December 2020, Author: Matthew Preston
“It’s been awfully quiet,” said Tom. Dirk stared back at him, saying nothing. “Oh, ha ha, very funny,” Tom grumbled. Dirk had been like that for as long as Tom had known him. They had met at work, and Tom had been instantly attracted to his playful attitude. “I know I tell you that I like your jokes,” he told Dirk. “But one day you’ll take it too far.”
Dirk stayed silent; his mouth contorted into a grin. “Well, fuck you then,” Tom grumbled and went outside to chop some wood. He was damned if he would be the one to apologise, even if he knew that he would eventually crack and beg forgiveness.
“That was my coffee,” were the first words Dirk had ever said to him. It hadn’t been, of course. Tom was never careless like that, even back then. But still he found himself stammering an apology and buying Dirk a new cup. The tone of their relationship had thus been set from the start. Tom eagerly apologising, desperate for approval. Those piercing blue eyes stripped away the hermit-crab shell he had so carefully nurtured. Under Dirk’s gaze he had felt defenceless, unprotected. Capitulation was the only defence he knew, baring his throat to those shining incisors. And Dirk’s half smile at the sight of his submission thrilled him; even now, the memory of the twitch of his lips set Tom’s mind racing.
Silently, Tom gathered the wood for the evening fire. He had always used the forest as an escape, but it was as the nights drew in that he missed the office the most. The chill in the air reminded him of the warmth of the air-conditioned heating, and the December darkness of the always on lights. He tried to convince himself that he missed the company, the easy camaraderie of his colleagues. But frankly, he didn’t. They had been isolated for so long now that he’d got used to it. What he missed was the coffee machine. Sitting on the train in the morning, headphones in. Scrolling through the Twitter feed.
“Do you ever miss the time before?” he asked Dirk when he went back inside. ‘ ‘I sometimes think that I should miss people more.” Dirk inclined his head in agreement, so Tom continued. “It’s weird. I mean just about every moment of the day there is something that reminds me of how it used to be. Look at the sky.” He pointed upwards, but Dirk continued to gaze at him.
Sighing, Tom continued. “How still it is. Don’t you remember the planes? The chem trails? I guess we are actually better off, now that the government won’t poisoning us.” Out in the gathering gloom, a murder of crows started cackling. “I guess that’s time for dinner.” Tom swung his leg off the chair and clapped Dirk on the shoulder. He’d never have been brave enough to be so bold before, of course. But tonight Dirk only sat quietly, staring at the fire, and Tom smiled happily on his way to the kitchen.
“He’s such a nice man,” his mother had gushed after that first Christmas. “so polite and thoughtful. Not like that Andy.” Tom had nodded enthusiastically “Yes, I’m very lucky to have found him,” he’d agreed. They’d spent a happy few days at his old childhood home in his mother’s company. The nights, once his old bedroom door was closed, were another matter.
“You’re such an embarrassment,” Dirk had sniped. “And it’s no wonder with such a hag as a mother. You have no backbone, letting yourself be pushed round like that. You’re lucky that you have me to protect you.” Tom had protested, “but you were the one who said I was a waste of space at work.” Dirk was dismissive, “Pah, that’s your problem. You can never take a joke and get upset about things.” Tom had fallen silent and had laughed through breakfast the next morning.
These days, of course, Tom was the one telling the jokes. Even so, Tom kind of missed the arguments, although the old pain in his chest would sometimes return without warning. “It’s funny,” he remarked as he placed the bowl of soup down on the table. “I’m a lot less clumsy these days. I haven’t walked into a door in years.” Dirk sat silently, lost in his thoughts. “Ah well, bon appetite!” After he’d washed up, Tom completed one of his jigsaw puzzles. Dirk helped by pointing out the pieces, sometimes even the right ones. Tom instinctively apologised to Dirk each time the piece that he’d indicated didn’t fit, although Dirk only sat staring impassively. When Tom got tired and went to bed, Dirk chose to stay in his seat, consumed in thoughts, the glowing ember’s light gleaming off his forehead.
They had sat watching as the news came in in silence. Tom had half watched the TV and half watched Dirk grow increasingly incandescent. “How dare they?” he’d spluttered. “I need to see real people. I can’t be stuck here with you for an entire month.” Tom had tried to soothe him, although he’d felt just as uneasy. Buying an isolated cottage had seemed a good idea in the spring, even if the deposit had used up his savings. It was a bolthole to retreat to, and even somewhere that Dirk would squirrel away to alone. Despite Tom’s better unvoiced suspicions, he was grateful for some much-needed space in their city apartment. But the thought of being isolated with Dirk here, a good hour’s drive from the nearest town, made him shiver. The eggshells he walked on were even more crackly for the first few weeks, the bruises a little more purple. After the first month the government announced an extension and Dirk had exploded. Tom had quietly disappeared into the forest to collect firewood and when he’d got back, Dirk was gone.
Lying in their bed, Tom stared at the black ceiling. He’d been worried sick when he discovered that Dirk had left. He’d even phoned his brother in a panic, although he’d not spoken to him in months. “If you’re lucky, maybe he won’t return.” he’d told Tom. “It would be just like him to bring something back though.” Tom had protested, and they had ended up arguing. That was the last time he’d spoken to his brother, apart from the terse accusatory text message when their mother had died. When Dirk had returned, he’d been in a cheerful mood. “There’s nothing at all to worry about,” he’d announced. “They are exaggerating everything. I even saw your mother. She agrees with me that you are worrying over nothing.”
Tom squeezed his eyes shut. During the day, the memories of the past could be kept at bay with chores, but at night they came creeping back in. Hoping that Dirk would distract him by coming to bed, he felt himself slowly slide into sleep. As he woke, he felt the grip of Dirk’s hand in his and smiled. But by the time his mind had shaken off the fog from his eyes and he had fully awoken, Dirk was once more in his seat in the lounge.
“Mornings are the best time,” he said cheerfully at the grinning Dirk. “would you like some coffee?” As he measured just the right amount of the remaining grains out, he reflected how lucky they were. Another supply run would soon be required for things such as the coffee, of course. But they had so much of what they needed here. Firewood, vegetables, rabbits. Even Dirk seemed to be happier now. The stench had once got so overpowering that he’d refused to go into the lounge until Dirk pulled his weight. Eventually though he’d once more cracked. Wearing the surgical mask and gloves he’d ordered online, much to Dirk’s initial scorn, he had scrubbed and cleaned around his partner, quipping, “I told you these would come in useful.” Unable to help himself he’d instinctively flinched as soon as he’d said it, but unlike Dirk’s spluttering reaction to the first time he’d worn the protection, he had only looked at Tom, head askance. Tom hadn’t even needed to stay out of reach.
Sipping on the weak coffee, Tom smiled at the winter sun coming through the lounge window. As with everything, the weaker coffee had taken some getting used to and occasionally he could still taste the feel of a double espresso on the back of his tongue. But he had learnt to be happy about the little things. He put his hand on Dirk’s and smiled at him. “I’m so glad I didn’t take you to the hospital like you wanted,” he told him. “Not after what happened to mother.” Dirk grinned back at him, but said nothing.