause on the line and he heard Dave pull a deep breath. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said after a moment. ‘Mandi and I are doing lab prep today.’
‘Oh. Are you at her place?’
‘No, we’re on the bus. She’s coming to mine. There’s more space in my room, so . . .’
Unbidden images of Dave and Mandira in Dave’s bedroom flew into Nick’s mind, then. It wasn’t that he thought they’d do anything. Not really. But there was a degree of possessiveness that flared up when he imagined someone else in a space that he thought of as his.
‘Oh. Okay. What about tomorrow?’
‘We may have to work tomorrow as well. There’s a lot we need to finish before Easter.’ Dave sounded regretful, but for some reason that didn’t make Nick feel any better.
‘Right. Well, I’ll see you this weekend, I guess. You’re still coming with us to Birmingham for the gig, right?’
‘Yeah, of course.’
‘Cool. Good luck with your lab prep.’
Nick hung up before he had time to say something stupid. Then he stared at his phone for a little while, until someone bumped into his shoulder.
‘You look morose,’ said Stuart. ‘Something wrong?’
Nick shrugged. ‘Not really. Up to much today?’
‘Not really.’ Stuart studied his face quizzically. ‘Wanna come hang out at mine? We could jam a bit or something.’
‘Yeah,’ said Nick, nodding. ‘Why not?’
They set off in the direction of Stuart’s house. It was a good twenty minute walk from college, but it was a nice day.
‘You sort of seem like something’s troubling you,’ said Stuart.
‘It’s no big deal.’
‘I’m told that people like to talk about their problems.’
Nick glanced sideways at him. ‘You’re told, huh?’
Stuart shrugged. ‘I don’t really know a lot about . . . people. You’re clever. Not as clever as me, but clever, so you’ve probably guessed that I’m on the autism spectrum. Aspergers. Makes it difficult for me to place myself in other people’s shoes, sometimes, cause I’m just wired differently. You know? But you learn tricks. Being bad at social stuff isn’t the same as being unable to care about people, so you learn to observe and understand when the people you do like aren’t okay. You seem sort of not okay. And I care. So.’
Nick felt oddly moved by Stuart’s speech. He had guessed, it was true. It had not, however, occurred to him that Stuart cared about him. He wasn’t sure he had even believed that Stuart liked him very much. Apparently he had overlooked something. After a confession like this he felt he owed him a little more than evasiveness.
‘I am okay,’ he said. ‘Mostly, anyway. I just haven’t seen Dave since the weekend, and even then he was all distracted. And today he’s working with Mandira, at his place, and I guess part of me is a bit jealous.’
‘Mandira. The cute little Asian girl.’
‘Yeah. And she’s lovely, honestly. I like her. I just feel . . . I dunno. I want to hang out with Dave in his room, and I hardly ever even get to because I can’t go over there when his parents are home. Just feels unfair.’
‘So, you’re hanging out with me as a substitute,’ said Stuart.
‘No! You’re not—’
‘I don’t mind,’ Stuart continued with a shrug. ‘I’m okay with being substitute boyfriend. Long as I don’t have to kiss you.’
Nick smiled. ‘Don’t like boys?’
‘Don’t like kissing.’
* * *
‘So, I was thinking if we—’ Mandira cut herself off and cocked her head to one side. ‘Dave? You okay?’
‘Huh? Oh, yeah.’ Dave dug the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and then blinked several times. ‘Sorry. Just having a hard time concentrating today. Maybe we should take a break, eh? I could go make some tea.’
She smiled at him. ‘Well, it’s already gone half eight. Maybe I should get home soon. And then you can go see your boyfriend?’
Dave shook his head and smiled. ‘You know me too well,’ he said softly, and she put a hand on his arm and squeezed gently.
‘Just cause you wear your heart on your sleeve, babes. And I get it. You haven’t been able to see each other so much lately. I completely understand that you want to spend some time with him.’ She began putting her things back I her bag. ‘And I’m tired anyway. Pretty sure I’ll sleep like the dead tonight. Who knew studying could be this exhausting?’
Dave stood up and ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Yeah. College is a whole new class of stress. Can you imagine what next year’s gonna be like?’
‘God, don’t remind me.’ Mandira gave him another smile and then a hug. ‘Give Nick my love.’
‘Want me to walk you to the bus?’ asked Dave.
‘No, I’ll be fine. It’s only five minutes away. I’ll see you tomorrow!’
Dave walked her downstairs, bid her goodbye and closed the door behind her. Setting off up the stairs again, he pulled his mobile from his pocket and dialled Nick’s number.
‘Hey, babe. Listen, er, Mandi’s gone home and I was wondering if maybe I could come over for a little bit? We could . . . hang out?’
‘Oh.’ There was a pause. ‘Er, I’m not actually at home.’
Dave frowned. He entered his room again and sat down on his bed. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m, er . . . I’m at Stuart’s place, actually,’ came the reply.
Dave couldn’t quite explain the feeling he got in his chest and gut just then. It was constricting, and confusing, and he wasn’t sure where it came from. It seemed to originate somewhere in his throat, maybe his larynx, or possibly somewhere near his solar plexus. He tried to swallow, but that was very painful.
‘Oh,’ he said softly. ‘I, er . . . What are you doing there?’
Nick didn’t reply straight away. ‘Do I need a reason to hang out with a friend?’ he asked after a moment.
‘No,’ said Dave. ‘I just thought—I mean, Stuart’s a bit . . . I dunno. Forget it.’
‘What? What is Stuart “a bit”?’ Nick sounded slightly irritated now. Dave winced.
‘Nothing. Really. I don’t know what I was gonna say.’
‘What’s the matter? Did it never occur to you that I might have other things I could do than sit in my room and pine for you while you were studying with Mandi? That I might not be sitting around waiting for you to call?’
‘No! That’s not it at all—’
‘Yes, it is. That’s exactly it. You’ve said it before. You’re so used to me not having friends.’
Dave sighed exasperatedly. ‘Look, Nick, I’m sorry, okay? Can we start this conversation over?’
‘No, we can’t. You said you were busy, Stuart asked if I wanted to hang out at his place. You got all pissy. What else is there to say?’
‘Wha—I got all pissy? I beg to fucking differ! You got defensive! What the fuck are you doing with Stuart, anyway, that you get this defensive when I ask?’
‘Oh, piss off, Dave!’ Nick hung up.
Dave blinked. What the fuck had just happened? He stared at his phone. Then he tried to call Nick again. There was no reply. The second time he tried he went straight to voicemail.
‘Nick . . . Look, I’m sorry. Really. Please, just call me back. I didn’t mean to . . . Fuck. Just call me, okay?’
He sighed and lay back on his bed. That hadn’t exactly gone according to plan . . . And had he just accused Nick of cheating on him?
‘Fuck!’ he groaned, covering his face with his hands. He had really fucked up this time.
* * *
Nick hung up, fuming. He put his phone back in his pocket and marched back into Stuart’s living room.
Stuart looked up as he entered, dark eyebrows retreating into his hairline. ‘Whoa. What happened?’
Nick felt his mobile buzz in his pocket and ignored it. ‘Dave’s a twat is what happened.’ He threw himself down on the sofa with a huff. ‘He’s a fucking prick, and an arsehole, and a cunt.’
‘That sounds bad,’ said Stuart. ‘What did he say?’
Nick’s phone began to buzz again, and he pulled it out of his pocket and rejected the call when he saw Dave’s picture on the screen. ‘Well, basically he and Mandira finished their work and he asked if he could come over to my place, and when I told him that he couldn’t because I was hanging out at your place he totally freaked out. He got all weird, like I didn’t have the right to make other plans and hang out with my friends when he doesn’t have time for me, and then he accused me of cheating on him, in so many words. With you.’
‘Well, don’t make it sound like an insult.’ Stuart gave a half smile.
‘Sorry. I like you, and you’re my friend, and you’re quite fit, but you’re not really my type.’ Nick looked away and sighed. ‘Fucking arse . . .’ he mumbled.
‘I know, I was kidding,’ said Stuart. ‘Bad joke. Sorry.’
‘It’s fine. You’re not the one who just lost his shit because I have friends and like hanging out with them. Dave managed that just fine on his own.’
‘Are you sure that’s what he meant?’
‘That’s what it sounded like, and I know he was being a jealous twat.’
Stuart raised his hands in surrender. ‘Fine, fine. I just mean, weren’t you being a bit jealous earlier as well? Of Mandira?’
‘That’s totally different,’ Nick muttered, even as he knew it wasn’t really. ‘Anyway, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. He acted like I was lying to him or something. And you know, there are limits to how long he can put me second and still retain the right to be pissed off when I don’t put him first.’
Stuart nodded. ‘No, I get that. I’m sorry.’
Nick shrugged. ‘It’s not your fucking fault.’ He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. ‘Could I have a go on your drum kit? I could really do with beating the shit out of something right now.’
‘Sure. But if you break the skins you’re replacing them.’
* * *
Dave stared at the ceiling for a good twenty minutes. Then he sat up with a sigh and reached for his mobile phone again. He wanted to call Nick, but he was fairly certain he wouldn’t get an answer. He sat and played with the device for a few minutes, tossing it between his hands. Then he called the number of the one person who had almost always been there for him.
‘Hello?’ said Alan.
‘Hi, it’s Dave. Er . . . Do you have a minute? I just . . .’
‘Is something wrong?’
‘I fucked up, mate. With Nick. I just, I said the wrong thing and now I don’t even know what I’m supposed to . . . Sorry. I don’t mean to bother you with this.’
‘Tell me what happened.’
Dave did, to the best of his ability.
‘What’s up?’ he heard a voice in the background ask.
‘Oh, it’s Dave. He—Can I tell Matt?’ Alan asked.
‘Don’t see why not. He’s gonna find out anyway.’ Dave sighed as he listened to Alan tell Matt in brief terms what had taken place earlier.
‘Let me talk to him,’ said Matt’s voice. ‘Give me the phone, I know more about this stuff than you do.’
‘All right, all right . . .’
There was a noise as Alan handed the phone over to his boyfriend, and then Matt came on the line.
‘Okay, tell me what you said.’
‘Well . . .’ Dave tried to think. It was a bit hard to remember exactly what had been said. ‘I think he told me I was being pissy, and then I told him he was being defensive and asked what he was doing with Stuart that he needed to be like that.’
‘Jesus, Dave, I don’t know how to help you out of that one . . . You basically accused him of cheating.’
‘You’re gonna have to grovel. But first you need to give him space. I’ll make like I don’t know when he tells me about this tomorrow. Er . . . You should probably leave it over the weekend, unless he contacts you first. Don’t come to Birmingham, stay home and just let him cool down. Commence grovelling on Sunday or Monday or something.’
Dave sighed. ‘Yeah. I get what you’re saying. Hey . . . Will you just keep an eye on him for me? I don’t mean watch his every move and report back to me, I just mean keep him out of trouble. You know?’
‘Of course,’ said Matt. ‘That’s what I do half the time anyway.’ There was a brief pause. ‘Hey,’ he said gently. ‘It’s gonna be okay. You’ll sort this out, and he will forgive you. You guys love each other. You’ll be just fine. Okay?’
‘If you say so,’ said Dave.
‘I do say so,’ Matt pressed. ‘And you have to believe it, or this whole thing is just gonna fuck everything up for you. So tell me you know you’ll be fine.’
‘I know we’ll be fine.’
‘Atta boy. Here, I’ll give you Alan back.’
‘Wow, he’s something, isn’t he?’ said Alan when he’d got the phone back.
Dave smiled in spite of himself. ‘You got yourself a good one. Glad it seems to be working out.’
‘He’s right, you know,’ Alan told him emphatically. ‘You guys will be fine. You can get through anything. I’m sure of it.’
‘Hey, we both know that Nick is a kind and understanding and forgiving sort of guy . . . I know that better than most. So he’ll forgive you too, if you just give him a chance to get over it.’
‘I know. Thank you. Both of you.’
* * *
Nick stared out of the bus window at the passing lights. If he thought about it honestly he supposed he had been a bit defensive, but that didn’t justify Dave’s accusation, and it didn’t take away from the fact that he’d acted as though Nick shouldn’t get to have a social life when he wasn’t around. He supposed this argument must have been brewing under the surface for a while.
It wasn’t as though he’d expected things to be rosy and romantic forever. They’d had disagreements before, but Nick had never felt quite this angry with Dave on any of those occasions. He was pretty sure that if he saw him again any time soon he might try to punch him in the face. That said, part of him was a little bit disappointed when he got home and didn’t find Dave waiting on his doorstep, ready to throw himself to the ground before him and apologise.
He unlocked the door and went inside.
‘There you are,’ called Zoë from the kitchen. ‘I was starting to wonder when you’d turn up.’
‘Yeah, I was hanging out at Stuart’s place.’ Nick shuffled down the hall and into the kitchen. Zoë was seated at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a book, as per her usual evening routine. She looked up when he entered.
‘Want some tea?’ She frowned. ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’
Nick shook his head and ran his fingers through his fringe before plopping down in a chair. ‘Dave and I had a fight. On the fucking phone.’
‘Oh. Shit. I’m sorry.’ Zoë stood up and put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing. Then she went over to the counter and put the kettle on before rummaging through the cupboards for a mug and a suitable teabag. ‘Do you want to tell me about it?’ she asked.
‘Not really.’ Nick sighed. ‘I dunno, it’s just been hard lately, not being able to see each other so often, and we started bickering about it, and then he sort of accused me of maybe cheating on him and then I just told him to fuck off and hung up the phone.’
‘Oh, sweetie,’ said Zoë sympathetically. She set down a mug in front of him and sat down in the next chair over. ‘That really sucks.’ She put an arm around his shoulders. ‘You’ll sort this out, though. I’m sure Dave didn’t really mean that, and you guys care about each other. You’ll both be fine.’
Nick scoffed. ‘Well, I’m not apologising.’
Zoë brushed some hair away from his forehead and studied his face. ‘You’ve always been stubborn where he’s concerned. You’ve stubbornly hated him, and stubbornly admired him, and stubbornly loved him. I’m pretty sure your stubborn love is stronger than your stubborn pride.’ She smiled.
Nick grunted and sipped his tea. Then he sighed heavily again. ‘I’m gonna take this to my room, I think. I’m tired.’
‘Of course,’ said his sister as he stood up. ‘Good night, Nick. Everything will be fine, okay?’
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