Sometimes It's Enough
There were two hundred and twenty four expanded polystyrene tiles on the ceiling of his hospital room. Each tile measured approximately thirty centimeters square and was subdivided into nine smaller panels by a crisscross of punched holes. Nine times two hundred and twenty four was.....
With an abrupt sound that was more than a sigh but less than a groan, he rolled cautiously onto his uninjured side and stared accusingly at the bank of flowers crowding the window ledge. It was an impressive sight, a thousand dollars worth at least. They had arrived in a steady procession throughout the previous day and had threatened to take over the room, until he had asked for some to be distributed throughout the other wards. The nurses admired then and told him how fortunate he was to have so many friends who were obviously concerned for his recovery. He let them prattle on in blissful ignorance of the sorry truth - that almost all were from 'business associates' and had no doubt been charged to this or that corporate account with a view to claiming a tax deduction at the end of the fiscal year. He knew, because he had done the same thing himself, time after time, the social amenities dealt with by a quick telephone call to a local florist or, easier still, a word to one's secretary. A birthday here, an anniversary there, 'Get Well Soon' and 'Bon Voyage', and 'Isn't it a pity about Bob Harrison...' Cynicism is an ugly thing, but that was the way the game was played at his level, and only when the chips were well and truly down did you find out who your real friends were.
A police car came to the school. It was embarrassing....
A boy shouldn't think of his father as an embarrassment. Fathers were people to be looked up to, respected and admired. Dads were the ones who took you to football matches and played cricket in the park on sunny afternoons, and let you pig-out on junk food when mum wasn't looking. He had never had time to be a Dad, had hardly had time to be a father. Maybe that was part of the problem.
Then again, maybe it wasn't.
There were ten windows on the top floor of the adjacent hospital wing, the only level he could see without sitting up. Ten windows, each with olive green blinds. He could set his watch by the raising and lowering of those blinds - except that he didn't have a watch anymore. The Rolex he had bought himself to celebrate the completion of the Roxbury takeover now lay in several water-spoiled pieces below the waterline off The Wedge.
Should have been me, not the watch.
Anger battered against remorse and he tossed himself painfully onto his back, good arm thrown carelessly across his eyes. Should have been me!
So why was he still alive? Because God had caught him and turned a deadly fall into nothing more than a bruising tumble that left him with two cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder? Because it wasn't his time to die? Or because deep down he suddenly had a reason to live? A reason which, as slender as it was, carried more weight than any other he could find to support his desire to switch his life off: somebody cared.
A wise man once said that you can stand in a room crowded with people and still be alone. That was Bob Harrison's life. He had a wife, two bright, intelligent sons who should make any father proud, a circle of acquaintances the vastness of which he occasionally found as intimidating as the erratic sum of the company assets, and yet, despite all of that, he was still alone. His wife was so wrapped up in her own little world that she wouldn't give a damn if he was there or not, as long as the bills were paid on time - and his life assurance would always take care of those. (Was she aware, he wondered, that his life assurance would have been rendered null and void by his suicide?) His sons were strangers he saw at weekends, across the breakfast table, or the dinner table, or out on the field on sports day. He had tried to get to know them in the beginning, but he had always been too busy climbing his way to the top of his particular corporate tree, and anyway, there was always the Nanny to contend with, with her list of rules and regulations. In the end he had given up the fight, sat back and watched his boys grow away from him.
So it had continued, until the day he had been prompted by financial failure to take a long hard look at his life, and had come to realise that he was worth nothing more to those around him than a string of digits at the bottom of the company accounts. Live or die, no one would care as long as that account was in credit and the money kept rolling in....
You weren't really gonna do it, were you mate?
A pair of blue eyes swam across his inner vision, slightly crazed and decidedly drunk. 'Let's get rotten' he had suggested, and they had done just that, had sung 'Goodnight Irene' and 'Streets of Larado' until the barmaid had thrown them out, had sat on the dock and teased each other about jumping into the water and swimming to Rose Bay. And somewhere amid the darkness and the beer, the laughter and the music - somewhere along the way he had felt himself fall. One moment he was signing his heart out to the stars, the next he was watching those same stars reflected in beer-hazed iridescent blue, and suddenly he was out of his depth, drowning in the warmth of the first genuine friendship he had ever known.
There had been a predestined rightness in the way Steve McClintock's mouth had opened beneath his own, twin gasps of delighted surprise mingling with alcohol and smoke and after shave. The world had shuddered to a halt and in that instant everything had come right, his life had found purpose again. He could tell from the way McClintock had clung to him, arm hooked around his neck, body pressed enticingly close, that this was as important to the sergeant as it was to him, if for very different reasons. Twinned in desperate isolation they had sought refuge in each other, refuge and understanding, quickly moving beyond simple physical desire to a far more basic and undeniable need.
"I'm sorry" he had murmured against the smaller man's ear, not really in the least contrite, but McClintock had laughed and promised "I'm not", and had pulled Harrison's head down and kissed him again. It had been less a display of passion than a gesture of communication, a connection between one lost soul and another, honest and unashamed. The kind of exchange that can only take place when all other barriers have been torn down, leaving nothing behind but raw, emotional response.
"Tell me it's not the booze" Steve had pleaded.
"Wouldn't it be easier if it was?"
"No." No doubt in his eyes as he had touched Harrison's lips in wonder. "I need this."
And Bob had laughed softly and kissed the curious fingers. "Two minds with but a single thought" he quoted. "The question is - whose bed is more comfortable?"
The memories were painful now where a few days ago they had been a lifeline in the stormy ocean of his life. The cab ride to his apartment, sitting in opposite corners of the back seat, as prim as two maiden aunts on the way to church, both fighting the urge to reach out and touch. The flood tide of relief when the front door was closed and locked against the world. The first moment of awkwardness, and the speed at which it was overcome, and then -- Then, that first incredible feeling of coming home, of finally being where he should always have been, as the last pretense was brushed aside and they gave themselves up to the hunger.
There had been sexual encounters with men before in his life, moments which had been commercially expedient or when his innate curiosity had got the better of him, but none had prepared him for the feeling of exhilaration, of completeness, that he had found in Steve's arms that night. Making love with him, giving all that was asked of himself and accepting all that was offered in return, without guilt, or shame, or fear of retribution. And somewhere in the rose-gold dawn he had fallen in love....
"More flowers, Mr Harrison!" Breezing into the room with an armload of blue iris and white carnations, the nurse unwittingly shattered the fragile images and hurled him once more against a wall of cold reality.
The bouquet was from yet another department of Harrison Corporation. He read the card and gave the flowers a cursory glance, wondering whose idea it had been and how willing the rest had been to contribute. He could imagine the comments, the snide remarks, the knowing looks: 'The boss is in hospital' they would say 'Silly bugger tried to top himself' - but they still sent their hypocritical tokens. Not because they cared about him, but because jobs such as those at Harrison Corporation were thin on the ground.
"Your wife rang," the nurse informed him. "She'll bring your sons to see you on Saturday, if you're still here."
He smiled bitterly at the ambiguity of her words and resisted the temptation to ask if she meant still in the hospital or still alive. Margaret had always had a way with words.
"Have there been any other messages?" he asked, hoping against hope, knowing all the while that in Steve McClintock's eyes he was a failure. No explanation would be enough to atone for his betrayal of what they had shared, though in reality there was nothing to atone for. That was the true irony of it.
"None, I'm afraid," then, "Would you like something to drink?" in a conciliatory tone which made his teeth ache.
He declined and watched her leave, grateful for her departure. There was only one face he wanted to see at that moment, one smile, one laugh that would take away the dull ache that seemed to linger beneath his breastbone and which had nothing to do with his cracked ribs. It would never happen of course, not now. It seemed so unfair, to lose everything he had gained without being allowed even the opportunity to explain. Then again, maybe it was for the best. There was a magnetic quality to Steve McClintock that could quite easily capture him and drag him down. Friendship would be only the beginning and he was not altogether certain that he could cope with anything more. Friendship meant commitment to something other than his own existence, went beyond anything he had ever experienced before even within his own marriage. Could he give that much? Perhaps it was better that he never got the chance to find out. Steve had given everything, physically and emotionally, and it would be unfair to repay that by letting him down anymore than he already had.
Rolling onto his side again, he tried to shut out the memories. But they were there in the blue of the irises, the warm embrace of the afternoon sun, the distant laughter of the staff as they passed along the hallways, and each only served to enhance the feeling of loneliness returning.
Squeezing his eyes shut against the acid burn of misery, Bob Harrison gave himself over to self-pity. There at least he could find somebody who cared.
Steve McClintock hung up the phone and leaned for a moment against the desk. So, Harrison was doing okay and should be out of the hospital by the end of the week. Could they pass on a message?
He had thanked them politely but declined the offer. it was not the right time for that, possibly never would be. Ridgeway had been right to warn him against getting involved, and yet there was still a part of him that was drawn to Robert Harrison, to the dichotomy of physical strength and emotional vulnerability, and to the aura of naiveté which clung to him. How he had managed to work his way to the top of his profession, to run a multi-million dollar corporation, yet still retain such a depth of innocence, was beyond McClintock's comprehension. Was that where the problem lay? Was that why, despite everything, Harrison had tried a second time to end his life? Or was he, as Ridgeway claimed, just another 'nutter'?
No, there was nothing crazy or unbalanced about Bob Harrison. He had, quite simply, decided that life was no longer worth living, for whatever reason. Everything had been organised, just as he organised his work. With the precision he had previously devoted to drawing up a contract, he had arranged his death to cause a minimum of fuss to the people it would most effect. With one exception.
Or was McClintock an exception? A few nights ago he might have been forgiven for assuming so, might have assumed that he had come to matter, to make a difference. Now? Now all he could think of was that he had been used. The self-condemned man's last request - a night on the town, plenty of good booze and music, and a willing body to fuck at the end of it. What more could a dying man ask for?
He shuddered, remembering just how willing he had been. Not that Harrison had made any unnatural demands of him, far form it in fact, for the lovemaking had been the most gentle, the most considerate, he had ever experienced, be his partner male or female. But he had given more than his body that night. Somewhere along the line, Harrison had torn off a piece of his heart and stolen it away. He could even recall the exact moment, standing on the dock with Bob's arm around his shoulders, sensing that the first kiss was only a breath away and wanting it more than he needed air to breathe.
On a night like tonight ....You wouldn't be dead for quids!
He should have known better. Harrison had made his choice long ago, it had been there in his eyes as he clung to the balcony rail five hundred feet above the plaza, and one night between the sheets with a man as desperate as he was himself would not be enough to deter him from his chosen path. Steve was no fool, he knew from experience that he was not that good a catch. That was why his wife had left him, why all his relationships turned out to be merely transitory, another means of getting him through the week, or the month, or however long they lasted.
It had been good with Harrison though. The first kiss had been like to the popping of a champagne cork, sudden, explosive and with the promise of something sparkling and delicious to come, and he hadn't been disappointed. In fact, captivated by the smile and the laugh, and the smug satisfaction in the intense blue eyes, he would have let Harrison have him there and then, on the dock, in full view of the world, had he asked. Good thing Bob's sense of decorum was in better shape than his own, but they had still barely made it to his apartment before lust had overcome common sense. Even now, if he closed his eyes and tuned the world out, he could still feel the sensation of Bob's skin against his, warm velvet, hard muscle, silky hair against his belly and the rasp of stubble against his thighs, and that wonderful tingling feeling burning deep inside, a part of this complex, enigmatic man that he had taken into himself and would never relinquish.
He pushed himself hurriedly away from the desk, aware of the effect that the memories were having on him, despite the anger he now felt towards the man who had helped create them. Bastard, he thought, knowing at the same time that if Harrison walked through the door right now he would forgive him without question. Love does crazy things like that to a man, and he was in love with Harrison, rightly or wrongly, for better - or more likely for worse. Regardless of whether it had been a serious encounter or a casual fling, they had each made a commitment that night. Hell, how much more committed could you get than to let a man do what he had allowed Bob to do, and then to do it to him!
A jolt of remembered arousal brought his cock up hard and he was grateful for the loose white coveralls to hide it. God only knew what Ridgeway would say if he found him like this, or Georgia, or Angel.
Angel. Now there was a thought. They were due off duty in half an hour anyway - perhaps he could talk Angel into a pint and a steak sandwich down at the pub and then... let the night decide the rest for them. The handsome young constable of Greek extraction had been after him almost since he had joined the Squad and once or twice Steve had come close to giving in. Maybe tonight would be as good a time as any. If it helped him excise the memory of Harrison then so much the better.
He shook his head. No, he couldn't do that to Angel. The guy was gorgeous, but he was little more than a kid working his way through a bad case of hero worship, and Steve wasn't into cradle snatching, no matter how desperate he might feel. No, he would just have to work out some other way to get Bob Harrison out of his system, after all, it wasn't as if he had any intention of seeing him again. The second chance had been one chance too many, and Harrison had abused it.
If their night together had been glorious, the morning after had been a disaster. They had awakened with the dawn and had made love again, more gently this time now that the rough edges of lust had been worn off the physical need. Afterwards, Bob had cradled him in his arms and talked about how good it had been, how great Steve made him feel, and how maybe they could build on what had started. "Have dinner with me tonight," he had said "here, where we can talk", and Steve had agreed instantly, knowing how the evening would end, building all kinds of fantasies of his own. A kiss, a murmur of regret that he had to go, that duty called. A promise to be careful, now that he had someone to be careful for.
The next time he had seen his lover, it was lying face down on the rocks off the coast, at a place known as The Wedge, with the incoming tide washing over him. Fear and anger had propelled him down the cliff, careless of his own safety, wanting only to know why, after all they had shared and said, Harrison had done such a thing.
His fingers had trembled as he searched for a pulse - found nothing - and felt his heart break. To come so far, only to lose so much. And then the cry from Ridgeway - "You stupid bastard - he's alive!" - and feeling his heart break all over again because this made it a thousand times harder to let go. And he had to let go, because if he didn't then each time he watched Harrison walk out of the door he would tear himself apart, wondering if he would come back. He would be a basket case within a month.
He had to let go. Had to -
He stepped from the cab outside the skyscraper that was home to the Harrison Corporation and for a long minute stared up the sweeping angles of concrete and glass until his gaze pinpointed the balcony where he had first met Bob Harrison.
The note clasped in his hand had been brief but it had carried with it such a weight of memories and longing that he had instantly dismissed every reason why he should throw it away and forget he had ever read it. " I still owe you a beer and a sunset. Please come" with the time, date and place added almost as an afterthought.
This time, this date - this place.
Drawn like a magnet to lodestone, he had come, even though more than two years had passed since that first meeting, two days less since their last. At first it had been hard to let go, or at least to convince himself that he had, but as the days lengthened into weeks, and then months, his feelings for Bob had softened into a warm, distant memory, a quiet sunny place to visit when he found himself at odds with the rest of the world, like the adult who looks back at a favourite moment from childhood and draws strength form it. A part of him hoped that they would one day meet again, and talk, and find a way around the pain. Then again, a part of him knew that to do so might make the pain even worse. But still he had come, needing to know, needing to draw a line under what had taken place between them in those few hours of insanity.
The concierge waved him through to the elevator, a more sedate arrival than his first. On that occasion he had abseiled down from the roof, testing his own courage, in the back of his mind the memory of how, just that morning, he had stood on the overpass and wondered if it might not be better for everyone if he threw himself off. Hardly a fit candidate for talking down another potential suicide.
The offices were empty, weekend silent, the money taking care of itself for a change. He pushed open the outer door, walked past the secretary's desk, and paused, gathering his courage once again. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, Blue.
The door swung inwards on silent hinges, and suddenly there was Harrison, standing in the doorway to the balcony, his back to the room. Waiting. He looked leaner than he had two years ago, the designer suit replaced now by jeans and a cotton shirt, his hair unprofessionally long and curling over the edge of his collar. Steve remembered the feel of that hair against his skin and his fingers twitched involuntarily.
Last chance, his subconscious warned. Stay or go. Win or lose. It was a choice that was no choice at all.
He thought his entrance had gone unnoticed, but as he took that first step across the final threshold he saw the broad shoulders relax, the tension flow away from him like an ebb tide, and he knew the last chance had gone by just as smoothly.
"You came." The voice was the voice of his dreams and his nightmares, low, velvet, rich with seduction yet with a slight unsteadiness that proclaimed his own uncertainly. "I wasn't sure you would."
"Never could resist a free beer." His own voice shook, missing his attempt at lightness by miles.
Harrison turned and walked into the room. Back lit, his face was unreadable and he made no attempt to change that, giving him time to read everything he wanted to know in McClintock's face, all the things Steve was unable to hide. Even though he found himself at a disadvantage, Steve refused to look away. Let him know he thought. Let him see that it still matters.
"I wasn't even sure if you'd get my message. You might have moved on."
"Nah. Still stuck on the treadmill. How about you? I heard something about a ranch in Texas..."
"Oh, I've been around. Here and there - you know how it is."
"Sure. Yeah, of course. Around."
Conversation stilted, like strangers, each waiting to find out what the other wanted to hear. Talk to me! his heart screamed. Tell me why you're here. Tell me why I'm here.
Impossibly long legs carried Harrison across the room to the discreet mini-bar, brought him back a moment later, a dewy bottle held out towards McClintock. Seeing him caught in a shaft of sunset, Steve swallowed hard. Deeply tanned, eyes darkened to violet by the richness of the light, a shock of hair untended across his forehead, he had never looked more beautiful. Or more desirable.
"There's your beer - and there's your sunset." And here am I, his voice seemed to add, the challenge implicit. Take what you want. His words from their night together. 'What do you want me to do?' Steve had asked, and the response had been immediate 'Whatever you want to do. Take what you want, as much or as little. Just make it good - for both of us.' And it had been.
And it could be again.
"Do you understand why I couldn't come to see you at the hospital?" he heard himself ask, appalled at his effrontery.
A pain filled smile. "Yes."
"You didn't come to see me after."
"Would there have been any point? I knew I'd hurt you more than enough already."
"Sometimes I think it hurt more that you stayed away." He took a mouthful of beer to wash away the sudden dryness, then set the bottle down. There were more important things here than beer and sunsets.
"And the other times?"
"I hoped I never saw you again."
He began to prowl the room, picking up things and putting them down again, a book, a paperweight, a sea shell from a distant beach paradise. Anything that would keep him on the move, out of range of the laser eyes that seemed unable to leave his face of their own accord. He didn't want to give in, to let Harrison see into his soul and read what he was really thinking.
"So - How was Texas?"
"And the ranch?"
"Good investment was it?"
"I - got by. I wasn't really in it for the money."
"Oh.... After Texas?"
"Europe. What was it they used to say in the 60's - I went there to find myself."
"And did you?"
"Maybe. Maybe I found something more important." Amusement bubbled just below the surface of his voice, refusing to be pulled into whatever game McClintock was playing. "Sun's going down."
"When you've seen one you've seen them all."
"Yes..... I tried so hard to hate you, you know."
"I know. I don't blame you."
Circling the room, they had come face to face, stopping a few feet apart in the darkening room. Game over. Steve wanted to be cruel, to inflict the same amount of pain on Bob as he himself had endured, but when the chance came he let it go and reached instead for understanding. If he could at least find out why Harrison had thrown himself off that cliff he might finally begin to accept the rest.
"Why did you do it?" he asked outright. "That last morning... the things we said.... the things we planned.... I know you were scared, Bob, but you weren't the only one. We could have talked."
Blue eyes briefly veiled, the smile replaced by a look of such intense grief that Steve had to fight the urge to go to him, forget all that had happened, all his reasons for being there.
"I know you probably won't believe me," he began slowly "but I didn't go to The Wedge to kill myself that morning." He paused, waiting for Steve to argue the point, but there was something in his voice that leant an edge of credibility to the words.
"I went there to think, about you and me. About what I wanted."
"And what was that?"
One word was all it took to shatter the doubts in McClintock's mind. "You." It shivered between them and he knew it was the truth. Had always known. Why else had he come here this evening?
"I'd never been in love before," Harrison continued "that's how I knew for certain I'd fallen in love with you that night. But you have to understand that the rest of my world was falling apart. I was facing bankruptcy, my wife was about to start divorce proceedings, my kids thought I was an embarrassment. I knew if I asked you to be with me I'd be bringing so much emotional baggage into the relationship it probably wouldn't last beyond the first week. You had enough problems of your own to deal with, you didn't need mine. But I loved you, and I wanted us to be together, so I had to find a way. That's why I took the morning off and drove to the coast. I wanted to think it through, so that when we met that night I'd have it all clear in my head."
There was no doubting his sincerity, but what Steve still could not understand was what had changed his mind.
"Nothing. I didn't change my mind, Steve, in fact I'd just about got it all worked out." Without warning, before McClintock could back away, his arms were caught and held in a grip of steel and two vivid eyes lasered his own. "I didn't jump off that cliff, Steve, I fell. You have to believe me. I must have been up there for a couple of hours when I suddenly knew exactly what I had to do. It couldn't wait till that night, I had to tell you right away. I turned to go back to the car, but I wasn't paying attention to what I was doing and I stepped too close to the edge. It broke away and - over I went. Cracked a couple of ribs and buggered my shoulder on the way down, knocked myself out on the rocks when I hit the bottom. The rest you know."
The sudden surge of relief turned what should have been joy on Steve's part into bitterness. "Yeah, I know the rest. Guess who it was they sent to pull you up."
"Oh Christ --- I didn't know. They never told me. No wonder you thought...." The brightness of tears long unshed welled in his eyes, melting the last of Steve's anger. They had been through enough already to try to hold onto it.
"I couldn't find a pulse," he heard himself say. "I thought you were dead - wanted to die myself. I had this weird idea it would all be alright if I killed myself too, so we could be together. I was trying to think of a way to do it, right there and then, when Ridgy said you were alive. After that, I guess I just let my anger take over. I should have come to the hospital."
But Bob shook his head. "No, you were right to stay away. We would have torn each other apart then. Keeping away from each other gave us both time to think."
"And - what do you think?" Steve asked, wanting to hear the answer, not wanting to hear it, afraid of what the consequences might be yet desperate to finish this and get on with their lives.
"That I love you. That I never stopped loving you. That I've thought about you twenty times every day since it happened... That all you have to do is say the word and I'll never leave you or hurt you again."
It was true. Every word had come from the heart and the utter sincerity of each one left Steve lightheaded, giddy with joy. After a speech like that, to say 'I love you too' sounded trite and inadequate, so instead he said "You don't need to hold back, mate. Give it to me straight."
"Straight?" The flick of an eyebrow. Next moment he was being gathered into Harrison's arms, one long-fingered hand cradling his head as their mouths were brought together, the other welding them body to body.
The sun had dipped below the horizon by the time they drew apart, reluctant to lose the moment yet willing to do so because both knew that there would always now be time.
"I still owe you that sunset," Bob teased, nuzzling a kiss against Steve's ear.
"There'll be plenty of others. We can watch them all together if you like."
"I'll bring the beer."
Steve smiled, reached to kiss his lover's lips once more. " That's what I like, a cold beer with the blokes after work," he quoted, remembering, seeing in Bob's eyes that he remembered too.
"Is that all you live for" he asked again, brushing his fingers over Steve's cheek and re-igniting the flames deep within them both.
Steve held the hand open against his face, turned his lips into the warm palm. "Not anymore," he whispered, meaning it with all his heart. "Not anymore."